By Phil Hall | September 2, 2005

Three cheers and a tiger for New York’s Museum of Modern Art! The celebrated MoMA is doing what the brains of the movie industry should’ve done: provide the U.S. theatrical premiere to the year’s best animated feature, Masaaki Yuasa’s “Mind Game.”

At a time when the anime being theatrically released in America is playing it much to safe and “commercial,” “Mind Game” comes screaming along with a lunatic original voice and vision that bears no resemblance whatsoever to any animated production playing on the big screen. Reviewing this film is the ultimate challenge for a critic, since no writer could possibly do justice in detailing the genius of the concept and the audacity of the execution which is displayed here. Even worse, giving away too much will ruin the surprise and shock that so much of the film generates.

The basic notion of the film is easy enough: Nishi is a 20-year-old aspiring manga artist who is fatefully reunited one dark rainy night with his ex-girlfriend Miyo. The extremely buxom Miyo takes Nishi to her family restaurant, where her sister and father are present. Soon joining them is Miyo’s fiancé, a ruggedly handsome truck driver. But more company arrives: two yakuza hitmen in search of Miyo’s father. In the course of the evening, Nishi is fatally shot by one of the yakuza.

But as the bullet enters Nishi’s body (through a rather inopportune orifice, it should be noted), his soul is literally blasted from its human container and it sucked through a vortex into a bizarre netherworld where giant computer screens spell out Nishi’s harsh luck. Nishi then has an encounter with God, who is depicted in a very un-God-like manner (to explain this in depth would just ruin the scene – just trust me when I say you cannot believe what you are watching here).

Rather than fade away, Nishi escape’s God’s domain and is able to return to Earth, where he rewrites his life’s ending: he fatally shoots the yakuza who killed him and takes Myon and her sister on a wild car ride. A mobile army of yakuza give pursuit and a fantastic chase is underway. Nishi drives his car off a bridge and into the gaping jaws of a huge whale. And after that, things really get weird.

And that’s all the plot to be revealed here. Anything more and the film’s impact will be completely diluted.

What can be said, however, is “Mind Game” serves up a bold and imaginative artistic approach to its story. The use of abrupt flashbacks, the substitution of human photographic images for the anime characters, sudden bursts of expressionistic color, and two breathtaking musical dance sequences swirl in a kaleidoscope of feverish frenzy. The film is rich with dark, rude humor (Myon’s breasts provide excess mileage) which takes excessive advantage of cruelty of both a genuine nature (the flashback angst of Nishi’s learning that Myon’s feelings are not mutual) and of a surreal texture (the yakuza boss’ tiny robot dog falls into a cocktail tumbler and is short circuited). The film, not unlike most animation today, brings in CGI effects. But in this case, they are used sparingly and do not distract from the rich originality of the traditional cel animation.

“Mind Game” seems less influenced by classic anime and more in line with the best of Western animation. The breathtaking car chase clearly shows some Chuck Jones personality, especially when a yakuza finds himself running at 120 mph alongside Nishi’s car – only to encounter a mishap worthy of Wile E. Coyote. Tex Avery-style sight gags pop up at odd moments, and homages to “Yellow Submarine” and “Fantastic Planet” can be appreciated.

Yet “Mind Game” is ultimately an original work of art. If the _expression “intelligent design” had not been hijacked by the Creationists, it could easily be used here: the film is intelligently designed to take full advantage of the viewer’s sensory perceptions. It can be exaggerated in its comedy, but it is painfully real in its emotions about self-worth and self-esteem. It uses outlandish animation to bring across basic points, yet it uses basic emotions to dissect the outlandish elements of the human experience. Most importantly, it doesn’t wrap everything up in a neat bow of an ending, but it dares the viewer to process the enigmatic finale and take the story to whatever personal conclusions one might believe can be achieved.

(As an aside, the MoMA release of “Mind Game” is in the Japanese version with English subtitles and, mercifully, not in dubbed English.)

At this stage, I am not certain if “Mind Game” will find more big screen engagements in America beyond the MoMA commercial run. If it doesn’t, it would be a major mistake. This is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen – and by as many people as possible. Put simply, “Mind Game” is a mind-blowing experience.

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