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:
Nishi has been in love with Myon since he was 9 years old. They both had feelings for each other, but due to Nishi's cowardice their relationship never became more than friendship. Now, in the present, Nishi is 20 years old and aims to be a great manga artist; but he still loves Myon. After years of being apart they meet again, but she tells him that she's thinking of marrying her boyfriend. Nishi is still a coward so he accepts it and wishes her luck. While they're talking at her older sister's restaurant a pair of yakuza walk in looking for their father. One of the yakuza starts harassing Myon and out of anger Nishi chooses to finally take a stand -- but he is shot and dies. Now, in limbo, he chooses to live again; but will he really live any differently than before?