Something Good #28: Satoshi Kon

In 2007 I had the chance to interview Japanese animator and director Satoshi Kon for the Montreal Mirror, the alt-weekly where I worked at the time, in advance of the North American release of his fourth and final movie, Paprika.

Paprika is a marvellous dreamscape of a movie. Based on a 1993 novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, it tells the story of a therapist named Atsuko Chiba, who uses a device called the “DC Mini” to enter her patients’ dreams and deal with their psychological problems in situ, as it were, assuming the dream-persona of the more glamourous Paprika.

Paprika’s dreamscapes are dizzying, constantly in motion, a free-associative parade of imagery that somehow forms into a coherent and thrilling narrative. Dream sequences in films are almost inevitably boring and unimaginative; Paprika is one of the very few that gets it right (along with The Sopranos, obviously). Very few films convey dreaming’s indescribable head-rush of grotesqueness, humour and weird eroticism the way this movie does.

I jumped at the opportunity to interview Kon. Because he didn’t speak English, my only option was to send him a list of questions, which would be translated, answered, and translated back.

I sent eight considered questions (I think I was told to keep it to this number). I was overjoyed to receive, several weeks letter, a 10-page Word document containing Kon’s thoughtful, expansive answers. It felt like a treasure had fallen into my lap.

I wrote my piece, quoting his responses at length, but not able to run it nearly in full. (The story, along with the rest of the paper’s website, has been offline for the better part of a decade.)

Three years after my interview, Kon died tragically at the age of 46.

I have kept the Word doc he sent me for years now. I truly treasure this digital artifact. Even in translation, Kon’s character and genius shine through in his answers, and I feel immeasurably lucky to have interacted with him, however remotely.

The full text of our interview has never been published in full, until now.

Mark: The relationship between films and dreams is made very explicit in Paprika, down to the scene where various filmmaking techniques are explained to Paprika and the audience, or the description of Paprika as a “dream movie star.” What are your thoughts on the similarities between dreams and movies? Is filmmaking like dreaming?

Satoshi Kon: What a wonderful question!  I do think filmmaking and dreaming have a lot in common. The dreams we have while we are sleeping are, in a sense, “My Unexpected Movies.”  The dreamer himself is the main character, and the scenes and the scenario are unconsciously related to him.  And it is actually rare for dreams to have a logical course of events, and most of the time we don’t even understand what our dreams are trying to tell us.  However, because dreams are offspring of the images the dreamer has inside himself, I find the irony of the dreamer not understanding it very interesting.

On the other hand, movies generally have that logical course of events, plus the surge of excitement at the climax, and the theme that can be expressed after the conclusion.  If dreams are “My Unexpected Movies,” we could refer to movies as “dreams that everyone can sit back and enjoy.”  In other words, they are “Unconscious Movies,” and “Conscious Movies,” respectively.

But then, are movies just for sitting back and enjoying?  Are the stories supposed to be comprehensible?

I don’t think so.

Whether I am in the audience or in the crew, I can say with confidence that movies that are 100% comprehensible are absolutely boring.

Of course, unlike dreams, most of the things expressed in movies are expected to arouse audiences’ empathy.  But without some kind of a mysterious aftertaste, I believe the movie wouldn’t leave much of an impression.  Needless to say, that “mystery” wouldn’t prove effective if it confuses the story, or if it has developed from the writer’s selfish reasons.  The “mystery” that I’m talking about is, in other words, “a little margin” that leaves some room for the audience’s imaginations.

And the mystery can well exist in anything—in the pictures, the characters’ feelings, the storyline, or even in the setting.  But in any case, the audience would still be able to put the pictures together and undergo their “original” experience of the movie with some help from their own imagination, even without understanding where the mystery lies.  Watching the very same movie and having different thus original ways of experiencing it, is indeed a big similarity between filmmaking and dreaming.

M: At one point a character says “I have many faces. That makes me human.” There seems to be a theme of doubling, or of multiple personalities that runs through the movie—the split between Paprika and Chiba is a good example of this. Was this a conscious concern of yours?

SK: The core themes that I consciously placed importance on are the double (and multi)-sidedness of things, their contrast, and balance.  I intended to include them in the movie from the beginning.

These expressions can be interpreted in a wide sense, but as you have pointed out, in Paprika, obvious doubling can be seen in the heroines Atsuko Chiba and Paprika.  These characters actually developed from the same person’s two distinct personalities, but as the director I considered them two different people when directing.  That way, I thought I could describe a person’s inner conflict and antagonism more clearly.

