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Sweet dreams 'Paprika' explores tougher territory than most anime films

"Paprika" is not your kid's animated film. Heck, it's not even your teenager's. The hallucinogenic yet disturbingly immediate world it inhabits is violent, scary and strangely beautiful. "Paprika" is the stuff of adults.

"Paprika" deals in privacy, psychology and power. The premise of the anime epic is that a new invention, the DC mini, enables psychiatrists to join in their clients' dreams in order to better treat them.

But when the DC mini is stolen, its creators discover that a device intended for therapy can be used for terrorism. None too slowly, the anonymous assailant begins wreaking havoc: Scientists and civilians lose control of their own dreams, and the fantasy and reality worlds blur into one another. The characters are plunged into a disturbing, oversized, confetti-strewn parade of creepy dolls and kitchen appliances, creating an immensely frightening alternate reality. This leaves it to doctor Chiba and her bubbly alter-ego, Paprika (both voiced by Megumi Hayashibara), to set things right.

First off, "Paprika's" concept is brilliant -- worthy of any film, animated or otherwise. Its commentary on mind, body, technology and society is evocative and daring -- and is as pertinent to our own culture as anything.

The film was directed by Satoshi Kon, a highly regarded anime writer and director. With Kon in charge, it's no surprise that "Paprika" deals with such weighty topics as survivor's guilt, destruction, the dangers of technology and even sexual abuse; Kon often explores issues not usually dealt with in anime in his work.

However, while "Paprika" is intellectually stimulating, its creativity comes at the price of being rather difficult to follow. The film's plot is so convoluted because Kon plunges us directly into the conflict; he doesn't provide exposition to set the stage for the DC mini theft. It's impossible to understand everything that is happening because the film intentionally doesn't give you the resources you need in order to do so. On top of that, the subtitles are difficult to see, providing unnecessary annoyance.

Fortunately, the action picks up by the second half of the film, and the audience is fully immersed in Kon's fascinating dreamscape. Some things become clearer, but most stray so far out of the audience's (and the characters') control that we realize it's time to just enjoy the experience, viscerally and emotionally. You might not walk away with the plot synopsis tattooed into your mental Rolodex, but you will walk away with food for thought.

The film's intellectual respect for its audience is a breath of fresh air in an arena in which our reflex is so often to disengage, looking for a two-hour reprieve from life -- and in which movies so often cater to that desire. In "Paprika," you have to let yourself be actively immersed in the art because you'll drown if completely detached and submissive to it.

"Paprika" is like an Impressionist painting: It creates a vivid, if not completely clear, portrait of something. Its plot is something of a conundrum right up until its conclusion, but the film succeeds in enveloping you in the action nonetheless, depicting an intersection of worlds that is incredibly frightening.

If "Paprika's" reputation endures, perhaps animation will no longer be relegated to the realm of childrens' pacifiers, nor cast off as only for "anime geeks." The medium deserves to be more than merely a vehicle for pleasantly vacuous films, and "Paprika" proves it can be done.




Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: The voices of Megumi Hayashibara, Toru Emori, Katsunosuke Hori, Toru Furuya and Akio Otsuka
DIRECTOR: Satoshi Kon
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
RATING: R for violent and sexual images.
THE LOWDOWN: Anime epic about a device intended to explore patients' dreams that becomes a weapon when in the wrong hands.

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