PAPRIKA — ** 1/2 — Animated feature; in Japanese, with English subtitles; rated R (violence, brief sex, brief nudity, vulgarity, brief gore)

Satoshi Kon isn't nearly as well-known as his fellow Japanese animators Hayao Miyazaki (the Oscar-winning 2002 fantasy "Spirited Away") or Katsuhiro Otomo (the 1988 cult classic "Akira") — even to many American anime fans.

Yet in his home country, Kon is on equal footing, thanks to such cartoon hits as "Millennium Actress," "Perfect Blue" and "Tokyo Godfathers."

His latest is "Paprika," a handsomely animated science-fiction thriller, which may bring to mind the 1995 cyberpunk anime film "Ghost in the Machine." But this one is a bit perplexing and bizarre, begging comparisons to the muddled 2004 sequel, "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence."

The title character is actually the dream-world alter ego of Atsuko Chiba, a psychological researcher. She and her fellow scientists have made a breakthrough, with a device called the "DC Mini" that allows them to enter the dreams of others.

Using the device, Atsuko moonlights as Paprika, a self-described "dream detective" who's been aiding a real-life police investigator, Konakawa, on a seemingly unsolvable case.

As it turns out, Atsuko/Paprika may need Konakawa's help with an even bigger problem. One of her colleagues has apparently stolen the DC Mini and is using the technology to attack people while they sleep.

1 comment on this story

Though the premise seems fairly straightforward, the film does get a bit convoluted. A handful of dream-within-a-dream sequences are supposed to be startling, but they instead become confusing.

However, the mostly 2-D animation is top-notch quality, and it is a fascinating idea (one that's better expounded upon in the source material, Yasutaka Tsutsui's novel). And Kon is clearly a classic-film buff, as witnessed by his nods here to the "Tarzan" movies and the 1953 romantic comedy "Roman Holiday."

"Paprika" is rated R for violent and sometimes disturbing imagery (including animated shootings and violence against women), brief sexual contact and related violence, brief female nudity, some sexually suggestive language (references and slang terms), and brief gore. Running time: 91 minutes.