Distorted Realities

Without a doubt, Japanese literature covers a vast territory. It is an ecosystem where a diverse set of literary genres tackling different concerns thrive in harmony. Different literary movements are also prevalent. Japanese literature is basically a one-stop shop that caters to nearly every craving, interest, and curiosity. If you are interested in details of Japanese culture, from traditions to changes in social attitudes, one can read the works of prominent writers such as Yasunari Kawabata, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima, and Kenzaburō Ōe. Works of historical fiction and poetry are also ubiquitous in this part of the literary world. For a more intimate reading experience, I-novels provide glimpses into the complexities of human nature. Novels that tackle religion, death, mortality, and existentialism can be found all over Japanese literature.

Japanese literature is also riddled with stories of coming-of-age and slice-of-life, even works of young adult fiction and fantasy. Not to be outdone, under the vast umbrella of Japanese literature are works of detective, crime, and mystery fiction. Seichō Matsumoto, Tarō Hirai (better known by the pen name Edogawa Ranpo), and Keigo Higashino are among the masters of this genre. Magical realism has been, over the past few years, increasingly becoming more prevalent and popular in Japanese literature, driven mainly by the works of Haruki Murakami, one of today’s most popular writers. Murakami just recently published his fifteenth novel, 街とその不確かな壁 (Machi to sono futashika na kabe, The City and Its Uncertain Walls, 2023). It was also his first novel in six years. Manga is a popular form of literature. Postmodernist and modernist literary movements can also be found in Japanese literature.

Another literary genre that one can find in this vast literary ecosystem is science fiction. In the ambit of Japanese literature, one of the major movers of science fiction was Tsutsui Yasutaka; along with Shinichi Hoshi and Sakyō Komatsu, they were referred to as the Big Three. His works have earned him several accolades such as the prestigious Tanizaki Prize in 1987 for his novel 夢の木坂分岐点 (Yumenokizaka bunkiten, 1987). Interestingly, writing was not a path that Tsutsui wasn’t planning on taking. When he was younger, he dreamed of becoming an actor. His writing talent would, later on, be discovered by Edogawa Ranpo. Starting with works of detective fiction, he would eventually build a prolific career that spanned nearly six decades and produced a long -list of novels and short story collections.

They work towards unattainable goals and assume too much responsibility. They try to perform several tasks correctly and to the same high standard. When told that their expectations are too high, they reply that they wouldn’t be doing their job properly if they didn’t meet those expectations. And since they’ve convinced themselves that they should be able to meet them, their ears are closed to advice.

Yasutaka Tsutsui, Paprika

Among the many novels Tsutsui wrote over his career was パプリカ (Papurika). The novel was originally published in Marie Claire magazine in four parts. It appeared chronologically in the magazine’s January 1991, March 1992, August 1992, and June 1993 issues. These four parts were then published as a single volume in 1993 which was eventually translated into English by Andrew Driver. The English translation was released in April 2009 as Paprika. However, prior to being translated into English, the novel was first adapted into manga form by Reiji Hagiwara in 2003 and by Eri Sakai in 2007. Its most popular form, however, was its animated film adaptation which was released in 2006 and directed by Satoshi Kon.

Set in the future, the story of Paprika revolved around highly confidential research being conducted at the Institute for Psychiatric Research. Advances in technology have transformed the world as we know it. Along with these exponential advances were the increasing cases of mental illnesses. The correlation between technology and mental disorders was underlined in the story: Many mental illnesses in the modern era had arisen from the rampant excesses of science and technology in the first place. Enters the Institute. Cutting-edge technology has ushered in new and more advanced forms of psychotherapy, some of which are being developed and studied at the institute. One of the treatments being developed was dream monitoring and intervention. One of the leading scientists in this field was 29-year-old Doctor Atsuko Chiba (千葉敦子, Chiba Atsuko), one of many brilliant scientists working for the Institute.

In particular, Atsuko has specialized in the operation of PT devices that the Insitute has developed. These devices aid therapists and patients by providing “the subconscious of a schizophrenic as an image on a screen“. To further her research on dream monitoring, Atsuko teamed up with Kōsaku Tokita (時田浩作, Tokita Kōsaku), an equally brilliant scientist who developed the DC (Daedalus Collector) Mini, a miniaturized version of the Institute’s PT device. The DC Mini is a small patch that, when attached to the head, allows a person to enter another person’s dreams. It has another advantage over the other devices in the Institute: it can operate even without being plugged into any other device. Because of their groundbreaking research, Drs. Chiba and Tokita were frontrunners for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

This then invites the question: who was the eponymous Paprika? During a press conference, a news reporter raised the same question. Rumors have been rife about her existence in the Institute and yet very few people have met her personally. Paprika has quite a reputation for being a top-notch psychiatrist. She was shrouded in a veil of mystery that one can’t help but question the veracity of her existence. Is she a figment of one’s imagination? It turns out that the titular Paprika is the alter-ego of Atsuko, a younger version of her that she uses in order to enter and infiltrate the dreams of her patients in order to isolate the sources of their neuroses, anxieties, or other psychological maladies. This was how she earned the title of “the very best dream detective”. But because of the lack of legislation surrounding this type of technology, Paprika/Atsuko performed her treatment in secret.

