Since its release in 2006, Satoshi Kon's Paprika has built up a reputation for being somewhere between an LSD trip and a waking nightmare. It's been compared to Spirited Away and Inception, but anyone familiar with anime can pick out the parts that are distinctly Kon: cartoonish, creepy characters, reality-blurring into nightmares, and a plot that almost makes sense.
That last element is part of what makes Paprika legendary. Even after two or three viewings, most viewers still have trouble wrapping their heads around what exactly is going on, or why. The movie is about a doctor who enters patients' dreams to help solve their problems, but it's far deeper and more confusing than that. To help you make sense out of it, here are answers to some the biggest questions in the film!
WHY IS THERE A PARADE?
At the heart of Paprika is the insane parade of living refrigerators, statues, and weird dolls that always show up accompanied by Susumu Hirasawa's oddly catchy theme music:
The parade ties everything together in Paprika: whenever it shows up, it breaks down the barriers between individual dreams and unites everything into a giant, colorful orgy of insanity. In the end, the parade even breaks down the barriers between dreams and reality.
Kon has said that he took inspiration from Japan's Shinto tradition (which believes that all things possess souls or kami) when designing the parade, but even more importantly, he wanted it to be a universal representation of the forgotten things that lurk in our unconscious:
"In order for viewers to identify with this dream, I chose a parade which makes one think automatically of other common dreams and unconscious states," Kon said in 2006. "There are very old characters like objects that are discarded by people today or religious symbols that people have forgotten. I think that even nowadays, people have forgotten the importance of dreams."
HOW DOES THE DC MINI BLUR REALITY?
The DC Mini is a headset-like device designed by the morbidly obese Dr. Tokita that allows someone to enter another person's dreams. From the opening scene, we're shown that it takes two DC Minis — one on the patient, and one on the psychotherapist — to share a dream. But if that's the case, how do dreams end up bleeding into reality? This is where most of the confusion over Paprika's plot comes from, so let's break it down:
After learning that the device has been stolen early in the film, the protagonist, Dr. Atsuko Chiba, is told that Tokita hasn't programmed access restrictions for the DC Mini. Chiba says breaks down the consequences: "That means that whoever stole the DC Mini can connect to a psychotherapy machine anytime, from any place they want. And they can use the data stored in the Mini to tap into the minds of the people who provided that data."
Okay, so the DC Mini can remotely tap into the minds of those it's interacted with in the past. This actually happens to Chiba herself when she hallucinates falling from a warped railing.
After that episode, Tokita, Chiba, and their associate Osanai talk about how the machine works:
Tokita: The Mini uses a transmitting formula calculated to find the natural pattern of the body's energy level […] The more it becomes familiar with a person's body, the faster it learns to adjust to the patterns of that body.
Osanai: Dr. Chiba leads the unit and time spent on patients' therapies. Her extensive exposure makes her a prime target. So without being connected to the DC Mini, she's vulnerable while she's awake. That's the problem.
So the DC Mini acts more like a radio transmitter than a two-way street, and the parade dream acts like a virus, spreading across people's minds and uniting them in the same delusion. Chiba, Tokita, Shima, and all the other main characters have used the DC Mini, so they're vulnerable — to everyone else, though, they probably just look like they're having a psychotic break, like this:
WHO IS PAPRIKA?
On the surface, Paprika is just the dream alter-ego of Atsuko Chiba, the psychologist protagonist, but as the movie goes on Paprika seems to have a life of her own: she acts like a guardian angel to help guide Chiba in the "real world" and seems to operate independently when she meets with Konakawa at the Radio Club. Even when Chiba decides to try and save Tokita instead of following Paprika near the end of the movie (a pretty important moment for Chiba), Paprika just blows her off.
There's no climactic moment where Paprika forces Chiba to reconcile with her and embrace her more fun-loving nature, like Tyler Durden does with The Narrator in Fight Club. So are Paprika and Chiba really the same person?
The most persuasive argument seems to be that Paprika is Chiba's unconscious mind manifested. According to basic psychoanalysis, the conscious, waking mind (represented by Chiba herself) goes to great lengths not to understand the unconscious, dreaming mind (Paprika) because it contains thoughts that are too threatening, frightening, or shameful to acknowledge. Much about Paprika, including the limits of her abilities and her relationship to Chiba, are hard for the audience to understand because Paprika represents the one part of ourselves we won't allow ourselves to understand.
In a movie about a psychotherapist who examines other people's dreams to deal with unconscious desires, it may be that the one person Chiba can't get a handle on is herself.
ACCORDING TO KON
There's a lot of things in Paprika that seem to point at something deeper — the repeated imagery of Oedipus, the recurring blue butterflies, and the weirdly erotic moments between Chiba and Shima, for example — but Kon seemed happy to leave these questions up to the viewer. According to him:
"Movies that you can watch once and understand entirely — that is the type of movie that I don't really like. However, if you are able to understand 70 to 80 percent of what's being relayed, and there's still some percentage left that would allow for your own interpretation . . . that's the type of movie that I do like. There might be a certain part that you don't quite understand, but there is a portion that rests in your heart."
Paprika is a movie that uses dream logic to tell a story about dreams, and in the same way, it's a movie about movies — the whole film is peppered with references to films, even Tokyo Godfathers (another of Kon's projects). In the end, Paprika works as a movie because it fills the screen with characters we care about, like Konakawa, Chiba, Paprika, and Tokita, and it works as a dream because it captures that primal sense of wonder, terror, and magic. Whatever it meant.