I’ve seen Atsuko Chiba as a “father’s daughter.”  It’s a psychological term for a woman who regards her father as the archetypal hero, and this kind of person tends to be very particular about “following an example.” Atsuko Chiba, too, is the kind who prioritizes “what she’s supposed to do”, suppressing her desire of “what she wants to do.”

Because of this, she thinks she lacks emotions, or it’s more like she finds it difficult to express her feelings.  And as a result, she doesn’t know how to express her feelings in romantic relationships where a gush of emotions is supposed to be seen.

I’ve thought that Atsuko Chiba’s personality careening to the extreme stimulated Paprika’s emotional, wild side, and as a consequence, the two lost touch with each other and ended up splitting.  But this doesn’t mean one is good and the other is bad—it’s the balance that is important, and both sides are to be blamed for not maintaining it.  The big image of a woman that is reborn at the climax is indeed the mature version of Atsuko and Paprika integrated. 

The contrast and double-sidedness are seen in the Atsuko-Paprika relationship, not to mention in the bestowment of personality to the characters.

Take Atsuko and Tokita’s, and chairman Inui and research chief Shima’s relationships for instance.  They are opposites in terms of personality and appearance.  I also consider Inui and Osanai opposites as well because of the obvious difference between young and old, but their personalities are similar.  Konakawa and Shima are good friends, but their appearances are completely opposite.  Atsuko and Osanai complement each other well with their good looks, but are in conflicting positions.  But at the same time, they are similar in the sense that they are faithful to their duties.  Last but not least, there are cases in which both appearance and personality are similar, like the Tokita-Himuro relationship for example.

Like this, we have put importance on “Tai (opposition, contrast)” as a basic concept of Paprika

The “Tai relationships” can be both good and bad.  This relates to the previously-mentioned personality of Atsuko, but a person doesn’t necessarily have to maintain balance of personality only within themselves.  I mean, I think that it’d be cool if people lacking good balance at an individual level can be stabilized by getting together to form relationships built on contrasts.

I intentionally embodied this concept in the relationship between Atsuko and Tokita.

MS: Was working in the realm of dreams creatively freeing for you? Did you feel you could express yourself in a way that a more lucid, logical story would not allow for?

SK: It’s actually the other way around.  I didn’t feel the freedom of creativity as a result of making Paprika; I tried making Paprika into a movie so that I could free my creativity.  With the movies I have directed before Paprika, I had in mind that even if the stories take place within a realistic framework, they can turn into great fantasies just from a shift in the viewpoint.  

However, I started noticing that constructing the outlook on the movie world within such a realistic framework actually limited what I drew.  Even if it obviously was technically possible to portray more things, with the ideas themselves limited, we had no chance to put the technique to use.

With a dilemma like this, I had chosen Paprika as my grand project to expand my imagination.

I believe my aim wasn’t mistaken, but putting it into action was not that simple.  It was as if I was using muscles I hadn’t exercised before.  Although I was used to exercising my imagination within realistic frames, the highlight in Paprika, the “dream world,” is the farthest anything can be from reality.

So, racking my empty brain, I came up with this concept of “Chinpira (punk) Emulation”—yes, the computer term “emulation” that can run Windows on Macintosh OS.  The idea of duplicating the functions of one idea with a different one was quite interesting, and I decided to imitate it in my own brain.

The base system was the “adult side” that I’d been constructing within the realistic framework of pre-Paprika days.  And I thought I’d emulate the “chinpira side” over the “adult side” with limited range of imagination.  “Chinpira (punk)” sure does sound bad, but from another perspective, it can be referred to as the youthful and juvenescent imagination.  It’s the kind that’s not really suited for organizing the whole, but can act as a fountain of impromptu ideas, you know.

The “adult side” had been constructed avoiding the ostentatiousness often seen in “chinpira”, thus is better suited to organize the whole.  And, emulating—not blending the two—is what made me take a fancy to this process.  That is, the emulating structure of running the “chinpira side” on the “adult side” was exactly the same as that of the main character of Paprika, because it’s as if the main character is created by running the character “Paprika” on the personality basis of “Atsuko [Chiba]”.

I’m not the kind who puts personal feelings into the characters I direct, but I do empathize with the situation and circumstances the characters have to deal with.  So adopting “Chinpira Emulation” and coming to be able to really understand the complex Atsuko-Paprika structure was a big asset.

