Coming to the Grand Illusion Cinema for a week-long limited engagement, Masaaki Yuasa’s 2004 cult hit Mind Game, based on Robin Nishi’s manga of the same name, remains as vibrant and evocative as ever, even while the animation itself is dated.
A random encounter between childhood friends Nishi (Koji Imada), a timid and self-proclaimed loser, and Myon (Sayaka Maeda), the unknowing object of his affections, leads to a run-in with local yakuza thugs. Too afraid to stand up to them, Nishi suffers a very undignified death in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant before ascending to heaven and receiving a second chance. His soul reunited with his body moments before the yakuza pulls the trigger with the gift of foresight, so Nishi is able to flip the script, killing the would-be murderer and fleeing with Myon and her sister.
Reinvigorated by the opportunity to be someone other than the passive, angsty manga artist he’s been for the last 20 years of his life to date, Nishi is determined not to let this new life go to waste. Escaping the local yakuza cell once, though, just makes Nishi a target for the higher-ups, thus sparking a lively journey of self-discovery peppered with violence, car chases, a reclusive old man and a giant whale.
Films like Mind Game can be challenging to process in the current social climate. For example, Myon’s appeal to all the male characters in the film (not just Nishi) is her exaggeratedly drawn bust rather than, say, her intellect or winning personality. If Nishi existed today, in the real world, he would likely be an incel – a self-identifying member of the ‘involuntary celibate’ community that exists in the dark corners of the internet, and who blame women for their inability to find a romantic or sexual partner despite wanting one. Much of Nishi’s inner turmoil derives from his unrequited feelings toward Myon, and he falls into the unfortunate camp of men who believe that women “owe” them sex, love, affection, etc. Of course, this is all in his head, because he’s never once tried to articulate how he feels. Just how much the protagonist redeems himself by the end is debatable.
Problematic plot devices aside, Yuasa’s vision is an interesting, intertextual mash-up of styles. On the whole Mind Game is not as timeless as a Hayao Miyazaki film, for example, but it crackles with a much different energy. For the most part, the narrative unfolds in a linear fashion but features a handful of disjointed montages that can best be described as psychedelic. This writer can’t speak to the filmmaker’s state of mind at the time of production, but the final product is probably best enjoyed not sober.
Mind Game may be jarring for those going in expecting to see the visual artistry the West has come to associate with Japanese animation, and instead getting a feature-length series of Flash animation videos from the pre-YouTube era. But if you’re after something a little edgier and avant-garde, this film might just be for you.
Mind Game plays at Grand Illusion Cinema May 11, 12, 13, 15 and 17.