Film Re-View: Mind Game

A screencap from the film Mind Game.

Nishi joyriding in a mobster’s vehicle. The image links to another blogger for those interested in a few more of the film’s visual treats.

Mind Game (2004)

Directed by Masaaki Yuasa, Written by Robin Nishi

We have a confusing situation with Mind Game. On the one hand, this is the densest work of animation I’ve ever seen, with so many ideas about how to depict self-confidence, fear, sexuality, isolation, and self-loathing that it chooses to show us not just one every couple of minutes but one every couple of seconds.

One sequence that kicks off the story is a great example of this idea. Our main character, a manga writer named Nishi (an author surrogate,) is killed by a mobster when he finally gets the gall to defend his childhood-high-school-shoujo love, the affianced Myon, from sexual assault. The criminal is there to take revenge upon Myon’s father, who has entered an affair with the mobster’s girlfriend. After killing Nishi in a particularly juvenile fashion, the mobster is killed by his partner, who is disgusted by the selfish monstrousness of the brute. This is depicted in a series of colorations, perspectives, changes in the fillings of the backgrounds, and different art styles entirely, some utilizing a sort of photo montage on the faces and others appearing more like childhood crayon doodling.

A few minutes later, we return to Nishi in the afterlife. After being tortured for his incompetence by various replays of his death, he meets God, but cannot decide on a form to grant the almighty. As a result, every quarter-second, the frame seems to change perspective and angle, often to nonsensically confusing frames, and yet each has a wholly different character design for the God figure. One moment God is a coquette, the next a yellow ducky, the next a wholly invented hot pink alien. After God taunts Nishi, he decides to give another try at life, sending him back perhaps fifteen seconds before he was shot. Nishi reverses the situation and isolates himself with Myon and her sister, Yan, by running away with the partner’s sports car, setting off the rest of the story.

Mind Game utilizes this sort of infinite depiction throughout its presentation. The same goes for its juvenility; the film ends up primarily concerning itself with a manic obsession with happiness, extreme regret and depression, and sexuality. My girlfriend read the film as incredibly sexist; I read it as incredibly heterosexist, not so much homophobic as unconcerned with its limited perspective, and deeply pulled from the creator’s own sense of very-not-feminist sexual politics.

These ideas play out in the form of play on the behalf of Nishi, Myon, and Yan, primarily in their runaway isolation, where they exist in a sort of consequence-less playscape. Yan is perhaps depicted as having a sort of genderfluid awakening, but there’s such an absurd heightening of Yan’s masculinity that it becomes borderline offensive, and it’s never made explicit that Yan is doing anything more than trying to entertain her compatriots. Her character ends up getting a lot of screen time, and I’m certain many people will  Myon never really escapes her trappings, and while the character is depicted as having awareness, the film is light on creativity for her in comparison to Nishi, Yan, and the film’s other more temporary characters.

But I don’t think it presents itself as demanding to be agreed with in its view of the world; rather, I think it is a full display of id. Of the three Freudian psychomechanical parts, id is perhaps the one most people desire least to see executed in a film. I would argue Mind Game is still delightful simply because Yuasa has such a creative drive to depict that id’s impulses. There are more depictions-per-second of an idea in this film than in any you’ll ever have seen before, and yet the film manages to still have a sense of rhythm, of pacing, of invention rather than simple exhaustion.

And the music in this film. My goodness. It’s not that the music is even especially good, understand, it’s just that nobody uses music in their animated films the way Yuasa managed. In multiple sequences after the midway point, the dialogue falls away, and it is actually in these sequences that the real invention takes hold. For roughly forty-five minutes, the film enters a sort of plotless paradise, wondering what might happen when mortality is so directly omnipresent that hopeless abandon and self-expression take hold. The idea that we should “live life to its fullest” is not a clever one, and I don’t mean to give the film credit for its intellectual creativity, but rather its depiction of these ideas in a wholly unbelievable way.

Taking Mind Game as an aesthetic experience, it is almost wholly unparalleled. Not because it is the highest, most beautiful art, but simply because it hits with brilliant ideas more consistently than any other film I’ve seen attempt to depict even a quarter of this many ideas. As a collection of beliefs, of expression, and of story, it’s a good story told for a limited group who can tolerate looking at all the things a meek mangaka like Yuasa might fantasize happen in a world without rules.

There are two rhythmic montage sequences which take place at the end of the film; one is the film’s plot climax, and it goes on too long, offers recapitulation of the ideas presented over the previous 80 minutes, and stops inventing new depictions rather than simply showing a bravura sense of tension and rhythm. The second is an emotional powerhouse, one which depicts a sort of history of the film, and while wholly unnecessary, it illustrates just how much thinking went into Mind Game.

The film concludes, and we get one last laugh, to pull us out of the sense of being wholly overwhelmed by the ten thousand films we’ve watched in the past two hours.