Review of Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Title: Paprika
Author:
 Yasutaka Tsutsui
Published: First published in 1993; this translation published on 5 February 2013
Publisher:
 Vintage Books
Genre: science fiction, fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 4/10

Please note: this review contains some spoilers. I haven’t revealed any details about the ending, but I have discussed a major scene from the middle of the novel.

Atsuko Chiba is gifted and stunningly beautiful psychoanalytic therapist. She and her partner Kosaku Tokita have invented and developed technology that allows therapists to view and engage with the dreams of their patients, treating them at a subconscious level. For this, Atsuko and Tokita have been nominated for a Nobel Prize. In the early days of the technology however, Atsuko worked with it illegally, secretly using the devices to treat wealthy, powerful men who couldn’t afford to have their mental problems made public. To protect herself, she created an alter ego named Paprika, disguised to look like a younger, woman. Now, the Administrator of the Institute for Psychiatric Research asks Atsuko to become Paprika the dream detective once again, in order to help a friend who has been suffering from panic attacks.

Paprika’s reappearance coincides with a variety of troubles at the Institute. Journalists have been chasing rumours about Atsuko’s love life, her identity as Paprika and the illegal activities she may have engaged in. One of the psychotherapists falls into a catatonic state after viewing the dreams of a schizophrenic patient, leading to the rumour that the dream devices make schizophrenia contagious. But in fact the therapist was deliberately driven insane in an act of sabotage by two other employees – Inui and his handsome young protégé Osanai – who believe that the dream devices are immoral and that Atsuko and Tokita should not be allowed to win the Nobel Prize.

The situation becomes dire when Tokita creates tiny but powerful new versions of the devices. These upgrades – called DC Minis – are soon stolen by Inui and Osanai who use them for sexual purposes. Because Atsuko/Paprika lives in the same building and is treating new patients late at night, her devices start to pick up on their dreams. Soon, things spiral out of control, with dreams bleeding into each other and eventually invading reality. With the help of the men in her life, Atsuko/Paprika has to battle her enemies in both the real world and the dream one, as they persist in their diabolical attempts to put an end to her research, her position at the Institute, and her chance at winning the Nobel Prize.

 

In the blurb, Paprika is lauded as Yasutaka Tsutsui’s “masterpiece”. Personally, that leaves me with no reason to seek out the rest of his work, but at least there’s a lot to discuss about this novel. The story sets up a conflict between tradition and scientific progress. The two villains, Inui and Osanai, are strict traditionalists. They have a traditional master/student relationship, with the middle-aged Inui passing on his ideas to Osanai and giving him orders for the plan to sabotage Atsuko. They believe that technology should not be used in psychotherapy:

Like his mentor Seijiro Inui, Osanai fervently believed that technology had no place in the field of psychoanalysis. Many mental illnesses in the modern era had arisen from the rampant excesses of science and technology in the first place; the very idea of using science and technology to treat them was fundamentally wrong. It violated the principles of nature.

 

he felt that Atsuko’s practice of indiscriminately accessing patients’ dreams, violating their mental space for the sake of her treatment, ran counter to all accepted morality; it far exceeded the tolerable limits of psychotherapy. If such actions were to win her the Nobel Prize, it would mean that psychiatry for the sake of humanity had been reduced to science for the sake of technology. Patients would then start to be treated as objects. The warm, human psychoanalysis that Osanai and the others had expended so much effort to learn would become discarded as old-fashioned medicine, ungrounded in theory and no better than alchemy or witchcraft. Until PT devices could be properly evaluated and used correctly, Tokita and Chiba had to be prevented from winning the Nobel Prize, whatever it took. This was Osanai’s firm conviction.

Some of this might sounds reasonable, but Osanai and Inui are most certainly not. They complain bitterly that Atsuko and Tokita are being irresponsible and inhuman in their use of the dream devices, but then steal the DC Minis and use them without concern for the consequences. Their hypocrisy becomes particularly ludicrous when they use the devices to drive people insane as part of an attempt to show how dangerous the technology is, all the while mouthing off self-righteously about how Atsuko and Tokita need to be stopped! They call the new DC Minis “the Devil’s Seed” and their vendetta has many religious overtones, with Inui actually framing the whole thing as a holy war in which he is a saviour fighting on the side of good.

