A reviewer on AniDB has labeled this as an "identity" anime – namely, a Neon Genesis Evangelion/FLCL/Honey and Clover-styled work where the protagonist discovers himself as the story progresses. There is some truth to this; indeed, by the end of the movie the main character, Nishi, has transformed from a wimpy, whiny and worthless urchin of a human being into a fully developed and oddly admirable man. However, the movie is much more than a mere self-centered search for inner meaning.
Mind Game, more than anything else, is a wondrous tribute to life. The film is about making emotional connections with those around you, taking risks to achieve the things in life that you want, throwing away unnecessary distractions like material wealth, and embracing necessities like love and friendship. In short, this is not a movie about passively looking inward; it is a movie about actively propelling outward.
Granted, telling an audience to "live life to its fullest" is nothing new. You can hear this same obnoxiously vague, air-filled sentiment everywhere: from self-help books to bad romance anime, from far-out new age mantra to country songs about waffles.
Mind Game is amazing, however, for how stubbornly and wonderfully the film embraces this message. There is a sort of brilliance to the entire affair, an untainted vivacity that shows humans joyously living life in the most hopeless of circumstances. The events in the movie are far from realistic, but no anime Ive seen this year is truer to life.
By now, I should have raised a few eyebrows over how a movie could possibly be this positive without being a complete cheez-fest. If this review is all you’ve read about the movie, you’re no doubt imagining some sort of hokey romance/slice-of-life hybrid, perhaps involving a generic Keitarou clone in love with a girl afflicted with some sort of rare, incurable disease. Of course, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In fact, Mind Game is a decidedly bawdy, fragmented and bizarre movie. There is lewd humor thats just absolutely side-splitting, extremely violent action scenes, and moments of oddly heartfelt drama. Much like FLCL, the movie defies any sort of conventional label whatsoever. This is not romance, or adventure, or slice of life, or comedy, or dementia, or action. Mind Game is all of these, and at the same time it is more.
To try to summarize something so frenetic and psychedelic would be to almost automatically fail to do it justice, but I will say that the movie involves three people embarking on a fantastical journey of the body, spirit and mind. On this trip, the experiences they have and the insights they gain are worth more than... more than everything, really.
This narrative is in stark contrast to other experimental anime, which seem to gravitate towards much more negative material. While other shows focus on themes like the bestial and cruel aspects of human nature (Jin-Roh, Berserk), society’s crippling addiction to technology (Serial Experiments Lain, Texhnolyze), or the futility of life in general (Boogiepop Phantom, Gunslinger Girl), Mind Game’s storyline is refreshingly upbeat.
Many will probably question the way the movie begins and ends. In both cases, there is a stream of unrelated images that flash by the audience in a blur. The images from the beginning are shown again over the course of the film, but the images at the end are completely new. Although I’m not sure, my interpretation is that these sequences reflect the tendency of the human mind to remember life not as a linear progression, but as a collection of snapshots that highlight the events that it finds important.
The overwhelming buoyancy of the film is brought about largely because of the animation, which is absolutely phenomenal. Everything in the visuals is wonderfully expressive, and is a large part of why the decidedly disjointed story actually works.
At the beginning, the visuals are purposefully muted. As the characters engage in their tiresome daily routines, the world they inhabit is made dreary to match. One of the most interesting techniques that the movie does at this stage is to paste on ugly looking real life photos onto the characters (Kare Kano did something similar at the end of its show). Not a lot of people are going to consciously catch this, but this helps reinforce the fact that these characters are “typical” human beings – mundane, closed-minded, and soulless.
However, as they recognize the value of their own lives and of each other, the animation lights up as well. The live action photos stop appearing, the colors begin to brighten and the action becomes much more frenetic and surreal. All of this culminates in some of the most stunningly beautiful isolated scenes to ever be animated. I’m not exaggerating.
As a whole, the animation is very clearly a labor of love. When I usually think of a well-animated show, I imagine disciplined artisans flawlessly executing their craft. While watching Mind Game, however, I could only think of a passionate artist free to do whatever the hell he wants and enjoying every second of it. Something in the freeform style just flat out exceeds anything that mere technical excellence could ever hope to achieve.
The soundtrack is used mainly to accentuate the particularly bizarre and surreal segments, but it does this well. The music covers a wide range of genres, but manages to oddly fit in every case. Voice acting and sound effects are both competently done. In particular, I was impressed at how the main character’s seiyuu somehow managed to pull off sounding whiny and pathetic without ever becoming annoying.
