Paprika: Go to Sleep and Save The World

Copyright © 2006 by Madhouse

I’d heard about Satoshi Kon thanks to Tony Zhou’s video on it, and I knew that this director had a taste for the surreal and some creative editing as storytelling. I also know that movies like Paprika were a big inspiration for modern-day mind-benders like Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Naturally, I had to see how the original work compared.

Set in the modern day, Doctor Atsugo Chiba and her research team have developed a device known as the DC Mini, which allows people to enter and share dreams for therapeutic purposes. However, one of the devices goes missing, and a terrorist begins to invade people’s dreams with the same recurring fantasy of a wild parade, slowly overtaking their minds. To find and stop this madman, Chiba uses the help of a police detective named Konakawa and her own dream avatar, Paprika, to surf through the world of dreams before the line separating dreams and reality collapses.

Our main character is unique in that she’s actually two  different characters–or rather, two personas who belong to the same person. In the real world, she’s Dr. Atsuge Chiba, a dream technology researcher who helped create the DC Mini and who stands out for her cold, analytical exterior. But go into the world of dreams, and she manifests as Paprika, a bubbly, adventurous young woman who can handle any transition without flinching. What’s really neat is how Paprika operates. She does typical heroic actions like fighting monsters and demons inside people’s dreams, but she’s also a therapist, always looking to help her patients find the root of their psychological issues as manifested in dreams.

The first 5 minutes sees a series of wild cuts between different dreams, all connected by the same two characters: Paprika and Detective Toshimi Konakawa. It’s Konakawa’s dreams and nightmares that Paprika leads us through, helping him unravel an anxiety problem. Then, once the dreams end and they wake up in reality, they go over footage and discuss REM sleep cycles and how different patterns are like different film genres.

That sequence right there tells you exactly what kind of movie you’re in for. Satoshi Kon gets to be more metafictional in a way that Christopher Nolan could only dream of in Inception. But, to be fair, Nolan was making a character-driven action thriller with a philosophical subtext, just like he did with his Dark Knight trilogy. Kon is going for something different with Paprika.

Much like in his movie Perfect Blue, the editing here is fluid and jarring. We have continuity and parallel cuts, but tons of visual shortcuts and impossible angles that leave us wondering where the dreams end and reality begins. But where Perfect Blue plays these cuts for horror and suspense, Paprika goes for a more lighthearted approach. Mima Kirigoe is haunted with visions that aren’t real, but Atsuko Chiba knows she’s dreaming and plays around with the idea.

I will say, and maybe it’s more the fault of the English dub team than the original Japanese writers, that some of the dialogue in this film can be a bit clunky. To be fair, sometimes that’s what needed, as the people affected by the shared dream psychosis end up spouting off colorful, poetic gibberish. But in other scenes, even the straight-up exposition is a weird avalanche of technobabble and attempts at humor between friends. Not that this ruins the movie, mind you. The story is still engaging and so are the characters. Every scene between Paprika and Detective Konakawa really shines out in this film.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Satoshi Kon’s work, you might still enjoy Paprika. It’s a more subdued psychological thriller, where the action sequences are more surreal than anything. But every millimeter of film is chock full of amazing detail and color that will leave you breathless and hungry for more.

The English dub of Paprika is available through Sony Pictures Classics. You can find copies of the film through retailers like Amazon.

Bibliography: Paprika. Directed by Satoshi Kon. Produced by Jungo Maruta and Masao Takiyama. Screenplay by Seishi Minakami and Satoshi Kon. Based on the novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui. Madhouse (studio). Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan (distributor). Original release date (Japan): November 25, 2006.

My Neighbor Totoro: Big, Fluffy Fun for the Family

Copyright © 1988 by Studio Ghibli

Back again for another dive into the ethereal, breathtaking world of Hayao Miyazaki’s animation. This time, I’m finally getting into one of his classics. One of the most popular films in his collection, and the one that gave Studio Ghibli its big furry mascot.

