Masaaki Yuasa is one of anime's biggest anomalies. A director with a completely unique and defiant style who made it big regardless. Mind Game was his first feature film and even though I could recognize his genius the first time I watched it, I still left me somewhat disappointed. The film simply couldn't live up to the hype. I never watched Mind Game again, until I finally took the time to give it a second chance. It's a good thing I did because it's one of those films that only got better with time.
2004 was a mythical year for anime features, which turned out to be a big disadvantage for Yuasa's Mind Game. There were at least 4 films (Innocence, Steamboy, Howl's Moving Castle and Mind Game) vying for landmark status, with a fifth one (Dead Leaves) blowing the rest out of the water while dialing up the madness to unseen levels. The hype surrounding Mind Game was considerable and in the end it just wasn't able to stand up to the competition. Two of those films ended up in my all-time Top 10 though, so looking back it's rather harsh to criticize Yuasa's first feature effort for not besting these films.
Mind Game may not be as pumped or as adrenaline-mad as Dead Leaves, you can rest assured it is its own kind of crazy. The insane mix of visual styles, the constant shifts in pace, the nonsensical plot and its dreamlike logic all blend into one another to create a film that defies proper description. You can try to explain what it's all about and what you can roughly expect from this film (as I will do here), but in the end it's one of those films that you just have to experience yourself. That is pretty much the only way to find out whether Yuasa is your cup of tea.
The film starts with Nishi visiting his old high school sweetheart Myon. Nishi still has a thing for her, what he doesn't know though is that Myon is about to marry another man. While eating in Myon's family noodle bar, they run into some trouble with the local Yakuza. The problem escalates and Nishi is killed in the process. He isn't prepared to just leave things like that though, so he pleads with God to give him another chance and after a little struggle with reality he's back inside the noodle bar, right before his official time of death.
A crucial reason why I looked forward to Mind Game all those years ago was the involvement of Studio 4°C, by far one of the most talented and uncompromising animation studios out there. While their talent is on full display here, Yuasa's style isn't necessarily beautiful in the traditional sense of the word, which somewhat put me off the first time I watched the film. Yuasa's use of bold and loud colors, low-res textures, wavy character designs, questionable CG and impossible angles is definitely an acquired taste, but it's something I've grown to respect over the years. There's a beauty to the madness that's not immediately apparent from stills, but comes alive when seeing it animated. On top of that, there's a level of boldness and creativity that is exceptionally rare, not just in the world of animation but in cinema as a whole.
The soundtrack is good, at times moody and atmospheric, but it's not on the same level as the visuals. There are one or two scenes where the music becomes leading and dictates the feel of the film, but there's definitely some untapped potential there. It's a common thread with Yuasa's films, while he makes good use of music, it's never on par with the rest of the presentation. The voice acting on the other hand is extremely well done. It's not that typical "anime" dialect, but it resembles a more natural use of the Japanese language. Do make sure you watch this with the original Japanese dub, the film is so thoroughly Japanese that it doesn't even make sense to try and watch it in a different language, at least not without ruining the atmosphere in the process.
Mind Game is a trip. There are traces of a narrative here, but the story doesn't make a whole lot of sense and it's mostly just an excuse to introduce new ideas and toy around with the characters. The film does slow down a little around the halfway mark, getting a bit more focused. It is just a tiny lapse in madness, as soon after Yuasa starts gearing up for one of the craziest finales in any anime film out there (and that's quite a high bar). It won't be everybody's cup of tea, but underneath all that craziness there is a solid and warm heart, a feeling that is amplified by the surprisingly touching ending.
It took me a while, but 15 years after its original release I was able to enjoy Mind Game to its fullest. I still feel it can't compete with the best of 2004, but watching the film again there was no more lingering feeling of disappointment. Yuasa delivers a wildly original, splendidly executed and surprisingly emotional animation that defies categorization and comparison. Mind Game is a film that needs to be experienced. If you like animation and you haven't seen this one yet, better make it a priority, just know that it's a rather challenging film.