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  Mind Game head trippin'
Year: 2004
Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Stars: Koji Imada, Jouji Shimaki, Kenichi Chujou, Rintarou Nishi, Sayaka Maeda, Seiko Takuma, Takahashi Fuji, Tomomitsu Yamaguchi, Toshio Sakata
Genre: Comedy, Animated, Science Fiction, Fantasy, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  10 (from 1 vote)
Review: Nishi, a young, aspiring manga artist isn’t having a bad day. He’s having the worst day of the century. His childhood sweetheart, Myon is marrying another guy. Her drunken dad reveals she thinks Nishi is too much of a wimp. When he meets the fiancée at Myon’s family diner, he turns out to be taller, better looking and too nice a guy to even hate. Then, when a psychotic yakuza stumbles into the diner, brutally beats Myon’s fiancée and tries to rape her, Nishi intervenes. A 9mm automatic is jammed up his ass. The bullet rips through Nishi’s insides and blasts out his skull. The end.

Or is it? Nishi’s soul explodes from his body and ascends into a bizarrely digital afterlife. First, a giant computer replays the last few seconds of his miserable life on a constant loop. Nishi parts the curtain, Wizard of Oz style, and is confronted by an ever-shapeshifting entity otherwise known as God. Leaping about like a Looney Tunes character, transforming one hundred times per second, including monsters, animals, a corporate logo, a ballerina and a hunk in swimming trunks, God gives Nishi a kind of visual shock treatment until he swears to live life better, next time around.

Whereupon Nishi is slung back inside his body, just seconds before his death. He grabs the gun, blows that yakuza bastard away, then hightails it with lovely Myon and her sister, Yan in a stolen car. Trouble is, the car is stashed full of drugs and yakuza money. A phone call from the local boss reveals the dead man wasn’t a gangster, but a football hero, “the Diego Maradona of Osaka”. Now everyone wants Nishi dead. Armed with his newfound zest for life, plus an encyclopaedic knowledge of anime and movies, Nishi, Myon and Yan outrace the assassins and crash their car into the sea, where they’re suddenly swallowed by a huge whale. Inside they discover a junkyard wonderland and a strange, old man. Then things get really weird…

Based on a manga by Robin Nishi, Mind Game is one of the most exhilarating and original anime of modern times. Densely layered with philosophy and irony, but also an infectious zest for life. Like Studio Gainax’s groundbreaking FLCL (2000), this film thumbs its nose at the trendy misogyny and nihilist chic of contemporary Japanese cinema, and exults the audience to embrace life, love and our dreams. “To live life truthfully and sincerely is the only weapon I have”, declares Nishi at one point. Writer-director Masaaki Yuasa aims straight for the id with a dazzling array of animation styles: pencil sketches, computer graphics, elaborate cel animation, childlike drawings, even live action actors for close-ups!

Pop culture references fly thick and fast, while jokes range from gut-busting, Warner Bros. style sight gags (a dead assassin is greeted by his long-lost pet canary in the afterlife) to dry humour (stuck inside the whale, Nishi tries to cheer everyone up with a radio broadcast only to wince at the weather report: “It’s a bright, sunny day… maybe the best summer Japan has ever had!”). A few unexpectedly violent shifts in tone, shot through a hellish red haze, evoke Quentin Tarantino, but at heart this is a romantic comedy. Maybe the wildest romantic comedy of all time, but from their rapid-fire jaunt through childhood to their surreal, rekindled passion, Nishi and Myon’s love story beguiles and moves.

The idea of lives half-lived and dreams unfulfilled are central to Mind Game’s use of fantasy, not as an escape but as a prism through which characters revaluate the choices they’ve made. Pneumatic, Lara Croft look-alike, Myon laments how adolescence curtailed her once-promising swimming career. Quiet, dutiful Yan secretly longs to be a performance artist (and, it’s hinted, explore her sexuality). Just as Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin-Feminin (1966) aimed its post-modern romance at young cineastes, this movie is pitched squarely at the manga generation, co-opting their concerns and visual grammar. Yuasa explores his characters in audacious pop culture fantasies: a zany water ballet set to classical music; a sex scene transformed into a multi-morphing head trip; flashbacks to a sixties Astro Boy type TV show; Nishi regaling Myon with a wild sci-fi manga about tiny space travellers exploring her stomach; and the Old Man imagining their candy-coloured future in a space age paradise with flying cars, hi-tech suits, Nishi reborn as a supercool manga artist, and Yan competing in an anti-gravity race with Disneyesque aliens.

A mad race to escape the whale climaxes with hundreds of possible futures flashing before characters’ eyes. Like net surfers we are bombarded with information we have to process for ourselves. Some have criticised the ambiguous finale, but those who enjoy thought-provoking cinema will find much to enjoy. How can there be a clear-cut ending when the subject matter is life itself? As the ebullient postscript declares: “This story has never ended.”
Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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