I frequently find myself romanticizing heroes in cinematography (see: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). This time around, the flavor-of-the-month is none other than Satoshi Kon, the directorial mastermind behind movies like “Paprika” and “Perfect Blue.”
I stumbled upon Kon’s work by chance, watching “Perfect Blue” at the behest of my friend’s recommendation, and subsequently attending a theater screening of “Paprika” a week or two later.
When I strolled into the Michigan Theater that night, I genuinely had no idea what I was walking into — all my years of submersion in psychological thrillers did nothing to prepare me for the bouncing toy parade or the persistent storyline repetition, churning over the same plotlines as the movie attempts to make sense of its own existence. Most of all, I was unprepared for the absolutely slapping and mind-numbing soundtrack.
“Paprika” is constantly throwing things at you — from overstimulating imagery to unreliable narration, Kon cares not if you leave the movie theater utterly confused, spiraling as you attempt to discern what just happened before your very eyes. Many find themselves strangely magnetized to this movie, with some even accrediting the film’s success to Kon’s advanced understanding of surrealist storytelling and Jungian psychology and implemented later in the film’s creation, Lacanian film theory.
Jung’s approach to psychoanalysis is based on Sigmund Freud’s long-standing theories that conscious human behavior can be explained by our unconscious drives, which often manifest in the forms of our dreams. Though they may be scattered, indiscernible and often lack meaning on the surface, these psychologists believed that the nonsensical depictions 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 enjoyed Freud’s theory of the constant fragmentation of the self, the nuances were deeper than that. When infants look into a mirror before their second year of life, their sense of self is instantly separated from the rest of the world through something called “misrepresentation.” Upon attaining language, their entire life is spent attempting to reconcile this issue by using symbolic structures like language to create a whole, but viciously falsified, representation of themselves, of their own ego.
These movements gave rise to Lacanian film theory, in which cinema acts as the mirror between the events on screen and us, the viewers. Though impotent and unable to alter anything happening within the fictional world, we deeply identify with the story being shown to us — we are the infants, and the movies are the mirror that brainwashes us into thinking we have something such as an ego. We start 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 an extenuating use of surrealism in cinema, as Kon inadvertently folds laws of the real world in on themselves to tell us something about ourselves.
In every attempt to summarize such a film, though, I feel like I constantly fail to touch on its essence. It’s much more than the blueprint for Christopher Nolan’s sensation, “Inception,” and keywords like ‘surrealism’ and ‘fantastical horror’ do nothing but skim over the complexity of Kon’s final masterpiece. And big words like “Lacanian psychoanalysis” are not enough either — the film in itself is an experience, an event, you thoroughly and simply must live through.
More than just an understanding of how a narrative works, or knowledge about how our ego has a tendency to deconstruct itself, Kon draws his talent as a filmmaker from the fact that he understands the way we tell stories to ourselves: the way we rationalize misunderstandings, the capacity to which we make ourselves the heroes of our own narratives and the fundamental desire for our lives to follow some preordained plotline — the human tendency to organize everything into predictable storylines is pervasive in the space that “Paprika” sets up for the audience. It’s inescapable, and it’s exposing.
I sometimes wish I had remained ignorant of Kon’s work, embraced by a condition of my own uneducated bliss. Research into surrealist cinema has once more infatuated my hungry mind, and as I sought to enlighten myself more about animation as a surrealist medium, I also sprang forth into a black hole of my own self-deception, relearning once more that I am not who I am, but I am who I think and hope to be. As someone with an extensive background in the cognitive sciences, realizing you are not your own ego and detaching yourself from it completely are two entirely different things, and the latter is extensively more challenging than the former.
Each morning, as I slide on my clothing and draw on my eyebrows, I am nothing more than a character of 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 narrative? Who would I be without the villains of my story, and the protagonist that is of my own body? What plot should my life follow if not the predictable one, the one we’ve seen portrayed in the movies over and over and over?
This is a message that, I think, surrealist media typically attempts to convey in some form or fashion. “Surrealism,” as the infamous Salvador Dalí once noted, “is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.” And while every surrealist is surrealist in their own way, one cannot plausibly deny the extent to which Kon uses animation as a medium to drive a stake into our feeble and romantic minds. We all want to be the daring Detective Konakawa in our own story, and surrealists like Kon have an unmitigated understanding of this desire.