Set in 1958, My Neighbor Totoro tells the story of Satsuki and Mei Kusakabe, two sisters who move into a new home with their father, a university professor with a heart of gold. As the girls adjust to their new surroundings, they discover far more than they anticipated. Soot sprites litter their empty rooms, and outdoors, the girls find nature spirits like the Catbus and the large, friendly giant that Mei names “Totoro.” Satsuki and Mei do their best to navigate their new lives in town and their new connection with the local spirits, with little to no serious conflict along the way.

It’s a common enough staple in Miyazaki films, but here, I could get a sense that the girls Satsuki and Mei were genuinely children, both in their animation and their voice acting. They were high-spirited, energetic, obsessive, and curious about the world. Just within the first five minutes, you can feel their energy as real kids, and not just as some adult’s idea of what kids might say or do. Their performance fit in well with the whole dynamic of Totoro and the other spirits they meet.

One aspect that kept throwing me was how long it took before we actually got into the stock weirdness (or central premise) of the story. We don’t meet the famous Totoro until about 40 minutes into the 90-minute film. A lot of scenes in between encounters with the wood spirits are active and engaging all by themselves, but they also drain most of the energy from the rest of the interactions between Satsuki, Mei, and the adults in their lives. I know Miyazaki’s style was to focus more on compelling visuals than on a consistent plot, but when the compelling visuals of Totoro and the other spirits weren’t onscreen, I had to fight off a sense of boredom with the rest of the movie.

I will admit that there’s a nice contrast between the plot involving Totoro and the girls’ subplot of parental issues. Between their hardworking father and their mother who’s in the hospital for a long-term illness, the kids are often left to their own devices. More specifically, Satsuki oscillates between the responsible sibling and another carefree child like her little sister Mei. It’s no wonder that they would want to seek out the joys and magic of life with Totoro instead of confront the harsh world waiting at home, where Moms disappear and Dads are too busy.

While I don’t have the same fond memories of this movie as so many other people do, I do see why it’s so popular. It’s not a film that demands a lot from its audience. Instead, it offers a quiet, whimsical tale set in the countryside, where we can forget the bigger world and be kids again, if only for 90 minutes or so.

The English dub of My Neighbor Totoro is available through Disney Movies.

Bibliography: My Neighbor Totoro. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Toru Hara. Edited by Takeshi Seyama. Perf. (English) Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning, Frank Welker, Tim Daly, and Lea Salonga. Studio Ghibli. Toho (distributor). Original release date: April 15, 1988.

Perfect Blue: No One’s Ready for Her Close-Up

Copyright © 1998 by Madhouse
Copyright © 1998 by Madhouse

I’d like to start off by thanking Tony Zhou, creator of the wonderful YouTube series “Every Frame a Painting,” for bringing the work of Satoshi Kon to my attention (and if you haven’t seen Tony’s videos yet, you’re missing out). I’d already seen one of Satoshi’s films, Tokyo Godfathers, but I’ve never heard much about his other projects. When I heard that one of them was a precursor to Darren Aronofsky’s seminal film Black Swan, I knew I had to check it out for myself.

Released in 1998, Perfect Blue is an anime psychological thriller that tells the story of Mima Kirigoe, a talented pop idol singer. After she makes the big decision to pursue her acting career, Mima begins to lose herself in her first big role. Beyond a point, she begins to have trouble telling apart fiction and reality. And further complicating matters is the ever-present threat of a stalker, which throws an entirely different kind of psychosis into the already turbulent mix of Mima’s life.

As a protagonist, Mima seems to share a lot in common with Nina Sayers, the lead actress and ballerina from Black Swan. They’re both seemingly innocent young girls caught up in the rush of their biggest performance yet, all while in the grip of an ongoing break with reality. But Mima is more like a typical horror-genre hero, always outrunning and fighting against her demon. She’s also more naive about the world, having to be told in 1998 how to use a Web browser.

The rest of the voice acting was stellar, too. As a Cowboy Bebop fan, I was delighted to listen to Wendee Lee play Mima’s manager Rumi and Steve Blum (here credited as “David Lucas”) as a number of side characters. But the acting isn’t the key selling point about this movie. It’s the animation and the editing, for which Satoshi Kon and the good people at Madhouse deserve all the credit. It’s how the story rises and falls around a series of cuts and transitions, creating an almost-dreamlike state that fits Mima Kirigoe’s world all too well.

