Is Inception a rip-off of Paprika?
When I’m watching films that adapt the same story or concept as previous films, or are clearly influenced by other films, I don’t think of them in terms of which is a better product. That definitely becomes a factor later on, but I like to think of the works as independent of each other before I make the obvious comparison. Which is why I like both Christopher Nolan’s 2010 Inception and Satoshi Kon’s 2006 Paprika.
A common complaint about Inception is that it blatantly copies Paprika, and several sources claim that Nolan was inspired by Paprika, but after some searching I couldn’t find a direct quote from Nolan or any other direct evidence. Honestly though, it doesn’t matter, because the copying really only goes as far as parts of the premise and imagery. There are moments in Inception that are live-action versions of Paprika, but there are moments where Inception takes inspiration from Man With a Movie Camera, Twin Peaks, and Blood of a Poet as well. Cobbling together a new product from pieces of old ones is not ripping off per se, but it can be derivative. However, I don’t think that Inception is derivative.
What’s the same:
Both movies have a cast of characters using a dream machine that allows people to share dreams, and large portions of the movie take place inside dreams, but other than that, these plot points are different. They do share imagery, though. When Cobb explains to Ariadne how dreams and dream construction works, she touches a piece of it and it shatters like glass. In Paprika, the titular character learns that the plot is happening and notices the dream is falling apart, and she touches it and it shatters.
In the beginning of Paprika, a cop named Konokawa is dreaming of a man frozen mid-fall in a hotel hallway. In Inception, Arthur has a mid-air fight in a hotel hallway. There are a few other small homages to Paprika, but that’s all they are—an homage.
While both movies have a dream machine, they use said machine differently. In Paprika, the DC Mini is intended as a therapeutic device. It was conceived so two people can literally share a dream, and funded so psychiatrists can help their patients work through their subconscious issues. The nameless dream machine in Inception was developed by the military and later used for corporate espionage.
The plot of Inception has the main character Cobb assembling a team to infiltrate Robert Fischer’s dream and implant an idea into his subconscious in exchange for Cobb’s amnesty. The antagonists to this are Mal, the manifestation of Cobb’s guilt in the form of his dead wife, and Robert Fischer’s subconscious. The plot for Paprika revolves around Doctor Inui using the DC Mini to merge dreams and reality to gain mobility and take over the world. The protagonist is Doctor Atsuko Chiba, whose dream persona is the polar opposite Paprika.
Then there’s the overall aesthetic. Paprika has an advantage in conveying dreamlike nonsense because it’s animated. There’s a scene where a henchman has Paprika pinned to a table like a butterfly. He sinks his hand into her pelvis, moves his hand upward, and rips open Paprika to reveal Chiba beneath. The whole scene is unnerving and creepy, and would be almost impossible to pull off in a live-action movie. With a clever combination of practical and CGI effects, something similar could be done, but I don’t think it would be as effective.
In Inception, the colors are more muted, and the CG is more realistic. Even in the layers of dreams, everything makes some sense, and when the dream world is being reconstructed by Ariadne, nothing is totally unreasonable. A city spontaneously folding itself into a right angle will never happen in the real world, but it’s more believable than a giant baby sprouting forth from a giant toy robot and aging as she breathes in the false reality created by the villain. Which brings me to…
The overall effect
Paprika is a surrealist film. Paprika is about reality literally merging with dreams. It’s about the difference between perception and fact, and it’s about what is and what can be. Inception plays with these ideas, but that’s not the point of the movie. Nolan tries to blur the lines between these concepts, while Kon claims that the lines never existed. Paprika is chaotic and non-sequitur, but has a clear ending. It’s bright and kitschy, and heavy with symbolism.
Inception is the opposite. Inception is not a surrealist film—the plot is too linear, and the mechanics of the dreamscape make too much sense. It’s a postmodern one. The ending is a question mark that’s inspired many fan theories, but it’s mostly comprehensible. There’s a school of thought that believes Inception to be about filmmaking, and that the movie is a metaphor for the creative process. This self-awareness, this meta-reflection of a film analyzing the process of filmmaking through the construction of a false reality is postmodern. It is art that’s aware of its artistry.
This is why I can’t say with conviction that Nolan ripped off Kon. Both take the idea of shared dreams and run in completely different directions with it. One movie has a main character reconciling herself with a torrent of repressed emotions, and the other has a main character overcoming his wife’s suicide and the role he played in it. For that reason, both movies can be vaguely similar but vastly different, and still equally excellent.