Vintage has recently re-released Yasutaka Tsutsui’s 1993 mind-bending novel Paprika. Set at Japan’s Institute for Psychiatric Research, two brilliant scientists, psychotherapist Atsuko Chiba and inventor Kōsaku Tokita are developing a tool they have dubbed the “DC mini” which can allow psychiatrists to enter a patient’s dreams, and which they hope to use to cure a variety of psychic aliments, from anxiety to acute schizophrenia.
In order to work as a “dream detective,” which is considered illegal, Atsuko has created an alter ego called Paprika, to more easily invade, and in many cases, inspire dreams. Unfortunately for Paprika her secret identity is no longer very secret, and someone has stolen the DC minis and has started using them to drive everyone at the Institute insane. The differences between the world of dreams and the real world is becoming more and more difficult to determine, and with increasingly deadly results.
Although it has an initially interesting concept, Paprika is a very slow read, with at times some very plodding prose. The inter-office politics at the Institute, and the absurd notion of the main characters developing such an unstable device as a way of vying for a Nobel Prize, bogs down the initially clever sci-fi premise. The dreamscapes that Paprika and her friends explore include some interesting imagery, but readers will be far more rewarded by Satoshi Kon’s wonderful 2006 anime adaptation of the novel.
Although Atsuko/Paprika may be the heroine, and a potential Nobel prize winner for her lethal co-invention (exactly who is reviewing these inventions, by the way?) she is far from a feminist or any kind of female role model. The two-dimensional “dream doctor” falls in love with all of her (older) male patients and is frequently the (willing) recipient of their rape fantasies. Rape and virtual sex seem to be the core of her diagnostic technique. A lot of the attitudes about sex — gay or straight — leave a bad taste for the reader. It is unclear if the author, Yasutaka Tsutsui (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, What the Maid Saw: Eight Psychic Tales), who is much revered in Japan, intended his characters to be misogynistic, homophobic, or both. Maybe a poor translation has eliminated a sense of satire in regard to the sexual politics of the novel, but it seems not.
Most of the characters, except for one of Paprika’s patients and champions, Deputy Chief Commissioner of Police Konakawa, are downright unpleasant. Innocent people are mauled and destroyed left and right when the dream world starts to take over the real world, but with no real world consequences. Paprika and her friends don’t seem to have any regrets about the public impact of their deadly invention. The ever-growing love-addled male Paprika-posse just keeps taking her out to eat after each escalating disaster, to public places where her enemies can easily get to her.
The late Satoshi Kon created a brilliant anime film based on Paprika in 2007. Many of the characters were condensed, and most of the boring office-related dialogue was excised. This book can best be viewed as an interesting inspiration for a superior work of art.