But Inui’s objection is not only a moral one – several years before he lost the Nobel Prize to another scholar, and now he’s clearly very jealous of Atsuko and Tokita, particularly because he sees them as inferiors: Tokita is an obese, child-like man, and Atsuko is a woman. Which brings me to the gender issues. In keeping with their traditionalist mindsets, both Osanai and Inui hold very misogynistic views about women, undermining their intellectual abilities and objectifying their bodies:

Osanai found himself better equipped to tolerate the role of Atsuko Chiba, compared to that of Tokita. After all, she was a just woman. As a woman, she had no ideology. So it stood to reason that the only thought in her mind was to faithfully, cheerfully pursue the utility value and application of the PT devices developed by Tokita. That was what all female scientists were like anyway; nothing more could be expected of them. This was not a question of looking down on women, but rather one of recognizing their natural disposition.

 

He always felt immensely aroused after seeing Atsuko Chiba, particularly when he’d clapped eyes on her alluring figure from close quarters. It usually ended in an act of self-abuse, but today, as luck would have it, he was expecting a visit from Senior Nurse Sayama. He could use her body to relieve his physical arousal.

 

Inui had always treated women as commodities, outlets for carnal desires; he recognized no spirituality in them whatsoever.

 

In one moment of rage, Osanai goes so far as to claim that Atsuko isn’t a real woman because she fails to show the sense of submission he expects from her sex and isn’t interested in him despite his incredibly good looks:

Call yourself a woman?! You may be beautiful, but you’re no woman. The only men you can love are freaks and mental patients who let you do what you like! That’s not what I call a woman!”

It’s not just the villains who are misogynists though. Atsuko finds a similar attitude among the press, implying that it’s a great social ill as well:

to Atsuko, attending a press conference simply meant being exposed to public view in a way that was barely welcome. In her view, the journalists weren’t interested in noting some form of higher intelligence in the young, beautiful woman called Atsuko Chiba. They hated the idea that she was their intellectual superior, and merely seemed bent on finding something in her that would reinforce their preconceived image of Japanese femininity.

 

they would also happily grasp any chance of belittling Atsuko Chiba, whose exasperating combination of beauty and genius made her a suitable target for their wrath.

By defying the press, Osanai and Inui, it seems like Atsuko – and the book as a whole – would function as a critique of this misogyny and the “empire mentality” to which it is attributed. However, the book doesn’t take a progressive stance on gender or sexuality. Inui and Osanai are in a committed, loving relationship, but the book demonises their homosexuality, using it to portray the two men as vile and perverse. Atsuko/Paprika is the only major female character in a cast that has room for many more, and when she needs help it’s inevitably men – older men with wealth and power – who come to her rescue. She has their allegiance because she’s treated them, and it seems like Paprika only treats older, rich men who she inevitably finds herself attracted to. At one point, she completely undermines the intelligence for which she is so frequently praised, claiming she is successful because of her beauty rather than her brains:

“Actually, I’m not really that great a therapist. I just use my looks to help the treatment along. Maybe that’s why I’m so successful. It shouldn’t be allowed, should it.”

She’s being a bit self-deprecating, perhaps – there are long scenes describing her dream-world treatments, and she obviously uses more than her beauty. Nevertheless the men in the book, both good and bad, are always going on about how beautiful she is and how they’ve fallen in love with her as a result. It’s her body they value, rather than her mind and the novel does nothing to critique this.

Then there’s an extremely weird attempted-rape scene that I’ve struggled to unpack. Frustrated by their inability to thwart Atsuko, Inui tells Osanai that he “must rape her” because “Inui’s view, a product of empire mentality, was that a man only need rape a woman to put her under his dominion”. Osanai claims to be in love with Atsuko, and is thrilled by this order because it gives him “a perverse moral justification for acts he himself sought to commit”. He believes that raping Atsuko will “enslave her to him”. It’s appalling, but these are the villains, so at least we know the novel doesn’t endorse this view. But the problems here go deeper.

When Osanai goes to Atsuko’s apartment to rape her, she fights back, so he hits her repeatedly in the face. Realising that Osanai might “half kill her” to get what he wants, she decides to “let him rape her” to avoid getting hurt. “If she were a man” she says “she would have fought him until her dying breath. But she was a woman. She had no intention of aping a man’s senseless insistence on fighting to the death”.

