Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

In the near future, scientists will have figured out a way to monitor and view dreams through psychotherapy devices. With the help of this technology, they will be able to interpret and provide therapy through intervention and thus will be able to fix whatever ails us. This is the setting of Paprika, the Japanese sci-fi psycho-thriller written by author Yasutaka Tsutsui.

Paprika is the alter-ego of psychotherapist/researcher Atsuko Chiba. By day, Atsuko works alongside her colleagues in the Institute for Psychiatric Research, collecting dreams from patients with mental disorders and analyzing the contents of these dreams for further study. By night, as Paprika, she takes the research a step further. Paprika actually meets with patients and appears in their dreams to help them figure out what these dreams actually mean and how they can be resolved to stop the patients’ anxiety or depression, etc.

Dream collection is made possible with a psychotherapy (PT) device called a gorgon. The author describes it almost as a shower cap that has highly sensitive electrodes able to detect brain waves and then generate the images through a central processor. It’s called a gorgon after the infamous creature in Greek mythology, since the early versions had cables all over place, thus resembling the monster. Once the dreams have been collected, the patient and therapist can go and watch the dreams later, with the therapist prompting questions on what certain images mean to the patient and why certain images recur more than others.

Trouble starts when Atsuko’s colleague, Kousaku Tokita, discovers that prototypes of the updated version of the dream collector, the DC Mini, have been stolen. The DC Mini comes with the same features as the original machine, but you don’t need to be in a clinical setting to use it. As a portable device, the user can be anywhere to infiltrate the dreams of the person who’s also using the DC Mini. If a person with a stronger will is on one end, the person on the receiving end will be bombarded with horrifying and trauma-inducing images that could possibly break their psyche.

And it’s up to Atsuko (via Paprika) to find out who stole the DC Mini and to stop them from destroying the fragile wall between dreams and reality before it’s too late.

To paraphrase from one of my friends, Paprika is like the first Tron movie: it really isn’t about the sci-fi and tech, but it really is just about corporate espionage. The end goal of the novel is to find out who stole the devices, to retrieve them, and to keep the Institute’s leadership in the status quo. The discussion of the ethics of dream intervention and of the nature of mental diseases is touched on very lightly, if at all. If anything, this novel makes it seem as if mental disorders are something readily fixable or induced merely through dreams and thought displacement.

I have a few problems with this novel, and this is just one of them. This book takes a very Freudian and Jungian approach to diagnosis and treatment. Paprika examines two patients who have dreams about their pasts, and in a course of a few sessions, she figures out that their mental health problems are caused by unresolved incidents in their pasts. Boom, that easy. Anxiety and depression solved. Yeah, I don’t know about that.

I also have a problem with how women, including Atsuko, are depicted in this novel. Atsuko is a top female researcher in a field mostly occupied by men, she’s in line to win a Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology, and not only is she hated for being smart, but she’s even doubly hated for being beautiful and being an object of every man’s lust. And with the theft of the DC Mini devices, she’s the first person to be called on since she’s the best person to navigate and intervene through dreams without being fully subsumed in them. But even with these skills, the author doesn’t emphasize her intelligence, but rather, her beauty. Everyone immediately falls in love with her as soon as they see her. Her clients, the other doctors, and even her boss want to get into her pants, either as Atsuko or Paprika (or both, if possible). The other women in novel are described as ugly, or fat, and are just passable as objects of sexual gratification, since Atsuko isn’t available. I think this may be the most misogynistic novel that I’ve read in my life, and that really surprises me since I’m aware that earlier stories by this author weren’t as bitter on women as this one is.

I do have to admit that having read this novel, I was better able to understand what was going on in the anime adaptation by Satoshi Kon. I want to write a post about the movie separately, but it’s one of the rare occasions where the movie is vastly better than the book.

I think this book failed for me on various levels. I came into this novel not believing that dream analysis could be a viable form of psychological treatment, and the events of this novel further convinced me that not only is it not a possible idea, but it actually could end up being totally disastrous if it was possible. So, as a sci-fi tract, it already didn’t succeed. The author’s treatment of women, the mentally ill, homosexuals, and other marginalized groups also soured me on the whole reading experience. If you have a strong enough stomach for misogyny and gratuitious sexuality, give this book a try but then watch the movie after.

This post is part of #RRSciFiMonth hosted by RinnReads

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6 thoughts on “Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

  1. Paprika is one of my favorite anime movies, I had no idea it was a book first. But the book sounds, eh, not as good as the movie actually. I don’t remember too much gratuitous sex or misogyny in the movie, maybe I was too mesmerized by the music and the imagery. Please do a post on the movie!

    • The movie had one implied rape scene, but it’s not as bad as the book. Satoshi Kon really took great strides in making the anime movie his own. I just posted a post about watching the movie, it’s the one just above the book review.

  2. Pingback: On Rewatching and Second Chances | Tokyo Jupiter

  3. Okay, the plot of the book sounds brilliant – and I’ve heard a LOT of good things about the anime – but it’s such a shame there’s a lot of misogyny. I’m definitely going to watch the anime but may rethink the book…

    • The anime works without the book, but it’s easier to understand the politics having read the book…if that makes sense?

      Yeah, I’ve become really sensitive to misogyny or racism in literature. I can be a bit tolerant if it’s a product of its time (like Heart of Darkness, for instance, which is still awful anyway), but Paprika was written in 1993 so it feels very odd to read something where the tone of the book is filled with so much hate and dispersion for women.

  4. I wandered here from Rinn Reads.

    Yours is not the first spotty review I’ve read of Paprika. I haven’t seen the anime, though it’s on my watch list, but I have read a fair amount of Tsutsui. He’s a weird dude. He says unforgivable things about women periodically, but in my experience is an equal opportunity offender. Then he turns around and writes something sweetly innocuous like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. I couldn’t begin to guess what’s going on in his head.

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