When Inception came out in 2010, it seemed like a novel film with a novel concept. With its mind-blowing story about dream thieves, it provided–and continues to provide– a respite from the sequel-dominated Hollywood landscape. Inception‘s dream-manipulation premise, however, isn’t completely original. Prominent among the influences director Christopher Nolan acknowledged was the 2006 Japanese animated feature Paprika, which itself was based on a 1993 novel of the same name.
In both Paprika and Inception, someone has developed technology that allows people to enter into and share dreams. However, though the two certainly have similarities, it would be unfair to say Inception ripped off Paprika — both films end up using the same technological concept to spin vastly different stories.
The device at the heart of Paprika is called the DC Mini. Invented by an obese childish scientist named Kosaku Tokita, it allows users to enter into or view (on an external screen) others’ dreams. Whereas the tech in Inception had military origins and applications, the DC Mini comes from the Institute for Psychiatric Research and is used for psychotherapy treatments. Heading the team that administers such treatments is Dr. Atsuko Chiba, a modest female psychiatrist who assumes the vibrant alter ego “Paprika” when she enters her patients’ dream worlds.
All’s well and good until the DC Mini gets stolen. This poses significant problems because Dr. Tokita has not added access restrictions, meaning anyone with the DC Mini can enter into anyone else’s dreams (the constraints behind this are deliberately unclear). As personnel within the Institute for Psychiatric Research start becoming targets of a mass delusion, Tokita, Chiba/Paprika, and their compatriots must enter into this communal dreamworld and stop it from infecting reality.
While Inception‘s dreams operate on well-defined rules and logic (time dilation, “kicks” to get out of dream states, tokens to distinguish between dreams and reality), Paprika‘s world has no clear constraints. There’s no delineation between “dream levels” or dreams-within-dreams, and apparently people who aren’t wearing the DC Mini can still have their dreams invaded. This makes the movie very confusing and difficult to follow — but that is the point. If Inception is a well-planned heist, then Paprika itself is a dream.
It’s quite rare to have a well-defined dream-within-a-dream a la Inception. More commonly, our dreams shift between different settings and states; one moment you’re in a circus, the other you’re Tarzan. In this sense Paprika is closer to the reality of dreams, choosing to co-opt the anarchy of our sleeping minds rather than regulate it. On the other hand, the film doesn’t dwell on vanilla dreams like flying or being naked; it ventures deep into the field of delusion. If you thought Spirited Away was trippy or creepy, think again — Paprika is trippier and creepier.
At many points, Paprika is so vibrant that it’s deranged. One of its main motifs is a massive parade of dream objects including drumming frogs, creepy Japanese dolls who’ve become whack-a-moles on peoples’ bodies, dancing maneki-nekos (those white good-luck-charm cats you see at restaurants), and eerily upbeat marching music. Those who have their dreams invaded start raving about the parade, spewing nonsense like “technicolor parfaits and snobby petit bourgeois are common knowledge in Oceania!” On her rescue mission Paprika transforms from cloud-riding monkey king to tinkerbell to butterfly, and other characters take forms like blocky missile-carrying orange robots.
If you’re planning to trip or get high on something in the near future, consider watching Paprika while doing so. I would not be surprised at all if its creators subsisted on massive quantities of LSD, because the movie just feels like a 1.5 hour long trip. For all the sleek special effects Inception mustered, Paprika beats it all and shows the true power of animation as a medium for fantasy, delusion, and everything in between. Dream on and enjoy yourself — march along with Paprika in the parade of minds blown.
Paprika (Japanese: パプリカ)–Directed by Satoshi Kan. First released September 2006. Running time 1hr 30 min. Voices by Megumi Hayashibara, Toru Emori, Katsunosuke Hori, and Toru Furuya.