“A perfectionist. The classic personality most easily prone to depression. Perfectionists make unreasonably high demands of themselves. They work towards unattainable goals and assume to much responsibility. They try to perform several tasks correctly and to the same high standard. When told their expectations are too high, they reply they wouldn’t be doing their job properly if they didn’t meet those expectations. And since they’ve convinced themselves that they should be able to meet them, their ears are closed to advice.”

Yasutaka Tsutsui, Paprika

Paprika is a multilayered story with science and technology as the overriding theme. The DC Mini was the most prominent example of this. Because the story is set in the future, zero-emission cars have also become prevalent. Another interesting subject introduced by Tsutusi was dream therapy. It is a form of psychotherapy that usually involves the analysis of different symbolisms in dreams to understand stressors. Tsutsui’s form of dream therapy, however, is more complicated. While the DC Mini seems to be beneficial, there were inherent concerns about its usage. For one, when in the wrong hands, the device can be used to precondition or alter the minds of coworkers or anyone the device was attached to. The consequences can be irreversible. Securing the device was paramount.

Sure enough, Atsuko’s greatest fear was realized when the DC Minis were stolen. Chaos immediately ensued as the perpetrators used the DC Mini for nefarious activities. They used it to enter the minds of other people, thus, they were able to perform mind control and even alter the minds of the individuals whose subconscious they entered. This also underlined very important questions vis-a-vis the use of science and technology. As science and technology continue to develop at a very quick pace, the questions of ethics and social responsibilities of these developments are inevitably raised. As the old adage goes, “that which creates can also destroy.” Where then do we draw the lines?

This unexpected development also introduced another facet of the story. Along with these developments, the novel grappled with the internal politics and conflicts that undermined the scientific community. It cannot be denied that scientists – and even writers and economists – dedicate their life to endeavors that they hope would be recognized by the Nobel Prize someday. The Nobel Prizes occupy lofty spaces that it has become the dream of many. This inevitably leads to hostile competition. Rejections are not taken kindly. This leads to envy and resentment, such as what Dr. Morio Osanai felt toward the story’s two main characters. Osanai was once up for the Nobel Prize but was bested by a foreign scientist. He bore a huge grudge and he was still yearning for that recognition.

Paprika, at its heart, was the quintessence of the age-old good versus trope which was craftily built by Tsutsui. He wrote a novel with a very promising premise which he propped with the exploration of homosexual relationships; office politics and power dynamics; traditional gender roles; definitions and contrasts of physical and inner beauty; and religious symbolism. These wonderful elements, however, were weighed down by blunders, the most prevalent of which was the hypersexualization and the rampant objectification of the Atsuko. As a character, Atsuko was liberated and exuded strong female energy. However, she was surrounded by men with carnal desires which they projected onto her; she was also the only female character. There was even one discomfiting dream sequence involving rape to which Atsuko barely showed any resistance. Boys will be boys energy was rampant.

“As a wonan, she had no ideology – so it stood to reason that the only thought in her mind was to faithfully, cheerfully pursue the utilty 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, ut rather one of recognizing their natural disposition.”

Yasutaka Tsutsui, Paprika

It was also lamentable that the novel had regressive outlooks. For a story set in the future, it had backward-looking views. For instance, the attitude towards therapy has not significantly changed: “Well, they don’t want it known they’ve been seeing a shrink, anyway.” The depiction of mental illness was also lacking, if not skewed. Women in the workplace have also not progressed, at least in Tsutsui’s vision of the future. They are forced to take the backseat behind their male colleagues because this is their natural “disposition”. There was also an unnecessary fixation on physical attributes. Fatphobia, for instance, was subtly depicted. As if to redeem himself, Tsutsui made Atsuko/Paprika – described as beautiful – fall in love with Tokita who was described as angelic, sweet, and intelligent but naive and fat. Osanai, on the other hand, was likened to a Greek statue but was a narcissist and lustful. The characters lacked complexity, a stark contrast to Tsutsui’s accessible and imaginative writing.

Overall, Paprika is a promising story, a classic good versus evil trope. Tsutsui did a commendable job of laying out the plot. In this complex and lush tapestry, he wove with his masterful writing, he grappled with seminal subjects that involve science and technology. He covered the politics and even the ethics surrounding the sciences while also examining power dynamics in the workplace. He further riddled the story with a plethora of subjects from homosexual relationships to the definitions of beauty. It was an ambitious undertaking that merged science fiction, suspense, and even romance. The imagery, particularly when reality started to merge with dreamland, was resplendent. However, many ideas and events were introduced without any context. Misogyny, fatphobia, and homophobia were all over the place. For all its bright spots, the story was undone by its flawed execution and its views.

