I often 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 directors’ mastermind behind films like “Paprika” and “Perfect Blue.”
I stumbled upon Kun’s job by chance, seeing “Perfect Blue” on my friend’s recommendation, and then attending a theater performance of “Paprika” a week or two later.
When I came to the Michigan theater that night, I really had no idea what I was going through—all of my years immersed in psychological thrills did nothing to prepare me for the bouncing games march or repeat the ongoing story, which flutters over the same plots as the movie tries to make sense of its existence. Most of all, I wasn’t prepared for the totally slapping, stunned soundtrack.
“Paprika” is constantly throwing things at you – from overstimulating visuals to unreliable narration, Konn doesn’t care if you leave the cinema completely confused, spiraling as you try to discern what happened before your eyes. Many find themselves strangely drawn to this film, with some even acknowledging the film’s success in understanding the advanced universe of surreal storytelling and Jungian psychology and later implemented in the film’s creation, Lacanian Film Theory.
Jung’s approach to psychoanalysis builds on old Sigmund Freud’s theories that conscious human behavior can be explained by our unconscious impulses, which often manifest in the shapes of our dreams. Although they may be scattered, unperceived and often lacking in meaning on the surface, psychologists believe that the irrational images of our dreams are meant to convey something meaningful – something silently unconscious. These complexes, archetypes and symbols are transformed into dreams on behalf of the subconscious.
For Jacques Lacan, who enjoyed Freud’s theory of the continuous fragmentation of the self, the nuances were even deeper. When children look in the mirror before the second year of their lives, their sense of self is instantly separated from the rest of the world by something called “distortion.” Upon accessing language, they spend their entire lives trying to reconcile this problem by using symbolic structures such as language to create a complete, but ferociously fake, representation of themselves.
These movements gave rise to the Lacani film theory, in which cinema acts as a mirror between the events on the screen and between us, the viewers. Despite our powerlessness and inability to change anything that happens within the imaginary world, we identify deeply with the story that appears to us – we infants, and movies are the brainwashing mirror into thinking we have something like an ego. We begin to recognize the camera, who is as omnipotent and omniscient as a deity, and we also begin to see ourselves as a deity with inexplicable power. This approach allows for a watered-down use of surrealism in cinema, where the universe unintentionally folds the laws of the real world to tell us something about ourselves.
However, in every attempt to sum up such a movie, I feel like I’m constantly failing to get to the core of it. It’s much more than an outline of Christopher Nolan’s feel, “inception,” and keywords like “surrealism” and “fantasy horror” do nothing but glimpse the complexity of Cohn’s final masterpiece. And big words like “Lakani psychoanalysis” are also not enough – the film itself is an experience, an event, which you have to live completely and simply.
More than just understanding how narrative works, or knowing how our ego tends to deconstruct itself, Kuhn derives his talent as a filmmaker from the fact that he understands the way we tell stories to ourselves: the way we justify misunderstandings, the ability to make ourselves the protagonists of our own stories and a basic desire In our lives to follow some predetermined plot – the human tendency to organize everything into predictable stories is pervasive in the space that Paprika lays out for the audience. It’s inevitable, he reveals.
I wish sometimes to remain ignorant of the work of a universe, embraced by a state of unlearned bliss. Research into surreal cinema once again aroused the interest of my hungry mind, and as I sought to enlighten myself more with animation as a surreal medium, I also sprang into a black hole of my self-deception, re-learning again that I am not who I am, but as I think and wish to be. As someone with an extensive background in cognitive science, realizing that you are not your own ego and completely detaching yourself from it are two very different things, the latter more difficult than the former.
Every morning, as I slip on my clothes and paint over my eyebrows, I’m nothing more than a character on my mind. I’m Paprika, I’m Detective Konakawa, and I’m the ruthlessly patrolling doll that invades our dream world. Who am I without my autobiography? Who would I be without the villains in my story, and the hero who is out of my body? What plot should my life follow if not the one that is so predictable, the one we’ve seen portrayed in movies over and over again?
This is a message, I think, that the surreal media is trying to convey in one form or another. “Surrealism,” as the notorious Salvador Dali noted, “is devastating, but only destroys what it considers to be the limitations of our vision.” And while each surrealist list is surreal in its own way, one cannot reasonably deny the extent to which the universe of animation is used as a means to push a stake in our vulnerable and romantic minds. We all want to be the daring detective Konakawa in our own story, and surrealists like Kun have a full understanding of that desire.
