September 1, 2010 1 Comment
It’s raining outside, and you’re eating in a small diner with the girl you’ve been in love with for eleven years. Beside her, talking calmly, is her current boyfriend. Things are going smoothly, while you fester in guilt over lost opportunity yet try to hope the best for the two of them—when all of a sudden, an unshaven squinty-eyed bastard strolls in with his angry pinheaded diaper-wearing charge, and start a ruckus. What do you do in this situation?
One possibility is to cower on the floor while your love interest is about to be raped, hope nothing bad happens, and eventually get your brains blown out. That works, though few would consider it a good resolution. Too bad you’ll miss watching the pinhead get shot up by his partner.
With these first twenty two enthralling, surreal, and utterly absurd minutes of Masaaki Yuasa’s Mind Game out of the way, one can rest assured that it only gets better. Yakuza car chases, a dancing stripper artist balloon girl, a piano sonata in a whale belly, and general trippy psychedelia are all things the viewer has to look forward to over the film’s hour and forty-some minute runtime that flies by like a bullet train.
For any unfamiliar with Yuasa’s body of work, Mind Game is both his first film and a wonderful introduction to his overall style. He got his start in the 1990s doing mostly key animation work for various programs, breaking into character design and animation direction periodically. Mind Game, however, is his first feature film with full directorial credits. It was animated mostly by Studio 4°C, an animation studio that has come to be known for its oftentimes off-beat or abstract works of Japanese Animation thanks to titles such as this one, as well as the Genius Party and Memories short film collections.
As has come to be expected by anyone who has glimpsed some of his work, the film’s visual appearance is easily its most immediately noticeable aspect—and is so jarring in its stylistic schizophrenia that it will probably put off many viewers just from the first handful of scenes. It hobbles back and forth between crudely-rendered environments and shape-shifting blob people and rotoscoped head-on close-ups for the entirety of the film, unafraid of emphasizing cartoonish over-exaggerated expressions while also managing to mock visual realism with bizarre photographic manipulation. The backgrounds maintain some level of lucidity, however one should not expect any sort of photorealistic renderings from the film.
Cinematically, Mind Game delivers with every bit of zeal, craziness, and energy that one can expect from a contemporary anime film, the likes of which are at least superficially comparable to the more down to earth director Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), and the nearly-as-zany madman Hiroyuki Imaishi (Dead Leaves). Mind Game’s form is solid and eclectic, embellished by its fantastic switcheroo of color pallets and ambiance in order to convey very specific tones. Shot compositions are meticulous and revealing, but there is little to explicitly link his influences to the people who had come before. Yuasa’s rhythm for editing is possibly its most successful feature, as best showcased in the breathtakingly succinct, ambient, and moving montages that divide up and help structure of the film. The montages alone are worth the viewing experience, since even though they may seem arbitrary or meaningless upon a first viewing, the patterns that arise and the underlying narrative flow is sure to be uncovered by interested viewers.
These aspects all come together to define Mind Game as a surreal “art film”, no doubt, but as of yet nothing has been said of the characters, the plot, or any other narrative devices. This is for good reason: Mind Game is so fluid in its plot progression, so dynamic in its structure, and subtle enough in the development of its characters that a succinct commentary on its actual narrative substance is quite difficult. It fills plot holes with absurdity and gleefully skips around any attempts at seriousness or profundity, and its characters are just as much victims of incomprehensible circumstances as they are the designers of such circumstances in the first place.
So what exactly IS Mind Game?
Well, it’s rough and unpolished, it’s meandering, indecent and ludicrous, it’s absurd, it’s surreal, it’s asinine and obnoxious. It’s also heartwarming and poignant, possibly insulting, it’s hazy, blurred, and inconsistent. It’s at once philosophically profound and superficial to an utmost extreme. It doesn’t make much sense when one dwells on its contents, and it joyously defies serious scrutiny should one even attempt it. It is the sum of its parts and yet about absolutely nothing—or perhaps everything—at all. There are subtle jabs to modern culture, blatant jabs at modern consumerism, and general allegories, metaphors, and possibly even a message or two to be found within its crazy imagery and circular plot. This short review isn’t going to tell you what they are, though—that’d ruin the suspense.