Falling in Love with an Idea (“Paprika” and “Inception”)

One of the more subtle aspects of Satoshi Kon’s Paprika is the love triangle revolving around Chiba/Paprika (or love tetramer, depending on how you look at it). Three men are romantically interested in the central female figure – one for the idea of Paprika, one for the idea of Chiba, and one simply for the idea that shapes Chiba/Paprika. 

Paprika is explicitly a dream about movies while more implicitly one about ideas and our projections, particularly love. Known as the Ice Queen in her physical form, Psychiatrist Atsuko Chiba takes on the alternate ego Paprika to help with her patients outside her research facility, one of them being Detective Toshimi Konakawa who invariably falls for the allure and charm of Chiba’s dream avatar. Amongst her colleagues at the research facility for the DC Mini – the futuristic device which allows people to view other’s dreams and explore subconscious thought on screen – there is Doctor Morio Osanai, a man who admires the icily beautiful surface of a guarded Chiba while simultaneously intimated by her intellectual prowess (a insecurity he later overcomes at the expense of Chiba/Paprika, for those familiar with the film). Lastly, there is Doctor Kōsaku Tokita, a man who loves Chiba/Paprika for who she is regardless of her self-projections in the real and dream worlds. 

It’s important to distinguish the different forms of love each man develops for Chiba/Atsuko because it funnels down to which man she eventually chooses. Love, as we all know, is fickle: I know friends and relatives who’ve fallen in love with their own projections of another, for a figment of somebody they amplify tenfold in hopes that this figment is central to the person of interest. I, too, have fallen victim to this tendency in the past. Falling in love with an our own idea of a person rather than the idea that defines said person is all too common of a human mistake most of us have make in our lives. 

Why don’t you listen? You’re a part of me!

Have you ever thought that maybe you’re a part of me? 

An idea is alluring, and for the lucky few the figment of an idea we fall in love with is the defining essence of a person. More powerful than words can describe an idea can take root in the deepest of our subconscious, even possessing us well past the point of reason and objectivity. That ideas should be so intertwined with dreams and projections that question boundaries between reality and fiction is no coincidence: like Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Kon’s Paprika illustrates for us how vibrantly our own ideas and images can take root in the scheme of our own sleeping minds, how in one moment we can seamlessly be walking down the corridors of a hotel and suddenly find ourselves within the waves of a naval portrait, riding the waves away from a recurring, haunting projection that we understand little about. 

Shades of ideas, albeit alluring and attractive, can be disappointing and dangerous. They can tie us down into the obscurity of denial or an unwillingness to accept things that are not within our control. In Inception, Dom Cobb recreates a captivating but ultimately dangerous shade of his deceased wife Mal, a shade that culminates so fervently it inhibits his own ability to block her projection from invading his own dream state. In Paprika, the Chairman of Chiba’s institute becomes so obsessed with protecting the “purity of dreams” that he begins first by taking over other’s physical bodies (as his own physical state is crippled) and then slowly infecting other’s minds with delusions not dissimilar to symptoms of dementia; eventually, he manifests into nightmarish forms to ward off Chiba/Paprika from stopping him as he eventually infects Tokyo with his projections of fantasy, invading the real world with dangerous abodes of the fantastic masking venomous undertones. Both Cobb and the Chairman become obsessed with projecting an idea that eventually, they fall victim to this obsession and ultimate destroy the integrity of an idea the hoped to maintain – a cruel irony, if you will. 

It is no surprise either that we should become as enamored by ideas as equally as we could become terrified of them, tortured even. Detective Konakawa, for all we know, falls in love with Paprika because within his recurring hell of nightmares she is a figure of hope, comfort, and warmth, a guiding light that helps him navigate within his own spectrum of dreaming. Of course, when Konakawa realizes Paprika is the dream avatar of the distant Chiba, he remains enamored with the idea of Paprika until it becomes apparent his romantic projection is only a projection, nothing more – he has absolutely no chance of becoming romantically involved with the real life Chiba, regardless if Paprika is a subset or dominant quality of her personality. For Konakawa, Paprika is a idea of charm and comfort, something he desires after years of being haunted by the same specter of his past and buried regret. 

The infamous rape scene in Paprika

Konakawa’s sentiment is a similar albeit different circumstance than that of Osanai, who is enamored with Chiba for her beauty – undoubtedly tremendous – but holds back because she is his superior by intellect and rank, something he cannot overcome in the real world. He loves the idea of Chiba, the idea that she is a captivatingly mysterious and gorgeous woman who encompasses in his mind all that is perfect and desirable – intelligence and sex. Osanai’s projection of Chiba is a twisted one, mixed with both a small understanding of whom Chiba is and with his own lust and jealousy, insecurity even. This leads to one of the film’s most notorious scenes where Osanai captures Paprika and effectively rapes her, peeling away her skin to reveal a underlaying Chiba. This power play is a rape scene not in the traditional meaning, but in the sense that a man’s insecurities paramount to him violating another’s projection, mutilating it into the idea he wants to see – Chiba over Paprika. Sickening and abhorrently low, Osanai’s power play implies not only his obsession with his own projection of whom he believes Chiba to be, but also an obsession with his own ego where given the power he will manipulate and twist anything into his own design – clearly the compulsion of a man with deep-rooted insecurities matched by equally blatant narcissism. 

Then there is Tokita, who is nothing more than a child in the shell of a morbidly obese genius in love with the idea of creating and dreams – the very idea Chiba/Paprika is also in love with. I’ve heard many comments from fans who liked the idea of “the fat guy getting the girl” rather than stereotypical narrative cliches, but the love between Chiba and Tokita deserves more praise than that. It is a love that stems from an idea that two people sense and understand, an idea that is otherwise obscure to others unwilling or incapable of seeing it. I’m referring of course specifically to Chiba’s true inner self, the self that lies beneath her physical and fantastical projections. What it is we cannot truly define: what is evident is that this idea resonates with Tokita’s character, who is enamored by the process of creating and exploring, and simply having fun with it while you’re at it. He loves not just a shade of Chiba, but all of her shades, and she likewise him. 

The significance of Chiba’s love for Tokita and his love for her cannot be understated in the scheme of Paprika and the ideas and projections that invariably coincide with the existence of dreams. It speaks not only of love unfettered by pretense or faulty projection from either party, but also of ideas culminating into a collective identity and how easily an idea – whether fragmental or representative – can take hold us so strongly that we believe it to be true, even tempted to twist into our own desires and projection. Such is the nature of dreams, of projections, of ideas, and of ourselves. 

Many thanks for the contributions made by Viet Le and Allan Estrella for this article.