After two acclaimed anime films in a row about the madness that comes with willful delusion, director Satoshi Kon tried a new direction with 2003's mundane homeless-in-Tokyo adventure Tokyo Godfathers. But that film ultimately felt flat and bland next to the wonderland reality-shifts of his Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress. Kon's pendulum swings purposefully back toward the surreal with Paprika, a film so joyfully insane that it feels like Kon is overcompensating; surely there's enough energetic craziness spilling out of this film to refuel a dozen Tokyo Godfathers, or at least blot them entirely out of his fans' memory.
Paprika opens with a scene already deeply imbedded in unreality, as a detective voiced by Ghost In The Shell stalwart Akio Ôtsuka fights through a threatening circus dreamscape. Thanks to an experimental McGuffin called the DC Mini, his nightmare is being observed and recorded; later, a perky redhead named Paprika (Megumi Hayashibara, Cowboy Bebop's Faye Valentine) watches it on a laptop and helps him analyze the imagery. Paprika seems to be the dream counterpart of a black-haired female doctor working on the DC Mini experiment, but in typically reality-warping Kon fashion, she also seems to turn up in the real world. Things get far more confusing when it emerges that someone has stolen two DC Mini prototypes, which will let them enter other people's dreams; almost immediately, people around the DC Mini project begin losing their minds. From that point on, Paprika dives into one bizarre dream-world after another, as Paprika gleefully blurs the line between conscious and subconscious settings.
The narrative gets muddy in the process—Kon is far more interested in filling the screen with marching refrigerators and butterfly girls than explaining his dense plot, which falls somewhere between Philip K. Dick-style science fiction and a police procedural. The visuals are astounding, a fluid stream of fever-dream images burned onto the screen in primary colors, and buoyed by Susumu Hirasawa's ecstatically bouncy, terminally infectious techno-pop score. The story, on the other hand, shifts direction so often that it's hard to follow along, and much of it doesn't add up. But then, Kon rarely cares about the stagnant old real world that his films so frequently transcend. His characters fuss endlessly about fantasy's gripping, consuming power, but he himself seems blissfully unconcerned with where his gorgeous illusions take them.