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Satoshi Kon’s Metaphysics of Dreaming

Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1808, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons).

A few years before Nolan’s Inception, Satoshi Kon gave birth to his own dream-infiltration film: Paprika (2006). Laced with vibrant and chaotic scenes of dreamscapes, Kon gives us his metaphysics of dreaming and reveals a complex network that challenges some other key dream-theorists (such as Freud).

As a quick review (spoilers, clearly), the movie is situated in modern-day Japan where researchers are working on the “DC Mini”: A portable device to watch and enter another person’s dreams. The researchers work on unlocking the superficial use of the object: to treat patients with bad dreams. On a deeper level, they hope to treat illnesses through the manipulation of dreams. Finally, however, the power of dreams breaks into reality and we realize that such liminal spaces are not as disconnected from our own lives as we might believe.


Introduction (with Freud)

I’m getting ahead of myself though. To start, the parallel to psychotherapy is clear in the first two situations. Freud’s interpretations of dreams were often ways of allowing the patient to understand their unconscious desires and to see how unfulfilled desires (as, for him, all dreams are wish-fulfillments) are harming us in our conscious lives. Through displacement and condensations of desires and fears, the true object of a dream is hidden, therefore one must “take notice of whatever occurs to [the dreamer’s] mind without any exception”[1]. Following this, “dreams are the product of the dreamer’s own mind”[2], in that they are internal mental representations, perfectly sealed.

For Freudian analysis, one must “divide a dream into its elements and to find the association attaching to each of these fragments separately”[3]. While this relies upon patients discussing their dreams to allow hidden associations to become clear, a DC Mini allows direct intervention. Freud’s method worked through the patient, in which the dreamer’s own analysis was the critical figure; now, an external researcher can “tell you what your dream means.”

The genius behind the DC Mini is Tokita, an overweight and child-like character; the genius of its application is Atsuko Chiba who enters people’s dreams under her second personality named “Paprika.” The two work together with their chief to try and track down stolen samples of the Mini. Given the machine’s abilities, the Mini would allow anyone to enter another person’s dreams and manipulate them, even causing some researchers to enter dreams (thereby hallucinating) in their waking life, nearly killing them. They are also hounded by their chairman, Doctor Inui, an anti-technology disabled man who regularly threatens to shut down the project entirely. The final major character is Detective Konakawa who wants to use the DC Mini to help him recover from a recurring nightmare related to a case he is unable to solve.


The Disunity of Personhood

Already, problems are rising to the surface. Chiba looks, sounds, and acts differently when she enters the Paprika form and does not appear in her own body in the dreamworld—unlike everybody else. While a Freudian might read this as a projection of her desired physical appearance, Paprika… does not conform to Chiba’s desires. Paprika also challenges Freud’s notion of the id/ego/superego distinctions by existing as a separate and independent personality within Chiba. Paprika does not merely appear in dreams but can be seen in reflections of Chiba in mirrors during waking life.

Paprika then is the critical point around which an analysis should be made. She is the being who most rejects any straightforward categorization. While we initially view Paprika as a “cosmetically different” Chiba, she is considered as having a greater ability to manipulate dreams than any other researcher. Towards the end of the film, Paprika is trapped by Osanai—a researcher gone rogue—and her external skin is ripped off to reveal a sleeping and nude Chiba underneath. In this way, Paprika exists as an exterior shell for Chiba in the dreamworld.

Later in the film, the dream world begins to spill into the real world and hallucinations begin infecting everyone. As this is occurring, Chiba and the chief attempt to escape dream-monsters who chase them; as they do, Paprika suddenly appears and shows them a way out by teleporting through a television (which the supposedly physical and real people do to follow her). Chiba is surprised to see Paprika existing independently of her and attempts to control the situation by giving orders; Paprika responds cuttingly: “Maybe you are part of me.” This idea shatters our initial conception of Paprika and throws an enormous doubt on what the structure of our psyche is. Is Paprika her own independent agent within Chiba? Or is she an entity that Chiba enters only in the dreamworld? These questions are left unresolved, though Paprika retreats from the real world once the split between the two is re-established at the end of the film.


The Spillage of Dreams

Kon pushes the realm of the dream into an active mode. While for others, dreams may be manifestations of external desires or the products of overactive imaginations, here dreams act upon the physical world in clear and decisive ways that are not easily controlled by humans, either by psychotherapists or the dreamers themselves. Because one can get stuck in a dream, as Himuro (another researcher) does, the dreamworld becomes a potential cage for human consciousness. As the chairman warns Paprika, “to come in [a dream] carelessly is like a moth to a flame.” Each night, we enter our dreams as though they are minor and hermetically sealed little movies for us to enjoy, when in reality, they spill into our world as often as we spill into the dream world.

