Allow me to get slightly ahead of myself for a moment. Being slightly less than a decade apart, Paprika and Perfect Blue are extremely important works in director Satoshi Kon’s career and formation as an auteur. Perfect Blue, being an extremely raw and personal statement on the formation of identity through media, and Paprika being his last feature work. It’s also impossible to deny that these two film share an incredibly distinctive voice, communicating its various story beats through incredibly controlled imagery and film technique that tend to remind one more of David Lynch in the general tone of whatever crazy thing is on paper.
If you don’t know the story basics yet, Paprika is about Dr. Atsuko Chiba who is a dream hopping therapist using a futuristic tool called the DC mini that allows anyone to enter the subconscious world. He then become a hard boiled action detective when the device winds up being misused and minds start getting hacked all over the place. Perfect Blue, on the other hand, is an intense psyche thriller about former pop idol Mima Kirigoe getting more than she bargained for when she decides to leave the industry and finds her career decisions somewhat disapproved by an overzealous fan.
Both focus on the very special worlds of two women and run the concept of their identities through the ringer using “somewhat” simple stories. Paprika, also has a notable light, SciFi adventure aesthetic, while Perfect Blue is straight psyche-thriller, moody lighting and claustrophobic angles included.
In tone, character use, and general emotional beats, the two films couldn’t be any more different, to the point of being almost antithetical. But still, there is more than one fairly important device that’s shared between the two. For instance, Mr. Kon seems to love women with (maybe) ambiguously created psyche breakage and likes examining their identities in both how it relates to themselves and to the outside world. I mean, just look at the Harumi/Maria dichotomy in Paranoia Agent and the whole mess that surrounded that. Paprika, on the other hand, is a story of how a women takes agency over a certain facet of her identity to directly help people, whether in the therapist chair or no.
Speaking of actualization and identity, it’s probably worth saying here and now that Kon likes to take basic psychoanalytic theories from Carl Jung (and, well, a bit from Freud), and almost back writes the imagery he gains from that (more specifics a bit later) to say specific and pertinent things about certain characters and plot events. The most obvious specific example coming to mind is the whole “emergence from the self” thing, specifically the separation from ID and Ego that Chiba evokes in Paprika and that, inversely, Mima directly represses in… well… everyone. Without getting into spoilers, I’ll just say that both women experience a sort of “return to the self” and actualization in the end. What that means for their characters is… slightly different, to say the least.
I’m not saying that Kon intends to find any practical use in these theories, but they do indeed make for powerful and explorative narrative elements, and I have always enjoyed the use of psychoanalytic theories in fiction because of their application in effectively communicating very pivotal character developments.
Since I’ve already discussed some common inspirations for Satoshi Kon’s narrative and stories, it’s time to talk about something else that’s always at the forefront of his work: IMAGERY! The guy loves cartoons. He knows this silly little medium and utilizes it very well as a tool to tell complex and nuanced story elements through brash imagery. While Paprika seems to take a notably lighter approach to its imagery (it’s a fluffier piece overall) than Perfect Blue and Paranoia Agent, it’s none the less inspired. However, while one uses its freaky shit to enhance a relatively simple but strong narrative, the other uses it to communicate incredibly important character facets. But, as I’ve stated before, both pieces seem to derive a lot of inspiration from Jungian themes: e.g the lovely little running motif of women looking at their alter ego through glass.
Or the breaking of psyche from Chiba’s literally being dissected as a butterfly:
Yeah, all the psychoanalytic stuff can merit its own paper.
Lighting, of course, also plays an incredibly important role in art, and it certainly serves to punctuate the imagery in Kon’s work. While in Paranoia Agent, things got dark enough to the point where silhouettes were barely talking because of plausible budget issues (even though that was more or less backwritten to fit thematically), Perfect Blue used intensely high key lighting to convey a sense of general unease and spatial confusion to the audience. And, well, it kinda works with the whole mixing reality and fiction thing. Paprika, on the other hand, used lighting more or less to make the dream world more distinct from reality until everything comes crashing down in the end. It always comes crashing down.
I’ll wrap up this somewhat long winded comparison study by saying that I appreciate these works as author studies not because of how Kon’s voice changes throughout the pieces, but how masterfully he’s able to implement and interweave totally different sub-textual ideas into fairly different stories and narratives. I picked these two pieces in particular because I personally believe that they serve as more or less the “purest” expressions of his voice. Tokyo Godfathers, after all, was extremely influenced by Keiko Nobumoto, and, well, Paranoia Agent and Tropic of the Sea are their own beast.
Still, he maintains a distinct auteur identity through unique narrative devices that he winds up making totally his own by the end. All the while stating something totally different, and bringing distinct tonal flavors throughout it all.