Still, beyond its excellency, I can’t help but sense the hesitation to indulge in animated movies, often uttered by stubborn-minded adults. Animation, as a whole, is largely regarded as a “children’s genre” and a medium that is often not entertaining nor eloquent — a misguided notion shared by the hosts of the Oscars, dubbed as “something kids enjoy, and 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 it) often come to define moments of our childhood. Yet, despite the pervasiveness of animated art in children’s movies, to reduce animation to a single genre would be a foolhardy gesture, because what makes animation unique is that “it can do any genre” — one of which is surrealism.
It’s not a secret that, despite “Inception” being critically acclaimed, Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film failed to meet the narrative standards that “Paprika” had placed before it. And though the visual effects in “Inception” required nothing short of an extensive budget, the inherent nature of animation allowed Kon to maintain malleability and fantasy in his film in a way that made its elements integral to the storyline itself. Live-action movies can only provide us with so much; we are told half the story before the movie even begins, in that the plot ultimately takes place in a world akin to our own, where the rules are preset, rigid and, primarily, boring.
Regardless of public misconceptions, animated movies have continued to saturate the film industry, producing works of wonder like “Raya and the Last Dragon,” “Luca” and “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” in 2021 alone. Well-written animated movies have become household staples, and often receive unanimously positive reviews (as seen in the case of “The Incredibles”). It’s more a rule then, rather than an exception, for an animated movie to receive at least some, if not mostly, positive marks.
And even when renowned film artists attempt to translate beloved animated works into live-action cinema, they are often not well-received; take “Avatar: The Last Airbender” 2010 live-action remake that scored a whopping 5% on Rotten Tomatoes. Originating from identical source material, the animated version proved to reverberate with audiences the way that the live-action never could.
Five years after its tepid release, M. Night Shyamalan, the director of “The Last Airbender,” tried to defend the film by explaining that it was the PG rating that constricted the movie’s overall success (since he had kept it appropriate viewing for younger audiences, and didn’t do “the Transformers version and have Megan Fox in it”). But blaming the film’s malaised reception on an audience rating is faulty reasoning, as we can think of cinematographic gems like “Moana” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” that can instantly refute said 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 nor any laws of our known universe. This makes it possible for artists like Kon, among many other talented maîtres, to fiddle with our known understanding of the world, peeling it back like a tender orange skin and exposing the human condition from underneath … from within.
Rather than being told a story, you are almost invited in to create your own, to nestle in by the warmth and nostalgia of hand-drawn films and to curate an understanding that tells you more about you. I am, personally, exalted by dream-based cinema, and nothing less than allured by the dreamscapes Kon has manifested for his viewers. The animated world is a place for intense exploration of the human psyche, a mirror that shines through our gaze and lets us peer into what lies beyond the brain, and within the mind, though it doesn’t always have to.
Just as characters contort and bend on screen in Kon’s work, so can the medium itself. Restricted by nothing other than the creator’s self-imposed possibilities, animation is a tool that expands and contracts with the artist, and with the viewer themselves. It is not just flashy cartoons — it is a provokable medium that engages the conscious mind, our feelings and our regrettable mistakes, just as much as it elicits our subconscious desires. Animation is what we make it out to be, and what we make it out to be is a direct reflection of ourselves, exposed by the bright surrealism and blatant mirroring of a fantastical reality we all dream to live in, and the tender narratives we all fall asleep to at night.
Animation is the medium of the 21st century and, much to my happiness, the obsession with animated narratives and cartoon lifestyles only seems to be increasing. Kon was a pioneer of his time, inspiring many influential artworks and developing styles, but his work is by no means the quintessence of all animated artwork. Rather, he has ushered in the beginning of (what I hope to be) the turning of the film industry wheel, one that returns the importance of creativity and the vitality of fragmented self-perception to the motion picture screen, as audiences around the world turn to indulge in the movies that do everything but mimic real life, and in the process, learn a little something more about themselves.
Statement Columnist Valerija Malashevich can be reached at email@example.com.