“Yes, you should have known from the beginning. We share good and evil through our dreams. That’s why you feel nostalgic about evil. That’s preceisely why all sorts of evil are as familiar to humans as God is. It’s because there’s evil that good exists, because of the Devil that God exists. ”

Yasutaka Tsutsui, Paprika


Characters (30%) – 10%
Plot (30%) – 
Writing (25%) – 
Overall Impact (15%) – 

When I first encountered Yasutaka Tsutsui’s Paprika, it immediately rang a bell of familiarity. I was aware of an animated film with the same title. Sure enough, I learned that the 2006 film was based on the 1993 novel. I have not watched the movie yet because I am not really that much of a fan of science fiction. Nevertheless, it was this knowledge that was the primary factor in my obtaining a copy of the book. I then made the book part of my 2022 Japanese Literature Month/s. I did like the story, at first. The premise was promising, thus, holding my interest. I was also interested in the ideas introduced by Tsutsui, such as the dream analysis. However, the deeper I dig into the story of Atsuko, the more I was repelled. There were too many graphic scenes that were overpowering. Worse, Paprika shrugged them off. The attitude was appalling. Sure, the sexualization of women is common in Japanese society but the way that Tsutsui was offhanded in handling it perplexed me. The book had a very promising and interesting premise but it was undermined by blatant misogyny and homophobia. It would be a type of book that the current generation would cancel.

Book Specs

Author: Yasutaka Tsutsui ((筒井 康隆, Tsutsui Yasutaka)
Translator (from Japanese): Andrew Driver
Publisher: Vintage Contemporaries
Publishing Date: February 2013
Number of Pages: 342
Genre: Science Fiction


When prototype models for a dream-invading device go missing at the Institute for Psychiatric Research, employees soon learn that someone is using these new machines to drive them all insane. Brilliant psychotherapist Atsuko Chiba – whose alter ego is a dream detective named Paprika – realizes she is in danger She must venture into the dream world in order to fight her mysterious opponents. Soon nightmares begin to leak into daily life and the borderline between dream and reality grows unclear. The future of the waking world is at stake.

Yasutaka Tsutsui’s celebrated 1993 novel – the inspiration for the widely acclaimed anime film of the same name (“A gorgeous riot of future-shock ideas and brightly animated imagery… A mind-twisting, eye-tickling wonder,” The New York Times) – is a rollicking, wildly entertaining journey into the world of imagination.

About the Author

Yasutaka Tsutsui (筒井 康隆, Tsutsui Yasutaka) was born on September 24, 1934, in Osaka, Japan. He was the oldest of four brothers. From 1953 to 1957, he attended Dōshisha University in Kyoto where he majored in aesthetics and art. His master’s thesis focused on psychoanalysis and surrealism, themes that would characterize his works. Post-university, Tsutsui worked at a branch of the Nomura design firm, ditching his childhood dream of becoming an actor. With his brothers, he founded Null, a science fiction fanzine in 1960.

Tsutsui’s writing talent was discovered by Edogawa Rampo, the creator of the modern Japanese detective genre. Tsutsui’s first short story “O-Tasuke” (Help Me) was published in the detective fiction magazine, Hoseki. However, it was in science fiction and fantasy that Tsutsui achieved his earliest acclaim. His story Muki Sekai e (Toward the Inorganic, 1962) obtained an honorable mention in the Hayakawa Science Fiction Contest. Okon Shoten (The Death of Okon) became his first publication in Hayakawa’s prestigious science fiction magazine. Several of his works from the second half of the 1960s and the early 1970s were nominated for the Naoki Prize. Tsutsui’s works, however, never won the prize.

In 1965, Tsutsui published his first novel, 48億の妄想 48 Oku no Mōsō (4.8 Billion Delusions). His 1967 novel, 時をかける少女 Toki o Kakeru Shōjo (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) is a mainstream success and one of his most recognized works. His 1969 novel 霊長類、南へ Reichōrui, Minami-e (Primates South) was awarded the first Seiun Award for long-form fiction.  His novel 夢の木坂分岐点 Yumenokizaka Bunkiten (Dreamtree Hill Junction)  won the Tanizaki Prize in 1987. His most recent novel is モナドの領域 Monado no Ryōiki (The Monad Realm) which was published in 2015. He also received several accolades for his works such as the 1981 Izumi Kyoka Award, the 1989 Kawabata Yasunari Award, and the 1992 Nihon SF Taisho Award. In 1997, he was decorated as a Chevalier Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.