Whether viewed as science-fiction in the manic, shape-shifting tradition of Philip K. Dick or as a hyperbolic analogue to the movie industry, "Paprika" is like little else you regularly experience in animated or live-action movies. Those for whom the pictorial style of Japanese anime holds no charm won't care about its densely layered narrative or about how clever it is with its cinematic references. The rest of us can once again wonder why so few animators in this country even try to take their art to such exotic extremes.

Writer-director Satoshi Kon, working from a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, borrows from such live-action fantasies as "Strange Days" and "eXistenZ" the possibility of recording and even visiting other people's dreams.

The means for doing so in this movie is called a "DC-Mini" and, in the hands of cool-minded professionals such as Dr. Chiba Atsuko, it can probe the minds of troubled patients such as police detective Konakawa to remove psychological blocks and ease anxieties. To make this process work even better, Atsuko morphs into a teenage alter ego named Paprika who can navigate through a person's subconscious with unassuming boldness.

Yet in the wrong hands, the "DC-Mini" can shatter the conscious and subconscious minds of millions, fracturing their sanity and merging their dreams until they spill out into different planes of reality. Which is exactly what happens as malevolent dolls, trumpet-playing toads and self-propelling appliances materialize to party hearty.

Only Paprika can make things right -- and she's having so much trouble that her cop patient may have to help her out by literally poking through the dream barriers, one of which happens to be a movie screen. Say hello to our metaphor -- especially when references to Tarzan movies and "Roman Holiday" are tossed into the whirligig of collapsing realities.

As with even the best anime, "Paprika" gets so caught up in its all-consuming imagery that it almost consumes itself. It's a fascinating, provocative ride all the same.

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