by Brian Ruh,
If you read this column last week, you may have been surprised that I didn't make a single mention of the tragic earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan. To be honest, the event was so recent that I didn't know if I had anything valuable to contribute to the conversation other than to encourage you to give money to the charity of your choice. (I still don't know if I have anything of worth to say about it, but I'm going to try anyway.) In the week since the disaster struck, the world's attention has been focused on the crisis happening at the nuclear reactor in Fukushima. In spite of the news hysteria surrounding the plant, we need to realize that this isn't really the most pressing crisis Japan is facing at the moment. There are countless people missing, and some of those who are accounted for in the badly damaged areas are lacking even the most basic necessities like food, shelter, clothing, and basic toiletries. I strongly encourage you to give whatever you can to help with the relief efforts. You know all that money you've been saving by downloading pirated videos and scanlations? Well now's the time to give it all back for a good cause.
As I was watching the footage of the tsunami, I was struck by how simply surreal it seemed. When I heard “tsunami,” I think I was expecting a giant wave to come crashing down upon the shore. But the videos I saw were of rising water that just kept coming and coming. It was completely dreamlike, as if someone had left the taps running in the ocean. It may sound crass, but the first thing that came to mind when I was watching the footage was the game Katamari Damacy – it was like someone was just rolling up pieces of the coastline, starting small but moving on to larger items like cars and entire buildings.
There are probably plenty of anime that you wouldn't want to watch after a disaster like this, since the beauty of destruction seems to be a common theme in anime. In fact, in her book Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle, scholar Susan J. Napier says that anime has three “major expressive modes” that she calls “the apocalypse, the festival, and the elegiac.” This means, in a nutshell, that in Napier's view anime can be seen as sharing three main types of stories – ones that showcase devastation and its aftermath, ones that depict celebration and the gleeful breaking of rules, and ones that depict longing and sadness. Of course, any given anime can fit into multiple modes throughout its story. Take a film like Ponyo, for instance. In spite of all of its flaws (of which there are many), it's a good example of a film that partakes in all three of these modes at various points in the narrative.
While there are certainly Hollywood films that celebrate the spectacular excesses of destruction, Japanese animation in particular seems to be filled with examples that involve apocalyptic scenarios. According to Napier, a lot of this has to do with where Japan is located geographically. She writes, “The archipelago's devastating earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, its vulnerability to typhoons and tidal waves, along with the frequent fires that used to sweep premodern urban areas all combine to create a people acutely aware of the fragility of human civilization.” I think it's this last bit that often serves to distinguish anime apocalypse from the Hollywood kind – not only is it concerned with destruction, but it emphasizes how humans and society as a whole react and adapt to such conditions. Some might feel that it's in poor taste to discuss such anime while the scars from the earthquakes and tsunami are fresh on the ground. However, one of the purposes of art is to help us make sense of the world around us – that's one of the reasons why we started to see responses among the Japanese manga, illustration, and music communities (both amateur and professional) in the hours and days following the quake.
Among all of the anime that showcase destruction, one of the ones that jumped out at me the most was Paprika, directed by the late Satoshi Kon. In some ways, this science fiction story about a dream therapist named Paprika captured my wonderment of watching the images of the tsunami. The film makes great use of the potential of the medium of animation to make the user question everything shown onscreen, always posing the questions “Is it a dream? Or is it reality? And how do we tell the difference?” The horrific events in Japan were, of course, all too real, but at the same time they had that tinge of otherworldliness to them. Prompted by these thoughts, I decided to check out the original book on which the film Paprika was based.
Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui
Yasutaka Tsutsui is probably most famous in English as being the author responsible for the source novels for both Paprika and The Girl Who Leapt through Time. Very little of his work has been translated into English and even that can be hard to come by. There are a few novels and some collections of his short stories, but this represents just a fraction of his overall output over the last 45 years. Tsutsui has won multiple awards for his work in science fiction as well as straight-up literature. In more recent years, Tsutsui has moved toward fiction that experiments with ideas of literature and narration, or, as Takayuki Tatsumi puts it in his book Full Metal Apache, “Deeply informed by Darwin, Freud, and the Marx Brothers, Tsutsui has relentlessly deployed his postsituationist poetics of ‘Cho-kyoko’ (hyperfictionality) to expose the conspiracy between reality and fiction that characterizes a late-capitalist age haunted by spectacles and pseudo-events.” Okay, you got me – I just threw that quote in there because I thought it could be nicely confusing and would make me seem smart and cool. But I think it points to the fact that there are people who study literature who take some of the stuff Tsutsui does pretty seriously. (If you're interested in some more background on the man, Jonathan Clements has a great piece on him over at Salon Futura.)
