The hoariest of selling points for motion pictures is their resemblance to dreams. Hollywood, in particular, has gotten a great deal of mileage over the years out of the word and the bouquet of meanings it conjures. Countless filmmakers have tried their hand at capturing the essence of the dream state on film. From the beginning, animation has been a significant tool in this effort, with the likes of Émile Cohl and Winsor McCay putting fantastic shapeshifting into their early hand-drawn efforts. Stop-motion animation has often been shorthand for the bizarre and macabre. Two feature films from the first few years of the twenty-first century tackle the connection directly: Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) and Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006). With characters who engage in lucid dreaming — entering dreamscapes with the awareness that they aren’t real — these films manage to make discrete observations about the nature of dreams, and of course delve into human nature in a more complete sense as well.
Waking Life is the perfect movie to discover in college, as I did. It advocates for curiosity, a receptiveness to various ideas, as the key to a worthwhile life. The bare-bones narrative concerns a young man who has a dream, thinks he wakes up but doesn’t, and then embarks on a long series of dream scenarios and false awakenings, gradually coming to worry that it will never end. He worries for a little while, anyway, but one of the film’s most pungent observations of dream consciousness is that the dramatic stakes can fluctuate. Besides, the young man (played by Wiley Wiggins) keeps finding himself in interesting company, so what’s the harm? The spatially and temporally disconnected scenes consist of monologues and dialogues, primarily of a philosophical nature. A few specifically relate to dreaming, but larger questions regarding what makes us human, the nature of communication, and what the future holds are predominant. In other words, this is a movie about people talking, but the animation is crucial to its uncanny effect. Linklater shot his actors in live-action and then used rotoscoping to animate the film, with the animators employing a variety of styles to make each sequence feel like its own reality. Background objects shift around and morph to literally illustrate the points the characters are making. The raconteurs don’t all have the same perspective on life, but the abiding message is a quiet humanism and a genial befuddlement at existence.
Paprika takes a lot more interest in its narrative. Both of these movies are about the ways in which dreams bring the human mind into deeper communion with itself, but if Waking Life focuses on ideas and beliefs, Paprika plays with the realm of imagination and desire. An exceptionally odd science fiction romance, the film introduces futuristic technology that can make dreamscapes navigable. In fact, the connection between movies and dreams is made even more explicit in this film, not only with references to genre and film grammar, but with characters literally watching dreams play out on screens (although these characters might themselves be dreaming). In the story, therapists use a device to enter their patients’ dreams and study them. The problem is the potential for mind control and psychosomatic harm if the device falls, as it naturally does, into the wrong hands. The dream characters in Waking Life are highly articulate, but when characters in Paprika fall under the sway of a mysterious dream-hijacker, they start spouting off nonsense sentences that might be familiar if you happen to keep a notepad by your bedside. Paprika is also committed to the fluid nature of a dream’s terrain. In the opening sequence, the transitions from circus to jungle to train car to bandstand to hallway are seamless and intuitive. Following this is the title sequence, in which Paprika, the dream-projection alter-ego of the main character, Dr. Atsuko Chiba (Megumi Hayashibara), manipulates the dream environment by freezing traffic in place and leaping into the picture on a pedestrian’s T-shirt. As the plot develops, the dream world begins encroaching on reality.
These films draw on their respective countries’ traditions of “animation for adults” — still something of an oddity in film history, but definitely not a stunt in either case. In addition to the cultural differences, a gulf opens up when considering a particular historical event that occurred between the releases of the two films. Waking Life has certain identifiable characteristics of a “pre-9/11” movie. The fear for the future that’s expressed a number of times is very vague and millennial. The political statements tend to equivocate. One character exults in the possibilities for entertainment and pleasure inherent in dreams as soon as we get them figured out, and it isn’t hard to extrapolate a general worldview from this. Another character exhorts the protagonist not to be bored with his life, a moment that feels more like a relic than anything else in the film. Paprika, again, is more genre-driven and thus more urgent, but its specific “post-9/11” status rests on its allusions to cyberterrorism. Like movies, the internet is proposed as another extension of the human mind — the most vulnerable extension of all. The age-old sci-fi warning — that the fusion of humanity with our inventions might lead to enslavement and societal collapse — is given contemporary resonance. But each of these films is more concerned with the plights of individual characters than with the state of the world. No matter how weird things get, making sure the protagonist ends up okay is always a priority.
Both films acknowledge the duality of a person’s self-image. Thus the animation is even more appropriate, as the projections of characters are built up from what they think they look like. The participation of the main character in Waking Life vacillates throughout the film. Sometimes he speaks, sometimes he doesn’t, and on a couple occasions it’s unclear whether he’s even there. He doesn’t articulate his “false awakenings” predicament until well into the film, and even then he acknowledges that he’s mostly content to listen. One interaction, with a man on the street, crystallizes the nature of the dream projection: “You haven’t met yourself yet.” If the person we see isn’t the real him, then of course all the academics, artists, and oddballs we encounter are merely projections too. Just after that scene on the street, the protagonist meets a young woman he had briefly seen at the beginning of the film, when both were animated in a different style. He doesn’t recognize her. In Paprika, the Jekyll-and-Hyde duality of Dr. Chiba and Paprika is an interesting application of the concept. The buttoned-down psychologist lets herself become something of a pixie superhero in the dream world. A homicide detective struggling with bad dreams meets Dr. Chiba and intuits that she and Paprika are one and the same. Reconciling the two halves of herself ends up not only saving the day but opening her up to falling in love with her corpulent co-worker.
The quest to make a truly dreamlike film is an endless one because the results can only be incomplete and sometimes gnomic. Filming any idea, however abstract, renders it concrete and immutable. We can say that aspects of Linklater’s and Kon’s dreams remind us of our own, but the time always comes to consider the images before us and determine their import, which is decidedly a daytime activity. I can’t say that any dream I’ve ever had was animated, and I haven’t experienced lucid dreaming or recurring nightmares either. That doesn’t matter, though, because each is a compelling metaphor. These movies are dreams, but before that they’re artful explorations of all our internal battles, our defining memories, and just who we think we are.