349. MIND GAME (2004)

“Your life is a result of your own decisions.”–text message briefly glimpsed in the opening scenes of Mind Game

“There’s a lot of randomness in the decisions people make.”–Daniel Kahneman, psychologist

Recommended

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Kôji Imada, Sayaka Maeda, Takashi Fujii, Seiko Takuma

PLOT: Aspiring manga artist Nishi meets his schoolboy crush Myon on the subway and realizes he still loves her. They go to eat at her family’s noodle shop, but two yakuza break in, demanding repayment of loans, and in the ensuing scuffle kill the cowardly Nishi. In the afterlife, Nishi meets God, but decides he’s not done living and returns to earth, where he becomes a hero by rescuing Myon and her sister, then is swallowed by a whale and shacks up with the old hermit who lives in its belly.

Still from Mind Game (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on a manga by Robin Nishi.
  • This was Masaaki Yuasa‘s feature film debut as a director. He had worked as an animator since 1990. He also had a big role in producing the Certified Weird short feature Cat Soup (2001), working as co-writer, co-producer and animation director.
  • Animation director Kôji Morimoto’s credits as an animator include Akira (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989).
  • Mind Game won the equivalent of Best Animated Feature at Japan’s Media Arts Festival (placing ahead of Howl’s Moving Castle) and was named Best Film at the 2004 Fantasia Festival (narrowly beating out Survive Style 5+).
  • Despite its accolades, Mind Game never had an official U.S. premier or home video release until 2018. It nevertheless developed a cult following with the few people who managed to see it, and told their friends.
  • Mind Game was the winner of 366 Weird Movies’ final readers’ choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: God, the cigarette smoking fish. Seriously, how many movies dare to literally depict God on-screen? Now, subtract the ones that show Him as a bearded old white guy or George Burns, and ask yourself the question again.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: God’s many cartoon faces; gay ex-yakuza in a whale; external translucent womb

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Mind Game is trippy and surreal—the plot and the animation style both change every few minutes—but a sense of mystical wonder and an elusive wisdom underlies the whole crazy game. Put your seat belt on, this is going to be a bumpy ride.


US release trailer for Mind Game

COMMENTS: Mind Game begins with a stakeout in the rain; a man follows a woman into a subway. Then, one minute into the film, everything changes. Ominous low stings moan, and we are treated to a confusing two-and-a-half-minute montage. We see a bridge and a shot of a big-nosed baby staring at it in wonder, then hookers, a Christian church with a mural of souls writhing in Hell, sepia scenes where a boy superhero with a helmet antenna faces off against 20s-style mobsters with Tommy guns, disco dancing, kids petting a dog, older kids secretly passing notes at school, video games, a ringing phone, sent emails, and soccer players, among other random but weighty images. Then a white flower appears, and upon each petal Latin letters appear spelling out M-I-N-D-G-A-M-E. At the end of Mind Game, we see the same stakeout scene, which plays to a slightly different conclusion, followed by an almost identical (but even longer) montage. Some of the shots from before appear in different color schemes and many new ones are thrown in, and it’s now scored to a happy J-pop jingle. When that second montage appears, some of the images will make sense, others will seem just as arbitrary as when you saw them the first time, and you’ll likely be just as baffled as you were at the beginning.

So settle in. You’re going to be confused by Mind Game. It won’t help that the animation style keeps changing with every new scene. The most notable stylistic choice is that sometimes the hand-drawn characters are replaced by photographs of actors, which are crudely animated in an almost flip book fashion. Sometimes they carry on short dialogues this way; in one scene, a photograph of an actor appears isolated in a mirror against the cel backdrop. Some scenes look like mock Disney, some like Saturday morning cartoons, some resemble other animes, and some are like abstract art installments from the 1960s. Lighting schemes are usually dramatic and unreal, some in noirish monochrome gray shadows, others that look like they’ve been hand-tinted with dried blood. The afterlife is cybernetic; Nishi’s soul is a glowing blue line drawing in a void that fills with static, low res pixels, and polygon meshes. The quintessence of this style, naturally, is God himself, who changes appearance (and accent) once per second: from a Japanese Jerry Garcia through a fishbowl-headed clown and a topless woman, zipping through several avatars that look like they walked over straight from the Quackadero. Mind Game‘s ever-morphing world was clearly made in this mutable deity’s fickle image.

