The 2006 anime film Paprika, based on the Yasutaka Tsutsui Japanese novel and its subsequent manga adaptation, has a cult following. Unfortunately, the original book contains the very elements in anime and manga which I find most distasteful: the sexual objectification of women, homophobia and a hysterical prose style. Add to this a plot built on a dubious pseudo-science – i.e. dream therapy based on a Jungian model – and there’s very little left in Paprika to recommend it.
The novel’s heroine and namesake Paprika (a.k.a. – Dr. Atsuko Chiba) is the stunningly beautiful psychiatrist. She and her morbidly obese colleague, Dr. Kōsaku Tokita, are shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for their research and work in dream therapy. Dr. Tokita is the inventor of the “PT” (short for psychotherapy) device which allows Dr. Chiba to access, enter, and sometimes even perform treatment in, a patient’s dreams. During its early development PT devices were illegal, and so Dr. Chiba created a cover identity named Paprika. After the ban was lifted Atsuko Chiba still uses Paprika to treat high-profile clients, those whose mental illnesses might hurt their careers. While Atsuko Chiba is intellectually gifted, poised and professional; Paprika is often mistaken for a teenager. She speaks in a juvenile slang in order to put her client’s at ease. She wears jeans and a tight, red shirt to her meetings. The clients, invariably men, are all sexually attracted to her and she to them.
The plot rolls into motion when internal politics endanger the institute where Chiba and Tokita perform their research. Tokita has created a new PT device, known as a PT mini, which allows for a kind of dream “wi-fi”. But it is stolen while still being tested. Someone is using the PT mini to “infect” employees at the institute with schizophrenia. Should it be made public there would be mass-hysteria and the institute, and subsequently all Chiba and Tokita ‘s research, would be shut down. Not to mention the innocent people being driven insane.
And so Paprika goes to battle in the world of dreams. There she fights the bad guys with the help of two former patients – both middle-aged, powerful men – in a surreal landscape that begins bleeding into the real world. The dream landscapes that Yasutaka Tsutsui creates are by far the most engaging aspects of the novel.
On one level Paprika is a fairly typical science fiction novel, with good using futuristic scientific technology to fight bad. Taken on that level, the writing is no better or worse than the fantasy writer R. A. Salvatore. But Yasutka Tsutsui was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government and the English translation of Paprika is being published by Knopf Doubleday under the Vintage Contemporaries imprint – which leads readers to have certain expectations. My expectation was that the quality of the writing would be on par with other Vintage authors, such as Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, Orphan Pamuk or Haruki Murakami. Instead, what I actually got was:
“Are there any other functions we don’t know about?” asked Osanai. “If there are, you’d better tell us quickly. This device is dangerous. We need to control it rigorously, under high-level isolation and in all secrecy. Please return all DC Minis in your possession to us.”
“Who’s this ‘we’ you keep going on about? Would it be you and your gay lover?” Atsuko countered with a smile. “I wonder if he’s at work yet. There’s something I want to ask him.”
By intentionally withholding the discovery of a murder, Atsuko knew she was sinking even deeper into guilt as a co-conspirator in evil. Even winning a Nobel prize might have been part of that evil. Fortunately, though, she felt no such guilt about winning the prize itself. She could therefore put on a brave face, drawing on her feminine ability to become impervious to evil as necessity demanded. Atsuko waltzed into the Meeting Room as if nothing had happened. While expressing dissatisfaction at her absence, the reporters had reluctantly started questioning Tokita and Shima. Now they started to remonstrate and call out loudly to Atsuko, without even waiting for her to settle in her usual seat.
I’m inclined to blame the translator for the awkwardness and hackneyed quality of the prose. But the juvenile attitudes and prejudices are all the responsibility of the author. For example, when two gay men use the DC minis for sexual encounters they are treated as perverts – “They’re not playthings for gay sex games.” But when Atsuko uses them to have sex with her clients, sometimes multiple clients at once, it is viewed with an abashed acceptance. Perhaps most offensive is the scene where one character attempts to rape Atsuko – and instead of fighting back she reacts by urging him to do it and to make sure he satisfies her in the process. Later in the book she will admit to herself (in a dream, because apparently everything except homosexuality is allowed in a dream) that she loves and is attracted to him (Paprika/Atsuko is attracted to and engages in sex with almost all the male characters at some point). And she has sex with him, her would-be rapist.
Therein lies the problem with Paprika. Yasutaka Tsutsui has created a strong, capable and intelligent female character in Dr. Atsuko Chiba. Then, he housed her sexuality in Paprika. And, according to Tsutsui, it is permissible for the male characters to sexually objectify Paprika – she (literally) becomes the receptacle of their fantasies and desires. Because, we’re not accountable for what we do in our dreams according to Yasutaka Tsutsui.
That may be good enough for some of his male readers, but it’s guaranteed to leave most female readers cold.
Publisher: Vintage Books, New York (2013)
ISBN: 978 0 307 38918 3