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Mind Game (2005)
Director: Masaaki Yuasa

review by Amy Harlib

The 2005 New York Asian Film Festival, 17 June to 2 July, offered a special treat: the international premiere of a new animated Japanese feature from the prominent, up and coming, independent Studio 4 degrees C (boasting the recent Steamboy and The Animatrix among their notable credits). This production, Mind Game, an astonishing directorial debut effort from acclaimed animation designer Masaaki Yuasa (also co-writer with Robin Nishi, creator of the manga inspirational source) - presents audiences with something refreshingly different from the standard giant mecha, beautiful teenagers and cyber-noir SF tropes associated in the west with most otaku-anime fare. Mind Game even distinguishes itself from and challenges undisputed master of the art form, Hayao Miyazaki, with its unique approach that garnered a prestigious Nobuo Ofuji Award and more accolades in the home country.

Employing a deceptively rough-looking, quirky, sketchy, angular art style reminiscent of American avante garde animator Bill Plympton, Mind Game unfolds in a stream-of-consciousness flow of kaleidoscopically diverse visuals using techniques that include: rotoscopes of the voice actors portraying their characters; collage; CGI; and traditional cel drawings that sometimes include fleeting riffs on anime clich�s. The images mesmerise at a mostly frantic, MTV-style pace but they do slow down at significant moments of drama and character development. The renderings sometimes distort the figures in a clever animation trick used to emphasise emotions - an effect utterly in keeping with the overall surreal, experimental ambiance and its dreamlike logic, Mind Games' conviction making suspension of disbelief easy!
dinner service in Mind Game wacky humour in Mind Game face to face in Mind Game
Set mostly in contemporary Osaka with some scenes in Tokyo, Mind Game opens with 20-year-old college boy and wannabe manga artist, Nishi (Koji Imada), meeting by chance, his former childhood enamorata, the amply-endowed, sweet-natured Myon (Sayaka Maeda). Deftly dodging his clumsy efforts to amorously make up for lost time, Myon takes Nishi to the yakitori eatery she helps run with her older sister Yan (Seiko Takuma). On arriving, Nishi gets acquainted with the siblings' womanising, financially irresponsible and drunken father (Rio Sakata) and with Myon's tall, robust and affable fianc�e Ryo (Tomomitsu Yamaguchi).

Despairing that he can never compete with Ryo for Myon's affections, Nishi's gloom gets even worse when a pair of yakuza gangsters arrive to collect a debt from Dad and, in the ensuing altercation, their gunshots murder Nishi in a most humiliating fashion. His spirit arriving in the heavenly realms, Nishi encounters an intimidating, constantly morphing God to whom he rails about his untimely fate, a confrontation that earns Nishi the grudgingly encouraging admonition from the enigmatic entity to "live for all you're worth." The protagonist thus swiftly finds himself propelled back to and alive at the crucial moment.

Nishi, with uncanny luck this time, escapes with Myon and Yan in their Dad's car with the gangsters close behind. The high tension of fleeing causes the pursued to lose control of their vehicle that veers off a bridge to be swallowed in midair by a passing whale. Inside the enormous cetacean, Nishi and the sisters meet a feisty old man (Takashi Fuji) with long white hair and beard who informs the trio that he has been living an improbable Jonah-like (or Pinocchio-like) life for 30 years, having fashioned the swallowed detritus of his wrecked ship into a remarkable, oddly impressive, ramshackle yet comfortable dwelling. Facing the prospect of a lifetime in blubbery confinement, Nishi refuses to accept this existence and tries to figure out ways to escape. In the meantime, this close quarter interim allows for some truly fascinating character interaction, while Nishi's attempt to find a way out of the whale builds tensions and leads to a strikingly satisfying conclusion.

Mind Game delivers its celebration of human folly, longings, hope, and joy in living with child-like zest and wonder via unforgettably dazzling, ever-shifting animation imagery decidedly 'trippy' in its exuberant surrealism and exhilarating energy. By turns odd, gritty, frantic, crude, lurid, funny, heartfelt, dreamlike and always enthralling, Mind Game's boldly experimental approach to its medium has so far marginalised it to the festival and art house circuit. This film, also available on DVD, does not deserve such obscurity. At the special occasion screening I attended, a concluding Q&A with the producer Eiko Tanaka added icing to a very tasty cake. With or without such an interesting extra event, Mind Game ought to be widely enjoyed on a big screen as a work of singular, psychedelically exciting and brilliantly clever artistry - truly mind-blowing!
Mind Game

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