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Monday, April 7, 2014

Novel Review: Paprika

Paprika
Author: Yasutaka Tsutsui
Vintage
342 Pages (paperback ed.)
When prototype models of a dream-invading device go missing at the Institute for Psychiatric Research, it transpires that someone is using them to drive people insane. Threatened both personally and professionally, brilliant psychotherapist Atsuko Chiba has to journey into the world of fantasy to fight her mysterious opponents. (Source: Vintage)
Some spoilers for the novel's story are within.
Scientists are finding new ways to treat mental illnesses every day. Some treatments border on the science-fiction. So what about a device that enters the dreams of a patient, can let the person treating them directly access the other's subconscious world and alter it? When the line between reality and dreams blur, where will science stand? Paprika, the basis for the Satoshi Kon film of the same name, tackles these massive issues and somehow manages to come out on the other side intact. If anything, Paprika is a battle to control reality as we know it.

In Paprika, the above mentioned Institute for Psychiatric Research works at treating people with serious debilitating mental illnesses, often by working through their subconscious. Atsuko Chiba is their star psychotherapist, partly because of her alter ego, the dream detective Paprika. Paprika has the ability to walk through a patient's dream with them and see what others can't. It is her gift that makes the Paprika role a highly demanded one. Unfortunately, enemies on the inside of the IPR have Atsuko and her colleagues in their cross hairs, and inner office politics quickly turn violent and deadly, leaving Atsuko to have to defend herself on multiple fronts in order to save her job and her life.
Atsuko Chiba is our main protagonist and she is annoyingly perfect. She can do no wrong, and when she does make a mistake, she emasculates herself so much over it you quickly forgive her. Literally every man who comes in contact with her, patient or colleague or otherwise, begins to fall in love with her. She's clever and brilliant and beautiful and is up for a Nobel Prize along with her partner in studies, Kosaku Tokita, who is also the man Chiba is in love with.
There's also the not-so-small matter than Chiba on multiple occasions has sex with her patients, which last time I checked the world of therapy rather frowned upon. It is called 'sex therapy' but let us be real for a moment. It's not. But, as Paprika, she's good at her job - the best, really - so it's forgiven.
But Chiba, whether as herself or as Paprika, makes for a highly competent heroine. She can readily dodge the pitfalls of her enemies, recognizes traps when she sees them, and is studied enough on dream analysis that she can lead her patients through their own troubled minds with ease. She is also someone who can handle high profile clients with sensitivity - which is good, since her two major clients in his novel are a businessman of a large company and a high ranking official in the city police department.
Our antagonists, Doctors Seijiro Inui and Morio Osanai, are also part of the IPR. Unfortunately, they seem to lack depth compared to Chiba and Tokita and their clients. At best, Inui and his subordinate Osanai are jealous colleagues hellbent on destroying Chiba's life and her work for a greater good. At worst, they are described as evil gay lovers who only care about their own well-being and their sex lives. This novel paints their only LGBT characters as nasty brute men with a tendency to take everything they want by force, and I won't lie and say that isn't troublesome to me.
The best comparison I can serve for the Inui/Osanai relationship is that of Light Yagami and Mikami in the manga/anime series Death Note. Mikami is utterly subservient to Yagami and follows his will as Kira to the letter. Yagami is fully aware of Mikami's slavish tendencies and manipulates them to his advantage, although not to the extreme that Inui does with Osanai. Plus, Inui does see himself as a god type, complex with god-sized complex, and Osanai fits nicely into the role as lovesick worshiper. It's a nasty relationship but it's the one we're given.
As far as the writing of Paprika goes, it's actually very good. Yasutaka Tsutsui has a solid handle on creating scenes that dissolve the boundaries between our inner worlds and the conscious world around us. Several scenes can pass before you fully realize whether it is their reality or a dream that is occurring. We become as lost as Paprika, fighting for a foothold on sanity as Inui manipulates from behind the curtain. Through this, we can understand the frustration and the maddening sensation of not being sure whether you are sleeping, awake, or stuck in a place between the two.
I'm no scientist, but the science of Paprika is equally fascinating. The DC Mini, which is held as the height of psychotherapy technology at its birth, makes it easier to enter the minds of patients while they dream. The reader gets to see the progress of technology throughout the novel that makes them appreciate even more how revolutionary Tokita's brain child really is. For a novel written in the early nineties, Paprika might have been on to something. I actually have several friends currently studying psychology and the treatment of abnormal behavior. It would be interesting to get a real world take on whether or not psychotherapy is anywhere near where the Institute for Psychiatric Research of Tokita and Chiba are.

Paprika is not a flawless novel by any means. It has weird hang-ups about sex and homosexuality and the main protagonist is a Japanese Mary Sue in every sense (she can literally bend realities!). There are also several scenes of attempted rape, which I would be remiss not to mention. But it is a fascinating insight into what may be the future of treating mental illnesses and a cautionary tale on the dividing line between our dreams and our daily reality. That line was put there for a good purpose. What really happens when we chip away at it? According to Paprika, nothing good at all.