Papurika is Satoshi Kon's fourth and final feature film. At its time of release I went to watch it at the IFFR. Big screen, good sound system, a theater filled with fans ... the works. Back then I felt it didn't quite live up to the legacy of his first two films, yet it was a return to form after the disappointment that was Tokyo Godfathers. I was pretty eager to watch Papurika again, excited to find out if those 8 years in between had done anything to change my mind.
After a successful run as an animator, art director and writer for several prestigious anime projects (including Memorizu, Kido Keisatsu Patoreba: The Movie 2 and Roujin Z), Kon started his directorial career with Perfect Blue. Add Magnetic Rose and Sennen Joyu (Kon's second feature film) and a pattern quickly emerges. Even though Kon's skills were broad, he truly excelled at seamlessly blending reality and dream worlds together.
On top of that, Kon brought animation closer to live action without sacrificing the strengths of the medium. His style of direction (camera angles, editing, pacing) is grounded in reality, yet what he shows would be incredibly hard to accomplish when making a regular feature film. With Tokyo Godfathers Kon strayed from this path by forgoing the dream world almost completely, Papurika went the other way and sees Kon losing touch with reality. Both films are the result of a director exploring what else he would be capable of, sadly his untimely death meant that he would never be able to reap the rewards from these experiences.
Papurika is quite literally the story of a dream world trying to take over the real world. A few years into the future doctor Chiba and her team have developed a device that allows them to visit people's dreams. They use the device to try and heal mental patients, but when three prototypes are stolen and people start daydreaming their way into death, it's clear that they have unleashed a technology onto the world without fully understanding the dangers.
Visually the film is somewhat of a mixed bag. By now the CG looks a bit out of place and it doesn't integrate all that well with the traditional animation. The character designs too are a bit crude, but the animation itself is smart with great eye for detail and there are some pretty crazy and outrageous scenes that do manage to awe. The coloring is spot on and adds plenty of atmosphere. Still, of all four feature films directed by Kon, Papurika is the least visually pleasing.
The soundtrack is something else though. After working together on Sennen Joyu, Susumu Hirasawa is back to grace this film with his peculiar sound. Papurika's main theme is amazing, a typical Hirasawa track that's almost impossible to grasp but intrigues every single time it's used in the film. The rest of the music is equally enigmatic, giving the film a special edge that's unique to the work of Hirasawa. Not every director could get away with it, but with Kon's films we're talking about a perfect marriage.
The voice acting too is top notch, with famed talent like Koichi Yamadera (Togusa) and Akio Otsuka (Batou) (both from Kokaku Kidotai) taking up considerable roles. The lead is voiced by Megumi Hayashibara, another veteran known for her work in Okami Kodomo No Ame To Yuki, Asura, Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop. Quality voice talent, unless you go for the English dub which sounds drab and bland.
Opinions differ, but ultimately I prefer Kon's more realistic output. Papurika has quite a few sci-fi elements and combined with the film's expansive dream world it's all one big fantastical journey. There are few boundaries in Papurika's world and Kon really goes all out, but for me Kon's at his best when he's constantly playing around with the thin line between fantasy and reality. There is some of that near the end of the film, but it just doesn't compare to his earlier work.
That said, Papurika is still an amazing film with plenty of memorable moments and a superb finale. If I sound a little negative that's only because his first two films are hard to surpass. With a superb soundtrack, a great eye for detail and an original concept Papurika is a strong addition to Kon's oeuvre. Even though the film starts showing some small cracks, they never interfere with the film's strong points and won't ruin the fun that is to be had with this one.