You look in the mirror and find that one of your arms has been replaced by a purple tentacle. Or you glance at a clock and find that the numbers have been swapped for alien symbols. Or maybe you just look closely at your surroundings and realize that everything is brighter and stranger than it usually is. You’re dreaming, and now that you know you are, you can do anything you want. But you’re sixteen, so all you want is to undress that girl from your history class. You conjure her and begin to re-enact your daydreams. Her body is warm, you can feel her breath, but in an instant she’s gone, the walls melt away, and a monster looms over you. You’ve lost control.
When the lucid dreams I enjoyed as a teenager turned into nightmares, I stopped sleeping. I stayed up all night staring at the television, the volume as loud as it could be without waking the neighbors. Denied their nocturnal spotlight, my nightmares seeped into the daylight. Columns of spiders crawled up walls at the edges of my vision. I constantly felt like I was being followed. Sometimes, as I sat up all night, a shadowy golem kept me company. I never looked directly at it, but I’m certain it was the most hideous thing I could possibly imagine.
Have you ever realized in the middle of a dream that what’s happening isn’t real? That’s lucid dreaming. Experienced lucid dreamers can manipulate their dreams to live out their fantasies—or their fears. No art form is better positioned to explore the pleasures and perils of lucid dreaming than filmmaking, and no film has illuminated the connection between movies and dreams for more people than Inception. What’s disappointing is how few people have seen Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, a strikingly similar and arguably superior treatment of the same theme that was released in Japan four years before Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster. Both films rely on a device that enables people to enter others’ dreams, and both include elevators used to travel through them. More importantly, the two movies share a character: a woman so skilled at lucid dreaming that she can bend others’ dreams to her will.