However, besides excellence, I can’t help but feel reluctant to indulge in animated films, which are often uttered by stubborn adults. Animation, as a whole, is largely seen as a “children’s literary genre” and as a medium that is often neither amusing nor eloquent—a misleading notion shared by the Oscars hosts, calling it “something kids enjoy, adults tolerate.”
It’s not hard to see why such an observation is made so frequently when films like “The Incredibles,” “The Jungle Book,” and even “Cars” (yes, I love “Cars”—judge me for that)) often come to define moments from our childhoods. However, despite the prevalence of the art of animation in children’s films, reducing animation to one genre would be a reckless gesture, because what makes animation unique is that it “can do any genre” – one of which is surrealism.
It’s no secret that despite critical acclaim for Inception, Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film failed to meet the narrative standards Paprika set before it. And while the visual effects in “Inception” required only a huge budget, the inherent nature of the animation allowed Kon to maintain flexibility and imagination in his film in a way that made his elements an integral part of the story itself. Live action movies can provide us with a lot; We’re told half of the story even before the movie even begins, in that the plot ultimately takes place in a world similar to our own, where the rules are pre-set, rigid, and boring in the first place.
Regardless of general misconceptions, animated films have continued to saturate the film industry, producing amazing works like “Raya and the Last Dragon”, “Luca” and “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” in 2021 alone. Well-written animated films have become a household staple, often receiving unanimous positive reviews (as we saw in the case of “The Incredibles”). It is a rule, not an exception, that an animated film receives at least some, if not mostly, positive marks.
Even when well-known film artists attempt to translate beloved animation works into live action cinema, they are often not well received; Take “Avatar: The Last Airbender” 2010 remake live that scored 5% on Rotten Tomatoes. The animated version originated from identical source material, and has proven to resonate with audiences the way live action couldn’t.
Five years after its lukewarm release, M. Nate Shyamalan, director of “The Last Airbender,” defended the film by explaining that it was the PG rating that limited the film’s overall success (since it kept the film appropriate for young audiences, and not the “Transformers Edition Has Megan Fox”). But blaming the film’s poor reception on audience ratings is wrong thinking, as we can think of cinematic gems like “Moana” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” that can immediately refute said argument.
Animated films, whether you personally like them or not, can be a touching work of art that requires attention to detail and creative effort. Graphics, unlike people and things, do not have to obey the laws of physics or any laws of our known universe. This makes it possible for artists like Kun, among many other talented people maitreto manipulate our known understanding of the world, peeling it back like a thin orange skin and exposing the human condition from below…from the inside.
Instead of being told a story, you are almost invited to create your own, to enjoy the warmth and nostalgia of hand-drawn films and to form an understanding that tells you more about you. I, personally, am glorified by dream-based cinema, and nothing is less than tempted by the dream scenes that Kuhn showed his viewers. The world of animation is a place of intense exploration of the human psyche, a mirror that shines through our eyes and allows us to look into what lies beyond the brain, and into the mind, although it doesn’t always have to.
Just as characters twist and bend on screen in a universe action, so can the medium himself. Animation is a tool that expands and contracts both with the artist and with the viewer himself, not constrained by anything but the author’s self-imposed possibilities. It’s not just flashy caricatures – it’s a provocative medium that engages the conscious mind, our unfortunate feelings and mistakes, as much as it excites our unconscious desires. Animation is what we imagine, and what we make is a direct reflection of ourselves, exposed through the bright surrealism and stark reflection of a fictional reality we all dream of living in, and the subtle narrative we all fall asleep to at night.
animation The The medium of the twenty-first century, and to my great delight, the obsession with animated novels and cartoonist lifestyles seems to be on the rise. Kuhn was a pioneer of his day, inspiring many influential artworks and developing styles, but his work is by no means the core of all moving artwork. Instead, it heralded the beginning of (what I hope it will be) the turning wheel of the film industry, bringing the importance of creativity and the vitality of fragmented self-perception back to the motion picture screen, as audiences around the world have moved on to immersion in films that do everything but imitate life. Realism, and in the process, learn a little more about themselves.
Statement columnist Valerija Malashevich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.