Storytelling, Imagination, and a Dash of Paprika


Up here at the Dragon Gate Inn there have been fine views of the winter woods glistening in their first coat of winter white - nothing like a pristine blue sky against a sparkling white landscape. Yet, perhaps these colors and their physical surroundings are only phantoms of my mind…that if I rushed outside, I would find sand and rolling green waves beaching themselves as palm trees gently sway in the trade winds – don’t I wish!

That reminds me of our old 4th century BCE friend Zhuangzi (莊子) and one of his most famous stories – Zhuangzi was also a storyteller. It is a fairly well known story that has something to do with the subject of this movie review, an anime review and a look at story outlining technique.

Here’s the story translated by the great Burton Watson (note: “Chuang Chou” is Zhuangzi’s full name using a different Romanization system):

Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.

paprika blue.jpg

Butterflies, especially blue butterflies, dreams and reality, and their transformations abound in the remarkable anime film, Paprika by Japanese director Satoshi Kon. I guess I first came across it through the New York Times movie review by Manohla Dargis (, who wrote:

In Paprika a gorgeous riot of future-shock ideas and brightly animated imagery, the doors of perception never close. A mind-twisting, eye-tickling wonder, this anime from the Japanese director Satoshi Kon bears little relation to the greasy, sticky kid stuff that Hollywood churns out, those fatuous fables with wisecracking woodland creatures selling lessons in how to be a good child so you can grow up to be a good citizen. Model behavior isn’t on the menu in Paprika, and neither are dinky songs and visuals. Here, when a woman sprouts a pair of wings, she doesn’t only flit about like Tinker Bell; she’s also pinned captive to a table, a man’s hand slithering under her skin.

I could sit back and try to tell you the plot and describe the characters, but you can get that from the Dargis review and Netflix has the movie. So I’ll leave all that to you. I’d like to first say that I love what Satoshi Kon was trying to do by exploring the boundaries between fantasy (dreams, if you will) and what we think of as reality (perhaps, our normal waking state – though for many, the “normal” waking state is anything but “normal”). I really admire what certain Japanese anime films are doing – they exhibit awe inspiring imaginations. Even more interesting is that Paprika the movie is based upon Paprika the novel! And that’s another interesting aspect of this movie, the relationship between film and literature in the expression of imagination.


Along with the film, the Paprika DVD also contains a lot of material about the making of the movie and the relationship between the written and filmed versions. There are interviews with Kon and the author of the novel, Yasutaka Tsutsui on the DVD, but most interesting to me were Kon’s comments on his creative process. Reviews and interviews make it clear that Kon was deeply interested in dreams and was using his work to explore ideas about dreams.

In one of the interviews, Kon refers to his interest in and influence from the science fiction novelist, Philip K. Dick and how much he admires Blade Runner; there is even a scene in Paprika that pays homage to that great sci-fi movie. Kon also refers to the great influence that another sci-fi movie had on him, Slaughterhouse 5, based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel of the same title. And in the commentary on his film, Kon acknowledges the influence of the great contemporary Japanese fiction writer, Haruki Murakami.

It’s clear that all of these literary and movie influences and Mr. Kon’s own work are concerned with probing the boundaries between dreams/fantasy and reality, as was Zhuangzi. And what further amazed me in working on this piece was that AFTER I had written the introduction, I found more interviews with Mr. Kon. In the one by Bill Aguiar for TokyoPop there is this very relevant exchange:

Aguiar: At the Smithsonian there is a famous picture of a philosopher looking at a butterfly after he awakes after dreaming of a butterfly, wondering if he was dreaming of the butterfly or was the butterfly dreaming of him. Considering that there are many butterflies in the film, was it an influence?

Kon: I like the meaning of that art. It is that wondering about the self that influences my work.

Of course, the painting is of Zhuangzi’s story. But besides the obvious connection across the millenniums between our Chinese philosopher friend and Paprika, the other aspect that I found worthy of commenting was something Mr. Kon said in the DVD interviews that relates to the writer’s use of imagination in probing imagination. Kon described his plotting process for the screen writing and plotting the film version. Of course, he had the novel as a basic guideline, but as he and the author, Mr. Tsutsui, agree there are aspects of the novel that don’t transfer into the film medium and vise versa.

So Mr. Kon had to do his own version of the story, the movie version. In plotting that out, he said that he never knew what the ending would be until he got there. That he worked in such a way that each step was a surprise to him, that he didn’t want to be bound to a set ending for he felt that would make the movie too predictable for the audience and thus not compelling. Interestingly enough, the film's music composer, Mr. Susumu Hirasawa, seems to work the same way. He noted in the movie commentary that he saw this project as a way to watch his subconscious work. No wonder the movie turned out to be such a wonderful combination of sight and sound!

But what I find so fascinating is their way of working, their creative approach. In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby advocates exactly the opposite approach: set your ending FIRST and then work your story toward it. The author here is advocating the safe way of creating a story. He denies that this approach kills the spontaneity that Kon and Hirasawa so cherish. Truby argues that when you know your ending, you can do whatever you want in the story on the way to it and if you happen to take a wrong turn, a dead-end, you can easily get back on track because you know where you are going.

I find this all very interesting because in creative writing there seems to be two basic opposing approaches to plotting: outline or no outline. Writers seem inevitably to fall on either side and just as inevitably give the same pro and con arguments for doing so. Basically, they are similar to Truby and Kon’s positions. Even more remarkable is the fact that Truby is the screenplay writer for Shrek. I’m not getting into a comparison between that movie and Paprika – it wouldn’t be fair, as it should be clear where my “prejudices” fall. Rather, I’d like to comment on how I do it.

I take a middle path approach to plotting, as one writer described it, like a car driving along a country road at night. The headlights of the car can only shine so far ahead, but as you move forward new sections of the road are revealed. So the headlights are my outlining. I outline my plot up to a point, say the next chapter, then write and see how things go. After completing the chapter, a new field of vision is revealed. If I’m not where I expected to be, then I make compensations for that in the next outline. I use my gut feeling as to where I should go next and have some idea of what’s ahead. So I don’t create an ironclad outline, yet, I do have an idea of what the ending will be – at least, the general area that I’m heading toward. This way, I like to think, I’m combining the best of these two basic approaches, preserving the “safety net” of the outline, yet allowing for the spontaneity of the explorer.

However, I always taught my creative writing students to choose for themselves. It is most important that the writer feel comfortable with the methods they use to write. Try both methods; see which one makes the writing flow. If neither works, then try combining them. There’s that famous quote from W. Somerset Maugham, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” “Do what works,” I said that. And if you get a chance see Paprika, when you watch it take the director’s advice, just sit back and let the images wash over you, let go and let your subconscious take you away. Then the next time you watch it you can try and figure it out, logically. In the end, just enjoy it! The same for your writing. Who knows, maybe you’ll get to the point where you’re not sure who’s writing the story - you or your characters! Let me know what you think.