Osanai responds to Atsuko’s capitulation with “relief and tearful joy” (I can imagine this only in kooky anime terms). However, Atsuko insists that he rape her “properly”, by which she means that he has to “satisfy” her. We’re told that it’s been years since Atsuko had sex with a man (dream-world sex doesn’t count) and Osanai actually presents a rather convenient opportunity to satisfy all the pent-up desire that’s been causing “an unnatural flow in her libido”. But because Osanai finally has what he wants, and because Atsuko is so devastatingly beautiful, he is too overwhelmed to perform, claiming that Atsuko’s “aura is too strong”. The two trade insults about each other’s lack of masculinity or femininity, and eventually Osanai leaves. Immediately after, Atsuko takes a relaxing bath and thinks very calmly and analytically about what just happened. She isn’t upset; instead, she starts thinking about sex with another man. Technically her face should be covered in terrible bruises and her mouth swollen from Osanai’s beating, but this seems to have been forgotten.

This is one of the most fucked up scenes I’ve come across in fiction and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. On the one hand, I can see how it could be read as subversive, and given some of the ideas about gender in the novel, that may have been the author’s intention. Osanai goes in assuming that his masculinity can be used as a weapon against a woman, but instead he’s crushed by her femininity – her decision to stop fighting, and her overwhelming beauty. Rape is very much about power, and Osanai is revealed to be utterly pathetic. Atsuko isn’t even shaken let alone enslaved or defeated. She emerges victorious, analyses the situation, and dismisses it.

And yet, everything about this feels so wrong. Atsuko thwarts Osanai firstly by becoming passive. She stops fighting, undresses, and positions herself on the couch. This, combined with her beauty, is what undoes Osanai. Atsuko didn’t plan his defeat; if anything she’s just lucky to accidentally exploit his weaknesses. In the meantime, we see a female character plagued with some of the biggest problems in the depiction of women in the media – the association of passivity with femininity and women being reduced to and valued for their beauty and little else. This might be what saves Atsuko, but it reinforces misogynistic stereotypes. There are also the sickening ideas that rape is a display of masculinity and that a woman could enjoy it or want it, with the whole thing finally dismissed as relatively unimportant.

I can also critique this scene without a feminist perspective – it’s just so utterly ridiculous and implausible in terms of character. A man comes to a woman’s apartment, they argue, he hits her repeatedly in the face, tears her clothing off, and tries to force himself on her. She’s in so much pain that she agrees to stop struggling, but finds herself turned on a few moments later. I’m not going to entertain the possibility of a rape fantasy here – Atsuko doesn’t express any sexual preferences except for an attraction to wealthy, powerful older men, and Osanai is none of those things. He’s extremely handsome, but Atsuko stated before that she dislikes him. We’re expected to believe that, because she hasn’t had sex with men for a long time, she’s so horny that even a would-be rapist, who is also her enemy and a man she doesn’t like, presents an opportunity for enjoyment. It’s as if lust is just something that fills her up and must be poured out.

And the attack hardly seems to bother her. I can’t imagine anyone – male or female – being nonchalant about getting beat up and violated in their own home.  I can see this as subversive or triumphant only in the most theoretical terms. Otherwise, it just looks like bad writing. Overall, this scene is just too weird and problematic for me, and I don’t like the way it was handled.

I could actually say that about many aspects of the novel though. Reading Paprika frequently reminded me of watching anime, which, I must admit, I don’t get and seldom enjoy. Like anime, the novel is full of exaggerated or incongruous emotions, the two villains are absurdly petty, vindictive and hypocritical (not to mention stupid), there are catastrophic events that get swept under the rug, and of course there are all those disturbing ideas about gender and sexuality. I spoke to my boyfriend about this aspect of the novel, since he is a big anime fan and has watched a lot more than I have. According to him, these things – the emotions, the villains, the objectification of women – are all pretty standard features of anime. I’m happy to shrug off some of my issues with the novel as part of a cultural tradition that I simply don’t appreciate. After all, I enjoy some pretty ludicrous action and horror movies; I’m just accustomed to that brand of absurdity. But that doesn’t make me think any better of this novel, and anyway I’m far less forgiving of its issues with gender and sexuality.

