'Paprika': Satori With Satoshi

Japanese director Satoshi Kon sat down with Greg Singer to discuss the making of his latest animated feature, Paprika.

Frogs on parade is one of the recurring dream sequences of Paprika. All images © 2006 Madhouse. Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

Frogs on parade is one of the recurring dream sequences of Paprika. All images © 2006 Madhouse. Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

Satoshi Kon's anime feature, Paprika (2006), is a visually gripping film that renews one's faith in the power, imagination and beauty of hand-drawn animation. It's a mystery, a thriller, an amusement ride, a psychedelic sci-fi adventure. This is the kind of movie that leaves a lot of room for viewer participation in figuring out what is going on. In his films, Kon tends to explore themes of identity, illusion, memory and dreams -- and the blurring edges among them. Paprika reinforces the notion that reality is as much a mental construction as it is a collective hunch.

Based on the acclaimed futuristic novel of Yasutaka Tsutsui, first serialized in a Japanese woman's magazine in 1991, a number of directors were attracted to adapt Paprika into a movie. By a chance encounter in 1993, Kon and Tsutsui met and discussed the idea of bringing to life the poetic rhyme and whimsical nature of the novel. In the movie version, people's heads explode into a wind of iridescent blue butterflies. Frogs and dancing refrigerators are on parade as part of a ticker-tape marching band. Men walk on tentacles made of tree. It's a dream world, and one that Kon was challenged to express visually.

Satoshi Kon's movies often explore complex psychological themes of identity and reality.

Satoshi Kon's movies often explore complex psychological themes of identity and reality.

To orient you to the story's premise, leaving you to discover and interpret the rest on your own, here is a quick and sensible overview:

"In the future, a revolutionary new psychotherapy treatment has been invented. Through a device called the DC Mini, it is possible to enter into other people's dreams to explore and record their unconscious thoughts. Before the government can pass a bill authorizing the use of such advanced psychiatric technology, one of the prototypes is stolen, sending the research facility into an uproar. In the wrong hands, the potential misuse of the device could be devastating, allowing the user to completely annihilate a dreamer's personality while they are asleep. Renowned scientist, Dr. Atsuko Chiba, enters the dream world under her exotic alter ego, codename Paprika, in an attempt to discover who is behind the plot to undermine the new invention."

The balance between dreaming and waking reality, creative and destructive energy, male and female spirit, even nerdy and sexy personality, is expressed in Paprika.

The balance between dreaming and waking reality, creative and destructive energy, male and female spirit, even nerdy and sexy personality, is expressed in Paprika.

While the movie is a complex psychological drama, the novel is even more so. Distilling the original story into 90 minutes of film, without changing its essential framework, was a huge effort. Kon spent a half-year honing the script with co-writer Seishi Minakami, and a year drawing the storyboards himself. As his understanding of the story deepened, Kon was able to drastically arrange and visualize the dreamy, convoluted quality of the novel. He noted that if he could put everything into the movie that he wanted, without worry of schedule or budget, there would be no time to make another film ever again. In order to make a 100% good film, he says, one has to navigate through 200% of possibility.

Paprika author Yasutaka Tsutsui and director Satoshi Kon lend their voice performances to the movie's short and tall bartenders, respectively.

Paprika author Yasutaka Tsutsui and director Satoshi Kon lend their voice performances to the movie's short and tall bartenders, respectively.

Directing the Future

As a young man, Kon never thought about screenwriting or directing. Having studied visual communication design, he began his career as a comic artist while still in university. His detailed illustration and clear composition became highly regarded, and he went on to work as a background and layout artist on various anime productions. Beginning with "Magnetic Rose" in the anthology Memories (1995), Kon helped to write the story in addition to his background and layout work. Three years later, he gained international attention with his directorial debut, Perfect Blue (1998). Making such a quick ascent, he jokes, "You can imagine the shortage of personnel in the field." Millennium Actress (2001) and Tokyo Godfathers (2003) added to Kon's oeuvre and were also well received. In 2004, Kon directed his first television series, Paranoia Agent.

Given two years of production, a crew of 50 people and a humble budget of $4 million, Kon once again demonstrates, in Paprika, that hard work pays off. At Madhouse studio, where he has created all his films, development is not a bloated ordeal. Screenwriting, production design, storyboard -- all of these are accomplished by his own hand. Unlike other studios, where disciplines may be partitioned and segregated among a large group of people, in Japan the same amount of work is done more economically. With fewer people overseeing more tasks, the crew feels a much deeper sense of involvement in the project.

Kon advises that, with a small budget and dedication, anyone can produce the films they want. Even in a culture and marketplace where animation is often pigeonholed as children's or family entertainment, adult-oriented storytelling can find funding and distribution. If someone has the will and enjoyment to make a movie, he or she will find a way. Kon offers the example of a salaried man in his own country who worked during the day, but mustered the free time to create anime on his own. Once completed, the man became financially successful selling his film on DVD.

As if this wasn't encouragement enough, Paprika itself is triumphant proof that nothing is impossible.

Greg Singer is an animation welfare advocate, eating in Los Angeles.

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