I love this one technique where the director uses mirrored gestures to cut from one scene to the next. As in, Mima will be waving her hand a certain way while she’s shopping for groceries, and then we cut to her doing the exact same motion while performing onstage. It’s a small thing, but in visual storytelling, it’s brilliant. It gives the editor a cue for how to jump from one scene to the next. Like Mima, we’re losing our sense of which moment is “real” and which isn’t. We’re sharing in her torment through our own shared delusion: cinema.

Overall, the film is pretty amazing from a stylistic point of view. It works as both the story of a young women caught in the madness of stardom, and as a critique of the way we treat pop idols and promote fanservice (Me-Mania the stalker being a good example of the Madonna-whore complex and all that). I wouldn’t usually be into a film like this, but Satoshi Kon’s motifs are too good to pass up, and if you’re into what animated film can be, give this one a look.

The English dub of Perfect Blue was produced through Rex Entertainment, which is no longer active. DVDs, Blu-Ray, and other copies of the film can be purchased through retailers like AmazonYou can also see Tony Zhou’s video on Satoshi Kon for yourself.

Bibliography: Perfect Blue (film). Directed by Satoshi Kon. Produced by Hitomi Nakagaki, Yoshihisa Ishihara, Yutaka Togo, Masao Maruyama, and Hiroaki Inoue. Written by Sadayuki Murai. Based on the novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. Perf. Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, and Masaaki Okura. Madhouse (studio). Rex Entertainment (distributor). Original release date (Japan): February 28, 1998.

Princess Mononoke: A World Out of Balance and Time

Copyright © 1997 by Studio Ghibli
Copyright © 1997 by Studio Ghibli

It’s 2017 and I’m ready for a fresh start. This means it’s a perfect time to look backward.

In this case, I’m looking at a few Japanese animated classics. Right now, I’m looking at another Hayao Miyazaki film, and soon I’ll be following up on some Satoshi Kon works. But for now, I’ll take a look at Princess Mononoke, widely considered by many to be one of Miyazaki’s best titles ever.

In medieval Japan, a demon-possessed boar attacks an Emishi village. Only the young warrior prince Ashitaka can defeat it, but in doing so, his arm becomes cursed. The wise woman of his town sends him out to seek the Great Forest Spirit to the west for salvation. Along the way, Ashitaka meets the people of Irontown, who mine and forge iron under the watchful eye of Lady Eboshi, and who possess rudimentary firearms to defend themselves. This encounter leads Ashitaka to cross paths with San, a warrior princess of the forest, and the wolves who defend it from Lady Eboshi. Only with skill and compassion does he learn to navigate the two sides of the war, so that he can save himself from the curse—and save everyone from an equally terrible fate.

I still might be behind on my Miyazaki canon, but I have to admit that the young prince Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup in the English dub) is probably one of my favorite protagonists from his movies. He’s a neat blend of courage under fire and humility, especially when it comes to dealing with the spirits of the natural world.

This also sets Ashitaka apart from the humans of Irontown, while giving him an odd kinship with San, the titular Princess raised by wolves and guardian of the forest. She’s quite striking, both in appearance and in personality. It’s easy to see her as savage like the people of Irontown do, but she has a soft side that only the forest gets to see (until she meets Ashitaka, that is).

The other characters are a distinct mixture, too. You have sympathetic villains like Lady Eboshi, whose vision of Progress is tempered with surprising camaraderie with her village. You have scoundrels like the monk Jiko-bo and the samurai of rival lords, who only care about serving their masters, no matter how many lives it costs them. And then you have proud beasts like the blind boar god Okkoto and the wolf goddess Moro, who seem wise, but will gladly direct their vicious nature toward any humans they encounter. All of this makes for a real spectrum of morality on display throughout the movie.

Princess Mononoke is certainly a lot gorier than I expected. You might be anticipating plenty of cute animation (Miyazaki has a reputation, after all), but then you get plenty of scenes where people are split open with swords or have their arms chopped off. But it works on both a historical and thematic level. Mononoke is set during a time of warring clans in Japan, and the story also explores our relationship with nature, shown to be both beautiful and heartless.

