I often find myself romanticizing heroes in film (see: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). This time around, the flavor of the month is none other than Satoshi Kon, the production mastermind behind films like “Paprika” and “Perfect Blue.”
I stumbled across Kon’s work by chance, watching “Perfect Blue” at my friend’s request, then attending a theatrical screening of “Paprika” a week or two later.
When I walked into the Michigan Theater that night, I really had no idea what I was getting into – all my years of immersion in psychological thrillers did nothing to prepare me for the parade of bouncing toys or the persistent repetition of the script, spinning on the same plot lines as the film tries to make sense of its own existence. Above all, I was unprepared for the absolutely slapping and mind-numbing soundtrack.
“Paprika” constantly throws things at you – from the over-stimulating imagery to the unreliable narration, Kon doesn’t care if you leave the movie theater completely confused, spiraling as you try to discern what just happened before your eyes. . Many find themselves oddly magnetized by this film, with some even attributing the film’s success to Kon’s advanced understanding of surreal storytelling and Jungian psychology and later implemented in the film’s creation, Lacanian cinematic theory.
Jung’s approach to psychoanalysis is based on Sigmund Freud’s longstanding theories that conscious human behavior can be explained by our unconscious drives, which often manifest in the form of our dreams. Although they can be scattered, indistinguishable, and often meaningless on the surface, these psychologists believed that the absurd representations of our dreams are meant to convey something meaningful – something silently unconscious. And these certain complexes, archetypes and symbols are transmuted into dreams on behalf of our unconscious.
For Jaques Lacan, who appreciated Freud’s theory of the constant fragmentation of the self, the nuances were deeper than that. When infants look in a mirror before their second year of life, their sense of self is instantly separated from the rest of the world by something called “misrepresentation.” Upon reaching language, their whole life is spent trying to reconcile this problem by using symbolic structures like language to create a global, but viciously falsified representation of themselves, of their own ego.
These movements gave rise to Lacanian cinematic theory, in which the cinema acts as the mirror between the events on the screen and us, the viewers. Though helpless and unable to alter anything that happens in the fictional world, we deeply identify with the story shown to us – we are the infants, and the movies are the mirror that brainwashes us into thinking that we have something like an ego. We begin to identify with the camera, which is omnipotent and omniscient like a god, and we too begin to see ourselves as a deity of inexplicable power. This approach allows for a mitigating use of surrealism in film, as Kon inadvertently folds the laws of the real world in on themselves to tell us something about ourselves.
In every attempt to sum up such a film, however, I feel like I constantly fail to touch on its essence. It’s so much more than the blueprint of Christopher Nolan’s sensation, “Inception,” and keywords like “surrealism” and “fantasy horror” only gloss over the complexity of Kon’s final masterpiece. And big words like “Lacanian psychoanalysis” aren’t enough either — the film itself is an experience, an event, that you absolutely and simply have to live.
More than a simple understanding of how a story works, or a knowledge of how our ego tends to deconstruct, Kon draws his talent as a filmmaker from the fact that he understands the way we tell stories: the way we rationalize misunderstandings, the ability to make ourselves the heroes of our own stories, and the fundamental desire that our lives follow a predetermined plot – the human tendency to organize everything into predictable scenarios is pervasive in the space that” Paprika” sets up for the public. It is unavoidable, and it is revealing.
I would have liked at times to remain ignorant of Kon’s work, embraced by a condition of my own uneducated bliss. Surrealist cinema research once again enthused my hungry mind, and as I sought to shed more light on animation as a surrealist medium, I too sprang into a black hole of my own delusion, relearning once again that I am not who I am, but I am who I think and hope to be. As someone with a vast background in cognitive science, realizing that you are not your own ego and completely detaching yourself from it are two entirely different things, and the second is much more difficult than the first.
Every morning, as I swipe on my clothes and draw on my eyebrows, I’m nothing more than a character in my own mind. I am Paprika and I am Detective Konakawa and I am the doll that mercilessly patrols and invades our dream world. Who am I without my self-constructed story? Who would I be without the villains in my story and the protagonist of my own body? What plot should my life follow if not the one that was predictable, the one we’ve seen portrayed in the movies over and over and over again?
It’s a message that I think the surreal media usually tries to convey in some form or way. “Surrealism”, as the infamous Salvador Dalí once noted, “is destructive, but it destroys only what it sees as shackles limiting our vision”. And while every surrealist is surreal in their own way, there’s no plausible denying just how much Kon uses animation as a way to drive a stake into our weak, romantic minds. We all want to be the daring detective Konakawa in our own story, and surrealists like Kon have an unqualified understanding of that desire.
