Two Tastes of Paprika: Yasutaka Tsutsui's novel (trans. Andrew Driver), and Satoshi Kon's anime

Reviewed by Martin Lewis

Paprika novel cover

Paprika film cover

This review is backwards. Yasutaka Tsutsui's novel was published in Japan in 1993. Thirteen years later, it was filmed by Satoshi Kon. This year, it has finally been translated into English by Andrew Driver. (This is the third Tsutsui work to appear from Alma Books in recent years; Driver also translated his short story collection, Salmonella Men on Planet Porno, for them.) So I am not just reviewing a novel that is well into its second decade of life as if it is new; having already seen the adaptation, my original text is not the original text.

The film opens in a dream, although we do not yet know this. Paprika, a "dream detective," is inside the head of Detective Toshimi Konakawa, trying to get to the root of his anxiety neurosis. What appears to be a stakeout in a big top circus melts into Tarzan and Jane and then flashes through a succession of other filmic scenes before climaxing with Konakawa arriving too late to prevent a murder and waking screaming. As the light fades, we hear a voice: "But what about the rest of it?" As a false opening it is as clever as that in Serenity (2005) and as reflective of the concerns of the following film as that in Strange Days (1995). It is followed by an equally inventive credit sequence in which Paprika leaves Konakawa's apartment on a moped before leaping into billboard signs and computer monitors, flying through the sky and pausing time, until finally she ages two decades as she arrives by car at her apartment. Is this still a dream?

The book opens less auspiciously. Without the need for a visual hook Tsutsui starts his novel more prosaically, in the staffroom of the Institute for Psychiatric Research with two scientists, Doctor Atsuko Chiba and Doctor Kohsaku Tokita, discussing recent problems with their work over lunch. Everything is slower, more clinical. This is not necessarily a deficiency, but the contrast between the two mediums is wide and telling. However, even within a few pages a true deficiency quickly presents itself: the translation. On the second page, Tokita complains to Chiba about his lunch:

"Not chopped burdock with sesame and marinated pan-fried chicken yuan style, AGAIN!" (p. 10)

The sentence is clumsy—would anyone really disgorge that mouthful?—but the capitals for EMPHASIS are terrifying. Then there is the exclamation mark. There are six on this page alone. If you were to tally up all such instances in the book you would soon run out of fingers and toes. Even worse, the next page marks the appearance of the dreaded interrobang. On page 166 we have a double exclamation mark, which is either a typo or a fresh perversion.

Leaving aside the alarming punctuation, the translation is also oddly quaint. Early on Chiba is described as possessing a "beauteous visage" (p. 15) and "laughing with abandon" (p. 16). Either this is heavily encoded with irony or Driver is making strangely old-fashioned choices; I'm surprised it isn't "laughing with gay abandon." Immediately after laughing she lies "somewhat calmly" (p. 16) which is both a meaningless description and a further indication of the stilted and dated language used. In combination with the excess of slangy punctuation, this creates a weirdly yo-yoing tonal dissonance.

It turns out that the first scenes of the film and the book are approximately reversed. In the book, after a bit of rumination on the new psychotherapy (PT) technology and some internal politicking Chiba is asked by the administrator of the Institute, Torataro Shima, to treat an old friend of his, Tatsuo Noda, an executive at a car company. (Konakawa does not appear until much later in the book but the scenes serve much the same purpose.) To treat him Chiba changes her hair style, glues on some freckles and adopts the persona of Paprika, a disguise she used to treat important figures—with the Institute's blessing—prior to the dream technology being approved by the Government. The continued secrecy is because of the stigma against mental illness in Japan where (as the book would have it) even something as common as clinical depression is esoteric, frightening, and potentially career-ending. At the same time, this clandestine operation seems slightly undermined by Paprika's rubbish disguise and the fact she carries out the therapy in an Institute grace and favour apartment with the name Chiba on the door.

In showing Chiba gluing on the freckles, Tsutsui makes quite explicit the answer to a question which the film leaves as a puzzle for the viewer: what exactly is the relationship between Paprika and Chiba? In the film, Paprika appears to be an independent entity or psychic aspect of Chiba (the two appear on screen at the same time). This odd, almost magical realist, flourish allows for multiple readings and lends mystery to the film. It is a mystery that is entirely absent from Tsutsui's novel, which never shirks from spelling out in bald detail exactly what is going on. What it does shrink from is getting to the point.

In the film, the story kicks off immediately after the credits with the revelation that some of the PT machines have been stolen from the Institute in what it appears to be an inside job. These machines allow people to access dreams and subvert reality, the two states bleeding into each other, and the potential ramifications are catastrophic. This happens in the first ten minutes. It takes the novel 117 pages, just over a third of its length, to get to a comparable position. Whereas in the film Chiba, Tokita ,and Konakawa then play a version of that old anime favourite, hunt the insane computer genius, by this point in the novel we have already been told the who, the what and the why. Since he appears in a cameo role, Tsutsui must have given the film his blessing but it is a fundamentally different beast. In all respects the film is brighter, brasher, breezier and, by and large, this is preferable. The screenplay by Kon and Seishi Minakami radically reconfigures Tsutsui's original novel into something more akin to a virtual reality thriller like Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004). There is nothing thrilling about the original. It is a truism that there is nothing more boring than other people's dreams and Kon's visual panache is a welcome replacement for Tsutsui's ponderous psychoanalysis.