This idea of spillage is critical when the chairman Inui (surprise!) attempts to infect the entire world with his own dreams; by projecting his dream of having great physical strength (as a disabled and old man), into the minds of others, Inui hopes to bring this dream into reality. Dreams enter reality by crashing into it—violently. The parade of dolls and toys with colorful clothes and loud brass music appears harmless, a child’s affair (just like any dream), but soon begins to force itself upon the consciousness of others; the chief and Atsuko both hallucinate and nearly die. The genius Tokita realizes what is happening and names the phenomenon anaphylaxis: an allergic reaction. Following this, a dream may infect others through a chain of reactions, entering and distorting their minds in ways that radically change their perception of reality and their relation to it.

To play with the word “dream,” political dreams may work similarly. One person has a social/political vision and desire that “infects” those around them: anaphylaxis.

Coming back to the earlier analogy of dreams as movies, Kon layers within his representation of dreams a representation of films themselves. Here, a dream is a movie in our minds. The detective, Konakawa, has a deep-seated regret of having given up on his dreams of being a director in college; specifically, he ditched the production of the movie he and his best friend were making just before completion of the final scene (in which the hero shoots the villain). So, when Paprika enters his dreamworld to try and fix it, she finds herself in a movie theater where Konakawa explains different cinematography techniques. Konakawa is freed of this regret when he is able to live out the act of shooting the villain (or, one of them, Osanai). The entanglement of reality and dream is difficult to parse, as Konakawa shoots Osanai while in a dreamspace, but this causes the physical death of Osanai’s body. Again, we are confronted with the ability of dreams to influence the world but further the ability of dreams to exist as a focal point for the convergence of reality and representation.

These different layers of reality (film, dream, reality—or, perhaps we put them in a different order, maybe in a matrix where their combinations can be fully mapped out) are differentiated through certain facets of the dreamworld that do not apply to our own. While one may experience a dream as real, in the dream world characters have extreme strength (like Paprika flying) and are extremely susceptible (hence, the warning to not enter dreams frivolously). Applying this to films, one can work a similar analysis: a film has great capabilities and is also susceptible to external influence, all of which lends itself to the distorted and fantastical nature of the film world as separate from our own.

What reality exactly means is blurred through these expansions of the dream world. While Kon maintains the fundamental concept of a physical reality that we inhabit (in that, the movie ends with the characters solidly being in our normal, waking world), he does not shy away from pushing us to question our epistemology (how do we know this is real?) and our imaginations (what can we do, given reality is partly a dream?). 

Returning to a point mentioned earlier, a dream where two people are present can never be one person merely manipulating the dream of another. It is the combination of two people’s dreaming capacities, multiplying them together in ways that can create infinite combinations. If reality is partly a dream, and we inhabit reality with many people, then the possible combinations of our world that we live in (and that we imagine as physical, static, outside human control) are truly infinite. All we have to do is shift the frame of our dream—Freud’s sublimation, Lacan’s Imaginary or Marx’s ideology, perhaps.



Central to the film are the actions of our two main villains: Doctors Inui and Osanai. Inui is initially caustic towards the research team and regularly lecturing them on the dangers of their new technology. Outwardly, he professes fear and condemnation towards the DC Mini as an agent of destruction and corruption, human pride gone awry. This plays on a regular trope: What we fear is that which we most desire. Inui ends up being the culprit behind the stealing of the DC Mini and uses it to essentially “hijack” Osanai (a much younger and able-bodied man) to regain physical strength. His desire to consume others and continually gain power is the motor behind the spillage of dreams and the slow consumption of the external world by the dreamworld. His hypocrisy is glaring.

Switching to Osanai quickly, a new form of desire is represented. Osanai believes that dreams are a sacred space, not to be touched by human technology. One way this is represented is the inner sanctum of his own dream space: Throughout the film, the presence of blue butterflies is a sign of being within a dream. Osanai’s inner dream space is a room filled with butterflies pinned behind framed glass covers, and he pins Paprika herself to a table with the figure of a butterfly painted on it. For him, dreams are a sanctuary to be viewed and appreciated by humans, perhaps even through scientific means; to abuse and enter dreams for the sake of manipulation towards our desires, however, is to go too far. Maybe, however, this is why dreams exist as dead research material (behind glass) for him, as opposed to the living and flying butterflies that accompany Paprika.

When Osanai is shot by detective Konakawa, his physical body dies (as mentioned). What is alarming, however, is that this dream death that spills into the physical world is the singularity that causes the major damage to the split between dreams and reality. His body sinks into the ground, sucking color out of the environment as if a blackhole, consuming Inui as well.

Inui is able, however, to use this singularity to bring himself (perhaps a dream version) into the real world and to use this newfound power to start consuming reality. In doing so, he grows his powers. Paprika names him “the Lord of Darkness” and actually cheers for him when he begins consuming the world. Perhaps he is Inui’s perfected dream self—able to walk again, extremely powerful, and able to destroy the world (but only through the commandeering of other mental spaces and consciousnesses). As it turns out, the anti-technology hardliners end up being the two who most abuse the DC Mini for their own goals.

