19 November 2009

Mind Game (マインド・ゲーム, 2005)

There is something fitting about the fact that Masaaki Yuasa and Studio 4°C’s Mind Game (マインド・ゲーム, 2005) made it’s debut the year before the 100th anniversary of Stuart Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906). I have no doubt that when future animation historians look back at this decade, Mind Game will stand out as an example of an animation that bridges the first and second centuries of animated films.

Upon first screening the film, I found myself overwhelmed by its technical brilliance. The sheer variety of animation techniques and styles, both traditional and modern, mean that the film could have easily had no plot at all but have still entertained. Perhaps the most stylistically intriguing moments are the scenes in which actors faces have been digitally rotoscoped onto CG-animated bodies to give characters an added emotional edge.

Mind Game’s unique look and sound is the result of the coming together of three iconoclastic artists: manga-ka Robin Nishi (ロビン西), animator Masaaki Yuasa (湯浅政明), and animator/producer Koji Morimoto (森本晃司). Morimoto is one of the creative geniuses, along with Eiko Tanaka and Yoshiharu Sato, behind independent Studio 4°C. According to the documentary footage included on the extras of my Rapid Eye DVD of Mind Game, it was Morimoto who saw the artistic potential of Robin Nishi’s abstract manga. However, he felt that he was too enthralled by the manga to have an objective director’s eye for the project and he brought Yuasa on board as director. Yuasa had previously worked on Onkyo seimeitai Noiseman (1997) with Morimoto.

Robin Nishi’s manga stands apart from the usual manga fare because of the roughness of its style and the open-ended nature of the plot. Instead of presenting his readers with a polished final product, Nishi deliberately leaves space for his readers’ to fill in the gaps with their own interpretations. This openness to multifaceted interpretations of his work also led Nishi to allow Yuasa free reign to adapt Mind Game into an animation. This combination of an abstract manga, plus a studio that encourages its artists to experiment, plus a freelance animator not creatively tied to any studio resulted in a film that quite literally blows the mind as a viewing experience.

On the surface, the film has a fairly simple plotline: an aspiring young manga-ka (Nishi) is reunited with his childhood sweetheart (Myon) and this leads to an unfortunate series of events including finding out that she is engaged to someone else and getting shot in the ass by a wayward yakuza in her family restaurant. Normally a film would be headed to disaster if its main protagonist gets killed twenty minutes in, but this is a film about second chances and Nishi refuses to go quietly into his next life and desperately races back into his old life to try again.

This catapults the film even further into the realm of the abstract. Arguably, the film has no objective plotline at all. As the main protagonist bears the name of the mangaka (or at least, his nom de plume, as is the case with most mangaka), it would seem that the journey that the animation takes us on is a subjective trip into the psyche and creative process of the mangaka himself. The psychedelic nature (though not in the drug-induced sense) of the journey is emphasized by the bright colour palette, which could be right out of a painting by Keiichi Tanaami, the jazzy music (including the brilliant pieces performed by Seiichi Yamamoto and Fushigi Robot), and the highly symbolic imagery such being swallowed by a whale – which Robin Nishi admits he borrowed from Pinocchio. The tagline of the film is “Your life is the result of your own decisions” and this message is driven home by a beautifully animated montage that projects not only the possible future narratives of the 4 characters who find themselves stuck in the belly of a whale together, but also in a matter of minutes illustrates the complex history of Osaka and the transformation of its geography over the decades. A spectacular, thought-provoking film that should not be missed.

The German release of the DVD includes a sheet of stickers and four postcards. Disc extras include some documentary footage about the animation process and interviews with key cast among other video clips that highlight some of film’s musical sequences. The Japanese releases (they seem to have released it in different guises) of Mind Game have English subtitles. The links below lead to more info at cdjapan. Unfortunately the soundtrack, which I would love to have, seems to be out of print at the current time.

MIND GAME (English Subtitles) / Animation
This review is part of Nishikata Film's 2011 Noburo Ofuji Award Challenge.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009