Mind Game (Masaaki Yuasa, 2004)

 When you’re inside a whale, there’s not much to do but make art

Mind Game is a Japanese animated film steeped in art and deconstruction of cinema. Sounds a little heavy? This absurdist anime fortunately offers a lot of laughs as well.

The story is simple (if weird) enough. Spineless youth Nishi is madly in love with his childhood friend Myon, but lacks the guts to step into her life. When they arrive at the family bar, a pair of yakuza arrive and threaten to rape Myon. Nishi is too frightened to act and dies as a result. In a conversation with his amorphous maker he decides to take charge of his life. Events reset a little and this time the two, along with Myon’s sister, manage to escape and go on the run for the mobsters. At this point you expect the story to proceed in any of a million ways, but not where it actually ends up.

In the belly of a whale. The entire rest of the film unfolds in a contemplative mood, inside a facsimile of Pinocchio’s Monstro. The three meet an old geezer there, who gradually coaxes them out of their aloofness. Mind Game becomes a journey of self-discovery in the surreal innards of a cetacean: the troupe starts experimenting with performance art as they try to escape.

The anime itself experiments too: its art style changes from shot to shot. Characters are now simply drawn cartoons, then have real faces superimposed on their heads – all in the service of the expressive possibilities of the medium. It creates a pleasantly weird atmosphere.

Mind Game takes pleasure in breaking rules and expectations. The chaotic, loose visual language of the anime lends itself well for this end. The film is sandwiched by segments that show many intersecting lives at the speed of a camera’s shutter. The emphasis is clear: life is what you make of it and has innumerable possibilities that you are free to choose. That’s a beautiful thought.

Roderick Leeuwenhart

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