Paprika’s support of the Lord of Darkness is shocking, given his violent nature. But, Paprika declares a dualistic vision of the world: “Light and dark. Reality and dreams. Life and death. Man and [woman]. Then you add a missing spice. [Paprika.]” This vision does not put these two sides at odds with each other; rather, each part of the duality is necessary for the other and complements and challenges the other. What bridges the gap between them is… paprika! A spice, a minor component that brings the unity together in a dazzling and delicious manner. So, perhaps Paprika is not best understood as a dream-entity, but rather an entity between dreams and reality, one that allows the two to coexist. And, in the end, Paprika combines with Tokita and Chiba’s dream-inside-a-dream to produce a dream child (stay with me) who eats the evil winds being expelled by Inui, finally eating him as well before disappearing, thus returning the split between reality and dream.


The Oedipus Myth

There is one final connection to Freud that should be discussed. Throughout the film, there are two major references to the Oedipus myth. The original Greek story goes that Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother, but goes further in its critique of Oedipus as a character. Oedipus is an extremely intelligent and wise character who is able to defeat the Sphinx, a man-eating creature, by answering her riddles. His major flaw, however, is his overactive intelligence, often leading to grave situations created by his hubris. Freud’s Oedipal complex states that infants initially identify with the parent of the same sex (so, a male identifies with his father) and thus creates an ego out of this identification—we build our identity of self by defining ourselves in terms of our parents. Following this, we sublimate our burgeoning infant desires onto the opposite sex parent (thus, a male to his mother) as we wish to fill the role of the father (in this case). The prohibition against incest is instilled in our minds at an early age, leading to the formation of the super-ego, in which the prohibitions demanded by our parents are entered into our unconscious mind, judging and limiting our desires as we mature. (Warning: this is a crude explication of the Oedipus complex).

The movie clearly deals with the first, original Greek myth more as it relies on the idea of the Sphinx more heavily. The discussion of dreams, however, requires that the Freudian perspective be considered, too.

The first scene this occurs is where Chiba, Konakawa, Tokita, and the chief are all discussing the plight of the missing Minis. Chiba sits directly in front of a painting of the Sphinx while Konakawa sits in front of a painting of Oedipus. Here, a metaphoric relation (Freud’s condensation) is established in which Chiba is related to the Sphinx as the man-eating creature and Konakawa as the overly-wise Oedipus. In reality, however, Chiba is not an active person herself and Konakawa is not at all… very wise. Perhaps, then, the better way to read this initial encounter is that the painting applies to the situation as a whole: humans have become Oedipus, using our intelligence to create the DC Mini, but in doing so harming ourselves. The Sphinx can be considered technology that we have overcome, but that returns to eat us regardless.

In the second occurrence, we are inside a dream where Osanai is chasing Paprika. This time, Paprika takes the form of the Sphinx in the dream and is shot down by Osanai. Here, the connection is more literal and can be considered metonymic (Freud’s displacement). Desire is clearer here, in that Osanai declares his desire for Chiba (not Paprika) and traps her. Osanai is attempting to outplay the system by using the DC Mini to prevent the spread of dream technology. In the end, however, he is killed through his own malfeasance. Paprika, then, can be seen as the man-eating creature. Again, if Paprika is a separate entity from Chiba is unsure. Paprika certainly does, however, exert great force in the ability to outwit and overpower humans, especially when they enter her dream domain. 

In the real world representation, the Sphinx/Oedipus split was distant and the identity of the individuals (Chiba, Konakawa) were separate from the myth; in the dream, as with a displacement, the identities of the individuals (Paprika, Osanai) are replaced by the characters of the myth and they fully embody them. In both, a male character is either helping or attacking Chiba/Paprika; in both, Chiba/Paprika are rectifying the mistakes of humans. In this way, nature or the half-woman, half-animal Sphinx, is required to correct for our hubris. Chiba is the human, Paprika is nature (the nature of dreams themselves embodied—Morpheus).



Conclusions are difficult to draw from such a chaotic and complex film that moves into spaces poorly understood by waking humans. What one might say, at least, is that the film is clear about the significance of dreams as not merely wish-fulfillment or signs of divine favor or even simple memory consolidations. Dreams are a part of our reality and dreams exist between people; they are similar to oceans—vast and unexplored—yet extremely dangerous when they flood onto the mainland of reality. Therefore, let us avoid the hubris of Oedipus and be wary of believing we understand—or have the right to tamper—the realm of dreams (and Paprika).



[i.] Freud, 144

[ii.] Freud. 143

[iii.] Freud, 145


  1. Freud, Sigmund. “On Dreams.” The Freud Reader, edited by Peter Gay, W. W. & Norton, 1989. pp. 142-172. 
  2. Kon, Satoshi, director. Paprika. Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan, 2006.