How do you talk about an anime film which does its best to be too big for an anime film? To be overflowing with styles and influences and snips of life, until it’s a fractal of infinite movies? The mere description of it is too big for our puny human words; we’re reduced to dumb grunts like a primordial ape who has just had their mind blown in front of the monolith.
What you would end up with is Mind Game (2004)(Blu-ray here), a gem which received high polish and praise when it was released, but was only given an official US launch in 2018 and has since become one of the most underground anime around. It is spoken of only in hushed tones behind the stacks at your local comic store, like a conspiracy. It has been deemed too high proof a hooch to let the muggles get hold of it, lest they crawl into the bottle and hurt themselves.
Explain Mind Game here:
To start with, Mind Game wins the prize for the least accessible anime film to use for introducing your newbie friends to anime. It is everything that people who don’t watch anime imagine anime to be like: confusing, foreign, eccentric, cerebral, and unconcerned with Western ideas about what movies do. It has yet to get an English dub, so you’ll have to be content with English subtitles – though that’s the least of the movie’s issues, as the dialog is sparse enough to easily follow along on that metric.
Next, the work has a pedigree. It’s the directorial debut of Masaaki Yuasa, who has gone on to a distinguished career only just now achieving legendary status. Yuasa cites Western influences on his work, in a diverse pile that includes the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, Tex Avery cartoons, Wallace and Gromit, and Fantastic Planet. Then there is animation director Kouji Morimoto, a name you will still have burned into your cerebellum long after the glow from Mind Game fades from your screen, because the visuals alone will give you a new use for eyes.
For the structure, be advised that this is one of those avant-garde movies with fuzzy story-telling mixing fantasy and reality, dreams, symbolism, philosophical lessons, visual metaphors, and shuffled timeline. You can’t describe this movie without dropping celebrity names, so here goes: Take Quentin Tarantino (for Kill Bill), Oliver Stone (for Natural Born Killers), Takashi Miike (around Visitor Q), Terry Gilliam (for both Monty Python animation and plots like 12 Monkeys), Alejandro Jodorowsky (for the third act of The Holy Mountain), and you’re somewhere close to the correct formula.
Now for the anime styles, of which this movie has a complete set. No really, pick any animated movie you have ever seen and I’ll show you a few frames from Mind Game in the same style. It accomplishes this feat by freely switching styles whenever it damn pleases, at a whim, but always in service of getting the scene across with the greatest eloquence. Yet the majority of it is atypical for anime in general. At the same time it has no trouble being a deliberate parody of anime when it gets the wind up.
Enough! What is this movie about?
Fine, but it won’t do you any good. Nishi is a young aspiring manga artist who bumps into Myon, a girl he went to school with and has always pined for. As he’s struggling to confess his feelings for her, Myon reveals she’s engaged to another suitor, Ryo. They end up at her parents’ restaurant for late-night dinner, with Myon’s sister Yan and her mom and dad on staff, plus Ryo himself drops in for added awkward conversation.
This is interrupted by a pair of yakuza gangsters who bust in and, after grievous bodily injury to a soccer ball, menace the establishment because of a score they have to settle with Myon’s dad. Nishi, a milquetoast, gets mercilessly dispatched for a quick near-death experience before returning to action to get the jump on the gangsters. Then he flees with Myon and Yan, chased by more yakuza. We’re just getting through the first act and I’ve left out 99.9999% of the impenetrable detail here.
From here on out, suffice it to say that everybody who describes this movie stops at this point and shrugs “you just gotta see it,” but perhaps we can also utter the hint “whale,” and the explanation that this is sort of about Nishi’s quest for enlightenment, aided by an unlikely guru.
I told you this part is no help!
A brilliant chaos!
With everybody raving about the artsy fartsy style, you might be tempted to think Mind Game sacrifices substance. Nothing could be further from the truth! The style shifts make perfect sense in context. It uses motifs of dark seinen, giggling kodomomuke, dewy-eyed shojo, acid-washed rotoscoping, and even CGI not just at random, but precisely when it needs to.
Where characters breathily evoke childish innocence, the movie turns into a kids’ show for a few seconds. At its darkest moments wrestling with underworld criminals, it apes the gritty streets of Marvel and DC metropolises. When everybody cuts loose and boogies, it turns into a psychedelic acid trip. The surreal animation style blends with the humor, becoming self-aware, an element of the landscape on its own sometimes.
Accolades: Canada Fantasia-Fest 2005, jury awards for Best Film, Best Director, Best Script, Visual Accomplishment (special), Best Animation Film (golden), and Most Groundbreaking Film (silver). Mainichi Film Awards, 2005, and Japan Media Arts Festival 2004, Animation Division Grand Prize – beating Howl’s Moving Castle, no less! So yeah, this is the difference between being self-consciously arty and hoping people mistake you for deep, and being really deep and hoping anybody can keep up.
When it comes down to it, the most important story Mind Game is telling is (can you guess from the title?) the one inside your mind. Even for veteran anime fans, it takes multiple viewings just to catch all the shades of the interconnecting plot lines (yes, there’s more if you look). Just heaven forbid you should have to describe this movie to anybody.