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The Dreams of Satoshi Kon: Chapter VI - The Endless Dream

by Michael Toole,

This is the final installment in our tribute to the work of Satoshi Kon (1963-2010).

Early on in Satoshi Kon's Paprika, Dr. Shima, a wizened, white-haired old scientist, is discussing serious problems with his colleagues. Abruptly, his concerned patter takes a turn for the nonsensical. "Five ladies will dance in sync to the frog's flutes and drums," he proclaims, an expression of rapt joy on his face. "The whirlwind of recycled paper is a sight to see - like CG! Confetti will dance around the gates while the mailbox and the refrigerator lead the parade!"

I first saw Paprika at the movies in 2008. As I watched this scene unfold, I was utterly confused. The words from the character's mouth were vivid, lyrical, and absolutely nonsensical. Minutes later, it would fall into place, as the scene was suddenly invaded by flute and drum-playing frogs, marching torii gates bracketed by swirling confetti, and a parade led by stately, waddling appliances. The images of this parade are vivid, lyrical, absolutely nonsensical - and totally glorious. (The recycled paper tornado comes up later - and yep, it's CG!) This constant, unwavering attention to detail and endless search for new imagery is what has made Satoshi Kon one of my favorite film directors for many years. But it's only one aspect of his talent; there are so many others.

Another highlight of Kon's work is the almost reassuringly realistic look of his characters. So much of Japanese animation is tied up in creating stylized characters - not just because they look cool, but because they're easier to animate, and it's more fun to draw cute, simplified kids for anime's largely youthful audience. But Kon never took such shortcuts - from his earliest work as a manga artist, Kon drew characters that were young and old, fat and skinny, beautiful and ugly. In Paprika, Studio Ghibli alumna Masashi Ando builds carefully on Kon's concept art - one character, a detective, is square-jawed and handsome, but getting on in years; the film's most prominent male character is morbidly obese, and the heroine is severe-looking and only marginally pretty. This heroine, Dr. Atsuko Chiba, can become beautiful - but only in dreams.

The basis for Paprika is Yasutaka Tsutsui's 1993 novel of the same name. His story is not science fiction but rather speculative fiction, that curious literary subset that searches for the unreal in the reality around us. Tsutsui speculates about the D.C. Mini, a neurotechnological device that interfaces with computers and allows trained psychotherapists to record, analyze, and even interact with their patients' dreams. Kon's splendidly animated version of the story opens with a crisis: several D.C. Mini prototypes have been stolen, opening the door to what the research firm's chairman bluntly characterizes as "dream terrorism." Then, the scene I referenced in the opening paragraph of this essay unfolds, and the characters realize that the crisis is greater and more immediate than they could have imagined.

A suspect emerges in the eccentric Dr. Himuro, assistant to the D.C. Mini's inventor, an amazingly rotund man named Tokita. Every aspect of Tokita's onscreen presence is remarkable, courtesy of Kon's deft touch. His very obesity sets him apart, as does the fact that he sweats constantly. In spite of this, he has a boyishly handsome face-- combine that with his curly, close-cropped hair and what you have is a roly-poly Amuro Ray, a package that is tied up perfectly by seiyuu Tohru Furuya, who voiced the iconic Amuro, and who voices Tokita here. Tokita speaks of his work with unwavering enthusiasm, even as he mindlessly shovels food into his mouth (he pays absolutely no attention to the food he eats, but merely to the fact that he must be eating constantly - Kon's gift for body language shines in these scenes). While he is the D.C. Mini's inventor, its most proficient user is Dr. Chiba; as the film opens, she's already using the device for trial runs, trying to help a troubled detective sort through his bizarre dreams. But Dr. Chiba, who is outwardly icy and clinical, cannot do this work as herself; just as reserved Peter Parker dons his costume and becomes the jovial Spider-Man, Chiba becomes the playful, pretty and winsome Paprika (voiced expertly by seiyuu queen Megumi Hayashibara) in her dream therapy sessions-- and it's going to take some heavy-duty therapy to solve the movie's mystery, as rogue dreams slowly start invading reality.

What really sets Paprika apart, however, isn't just Kon's talent for creating spellbindingly unusual imagery. He tends to use these images as a hook to get viewers interested. What really impresses about the works of Satoshi Kon is that his films are never about just one thing. A lot of great movies are content to be straightforward: Raiders of the Lost Ark is a rip-roaring adventure that goes easy on the allegory. It's a Wonderful Life spells out its central metaphor carefully. But Paprika is not just a movie about runaway dreams, it's a careful study of how clashing egos will create conflict out of otherwise good situations. Himuro is jealous of Tokita, who theorizes and invents amazing ideas and devices seemingly without effort. Another colleague, Osanai, is jealous of Chiba's ability to perform her dream therapy and handle her colleagues with grace and professionalism; he's driven and handsome, but knows he will never be as successful as her. Konakawa, the troubled detective, is jealous of an old friend, as the viewer eventually learns. And the chairman of the research lab, who archly watches the proceedings from his wheelchair, is jealous of the whole world.

Paprika doesn't even stop there, however. Detective Konakawa was once an avid film enthusiast; as a student, he bashed together a rough, high-concept crime story with an equally ambitious partner. But Konakawa's vision wavered; he quit the project before it finished, and joined the police. His recollection of his friend's fate is particularly haunting, in light of Kon's passing - he speaks longingly of "the other me," a gifted film student who got sick and died young. This left Konakawa with an incomplete story that he could never satisfyingly finish, and a major part of Paprika is about his facing up to this problem. In this crisis, Satoshi Kon has embedded a succinct letter of encouragement - both to himself, and to his staff. Konakawa's passion for filmmaking fades, but his mind will not allow it to die - in the end, one of Paprika's elements is about creating that ending, about going the distance and finishing the story.

Perhaps my favorite scene in Paprika is related to this story arc, and comparatively speaking, it's visually quite reserved. As Paprika, Chiba has discovered that Konakawa was once impassioned about movies (he spends much of the story denying this fact), and is grilling him on some cinematic terminology. He therefore explains not just the 180-degree rule (in a very amusing way, which involves imaginary dotted lines springing to life), but pan focus. Pan focus is the term used when every single element in the frame is kept in razor sharp focus - not a single detail is blurred or missed. In response to this, Paprika wonders if people dream in pan focus.

Satoshi Kon saw the world in pan focus. His movies never omitted details, never glossed over any concept or element important to the story. More importantly, his films brought into sharp relief ideas and images that have traditionally been ignored by Japanese animation. What other anime director would have dared to make homeless bums the heroes of the story, as Kon did with Tokyo Godfathers? Who else would have taken the tale of an aging film diva and turned it into an allegory for Japanese history, as Kon did with Millennium Actress? And who else would have taken Paprika, with its central images of dreams invading reality, and remembered to so carefully present its heroes and heroines as such memorably flawed people? No other anime filmmaker saw the world as Satoshi Kon saw it, and that's why the medium is poorer for his passing.

One final thing that resonates: the last words of Konakawa's doomed friend were "What about the rest of [the film]?" Satoshi Kon has left the world with one last movie, The Dream Machine. Its Japanese title, Yumemiru kikai, is used by a character to describe the D.C. Mini early on in Paprika. It is my hope that Kon's staff and friends at Madhouse will remember these last words from Paprika, and the world will see The Dream Machine soon. In the meantime, let's all rest-- we animation fans have some dreaming to do, and hopefully our dreams will be in pan focus.

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