If there is one feature-length animated production I never hesitate to recommend to those curious about how the medium can be a medium, it is Mind Game. If there is one feature-length animated production I never hesitate to recommend, period, it is Mind Game. It's the Joe Vs. The Volcano of animated films — a project with a devoted cult following and a philosophy of seizing life unrepentantly by the throat.
Mind Game even follows (very) roughly some of the same story as Joe. A young man who's down on life is confronted with the possibility of death, snatches life from its jaws, and goes on an adventure that defies possibility although not quite belief. But it's no clone. It was derived — fairly faithfully, from what I can tell — from a cult manga of the same name that is every bit as idiosyncratic. The manga yet to make an appearance in English, but I hope there's some leverage to do that by way of the roaring success of the Kickstarter devoted to putting the movie back into print. A good sign: a movie this fiercely imaginative and alive deserves an audience that can see it as more than just a visual curiosity.
The life, death, and afterlife of Nishi
Nishi, an energetic young twentysomething with a mop-top of floppy hair and a mesh T-shirt, is riding the train one evening when he has a run-in with an old flame. Myon, whom he had a crush on on high school and beyond, drifted out of his circle of life. Now she's got a new boyfriend, whom she's only too happy to introduce to Nishi at the little bar run by her sister Yan and their father. "Pining" isn't the word to describe Nishi; he's a whole forest of pines at this point, so much so that he indulges in a fantasy where he blurts out his love for Myon at the top of his lungs. But she's spoken for, and Nishi knows it's his fault for not being more forward about his feelings.
Then everything goes to hell, and comes back. In walks a tired-looking loan shark ("Aniki") and his enforcer, Atsu, a bullet-headed soccer fanatic. They're not here to collect on a loan; they're here because Myon's father, a horn-dog of the sort Nishi seems to be aspiring to become, seduced and dumped Atsu's girlfriend. Atsu wants revenge, and he's prepared to take it out on Myon if he has to — but elects instead to blow Nishi's brains out (through his behind, no less) when Myon cries out his name.
But Nishi doesn't stay dead. He wakes up in a kind of anteroom of the next world, where he's confronted with his cowardice at the moment of his death. God is there, too — in an infinite number of manifestations that change with every shot — and he tells Nishi, nope, your jig is up. Outraged that he doesn't even get a second chance in the form of a rebirth or a resurrect, Nishi decides to break the rules — he heads "out" through a cosmic "in" door, so to speak — and God's so impressed with Nishi's spirit that he decides to give him another chance. And so Nishi returns to life in the crucial seconds before his death, where he snatches away the pistol, shoots Atsu dead, takes Aniki's car keys, piles the sisters into his car, and runs, runs, runs from the other gangsters now in hot pursuit.
Giddy as Nishi is about his defying death, Myon and Ran are just plain befuddled. All this babble about second chances and seizing life by the balls doesn't make sense to them — especially not when Nishi seems to be risking all of their necks with this mad getaway. What's clever with this sequence is how the movie enlists both our enthusiasm and our unease: The girls are right that Nishi is seriously off the chain, but holy crap look at the way Nishi pops a sideways wheelie to slide the car between two trucks! But it all comes to an end when the three of them augur off a bridge and into ... the mouth of a passing whale.
A whale of a tale
Yes, a whale. The entire midsection of the film is about how Nishi, Myon, and Yan find themselves prisoners inside the creature. They have a fellow prisoner, a sort of Abbé Faria to the Dantès of the other three, a wizened old man who's cobbled himself together a kind of Robinson Crusoe existence inside the whale by scavenging all the flotsam it's swallowed over the decades. Messy as it is, it's halfway livable: there's all the seafood they could ever want to eat, and they even have a fair number of creature comforts picked from the random detritus of civilization.
The old man has his own story. He was once a gangster himself, but he ended up enwhaled when a deal of his went south and he grabbed the wrong briefcase. He's been inside the whale for thirty years, and has developed wild, unfulfillable expectations of what life is like on the outside: If they have pocket telephones, do they also have flying cars?! But what he has to offer, aside from his hospitality, is a state of mind. Life inside the whale is dismal only if you're comparing it to other things — like, say, the outside world. As long as you have life, in whatever form it can be lived, you can be happy. (Such is the theory, anyway.)
Nishi doesn't buy this at first. He wants to find a way to get home, but escaping from the whale proves nearly impossible: the tidal wall of water at its mouth is mountainous, and every gizmo and contrivance the old man tried before has failed. Maybe they need to find a way to just make the best of what they have, instead. At first, they do just that. The old man finally has an audience to hone his culinary skills. Myon dives — literally — headfirst into honing her Olympic swimming techniques, an ambition she ditched on when her physique made it problematic. Nishi refines his comic-drawing skills, spinning wild, trippy tales that come to life as he describes them. Yan scavenges from the old man's junk hoard and puts together performance pieces. And Nishi and Myon grow all the closer, now that Nishi has started to treat her more like a companion and a friend and less like a conquest or a prize.
But all of them know they can't stay in the whale forever. At one point they hear a morning-show broadcast on the old man's radio, and tears come to Nishi's eyes. The outside world, the rest of life, is waiting for them, and they cannot pretend they don't miss it. And so they are roused to gather together all of their ingenuities, their strengths, and their sheer determination to make one (final?) escape.