While I might still prefer Porco Rosso or Spirited Away, I really liked Mononoke. This story is doing work as both as a piece of historical fiction for Japanese audiences and as a save-the-planet nature tale. Even when it might come across as preachy, it manages to pull back enough and recognize the common humanity, the chain of life, between all creatures.

The English dub of Princess Mononoke is available through Disney Movies.

Bibliography: Princess Mononoke (English dub). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Toshio Suzuki. Written by Hayao Miyazaki. Perf. Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, John DeMita, John DiMaggio, Gillian Anderson, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Keith David. Studio Ghibli; Tokuma Shoten; Nippon Television; Dentsu. Toho (Japanese distributor). Walt Disney Company (US distributor). Original release date: July 12, 1997.

Yuri!!! on Ice: Got Style, Got Grace, Got Ice in Your Face

Copyright © 2016 by Funimation
Copyright © 2016 by Funimation

I watch plenty of Western animation these days, from RWBY and Steven Universe to Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman, but I’ll never lose my interest in anime. I’m always looking for new stories, new genre, to try out. Which is how I ended up watching a 12-episode show about men’s figure skating and a coach-student love affair.

Yuri!!! on Ice tells the story of Yuri Katsuki, a Japanese figure skater who lost at the latest round of the Grand Prix and went into semi-retirement. However, he soon catches the attention (and attraction) of figure skating legend Victor Nikiforov, whose moves Yuri copied flawlessly in a performance that was recorded and uploaded to the Web. Victor wants to become Yuri’s coach and help him win at the Grand Prix with a new program. This puts Yuri in the crosshairs of figure skaters from around the world in half a dozen competitions, including Victor’s other big admirer, the Russian skater Yuri Plisetsky.

Yuri and Victor are the heart and soul of this anime, no doubt about it. It’s a neat duo with a classic style: the anxious, desperate-to-win young hero paired with a confident, level-headed, and eccentric mentor. However, there’s more to them than meets the eye. Yuri proves to be more confident and playful than he originally let on, and Victor is not quite the untouchable skating champion that everyone thinks he is. It’s refreshing to see an onscreen romance where the two characters actually change roles every so often (and it’s nice to see an LGBT romance done well in a show, as Kori Michele explains in an article on Medium).

When I first heard about this anime, I knew far more about the main characters, Yuri and Victor, and their passionate onscreen chemistry. But after just the first episode, I was blown away with the artistry, the sheer beauty, of the animation for every figure skating sequence. And kudos to the show’s producers for getting real-life Swiss figure skater Stéphane Lambiel to play himself as a commentator.

Most people don’t know this, but I took 8 years of gymnastics training as a kid after school. I never competed professionally, but I know a lot about the work that goes into that kind of athletics, and I can recognize it in the skating routines that these characters pull off. It’s an absolute delight to watch this show for the sports angle alone.

I don’t know if this is true of other sports anime and manga stories, but one thing I liked in Yuri was the psychological angle it took. Every time we watched a different figure skater perform their routine at a competition, we got a glimpse into their inner monologue and what was at stake for them. It’s one thing to do this for the protagonist whom we’re cheering on. This show, however, actually went and did it for every major skater, from the rival Russian skater Yuri to side characters like Michele Crispino from Italy and “JJ” Leroy from Canada. That motif definitely fleshes out the world in which the show takes place.

Yuri!!! on Ice does something spectacular within a simple 12-episode run. It’s a good introduction to both the sports anime and yaoi genres, as well as a tight and well-toned story with almost no filler. It breathes passion, from its characters to its fluid skating animations to its music. Whether or not you enjoy all the stock anime gags, or even if you’re not a huge fan of Boys’ Love, there’s something for everyone to enjoy in this series.

The English dub of Yuri!!! on Ice is available through Funimation. New episodes can be found through Crunchyroll.

Bibliography: Yuri!!! on Ice. Directed by Sayo Yamamoto. Written by Mitsuro Kubo. MAPPA (studio). Funimation (North American distributor). TV Asahi; BS Asahi; STS; NCC; Sun TV; AT-X. Original broadcast: October 5, 2016December 21, 2016.