At the beginning of the show, all of the characters are fairly drab and unlikeable. They are victims of habit, trapped in the arbitrary boundaries of their own personal reality.
Fortunately, as we see these individuals flower into self-aware human beings, all of this changes. By the end, their complete transformation borders on inspirational, and all of them are completely loveable.
As outlandish and eccentric as each of them become, the characters somehow feel more "real" than some of the most "normal" characters elsewhere in anime. When we watch these people striving to accomplish their hopes and dreams, something about their core nature makes caring for the them inevitable.
I realize this review is extremely long, and that most people are only going to skim through the thing before moving on. Fortunately, to those people, there’s only one thing that they really need to get out of this review:
Mind Game is a movie that is almost as unique as possible. The story, the animation, and the characters are all constantly shifting, which gives it its uniqueness. The message, that strength of mind can create an infinite number of possibilities, is portrayed in a true mindf*ck fashion, often leaving the viewer wondering what actually just happened. After getting past the shock of the continual changes in animation style and the awes from realizing what just happened, the story actually starts to make sense (mostly, anyways), and it delivers in a meaningful way. The rapid changes in characters seems to flow, the lessons they learn seem to make sense, and the message they convey seems natural. If you are feeling down about your life, watch this and it will make you feel like you can change it. A good watch, if you can stomach a bit of mindf*ck.
A coward is not someone who simply feels fear, but whose life chronically stalls because of it. Nishi, the protagonist, is a textbook case whose inner monologues reveal a highly discerning person but whose insecurities also dull him to the point of inertia. He loves his childhood friend Myon but fears the rejection he might suffer if he tells her; he's too scared to react when gangsters point a gun at her and attempt to rape her; and, though the anime never explicitly says so, I suspect he never finishes the manga he's perpetually writing because he fears he lacks artistic integrity. Mind Game's first few minutes depict an unremarkable young man we all sort of know because we all behave like him at times.
But those first few minutes also fail to prepare the viewer for the deliberately head-spinning, convention-busting narrative that follows. First, Nishi dies within a few minutes. That is not the end of him, however, since his miseries continue in Heaven where God cruelly likens him to a fart, a snot, and a lump of bird shit. Second, those verbal blows are exactly what it takes for Nishi to realise he wasted his youth and needs to fight his way back to this world to correct that mistake. Third, his shallow and undoubtedly reckless attempt to reinvent himself only lasts another few minutes before he, Myon, and Myon's sister Yan careen straight into the ready jaws of a whale.
Yes, a whale.
Bluntly speaking, Mind Game requires viewers who can forgive a frenetic and disjointed plot and absorb instead the message underlying its convolutions. What becomes apparent by the end is that the movie is a vigorous celebration of life and all its accidents. Inside the whale, for instance, Nishi and his friends meet an old man who has survived for decades by building a higgledy-piggledy home out of the rubbish ingested by his oceanic host. Alone among his trashy treasures, he nonetheless retains a pragmatic perspective on his existence that occupies that narrow space between idiocy and profundity. For him, life is fun no matter what. By encouraging his new companions to recognise the possibilities around them despite being buried in two tonnes of blubber, he triggers in them a different kind of rebirth to the literal reincarnation shown at the start - namely, one of the mind.
The events in the whale simultaneously mark Mind Game's leap from animation to art. As the heroes fight despair with fun, there follow numerous vibrant sequences of them simply being silly. Close-ups reveal live-action human faces with animated sketch lines superimposed on them; other shots look so basic as to be almost grotesque. One long scene may utilise several different animation methods, often by abusing photoshop to blend together images from the real world and animation. Above all, everything looks exceedingly liberating. I personally like the one where Yan paints herself in various colours and leaps onto a canvas, enormous balloon bosoms swinging hypnotically as she leaves behind prints of her body in various stages of motion.
"Would you rather lie around doing nothing? Or would you rather feel alive? Which is more fun?" asks the old man in the whale. It's an obvious question with an obvious answer but Mind Game's charm stems precisely from flaunting such guilelessness. A message as vital as this - that living is more gratifying than anything else - deserves to be the showpiece of any narrative, not bundled away in impenetrable dialogue and banal metaphors. The show as a result is trippy without the faintest whiff of pretention, a wildly touching indulgence in life animated lavishly and buoyantly.