In some of the extras on the Paprika DVD, Satoshi Kon talks about how he was a little nervous about adapting Tsutsui's novel for the screen because he wanted it to be something that the original author would approve of. This wasn't his first shot at an adaptation of a novel – in fact, Perfect Blue, his debut film as a director, was first a novel. However, in the case of Perfect Blue, Kon was given a large amount of directorial control over what made it into the final version. As Kon said in an interview, “I was given the three keywords of ‘idol’, ‘horror’ and ‘fan’, and was completely free as a director as long as I stuck to those overarching themes.” This made for an end product that was only vaguely related to the source material. (I haven't read the original book, but from what I've heard Kon created a vastly superior product.) However, for Paprika, Kon wanted to create a true adaptation of Tsutsui's novel that would be faithful to its premises while still showing the audience something new that demonstrated Kon's unique vision as a director.
In Kon's film, the action centers on a psychologist named Astuko Chiba, who is working at the technologically advanced Institute for Psychiatric Research. In addition to her work at the institute, she occasionally practices psychotherapy on select patients as her feistier alter-ego Paprika. When faculty members at the institute start becoming infected with the neuroses of patients and a set of experimental psychotherapy machines called DC Minis are stolen from the institute, Chiba, Kosaku Tokita (the morbidly overweight genius who developed the DC Minis), and Toshimi Konakawa (a police detective Paprika has been treating) have to track down the culprits. Retrieving the machines is important because the DC Mini can allow the user to enter and manipulate someone's dream state; for someone who has had repeated exposure to psychotherapy machines, their consciousness can sometimes be accessed even when they are not asleep. This means that a veteran analyst like Chiba cannot always tell the difference between dreams and reality if someone is interfering with her by using a DC Mini.
The Paprika novel takes much the same general premise, but it brings much more depth to the characters. In particular, we see much more of the machinations and internal politics that are taking place behind the scenes at the Institute for Psychiatric Research. From the outset in the book, we discover that there is a faction within the institute that is plotting to wrest power away from Chiba and her associates. Therefore, although the culprits who stole the DC Minis in the film are initially a mystery, in the book there is little question of who is responsible. In a way, then, the main question in the book becomes not so much how the main characters are going to solve the crime, but rather how Atsuko is going to fight back against the seemingly overwhelming forces set against her.
Since Paprika is the title character, we see much more of her background (and Atsuko Chiba's by extension, since they are the same person) in the book than we do in the film. Although Kon's film opens with Paprika in the middle of a treatment session for detective Konakawa, in the book Konakawa does not appear until nearly a third of the way through. Rather, Paprika initially treats an automotive executive named Noda, a number of whose characteristics would be incorporated into the film version of Konakawa. This extended time with Paprika/Chiba actually weakens her character for me because she always seems to be falling in love with the men in her life, particularly those she is treating. It is mentioned more than once that one of her therapy techniques is to have sex with the men she is treating within their dreams (but not in real life). However, in Tsutsui's book Paprika falls for both Noda and Konakawa, in addition to being in love with Tokita. What is even more problematic is Chiba's attitude during an attempted rape scene midway through the book. After being badly beaten, she decides, “She just didn't want to be hurt any more…. she was a woman. She had no intention of aping a man's senseless insistence on fighting to the death.” Instead, she decides to try to enjoy it and demands to be satisfied by her attacker. I found this scene to be particularly unpleasant for the ways it seems to trivialize abuse. Indeed, throughout the book Paprika/Chiba seems to be the perfect fantasy woman for an aging author like Tsutsui – stunningly beautiful and highly intelligent yet nurturing, attracted to older men, and sexually submissive.
However, in spite of my distaste for some aspects of the book and Paprika's character, the novel was quite engaging. Even having seen the film multiple times, I still was entertained by the twists and turns Tsutsui takes with the characters and the narrative. Both the original novel of Paprika and the film version work well within their respective media. The animated medium was perfect way to adapt the story because it allowed for the seamless transition between waking life and the world of dreams that Tsutsui constantly interweaves throughout.
Unfortunately, getting your hands on a copy of Paprika will probably be more difficult than it should be, since the publisher is Alma Books, based in the UK. (They're also going to be releasing the novel of Tsutsui's The Girl Who Leapt through Time later this year.) This means that your local bookstore is probably not going to have a copy, and it may be difficult for them to order. If you are interested, you can order directly from the publisher, who provides a PDF sample of the first few chapters on their website. You can also try to obtain a copy from your local public library through interlibrary loan. And if you do end up going through a library, please donate any money you would have spent to the relief efforts in Japan. Even though playing with the ideas of dreams and reality can be fun, there is much work that needs to be done out here in the real world, and the people of Japan need all the help we can give.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.
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