Wednesday, March 13, 2013

MIND GAME (Masaaki Yuasa, 2004)

If Japanese animation is riding high in recent times, it seems easy to point to Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli as its most popular exponents. With their films outselling Hollywood products at the top of the box office, Miyazaki and company have become the most recognizable ambassadors of anime at home and abroad. They are, however, not the be-all and end-all of anime. There is a diverse range of anime being churned out of cartoon-crazy Japan. It’s not at all a monolithic tower built by one company. 

If you deem the Ghibli output to be too safe, too timid and too antiseptic, Mind Game can be a good antithesis. Although not an extreme example, Mind Game doesn’t fit any easy category either. In a nutshell, the clash of adult themes and dream logic makes Mind Game either a dazzling watch or a frustrating experience. What is certain is that Mind Game will make you see anime in a different light.

The story is simple enough, but the interstitial spaces in between aren’t. Nishi, an aspiring manga writer, meets Myon, an intimate in high school, after a long time. It's a meeting that rekindles old feelings for Nishi. Myon invites him to the family sushi bar, where yakuza thugs show up looking for Myon’s father. Unable to find their man, the thugs start to raise hell, in the mayhem of which Nishi kills one of them. Nishi, Myon and Myon’s sister escape in a car and are chased through city streets. They overshoot a bridge, land in the river and end up being swallowed by a gigantic whale. They discover not just an old man trapped in the whale’s belly for 30 years, but a veritable world that can provide a certain refuge.

What remains unsaid, however, is that this is just one possibility of the story. It’s not far from the realm of the possible that none of this happened, that Nishi may have been killed instead of the gangster, that Nishi and Myon never met at all, that the entrapment within the whale’s belly is all a figment. Mind Game lives up to the promise of its title and weaves together the real and the possible in one dazzling and astonishing movie. 

While the current run of anime affords us visually and thematically safe and harmless fare, Mind Game offers what is deemed deviant and taboo: scatological humor, buxomy, hentai imagery, the raw and gritty aspects of the underworld, orgies and other plentiful sexual references – all done in a surprisingly none-too-cynical manner. As Robin Nishi, the creator of the manga on which Yuasa based his film, reveals: Mind Game was never meant for the masses but a niche audience. 

It’s a niche that is further narrowed down by the film’s multiple realities, its convoluted bifurcations. The imagery that reels off is like the imagery of a near-death experience (indeed it is, Nishi, in one strand, ascends to what must be purgatory and bargains for his life): the images are staccato-quick, forming split-second trains of montage. Everything literally goes here; one has the sensation that many different anime movies -- dozens, perhaps even hundreds -- are excerpted and spliced together. Mind Game is all about the many possibilities that life presents. It’s about second chances. In Robin Nishi’s words, it’s about “physical death and reincarnation.” And Mind Game fulfills its visual promise to show us world after world of possibilities, the world we are choosing, the world we omit. Whether all these images cohere for us seems secondary. Life, after all, is about taking a leap of faith.

reviewed: July 6, 2009

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