At the same time, the film shares some of the book's flaws. As is all too common with anime, the American translation and voice work are poor, meaning that the dialogue is frequently risible. Beyond this the characterisation is often weak and implausible. Kon and Minamaki have adapted liberally and inevitably much of the background of the characters—particularly that revealed in internal monologues—has had to be abandoned. Too often that means we only skim the top of motivations and whilst sometimes this mystery is intriguing, often it is irritating or confusing. On the other hand, at least some of the blame for this must come back to Tsutsui as a lot of the characterisation is not that convincing to begin with.

Every man in the novel is in love with Chiba/Paprika. In case we were in any doubt about just how beauteous Chiba's visage is, when she attends a press conference: "Some social affairs correspondents who were attending for the first time let out involuntary gasps of astonishment at her ravishing beauty, which even exceeded its reputation" (p. 41). When she returns to her office, her assistant is equally impressed:

Now Nobue's eyes were filled with an expression of rapture. "My! Oh, my! How beautiful! How very, very beautiful you look! What have I done to deserve this?! Doctor Chiba, please! Won't you appear on television again, just for me?"

Feeling slightly embarrassed at such unfettered adoration by a member of her own sex, Atsuko hurried out into the corridor. (p. 55)

Well, you would, wouldn't you? Sorry, I mean: wouldn't you?! The portrayal of the other characters is similarly clumsy. In contrast to Chiba, Tokita is monsterised. He is lisping, slobbering, obese and infantile to the point where his depiction as a gluttonous idiot savant is borderline offensive. Despite this—and Tsutsui explictly invokes Beauty and the Beast—the pair are in love. This is one of the aspects of the novel that is ignored by the film, until the very end when we are informed they have married. Without the context provided by the novel this seems like a particularly extreme version of the Hollywood law that any man and woman of a similar age in a film must end up in a relationship, regardless of what actually happens on screen. Oh, except Chiba is also in love with Noda. And Konakowa. How will she weigh up "the relative merits of their manly attraction" (p. 152)?

Even those characters she is not in love with are seen through a queasily sexual lens. Moroi Osanai, another colleague who we are told resembles a Greek god and, yes, is in love with her, decides the best way to show this love—as well as gain revenge for a work dispute—is to go round her apartment and rape her. After being punched in the face and having her underwear pulled down, this is Chiba's response:

"Aren't you ashamed of yourself, doing this to a colleague? [. . .] And you call yourself a therapist ?! [. . .] All right. All right! I'll let you do it [. . .] But you'll have to do it properly. You'll have to satisfy me [. . .] What is this?! [. . .] Do it if you're going to do it! You could at least have prepared yourself! [. . .] You're useless as a therapist, and now as a man." (pp. 183-186)

My ellipses condense but they don't distort. This is a horrendously ill-judged scene: Chiba's concern at the lack of professionalism in this sexual assault gives way to resignation that this is a chore that she needs to get over and done which then gives way to the thought that since she is being violated against her wishes she might as well enjoy it, which in turn gives way to anger at this pathetic man who can't even give her a good raping. This is where the whiff of misogyny that the characters give off throughout is overpowered by a stench of misogyny coming off the whole book. Peter Carty—who implies he has read Paprika in the original—describes this as evidence of "Tsutsui's impish black humour" but you would be hard pressed to find any humour, except perhaps the unintentional and distasteful, in Driver's translation. It has to be more than just the translation, though. It is hard to believe any of Tsutsui's characters are adults with agency, rather than mere puppets for his positioning.

As I said, this review is backwards. It is hard to review the novel on its own merits having seen the film first, so I have not attempted to do so and have instead reviewed them both. It is a comparison that finds the book wanting. Compared to the glorious dream sequences that Kon conjures up, Tsutsui's prose is deathly dull or just plain silly. On any other measure of entertainment he is similarly (and comprehensively) beaten and, truth be told, it was hard work even to make it to the end. He is ill-served by his translation but still it seems unlikely that greater depth is lurking underneath it in the original Japanese. Paprika the novel is a psychosexualdrama in which the psycho is tedious, the sexual is ridiculous, and the drama is nonexistent. Kon fillets this to provide himself with the basis for a fundamentally different type of work, one that is infused with his own concerns, particularly (and slightly recursively) around cinema itself. His film has a slightly patchwork quality because so much connective tissue is discarded, but mostly we should be thankful that most of the sexual elements were binned. The result is a far superior work which fearlessly and sure-footedly walks a tightrope between fantasy and science fiction.


Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Everything Is Nice.