Yes, this is a weird movie. Between the impenetrable but oddly poignant montages and the meetings with a sarcastic Almighty who taunts his creations by text are an almost countless number of odd, whimsical fantasies that break up the already confusing narrative. Anything can happen in Mind Game—especially after you die. The previously feckless Nishi grows a spine after his brains are blown out, and races backwards through the tunnel of light to resume his earthly existence. Now he’s a superhero, able to turn the tables of his yakuza tormentors and escape with his love and her sister in a stolen convertible. After an improbable car chase which involves a call from a mob boss with a tiny robotic dog on his shoulder and a gangster who can run 120 mph, Nishi and company are swallowed by a whale and settle down in its guts with a friendly old hermit who makes excellent sushi. There, the quartet enjoy wondrous hallucinations, include dancing a water ballet to Liszt with an aquatic dinosaur, an interlude that might be a Fantastic Planet tribute, and Nishi’s fantasy of being a successful manga artist at a book signing at a magical futurist amusement park, among other sights your eyes may not believe (including some almost inexplicable sexual imagery).

If you’re intrigued by this description, you should probably stop reading this review now and go watch Mind Game. I’m afraid that I’ve given away too much already. Pulling this movie apart is something you only want to do after you’ve seen it; it will never have the same impact as that first viewing, when Mind Game throws styles, ideas and shards of plot at you so fast that it overwhelms you and your own mind starts to shut down. If you’ve already seen it and are still confused, I can offer a smidgen of guidance. The basic plot of the “real world” story is simple enough, although Yuasa chops it up as much as he can. Aspiring manga artist Nishi is in love with Myon, who has a boyfriend but still carries a torch for him; soon after meeting her again he is killed by an unhinged yakuza who’s been wronged by Myon’s father. Everything that happens afterwards appears to be a deathbed hallucination, although you may take it at face value if you choose. What is more confusing, however, are the opening and closing structures, which I alluded to in the opening paragraph. The movie begins with the two yakuza—the senior one, whom I will refer to as the “sad yakuza,” and his soccer-playing hot head. They stalk Myon and eventually follow her to her family’s noodle shop. Immediately after this introductory bit of plot comes that first montage, which contains elements of the story we will encounter later and backstories of characters we have yet to meet, along with some shots whose meaning may never become clear. Nevertheless, with a lot of effort, you can determine that both sequences incorporate flashbacks from the life of the old man in the whale, Myon’s father, Nishi and Myon’s childhood, and the soccer-playing yakuza, along with some pop culture references to set the time frame. The “Time Boy” character (modeled after Astroboy) who appears was a favorite of both the sad yakuza and the old man, and had the ability to turn back time. When Nishi defies God and returns to Earth, he goes back in time a few seconds before he was killed in order to turn the tables on the yakuza. He lives out a fantasy of heroism by rescuing Myon, then has a long respite inside the whale, where he hides out from the world and lives in dreams. But he grows bored, and another montage shows him missing things in the mundane world, as do Yang and Myon in turn. They determine to flee this dream life and re-enter the real world. More flashbacks and fantasies accompany their escape. When Nishi finally sees the city of Osaka after escaping from the whale, he imagines people going about their daily lives, including a scene where an architect builds one of the skyscrapers he sees. Time flows backwards and forwards, and he has visions of possible alternate futures for Myon, Yang, and the old man (for example, Yang becomes an artist, or a wrestler, or an astronaut). Then, suddenly, we are back where the movie started: with the sad yakuza staking out Myon. He seems jolted when we arrive at this scene, as if he had just awoken from a dream. He sends the soccer-playing yakuza after Myon, but this time the hoodlum loses track of her (meaning that he will not follow her to the shop and kill Nishi). Meanwhile, the sad yakuza leaves the scene, and as he backs up his car the city changes from a grey night to a brilliant day, suggesting that reality has been reset by his decision to leave. Then the movie’s title appears in the clouds, and an extended version of the opening montage plays. Does that clear things up?