Yet beyond its excellence, I can’t help but feel the reluctance to indulge in animated films, often uttered by stubborn adults. Animation, as a whole, is widely seen as a “kids genre” and a medium that’s often neither entertaining nor eloquent – a misguided notion shared by Oscar hosts, dubbed “something kids enjoy and that adults endure”.
It’s not hard to see why such an observation is so frequently made when movies like ‘The Incredibles’, ‘The Jungle Book’ and even ‘Cars’ (yes, I love ‘Cars’ – judge me for this) often come to define moments of our childhood. Yet despite the ubiquity of animated art in children’s films, reducing animation to just one genre would be a foolhardy move, because what makes animation unique is that it “can’t do anything.” any genre” – including surrealism.
It’s no secret that while “Inception” was critically acclaimed, Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film failed to live up to the narrative standards that “Paprika” set before it. And although the visual effects of “Inception” required nothing less than a large budget, the inherent nature of animation allowed Kon to maintain malleability and whimsy in his film in a way that made his elements an integral part of the scenario itself. Live action movies can only give us so much; we’re told half the story before the movie even begins, as the plot ultimately takes place in a world close to our own, where the rules are preset, rigid and, above all, boring.
Regardless of public misconceptions, animated films have continued to saturate the film industry, producing works of wonder like “Raya and the Last Dragon”, “Luca” and “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” just in 2021. Well-written animated films have become household staples and often receive unanimously positive reviews (as seen in the case of “The Incredibles”). So it’s more of a rule than an exception that an animated movie gets at least a few, if not most, positive ratings.
And even when acclaimed filmmakers attempt to translate beloved works of animation into live-action cinema, they are often not well received; take “Avatar: The Last Airbender” 2010 live-action remake which scored a whopping 5% on Rotten Tomatoes. Coming from identical source material, the anime version proved to resonate with audiences in ways live-action never could.
Five years after its lukewarm release, M. Night Shyamalan, the director of “The Last Airbender”, attempted to defend the film by explaining that it was the PG rating that limited the overall success of the film (since he had kept appropriate for younger children). audience, and didn’t do “the Transformers version and had Megan Fox in it”). But blaming the film’s awkward reception on ratings is flawed reasoning, as we can think of cinematic gems like “Moana” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” that can instantly refute that argument.
Animated movies, whether you personally like them or not, can be an impactful work of art that requires attention to detail and creative effort. Drawings, unlike people and objects, do not have to obey the laws of physics or any law of our known universe. This allows artists like Kon, among many other talented mastersto play with our known understanding of the world, peeling it away like a tender orange peel and exposing the human condition from below…from within.
Rather than being told a story, you’re almost invited to create your own, snuggle up in the warmth and nostalgia of hand-drawn movies, and organize an understanding that tells you more about you. I am, personally, elated by dream-based cinema, and nothing short of enthralled by the dreamscapes Kon manifested for his viewers. The animate world is a place of intense exploration of the human psyche, a mirror that shines through our gaze and allows us to peer into what lies beyond the brain and within the mind, even if it is not always necessary.
Just as characters contort and bend on screen in Kon’s work, so can the medium itself. Limited by nothing but the self-imposed possibilities of the creator, animation is a tool that expands and contracts with the artist and with the viewer themselves. It’s not just flashy cartoons – it’s a provocative medium that engages the conscious mind, our feelings and our regrettable mistakes, just as much as it arouses our subconscious desires. Animation is what we make of it, and what we make of it is a direct reflection of ourselves, exhibited by brilliant surrealism and the glaring mirror of a fantastical reality we all dream of living in, and the tender stories that we all fall asleep at night.
Animation is the 21st century medium and, to my delight, the obsession with animated storytelling and cartoon lifestyles only seems to be growing. Kon was a pioneer of his time, inspiring many influential artworks and developing styles, but his work is by no means the epitome of all anime artwork. On the contrary, it ushered in the beginning of (what I hope will be) the turning of the wheel of the film industry, one that renders the importance of creativity and the vitality of fragmented self-perception on screen. movies, as audiences around the world turn to movies that do anything but mimic real life, and in the process learn a little more about themselves.
Statement columnist Valerija Malashevich can be reached at [email protected].