Yuasa's eyes wide
The hardest thing about writing about film is communicating what it feels like to watch a movie. I've gone and described the plot of Mind Game in fair detail, as I'm wont to do in most reviews, but it's far harder to describe the flavor of the film. It's not just uninhibited visually, as many of the best animated films are; it's uninhibited temporally too. Maybe Time Game would have been a more fitting title.
Consider the opening scenes. First, Nishi's chance meeting with Myon. Then comes a complex, admittedly confusing montage across the lives and times of every single one of the movie's major characters. We do not know these people yet; we don't even know that we will know them. We see moments, turning points, slices of life. We see Nishi and Myon (whom we do know by now, however minimally) passing love letters in the hall; we see the old man as a young man, and Atsu as a soccer player and not just a thug. But we don't know why we're seeing all this.
Then, over the course of the movie, we see why. One by one, each of these flash-arounds, I guess they could be called, are picked out of the pile and used to illustrate a bit of character backstory that's of importance at the moment. We see how Nishi and Myon's love-letter passing eventually led to a broken, danging conversation, when they fell out of each other's lives. We see, in proper detail now, just how grabbing the wrong suitcase changed the old man's life. And so on. We realize, in retrospect, we have been given all the keys to all the movie's kingdoms — something the movie confirms for us one last time at the end, and something that tempts us back in to watch it again and again. This freedom from time's constraints matches the movie's own ambitions to explore possibilities, to show us how the universe is constructed out of the accumulation of the tiniest of decisions and actions.
But it's the visuals that are the movie's most overriding reason for both watching and rewatching. There's barely a color in the spectrum that isn't splashed across the screen. In closeups, animated faces are swapped with those of live-action actors, photo-tinted and treated. My favorite part, though, is how Yuasa loves to treat bodies and objects and space as plastic and mutable. You can do this sort of thing in live-action as CGI, but it doesn't quite work the same way. When everything is a drawing, there's a degree of automatic liberation from physics that goes with it. Yuasa's work has always leveraged such things, but more in the vein of European comics and underground experimental animated film (Heaven And Earth Magic, or the work of the Hubleys) than by way of anime or manga generally. I do keep coming back to Joe Vs. The Volcano as a point of both reference and contrast, though. That movie was willing to exaggerate or distort reality as needed, but it always seemed just this side of real by dint of being live-action. Mind Game, being animated, is entirely untethered by default.
The meaning of life(lines)
It's been some time since I last watched Mind Game, long enough that I respond to things I didn't even notice the first time. For instance, I am now a little less automatically enamored of Nishi, at least for the first stretch of the film. In the first act, he's a mix of coward and horn-dog, and the way he hits the road with Myon and Yan in tow comes off more as selfish than inspired. His vision of death and rebirth may have been great, but the giddy way he pushes his ecstatic revelations about life on the other women is not. But he does evolve. Something I saw more clearly this time around was not just his flaws, but how the movie is about him learning to see Myon as someone to share time and experience with, not just to ogle over or "win".
The other thing that struck me all the more was the old man's philosophy — how even life in the belly of the whale can still be life in some sense. He is right, but only if we neglect other things that are also life, and far more so. I remembered the words of George Orwell, writing about Henry Miller in his essay titled, yes, "Inside The Whale":
The whale's belly is simply a womb big enough for an adult. There you are, in the dark, cushioned space that exactly fits you, with yards of blubber between yourself and reality, able to keep up an attitude of the completest indifference, no matter what happens. A storm that would sink all the battleships in the world would hardly reach you as an echo. Even the whale's own movements would probably be imperceptible to you. He might be wallowing among the surface waves or shooting down into the blackness of the middle seas (a mile deep, according to Herman Melville), but you would never notice the difference. Short of being dead, it is the final, unsurpassable stage of irresponsibility.
My reason for including the quote lies mainly in that last sentence. Nishi and his friends could in theory renounce all thought of leaving and remain in there forever. The old man, for all his talk of "Live it up!", has renounced. If you don't think you can escape, you can always find a way to get used to the present moment, even if it's a terrible one. It's an appealing philosophy, and it seems even a sensible and pragmatic one; there's many times in life when we have no choice about what the present moment consists of.
But that does not mean we cannot choose, period. This philosophy of resignation requires Nishi and Myon and the rest to pretend they did not weep when they heard the outside world on the radio. All the fun and games cooked up inside the whale are not life, but its counterfeit, its poor substitute, a half-life. The real thing is out there waiting for them to come and rejoin it. They know, at bottom, the whole reason you go into the whale is to get back out of it again. Anything less than that is, as Orwell put it, the irresponsibility that preludes death.
Something that will stand out all the more for others on repeat viewings — and maybe even the first time around, who knows? — is how the movie uses its fragmented storytelling not just to play cute little narrative games, but to humanize everyone. Aniki and Atsu have lives that ran long and deep before they ever stepped into that bar, and so did the old man. The point is not to excuse any of them, but to show how their lifetimes, too, were composed of any number of moments and decisions that we are privileged enough to recognize the importance of, even if they can't.
Some of you might be familiar with Tom Tykwer's film Run Lola Run, another movie that uses fractured time. It gives us a race-against-the clock storyline according to three different schemes of possibility, and where each pass teaches us a little more about its microcosm and everyone in it. It opens with a quote from T.S. Eliot that seems fitting to this film as well, and to its audience: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."