With its brainy scientist heroine, and surreal, super-kitsch imagery, above-average Japanese anime sci-fi pic “Paprika” has a better chance than most Nipponese toons of breaking out of the specialty ghetto by appealing to femme auds as well as the genre’s core constituency of fanboys. Helmer Satoshi Kon (“Tokyo Godfathers,” “Perfect Blue”) adds humorous spice to the pic’s somewhat ready-made plot about a gizmo that can record dreams falling into the wrong hands. Hot B.O. is expected from Japan, with, at the very least, warm ancillary sales offshore.
In a spooky, antic sequence, police detective Konakawa (voiced by Akio Ohtsuka) escapes a scary circus and various cinematic chase scenarios (referencing “Tarzan” movies, film noir, and so on) glimpsed through an elevator door. He is accompanied by a gamine, red-headed girl named Paprika (Megumi Hayashibara).
Turns out it was all a dream he had that was recorded by the DC-Mini, a new gadget still in development. Paprika is actually an avatar of psychiatrist Dr. Atsuko Chiba (also Hayashibara), who uses the DC-Mini to enter patients’ dreams and treat their anxieties.
But Atsuko’s lab is thrown into uproar when one of the four prototype DC-Minis goes missing and someone starts using it to invade Atsuko’s colleagues’ minds, planting a dream so powerful the victim falls into a permanent hypnogogic state in which he or she is still capable of walking around zombie-like and spouting nonsense.
Using the remaining DC-Minis, Atsuko can see that the invading dream. Assisted by the DC-Mini’s inventor, the sumo-sized genius Tokita (Toru Furuya), Konakawa and Paprika (who in the dream world develops a mind of her own separate from her creator), Atsuko investigates a range of suspects.
As in other sci-fi pics featuring technology that can record thoughts, such as Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days” or David Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ,” the borders between reality and imagination keep getting blurred, creating a narrative Chinese box of dreams within dreams. Playful use is made of movie allusions and general cinematic imagery, building up to a reasonably nightmarish climax where, natch, Tokyo is nearly destroyed.
Like so many sci-fi anime pics, “Paprika” warns against the dangers of tampering with the natural order of things. However, with plucky Paprika herself and serious-minded Atsuko in the lead roles, there’s a refreshing lack of sexist or misogynistic imagery except for one disturbing sequence near the end that may earn pic an “R”-level rating in some territories.
Seemingly well-budgeted pic looks pretty much par for the Japanese animation course, with simply drawn but expressive moving figures mixed with CGI-enhanced camera moves and richly rendered backgrounds, especially for the sequences featuring the eerie, confetti-strewn toy parade of invading dreams. Rest of the tech package is pro.