And now, for the space of this review, I shall geek out, as I have a hard time describing Mind Game without collapsing into blathering fandom. So be it. It is certainly one of the greatest animated films I’ve ever seen — it tells a story that is life-affirming and inspiring, and uses animation in an absolutely unparalleled way to do it. It’s cosmic, comic, manic, slapstick and tragic — sometimes all at once — and never stumbles even as it dances from one feeling to the next. I don’t think I’ve ever consciously described a film as a “feel-good experience,” but Mind Game earns the label. It rejuvenated me.
Many people do not seem to be interested in animated films that aren’t by Disney, Pixar or Dreamworks. They think of animation as a genre, not a mode of expression, which is a mistake. Animation lets you do things that aren’t possible in live action — not simply physically, which is obvious enough, but also in terms of what kinds of feelings and reactions you can evoke from the audience. Mind Game wants to do exactly that, and in a way that’s full of real wonder and joy. People who make a steady diet of glum, ironic entertainment will probably hate it — but if they do, I pity them. They’re missing out.
Nishi bumps into Myon, his old high-school sweetheart, and
the fireworks start to burst in his heart all over again.
The first few minutes of the film give no hint as to what’s going on; it’s a jumble of disconnected moments, sense impressions, flash shots, and cross-cutting, all of which is from things we will eventually see in context. (Takashi Miike did much the same thing in City of Lost Souls and Blues Harp, two of my favorite movies of his.) Then, gradually, characters emerge from the murk — first and foremost, Nishi, a frustrated twenty-something who had dreams of becoming a manga artist. He wanted to create something grand, but couldn’t think of doing much more than catering to his audience’s tastes for smut (especially since he was rather fond of porn himself). He’s doing crap jobs like handing out fliers to make ends meet.
One night he blunders into an old high-school girlfriend on the subway. Her name is Myon , and just like that all of his nascent, smoldering desire for her comes flooding back. He doesn’t just want her, but wants to do right by her — although, how much can he do when he’s still got no real career worth speaking of and has little more than boundless enthusiasm to call his own? “Same old Nishi,” Myon says, sounding both affectionate and condescending. Yes, she likes him too, but despairs of him ever making anything of himself. As a gesture of sympathy, or maybe pity, she invites him to the restaurant where her sister Yan works.
Nishi grows all the glummer (or is it determined?) when he discovers that Myon has a beau of her own, someone who’s not only taller and better-looking and more tanned, but also with more of a life. Then a pair of yakuza show up, ostensibly to extort loan money from Myon’s dad. The more kill-crazy, trigger-happy of the pair fixates on tormenting Nishi, shoves his gun into the young man’s tuckus, and blows his brains out — but Nishi doesn’t stay dead. Through sheer force of will on his part, he returns his spirit to earth a few seconds before his death, blows away the thug all on his own, seizes Myun and Yan, hijacks the other gangster’s car, and runs off.
Mind Game announces its wild style and heedless passion long before Nishi takes a bullet. The imagery has an exhilaration I’ve seen in almost no other animated production — it switches freely between computer graphics, hand drawings, manipulated photos of the real world, and various other media, but it never feels arbitrary or jumbled. When Nishi pledges his love to Myon, their faces become real people’s faces — real people that eerily resemble their cartoon versions — while fireworks explode in the background. Likewise, when Nishi dies and sees God, he sees a polymorphous, ever-changing figure that looks like a closet-cleaning of the character sketches for Dead Leaves.
Nishi and the girls go on a wild car chase with more gangsters in tow, take a leap off a bridge, and end up inside the belly of a whale. There they encounter an old man who’s also been trapped there for the better part of thirty years and has set up housekeeping. Miserable and smelly as it may be in there, the old man’s still happy to be alive, and has scavenged a living for himself out of the amazing array of junk sucked into the whale’s stomach. The other three eventually learn to emulate his example, and find happiness even while still trapped in there. But it isn’t the outside world, and the four of them blend their strengths to make an escape while it may still be possible.
Talking about the plot of Mind Game doesn’t come close to expressing the infectious joy that it delivers. The movie is about feelings, not plot, but it is ultimately (I think) about how your life is the sum total of all the choices you make in it. Feeling bad is a choice; doing nothing is a choice. They are no less legitimate than feeling good, or doing something — but if you are aware that such a choice is possible, it becomes easier to make the right choices. Nishi never lacks for spirit, even when he’s clearly got nothing going for him — but, like the others, he has to l earn to not simply feel for his own sake. Whatever he does has to be more than just for himself.
Synchronicity and wonder rule the universe of Mind Game, where chance meetings
can change the course of the world and plants make off with edible poop. No, really.
There are a number of things that people found frustrating. The nonlinear opening, for instance, turns some folks off right away — but if you are patient, all of the pieces assemble themselves in the correct order, and you see how the story really is supposed to be from start to finish. Likewise the second half of the movie, which takes place entirely inside the whale: at first I myself resisted this, and wanted to see more antics in the real world. Then I realized that my longing was the same as the characters’, and that the film was designed to evoke that exact feeling from me.
Mind Game was co-written and directed by Masaaki Yuasa, with the original story derived from Robin Nishi’s strongly autobiographical cult manga; I hope someone takes the hint and brings the comic to English-language readers sometime soon. Yuasa was animation director on a number of different ground-breaking and trend-setting projects: Hakkenden, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and Samurai Champloo, just to name a few. The one project he worked on that most directly resembles this one was the hallucinatory Cat Soup, which was like a dress rehearsal for the full-out psychedelia of Mind Game.
Many of my favorite animated projects are maverick creations, either created or guided by an individual with his own vision. Allegro non troppo, Wizards, and especially Akira may have required teams of artists to bring to life, but they were all fueled by a distinct and singular vision. To bring the project to fruition, Yuasa enlisted the help of Studio 4°C, Gainax, and Production I.G, the same animation houses that worked on productions as diverse as The Animatrix, Evangelion, and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. The only one of the bunch it comes remotely close to resembling is the “Kid’s Story” segment of Animatrix, and even then it’s still without peer.
A friend of mine has a criterion for what makes a good film: After you’re done with it, do you want to show it to someone else? In this case, absolutely: After Mind Game was done with me, I wanted to show it to the whole world.cd.