A collection of barely likeable characters made even more ugly by the capricious use of random animation techniques. An innappropriate use of Matsumoto Taiyou-esque designs in a flat, out-of-place world of disconnected and hardly appropriate thoughts.
Like it's soundtrack; a jazzy, infuriated rush through a dreamland of improvised gamery. A voidless explosion of creativity, unbound by rational thought and sequence. Enacted and enjoyed on a whim. A dream. A game. A mental jongleur.
In the end a frantic but successful grasp at the unrealistic.
Like the parent on the carosel, the dick clasped between the legs, reality calmly waits at the sideline for the party to finish and the cast to rap themselves up. And it does so in a gracious yet pumpingly real pinacle which makes us remember our lives as like dust on the breeze; and to forget the 'gravity' of our vices. We will continue in a beautiful rythm until... it's over.
So many metonyms and so much hidden meaning, though never cleverly enacted, produce a satisfying feeling. Perhaps it just makes us feel clever, even, at the same time as feeling completely irrelevant. Maybe that was it. Whatever it was, I liked it whilst not really liking it at all.
It had what many in this genre don't which is a firm grasp on reality, and for that we have to thank it; for bringing us down a notch.
Sometimes inspiring, sometimes abnoxious. The worst parts of Trapeze and the best of Tekkon Kinkreet. Intense but lacklustre. Vivid but pathetic. But fitting.
Warm and colourful. Jazzy, sound, again fitting. Good voice actors and well mixed.
Shallow but representative.
An expression of relentless hope engulfed in a terrifying seran-wrap of understandable insanity.
SECRET SANTA REVIEW
(Mostly spoiler free)
Studio 4°C is widely regarded for its involvement with animated works that stand apart from the mainstream (see Arete Hime, Detroit Metal City, Memories). At times they’ve dabbled in the experimental and here with Mind Game directed by Masaaki Yuasa, we see this fully realised. This film is an unbridled and unabashed showcasing of ambition. Beneath a sometimes confounding visual spectacle, lies a heart warming tale about (some absurd) trials and tribulations of life resulting in a simple take home message. Live it.
Visually speaking, the film packs a punch. One should not expect the usual anime aesthetic so it does pay to keep in mind the avant-garde nature of the film, lest you want to endure befuddlement. There is much variation; colour palettes are tinkered with, CGI inserted here and there, live action images interspersed, characters bent out of shape and warped camera angles. Some of the time this is inviting and engaging while at other times it is intentionally repulsive and grotesque, at the least, irises are certainly kept on edge. Due to the sheer level of detail there are many memorable images and scenes. Particular highlights include the balloon dance and paint, the sex scene and the Great Whale Escape.
Within this celebration of visual schizophrenia we have a cast of characters fronted by a man named Nishi. He is a down trodden loser. At the beginning of the film, he merely watches on as the love of his life, Myon is courted by a strong and handsome suitor. His defeatist internal monologues are what initially define Nishi. Whilst sitting at a restaurant with Myon, her sister Yan, Myon’s suitor and the sister’s father, a pair of Yakuza thugs join the party. In the following blackly humorous yet unfortunate scene the wheels of absurdity are set in motion and here the story takes off.
To spoil exactly what transpires would take away the fun. Suffice to say, Nishi is given time to reflect on his pathetic existence. A second chance to be proactive, to right the wrongs, to win Myon! From here we are treated to a strange turn of events that see Nishi, Myon, Yan and an Old Man confined. Throughout this period, they live, laugh, cry, yearn and dance together.
We begin to see Nishi overcome some of his pessimism and loser status. A question remains as to whether he does so completely. But during the group’s confinement, another arguably more important question is raised as to whether Nishi’s new beginning was really so important. Mind Game posits the old notion of the journey versus the destination. By the film’s end, the journey looks like a hell of a lot more fun.
The title of the film promises some mindfuckery and at the end of it we are left scratching our heads, with the sentence ‘This Story Has Never Ended’ flashed on screen. Clues for just what this means, however, are to be found at the beginning and ending of the film both of which show a few minutes of a quickly paced montage featuring some scenes from the film squished together (some of these are also slightly altered). In the first montage Myon has her foot caught while trying to board a train, in the second montage Myon boards the train. Had she boarded the first time around, the movie may have taken a different course. Essentially this implies that even little moments may have a significant effect on the outcomes in life. Events can take a turn at any time. Taken in lieu of Mind Game’s rambunctious antics, this final mindfuckery highlights the overall life affirming message of the film, whatever happens, enjoy life and live it to the fullest.