Well, if you asked why, in Paprika, Atsuko loses control of Paprika who she has supposedly emulated. I have actually hoped for this to happen in my “Chinpira Emulation”, too, for the “chinpira side” to override the “adult side” by surprising us with unthinkable imagination.  And this, I think, has been achieved to a certain degree.

MS: As a follow-up to that last question, did you feel you needed to set any rules for the dream-world so that it did not end up completely chaotic? Did you have to restrain yourself at all?

SK: Thank you for another interesting imagination-related question.

In my pre-Paprika films, the principle objective was to tell the “story,” and I considered pictures as ways to tell the story.  However, in Paprika, my objective was completely the opposite—I wanted to show the picture images, and therefore tried to make the story very simple as to ensure enough time to have the images enjoyed.  Also, I think the big-to-small, strong-to-weak, bright-to-dark contrasts and flow have enabled the audience to grasp the story even when it was difficult to understand literally.

But as you say, the dream world is the world where “anything goes,” so I did have to set certain rules for this film and it was very tough.  It was as if you’re playing a sport while creating the rules for it.  The amount of rules you create is directly proportional to the amount of time you played it, and that set of rules is connected to the next hours of play and the new rules.

As you can imagine, it was very difficult sharing the rules with the other staff members in this irregular process.  So, after all, the director—myself—ended up having to make arbitrary decisions.  For example, depending on the situation I would say, “This is OK in Paprika’s dream world,” or “This is NOT OK.”  The rules were pretty much lax in the screenwriting stage, and I made the final decisions in the storyboard stage.

Therefore, the storyboard needed detailed focus, and it ended up as the most detailed and the biggest one in all my works, needless to mention that it took me so long to finish it. It was like a nightmare.

MS: One of the most interesting visual motifs in Paprika is the parade. What does the parade represent for you?

SK: I thought that that was “a parade of trash.”

I didn’t come up with this idea until I was about to draw the picture of the parade on the storyboard, and getting the ideal image was a difficult task.

The first thing I had to consider was how difficult it was to depict the dreams in various forms like in the original, in a movie with limited time.

So, in the film Paprika we needed this symbolic image of dreams, especially nightmares—something you would recognize as a nightmare right away, as soon as it appears on the screen.   

But I don’t really know why it had to be a parade.  From the beginning, though, I was against the idea of using a dark image to express nightmares, like what you see in other movies and comic books.  Instead, I imagined a nightmare that is “creepy because it is too blissful.”  The parade matched that image very well.  Also it was already decided that the dream flows into the real world at the climax of the film, like in the original, making the goal of the flow “the real world”.  So parade it was. Parades always have a starting point and a goal, and now that the goal was set, we needed the starting point.  We thought of the farthest place from populated cities – a desert – a place isolated from humans.  Mingled with these images, the concept of “a parade of trash” was born.

In the parade you can see religious objects such as a shrine gate and a statue of Buddha, traditional Japanese images like the Manekineko (Beckoning Cat) and the Daruma doll, and outdated cars and household appliances.  They were all chosen under the “trashed” standard.

For example, people are less religious compared to 100 years ago, and traditional icons have lost their real meanings and are now mere fashion items. And during the years of rapid economic growth, people have thrown away cars and appliances that can still be used, and repeatedly gone through the buy-and-trash cycles.  As I thought about the trash, I cultivated the image of them coming back to real life through the dream world.  I saw the parallel connection between that “trash” and the suppressed dreams and the unconscious state that modern age people have ignored.

The idea of the “parade of trash” and the image of normally immobile things parading were gradually established in my mind, and that’s when I felt confident about the animation Paprika.  And since lots of people commented that the parade was impressive, I am very satisfied.

MS: I found it very interesting the way images and scenes would repeat themselves throughout the film, often undergoing slight changes (like the scene in the hallway). Were you attempting the mimic the repetitive narrative flow of dreaming? Or if not, what inspired that?

SK: “Repetition” is a common phenomenon seen in our dreams, and therefore I did attempt to adopt the idea in Paprika. Actually I have used repeating images not only in Paprika, but in my previous works such as Perfect Blue and Sennen Joyu [Millennium Actress].  Repetition of similar scenes undergoing slight changes is very dreamlike, and also, it is an effective way of expressing the mental/emotional changes within the dreaming character, along with the passage of time. If the scenes are almost the same, but have an obvious but slight change, the audience would definitely focus on that point.

