Books: Paprika (Yasutaka Tsutsui)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2009-08-29 00:09:46 No comments

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It seems you’ve been living two lives, Miss Chiba. In one, you are Atsuko Chiba, an accomplished researcher and therapist working for the Institute for Psychiatric Research. You’re a hard worker, a dedicated scientist, and on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize. In the other, you go by the alias “Paprika” and carry out illegitimate dream therapy with restricted-use dream-imaging devices borrowed from the Institute’s own labs. One of these lives has a future; the other does not.

Forgive the Matrix quote, but it’s a fitting way to kick off a discussion of Japanese author Yasutaka Tsutsui’s landmark novel. Tsutsui’s eclectic mixes of fantasy, SF, black comedy and other genres have been only sporadically presented in English; Paprika itself was only recently translated, and isn’t even directly available to readers in the United States yet. That’s a shame, because the book’s a broadly entertaining introduction to an author who hasn’t yet gotten his due domestically. He’s been superficially compared to Haruki Murakami or J.G. Ballard, although he’s more playful than the latter and more formally grounded in genre than the former.

At the start of Paprika, it’s Dr. Chiba and not her alter ego who seems to have a future, and a very bright one at that. Chiba’s elbow-deep in work that has proven enormously effective in the treatment of severe mental disorders. One of her colleagues, the brilliant but nerdy (and badly overweight) Kosaku Tokita, has invented a super-miniaturized version of the Institute’s existing dream-analysis devices. Dubbed the “DC Mini”, it allows a dream researcher—for instance, Dr. Chiba herself—to analyze or even enter another person’s dreams.

Then Institute Administrator Torataro Shima asks Chiba to do him a favor and bring Paprika out once again. A close friend of Shima’s, an industrialist named Tatsuo Noda, has begun suffering crippling anxiety attacks and doesn’t want rumors about his mental health to ruin his work—especially in Japan, where the fact that someone of high profile is seeing a mental-health specialist might still be seen as a sign of weakness and not personal responsibility. Not wanting to jeopardize her relationship with her superiors, she says yes, and is soon wrestling with Noda’s dream-demons as prelude to fighting off a great many other peoples’.

Not everyone in the Institute is thrilled with Chiba and her extracurricular activities. Consider the young, sexually voracious and deeply amoral Morio Osanai. He harbors both lust for and jealousy of Dr. Chiba, and would just as soon steal her away from that nerdy slob Tokita (whom she loves quite unabashedly). The DC Mini gives him a way to do that, as well as ways to engineer all sorts of other machinations within the IPR’s halls of power. Soon Chiba’s cohorts and superiors are falling victim to what looks like a scandalous epidemic of contagious insanity, which threatens to bring down both Chiba and the IPR. Chiba cannot fight such things on their own terms: for that she must bring her alter ego Paprika entirely out of retirement, and fight a war in the dream world that runs the risk of not being confined there. Sure enough, it isn’t, and the entire final third of the book is a dream-logic ride that includes such crazed images as a three-headed demon crashing a Nobel Prize ceremony.

Paprika comes labeled as science fiction, although I’d bet the stricter interpreters of that term would opt more for calling it straight fantasy. Or maybe just fiction, in the same way Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-five was fiction and not SF. The hard-science parts of Paprika are not what drive the story, anyway: they’re simply a way to make the dream world and the real world that much more interpenetrable. The real plot strategies are also not scientific but psychological and personal. Paprika’s one big advantage over her opponents is how she understands the behavior of dream terrain intimately, even when it’s not her own but rather the inside of someone else’s very perverted head. Very little in the story isn’t shot through with with sexual under- and overtones—especially in the last third, where reality and the dream world start interpenetrating (pun intended) vigorously. The climax (pun also intended) revolves around the way such things are turned into the substance of the dream world itself, and subsequently dispelled. (If I sound vague, it’s only because I’m tapdancing as fast as I can around some really, really sticky plot threads that don’t deserve to be ruined.)

The most interesting elements of Paprika aren’t the fantastic trappings or even the orgy of dream-world fantasy spilling over into the real world in the book’s final third. It’s the way certain societal attitudes about men and women are embodied in the book, and not always consciously. Chiba may be a doctor, but Paprika’s freewheeling approach to her work makes her into a kind of bar hostess for the soul. Noda certainly treats her like one, going to her to pour out his heart and let her dig into him rather than trust his wife or the rest of his family. Small wonder all of Paprika’s assignations in the book take place in a bar: the “Radio Club”, where she’s at least as knowledgeable about the drinks as the bartender. No coincidence, either, that both of Paprika’s male patients are married, that she has a crush on one and feels contemptuous of the other’s spouse.

Good thing Tsutsui himself seems conscious of all these issues, since he takes time out to show us each character’s psychology through a top-down view of them all. He writes how Paprika “bridled with the righteous indignation that single women often feel against the wives of likeable married men”, and also takes the time to cast the same gimlet eye over Osanai (“[to him], as a woman, [Paprika] had no ideology”) and the other male characters who eye her. To Noda, she’s a savior; to Osanai, an object of conquest or destruction; to Tokita, a colleague and a true friend, a peer instead of just an object of desire. Chiba’s wearing more than two faces in this story, but the two she wears are the ones she’s come to identify with the most. Tsutsui allows us to identify with both sides of her, each only able to express themselves in limited arenas of life. And like her, when it’s over, we long for a chance when both of them can be given equal time in the real world.

* * *

No discussion of this book would be complete without some mention of Satoshi Kon’s animated adaptation. “Adaptation” is the best word for the movie version of Paprika: it uses about half of the original story as a launchpad for Kon’s own brand of visual exuberance. There’s a lot of the book in the movie, but what has been left out is even more striking: very little of the twisted sexuality or original character motivation remains. Apparently Tsutsui didn’t mind the book being changed this radically and was quite fond of the end result. What mattered most was how Kon retained the use of dream logic—or “dreason” as Chiba puts it—to drive the story. The movie’s driven more by Kon’s dream-logic ideas than Tsutsui’s, and a number of characters have been telescoped into each other or dropped entirely, but book and movie parallel each other more often than not.

Less likely to win an audience domestically but still worth mentioning is the manga version, created in 1994 shortly after the book’s debut and drawn by Reiji Hagiwara. Weighing in at over 550 pages, it adapts the book in remarkable detail—not just scene by scene, but sometimes line by line as well. And not just in the sense of individual lines of dialogue used, but actual pieces of Tsutsui’s text are excerpted from the book and placed on the page as design elements. It’s intriguing, especially since it’s used to accentuate the story’s most surreal moments; it ties it back to the book all the more tightly and yet at the same times makes it all the more distinct from it. At one point, when a nightmare samurai attacks the heroes, the inlaid text even changes to a more archaic typeface to better match the incongruity of the whole episode. That's inspired.

Tags: Japan Satoshi Kon Yasutaka Tsutsui fiction review