- Playing Outside the Box with Mind Game
The notion of what constitutes avant-garde film has always been contentious. Defining anime variations, it seems, has also been difficult. The commonly cited characteristics of individual artists—low budgets and mainstream opposition—don’t quite apply to Mind Game, director Yuasa Masaaki’s debut feature. But, paradoxically, neither does it resemble more typical anime films. [End Page 263] Therein lies the film’s strength—formal experimentation paired with a popular narrative. Using traditional 2D cel animation, rotoscoping, and computer-generated effects, among other techniques, Mind Game displays a kaleidoscopic patchwork of filmmaking practices.1
The plot follows Nishi, a twenty-year-old manga artist, who by chance runs into Myon, a physically well-endowed past love from high school. Unbeknownst to Nishi, Myon is being followed by two yakuza in search of her father to settle debts. At her family yakitori restaurant, Myon introduces her fiancé to a predictably devastated Nishi. Enter the two pursuing yakuza, and a heartbroken, terrified Nishi is killed. Moments later, standing before God, he is instructed to walk through a red portal and disappear. Meanwhile, God opens a path back to earth. Naturally, grief-stricken Nishi defies God’s instruction and runs to the earthbound path, traversing time and space until he is back in his body seconds before his murder. This time, Nishi kills the yakuza and flees with Myon and her sister Yan in tow. A high-speed car chase ensues, culminating in Nishi and company being swallowed by a whale.
Yuasa is no stranger to eccentric plots and challenging aesthetics, having previously worked as storyboard artist and animation producer on the similarly experimental Cat Soup (2001, Nekojiru-so). The story of anthropomorphic cat siblings Nyako and Nyatta, Cat Soup charts the journey their souls undertake as Nyatta’s body lies on the brink of death. Traditional narrative devices are dropped in favor of a series of related vignettes (this technique is carried over into Mind Game and perhaps explains its occasional pacing problems). Cat Soup’s central set piece of a giant mechanical clock reversing time is visualized using many of the techniques so prominent in Mind Game: men evolve and devolve in a barrage of digital brush strokes, a firing squad resurrects the dead with a chalk-like finish, and fatal accidents are rewound in abstract landscapes. However, for all the similarities between the two films, one major difference cannot be overlooked. Whereas Cat Soup is an exercise in decoding the signifiers, Mind Game is much more traditional in its storytelling. Aside from the obvious questions (i.e., how can Nishi reverse time?), Mind Game makes perfect sense by its own logic.
It is perhaps more accurate to place Mind Game alongside Gainax’s FLCL (2000). Both mix the mundane, absurd, and experimental; are thematically similar; and are equally entrenched in popular culture. Like FLCL, Mind Game’s intertextual references and allusions aren’t exclusively Japanese. In fact, Village Voice commentator Michael Atkinson tellingly describes the film as “anti-anime.”2 Once inside the whale, Nishi, Myon and Yan meet Jiisan, a man who has been living inside for more than thirty years. The obvious Western comparison is Disney’s animated film Pinocchio (1940), but Jiisan’s home of raised platforms and rickety walkways also recalls Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson (1960). Mind Game shares with Swiss Family Robinson the same sense of an unlikely utopia away from society’s trappings, even if material needs still exist. Indeed, the first thing Jiisan utters is “I’ve got a radio.” Of course, the film subverts such similarities exponentially. Like Swiss Family Robinson, the characters of Mind Game also befriend the “locals.” Whereas the Robinson animals were incarcerated against their will, Jiisan’s collection of fish preserves species thought long extinct, including a Loch Ness–style monster.
Furthermore, Yuasa incorporates three musical sequences that recall both Disney and the overt sexualization of Japanese animation, yet fully succumb to neither. The first depicts a Fantasia-style (1940) routine of synchronized swimming, as the characters...