The importance lies in the obviousness at a glance, and since it is very visual, it would be hard to implement this in novels and literary works.

The more similar the scenes are, the more striking the changes.  It is similar to music where the same motif repeats itself like A、A'、A''…undergoing changes and developing into variations, and I think dreams and visual expressions are musical at the same time.

MS: As a painter yourself, were you influenced at all by the Surrealist movement in making Paprika and its idea of drawing inspiration from the unconscious mind? Or by other forms of art?

SK: I wouldn’t have a hard time coming up with creations and expressions if I knew what kind of stimulation I need, or what kind of condition I should be in to get inspiration.  That way I should be able to meet all the deadlines, but unfortunately, I haven’t acquired it yet. 

In Paprika, I found it very difficult to come up with the images of dream scenes.  Those dream people don’t follow logic or linguistic connections, development, or coherency.  In other words, dreams unfold in one’s right brain, not the left, controlled by its visual connections.

And that means, the more linguistically and logically I pile images up, the farther away I end up from what’s characteristic of dreams. But of course, I can’t think of ideas in my sleep, so when preparing the storyboard, I actively utilized the idea of “association.”

In this process, I see things around me, like collections of paintings and photos, music and creations at our work, the dreams and experiences I had, and conversations with the staff.  And from there, an image occurs, and I keep associating the images vaguely to other things, and after a while I come across this image that I never would have even expected.  I draw that image, and once again keep thinking of associated images.  I narrow them down into one image and draw it again, and this just keeps going.

What’s important when choosing the images is how well they go with the picture, and not with the scenario or with the story.  When connecting the images, I had to be careful not to have similar and linked images adjacent to each other.  If they are linked, you don’t see the jump, but at the same time, if the jump is too big, you won’t be able to tell the connection.  I wanted the images to unfold in unexpected ways, but still be subtly understandable.  This kind of standard was a delicate one to work on, and that should explain why the completion of the storyboard was greatly delayed.

MS: Paprika and the Detective wake up in bed together, and there are moments in the movie with undeniable sexual overtones. Would you comment on this aspect of the film? Was it an important element of the story?

SK: I didn’t really think sexual metaphor and metonymy were necessary as a part of the plot, but since dreams reflect suppressed sexual desires, needless to mention what Freud said, I thought it was indispensable to this movie which has got a lot to do with dreams.

However, sexual depiction is more obvious in the original, adding more appeal to it.  But if we kept the same kind of atmosphere in the film version, it would be pornography under certain circumstances.  But also, if we eliminated the sexual overtones, the dreams would just be an eccentric theme park.  The scary, dark sides of dreams would be lost.  Dreams are fun and mysterious, and at the same time they scare you beyond your imaginations.   I’ve mentioned earlier that I put importance on “Tai (opposition, contrast),” but I found the double and multi-sidedness of dreams also as important.

In the movie Paprika, I believe the most obvious sexual expression is seen when Osanai captures Paprika and then sticks his hands inside her to tear her apart.  This is nearly rape, but this is what I came up with to show the direct sexual expression in the original in a form other than sex.

And actually the importance of this scene lies not only in the shocking sexual expression, but also in the childish desire and personality of Osanai who tries to use his force to control her.  This reflects his selfishness of not accepting her entire personality but only picking out what he finds favourable.  That’s why he doesn’t desire the Paprika-Atsuko personality as a whole, but lusts the Atsuko part, resulting in him extracting Atsuko from Paprika’s body.

On the other hand, Tokita, the man who says he swallows anything, is the complete opposite of Osanai.  He accepts Paprika and Atsuko as a whole, and I think that’s why Atsuko realizes her love for him towards the end.

And there’s one more image I had concerning the sexual overtone.  I considered Paprika, who enters the clients’ dreams to treat them, as “hetaira,” a sibyl and prostitute of  ancient Greece and Asia who had sex with the worshippers to give them divine revelation and blessings.

I guess I didn’t hesitate giving the heroine Paprika a sexual overtone because I considered her the modern age “hetaira.

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This week’s #nojacketsrequired is this recent collection of Haruki Murakami short stories, with its under-jacket faux-album cover. I find this cover way more interesting than the dust jacket design, which has a very… I dunno, stock photo vibe. As always, send your unjacketed finds directly to me at

Bonus track: Paprika composer Susumu Hirasawa plays the “Parade” theme on lasers.

Every. Darn. Wednesday. I’ll send you Something Good. If you like, please enter your friends’ dreams and tell them all about it.