Running Time: 104 mins.
Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Writer: Masaaki Yuasa (Screenplay), Robin Nishi (Original Manga),
Animation Production: Studio 4°C
Starring: Sayaka Maeda (Myon), Koji Imada (Nishi), Seiko Takuma (Yan), Jouji Shimaki (Yakuza Boss), Takahashi Fujii (Ji-san),
Mind Game is God-tier filmmaking. It is incredible. It is inventive. It is inspirational. It is imaginative. Its visual and aural aspects are deliberately crude yet beautiful. Its story is intricate yet delivered in a madcap way that you may miss the genius plot device behind the whole narrative and the basis of a whole host of directorial tricks. Its animation is full of life itself. Indeed, Mind Game IS life itself!
I have started with this hyperbole because the experience of seeing it in a cinema is life-affirming. It reminds me of why I fell in love with anime and how full of joy life is.
It is hard to believe that Masaaki Yuasa made his feature-film directorial debut with Mind Game because this film is a stunning example of unlimited and daring creativity where not a second, not a cel, not a camera movement is wasted. Nay, everything has purpose and energy. So maybe it is believable because it would take a director with a fresh imagination free from the restraints of convention to bring this tale to life.
The film is powered by Nishi, a twenty-something living in Osaka who has a simple dream: to become a manga artist and marry his childhood sweetheart Myon. Reality is much more complicated. She has already been proposed to by someone else and she thinks Nishi is too much of a wimp. This changes when he visits her family’s yakitori restaurant and encounters a couple Yakuza. Events take a shocking and hilarious turn which leads to results in a chase along the Ajigawa River to Osaka Bay and an epic adventure that involves meeting God and being trapped in the belly of a whale for nearly all of the rest of the film.
The film is based on a manga by Robin Nishi which Yuasa has filtered through a number of experimental styles to create a surreal tale of love and life that has gone down as a cult-classic. A number of styles? Yuasa uses so many different animation techniques in the same story, the same sequence, even the same scene, that it becomes a breathless whirl of wild creativity. It ranges from starting with a simple character-model based on Robin Nishi’s work and changing them into garish scribbles to changing things up by utilising a face shot in live-action and melding it onto the regular character model via compositing and switching between them at various moments. Direction and editing are sharp from the use of montage to filming a car chase with extreme angles and then throwing in cut-aways/smash-cuts to conversations happening off-screen (entirely relevant) and even the memory of a film that provides inspiration for a getaway.
Every character is distinctly styled and behaves in memorable ways from the lead characters to the yakuza goons who have stitches on their faces. Masaaki Yuasa has had a long career as an animation director since the early 90’s on family-friendly titles like Chibi Maruko-chan and Shin-chan and the design of the characters and the way they move is reminiscent of the simple and rough sketches you would find in those shows or in a gag manga. The low-budget of this film means that not everything looks polished. Indeed, it is deliberately styled to look rough to give the impression that not much effort went into things but the effort is there on the screen such as the buildings and signage around Osaka and most especially when character designs fluctuate, sometimes wildly as they become deformed or over-exaggerated. The changes in character-models, the movements, the colours, everything maintain a lively and rhythmic metier that maximises the comedic impact of scenes, the emotional journeys of fear, hope, and love that characters experience and it is all captured with a lively camera that jumps to multiple positions and angles to increase a viewer’s enjoyment.
It is fantastic visual design and it had me from the word go when it opened with a delirious super-fast montage showing the history of Osaka from the Meiji period to the 2000s and the rest of the film which takes place inside a whale as imaginatively utilised by people as you could get and the antics the character’s get up to which are artful and fun to say the least. While all of this is a visual tour-de-force, it has deep philosophical meaning. That first montage is there to show the choices made by people that led them to their present full which is depicted as a negative reality. Regrets can be felt in the early scenes where characters cannot express themselves, Nishi’s internal monologues reeking with insecurity and dreams radiating sincere hopes punctuate scenes that take him away from the people in his world which is painted a melancholy blue. Once inside the whale they are in a colourful playground, safe and free from society’s demands but that montage and elements from it will be used again to help articulate and punctuate character development, give context to action and behaviour, everything explained as props from the past show up in the whale and facilitate emotional growth as they make the characters see what is important in life.
It is then they find the will to escape a seemingly impossible situation and the montage will be used in full at the end with wild variations as the world undergoes a drastic change in colour with things becoming brighter, where what was once negative becomes positive as we see the hopes and possibilities that power the character’s lives comes to life in a tear-inducing sequence that mirrors the first montage. It all melds into their escape which is a hilarious and exhilarating ten-minute time-jumping physical marathon with so much going on with each of the characters you will be left breathless. It is also the wild, exuberant, and heartfelt visualisation of the film’s message and philosophical message – life is for living so put some effort into things – animated with so much flamboyance it sears itself into your mind.
Seeing all the changes and all the people doing things relays the human endeavours involved in everyday life and celebrates heroes in everything from the extraordinary – artists and astronauts – to the everyday – housewives holding a family together, kids taking care of pets. Since the story takes place where I stayed, somewhere in Nishinari/Shinsekai with its Tsutenkaku Tower, it was easy for me to feel part of the city’s story. These sequences are something that could only be done in an animated film and it is hard to think of an animator other than Yuasa who would deliver it with so much joy and verve.
Now, the day is saved with the sheer determination to live, to pick the brave choice. Seeing the infinite possibilities open to the characters remind viewers that there are so many options for those brave enough to take them when they come around. So what are you waiting for? LIVE YOUR LIFE!!!
10/5 – God tier filmmaking!!! SEE THIS!
What can I say? At the end, I am an anime otaku at heart.