Because my opinion of his other two films on rewatches haven't changed, I'll present the old reviews of those films here:Perfect Blue (1997)
At the intersection of femininity, sexuality and the entertainment industry, Perfect Blue launches a social critique at all three systems which enable misogynistic practice. It engages with these issues in a shockingly frank manner, making it essential to approach the film with a sharp, critical eye and an important understanding of how images, ideas and events are contextualized, contained and controlled in order to produce meaningful critiques.
The film follows the story of Mima (Junko Iwao), lead singer of the Pop band CHAM, which she decides to leave in order to pursue a more prestigious and serious career as an actress. However, giving up her cutesy, schoolgirl image opens her up to be reinvented and ultimately exploited by the industry. As she quickly finds herself unable to control her new life, she’s haunted by the still complicated, but relatively tame, image of her past life.
On a literal level, the film examines the issues of sexual exploitation of women, the fact that it’s near impossible for Mima to get her break without agreeing to give up her image to unsavory and highly sexualized depictions. While it’s rationalized as “artistic” and “serious,” Mima knows these are just lies, masks to publicly cover the shame and degradation that overrides her true feelings for these images.
This levels a critique against the industry system, one in which the only way for Mima to reconstruct herself and be taken seriously as a woman is to craft an explicitly sexual image of herself. This reflect a broader critique of societal views of femininity, one in which a woman can only be empowered through being sexualized.
It’s a critique that begins with her time in CHAM. While her outfit is cute and childish, it also opens her up to being sexualized by the audience, a point made explicit in a POV shot where one of the guards at an event reaches out as if to grasp her with his hands. Therefore, while not coded as strongly exploitative as later images of Mima, it still reflects a societal norm that for a women to publically perform is to open herself up to being objectified and sexualized.
This guard also shows up later in order to emphasize that the sexualization is not simply an issue on the level of explicit content. His almost prepubescent fascination with CHAM is a guise to an envy of anyone else sexualizing and obsessing over this woman. This “safe” sexualization allows for a much more subtle, intrusive and troubling from of image obsession.
Walking a fine line between depicting these misogynistic practices and avoiding being implicated in them, the medium of animation allows Perfect Blue to stylize the film and push the content in such a way to do justice to some grizzly and revolting subjects while gaining some much needed distance and dissonance from the overwhelming nature of the images.
The images are so explicit, that if shot with a real actress, it’s likely the film would have been surrounded with so much controversy and censorship pressures that it wouldn’t have gotten a theatrical release. If these images are so explicit, one might ask what the point of them is. On basic level, the visceral effect is important to both the emotional and psychological effect that the film is trying to achieve.
Also, the images are explicitly contextualized and presented in such a way to make their intent clear. Dissonant music, a particular framing of certain imagery as well as the narrative or psychological frame in which the scenes are contextualize code all these images as negative and exploitative.
Perfect Blue is a complicated, mature look at a charged subject. While it makes some explicit points, it does it through highly-charged and complicated imagery, presenting with frankness the objects of its critique. And like a truly rich and deep film, this is only one facet of the complicated and compelling elements that make Perfect Blue a powerful and effective film.
Let’s get one thing straight, Inception didn’t rip off, pay homage to or draw from Paprika. Yes, they share the same high-concept of people interacting with each other in collective dreams, but there are two distinctly different and diametric approaches and understandings of how dream spaces work that make them two unique films. That being said, there are enough similarities to make the two serve as interesting companion pieces.
When the dream machine of a group of scientists is stolen, they find their device intended for psychotherapy has now been turned into a weapon that begins flooding the minds of those connected to the network to a particularly absurd and freaky dream by one of the patience they treated of a parade of bizarre creatures and objects. Chiba Atsuko (Megumi Hayashibara) attempts to hunt down the mind terrorist while her dream persona while her dream ego Paprika becomes involved in the life of Detective Kogawa Toshimi (Akio Ohtsuka).
From the onset, Paprika uses dream space as a way to throw space, logic and science to the wind. Static images turn into objects that can be accessed in dream spaces, or windows that allow one to traverse through dream space quickly. And the parade becomes a form of surreal horror, filled with all manner of the absurd and fantastical. It’s a film with little creative constraint.
And I simultaneously admire and admonish the film for that. The results lead to all number of visually enticing sequences that demonstrate the psychological power film has at twisting our mind’s ability to make associations and connections, but it also leads to an anything goes attitude. In contrast to Inception where there’s a set of rules that correlate to dream space, Paprika lacks the structure of rules that allow there to be constraints which lead to compelling narrative conflicts.
It’s hard to have stakes when Paprika seems to be able to conjure up any number of solutions to a particular problem. If she can get just about any place through a few jumps through televisions and billboards and take an image of any item and turn it into something she can use, there’s no compelling limitations and control that allow the film to build meaningful structures of power which result in conflict.
The film tries to address this problem with Chiba being much feebler and out of control of the world in real life, and her detective work in trying to discover who stole the device is the most compelling part of the film, but by the end of the film she’s swept away as the character who must make the emotional growth while her dream ego Paprika gets to be conduit through which the film resolves the narrative conflict.
A more interesting exploration of dream space is Kongawa’s story. He’s a patient being treated by Paparika through his dreams and these dreams are a compelling exploration of the similarities between film and dreams. Roman Holiday, Tarzan and other films slip into Kongawa’s story as he tries to deal with his own personal inadequacies and deepest fears that manifest themselves in his dream space.
In segments like this, Paparika is a fascinating exploration of dream space as both filmic and psychological. In this regard, it shares thematic similarities to Inception. But the film’s broader story and more cinematic spectacles demonstrate a lack of restraint that is simultaneously compelling and frustrating. As I’ve become disillusioned with Inception’s stifling control and constraint, Paprika is reminds me that the other extreme leads to bloated creativity, which, in turn, leads a film to implode in upon itself.