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5 thoughts on “Review of Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

  1. I read this book after having enjoyed the animated movie, and found myself immediately soured on both. Just the way Paprika thinks about herself and the world raised my hackles, and reminded me of an issue I have with certain other male-written ‘strong’ female protagonists — the sense that these writers have no idea of how a woman actually thinks or feels. By the time I got to the rape scene, I probably had a bitter look on my face; I wanted to read the whole thing because of my residual loyalty to the movie but I wasn’t enjoying it at all. And the rape scene was just laughable.

    As a long-time watcher of anime and briefly a student of Japanese culture, I have to agree that many of these attitudes are ingrained into the culture, particularly the tropes involving gender and sexuality. It doesn’t translate well, and to me it felt like the writer had a brief descent into the fetishistic before getting back to the story.

    • I think I know what you mean – those female characters who are ‘strong’ in ways that fit a bland male fantasy. Like the fact that Paprika is so extremely beautiful. It’s great that she’s basically the smartest person in the room, but she uses her skills to help older wealthy men. And she helps them partly by becoming a kind of sexual fantasy for them, and uses clothing and make-up to look like a younger woman. I hate that she goes so far as to say she’s not that smart, she’s just successful because she’s hot. Based on the book I didn’t want to watch the movie at all.

      What do you mean when you say these attitudes don’t translate well – is it different in Japanese culture?

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment 🙂

      • There’s a pretty strong strain of ‘a woman’s place is to be subservient’ still existing in modern Japan, and since the culture places a huge amount of value in keeping up appearances and conforming to custom, a lot of social and business behavior still seems to fall into the zone of women-as-accessories-and-or-enablers. I’ve read about the glass ceiling that many working Japanese women find in corporations; they’re in secretary positions, serving tea, sort of modern day geisha, and can’t get any higher than that. If there is a woman in command, it will confuse and frazzle the men who have to deal with her. Sexual harassment is laughed about.

        Japan is also deeply ageist, preferring age over talent — which is an outgrowth of their old system of keeping employees in one company from the time they left school until the time they died. You joined the company, you worked there forever, there was little or no chance that you’d ever get fired… And then modernity happened, and salarymen do get fired and they have no idea how to recover from that. But executives, the older generation, the ones in power still have that ‘they’re older, they know better’ belief.

        Both of these issues, gender and age, sort of force the protagonist of this story into the Paprika guise, because this way she can have power over these older men without threatening them — she’s providing a vaguely geisha service and allowing the spotlight to be on the men, ‘serving’ them, ‘assisting’ them through their crises, and never allowing her own light to outshine theirs. Downplaying her abilities, being the younger aide and the pretty face.

        Homophobia and other sexuality issues aren’t as pervasive or as toxic, but it’s another case of conforming to custom; you’re expected to at least appear to be heteronormative. So the flamboyant gay villain stereotype plays against that, more as a transgressive thing than a sexually threatening thing like the gay villain can be in Western media. It’s still annoying.

        Ah, sorry, when I get on a topic I tend to write like I’m planning a research paper. I liked the movie a lot when I first watched it, but on the second go, I kept remembering how things were in the book — and while they weren’t like that in the movie, they still tainted my experience. It’s a shame. But I still love the soundtrack.

        • Don’t apologise, I love stuff like this 🙂 I find your interpretation of Atsuko/Paprika’s character very interesting, and it adds a dimension I hadn’t thought about. It makes her self-deprecation look more sly than subservient. The narrative doesn’t openly state that she’s trying to appear non-threatening to a traditional man (as far as I recall) so if, like me, you’re not that familiar with the culture it’s easy to assume that that’s what she really thinks of herself. Or even if you assume she’s pretending, it seems silly for her to do so, especially given the fact that she’s been nominated for a Nobel Prize.

          Instead, she could just be playing a gender game, and taking power that way as you say. It still bothers me that she admires these men so much, but then again she’s in love with Tokita, who is portrayed as fat, ugly and child-like.

          • So the question is then — is the author consciously making it so that Paprika is taking advantage of the gender box her culture stuffs her in? Or can it just be read that Paprika is more manipulative, more clever about playing her role in order to get her way, and it wasn’t necessarily the author’s intent. Is Paprika getting one over on her creator? And suddenly it’s very meta.

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