Probably not too much. The movie’s overall theme, however, seems simple enough: embrace the wonder of life in all its variety. Nishi’s motivation to leave the whale is the thought that “There’s so much out there. So many people, living different lives!” His character takes a journey of enlightenment. He begins too afraid to tell Myon his feelings, and he cowers before the powerful yakuza. This cowardice leads to his death, and then to his decision to embrace life and be reborn. He then experiences a fantasy of power, living like an outlaw, which proves a false path. So next he withdraws from life and holes up in the belly of the whale; a lotus-eaters’ retreat, a world of private fantasies, pleasures, and stories. This life grows boring because it’s too ego-centered and divorced from his community. It also expresses his deeper fear: the fear of failure. While hiding out, he only tells his manga plots to his close confidants, not releasing them to the world where they, and he, might be judged. When he gives up that part of his ego, he is free to leave: “it’s not about who’s better, who’s not.” He wants to live in the real world even if he’s “one big loser,” appreciating existence without being ruled by either fear or ambition. It’s a very Buddhist perspective. And there is another level to it. When the end of the movie suddenly wrapped around itself and returned, with a jolt, to where it began with the sad yakuza, I suddenly wondered if it had been his story all along—the yakuza’s daydream as he sat in his car waiting for Myon to appear. It’s not, but nor is it Nishi’s story alone. It’s the story of all. Mind Game happens in one individual’s mind, but it throws so much at you—life, death, the real and the unreal, made-up stories, real histories—because it is encompassing the entire world. “It’s a melting pot,” as Nishi says at his epiphany. This is another Buddhist concept: that we are not unique, but we are part of the whole, one ripple in a long series. Nishi is at the center, but everyone whose life touches his—and even those unseen—are a part of the same continuum of existence. This is why they all share equal billing in the bracketing montages, along with many strangers. It’s all the same story, the human story. And it ends with the words “this story has no end.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Brain-teasing, wildly unpredictable animated feature — that sometimes masquerades as traditional anime — periodically shifts graphic gears to present a cacophony of varied abstract drawing styles… [a] freewheeling juggernaut of a head-trip…”–Ronnie Scheib, Variety (contemporaneous)

“If Jan Svankmajer ever considered a move to Anime, it may look something like this…”–David Jensen, Time Out London (contemporaneous)

“…plays out like a hallucinogen-fueled shaggy-dog joke…”–Simon Abrams, The Village Voice (Blu-ray)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Mind Game – The trailer, synopsis, and stills

Mind Game – GKIDS Films – More stills are available at the U.S. distributor’s site, along with a press kit

IMDB LINK: Mind Game (2004)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Director has whale of a time making experimental ‘Mind Game’Yuasa interviewed by Marc Schilling of Japan Times

HOME VIDEO INFO: Once unavailable in the U.S., Shout! Factory (in collaboration with GKids) unleashed Mind Game on home video in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack in 2018 (buy). Besides the pristine presentation of the mind-blowing feature film, the set includes production art galleries and the U.S. release trailer. There is no running director’s commentary, but a separate featurette includes Masaaki Yuasa describing selected scenes for thirty minutes. Yuasa pauses the film, rewinds it, or goes frame-by-frame so he can finish his thoughts before resuming the presentation; therefore, it takes him a half hour to discuss about fifteen minutes of film. He covers much of the last third of the movie, from the time Nishi decides to leave the whale until the title “Mind Game” comes up (excluding the mysterious epilogue). On your own, it would be impossible to figure out many of the subtle narrative connections—some occurring in one-second flashbacks and fantasies, involving unrevealed or barely hinted at backstories—that the director explains here. The fact that the film works so well without this information just goes to show that having everything spelled out for you is supplemental, not essential, to appreciating this work of art.

The Blu-ray is the same as the DVD except that it includes an full-length animatic for animation geeks. (An “animatic” is a working draft of the animation, to be fleshed out later; in this case, it’s displayed in a smaller box in the lower right-hand corner of the screen so you can compare the differences between the preliminary and finished version.) It’s an interesting addition to the set, although not something most people will access very often.

If you don’t need any of those bells and whistle, but just want to have your mind blown, you can buy or rent the film on-demand.

(This movie was first nominated for review by Denver way back in 2012. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

4 thoughts on “349. MIND GAME (2004)”

  1. SPOILER ALERT – Would it surprise you to learn that the sad Yakuza was the son of the old man in the belly of the whale?

    The old man was a Yakuza who was dealing drugs, but on his fateful night, he grabbed the wrong briefcase (the one with the Time Boy stylings instead of the one with packets of heroin), which precipitated his fleeing over the bridge and…into the belly of said whale.

    “Your life is a result of your own decisions” is truly this film’s mantra.

    Great review, btw.

  2. No problem. Feel free to remove the spoiler-ed stuff if you wish.

    And it’s only something I picked up on with multiple viewings (as are a lot of the connections as established in the bookended montage segments.

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