Released in 2004, Mind Game was many fans’ introduction to the weird style of director Masaaki Yuasa. Earlier this year, Yuasa’s renown reached its highest point yet with Devilman Crybaby but for those of us that have been following his career since Mind Game came out in 2004, it was merely an affirmation of an intense talent that has continually challenged the notion of what anime is and can be.
We begin in everyday Japan, in the off-streets and back-alleys where it’s always gloomy and rainy and dreams go to die. Failing mangaka Nishi bumps into childhood sweetheart Myon and they stumble through the rain together into Myon’s father’s restaurant. As they talk, a few things become clear. Nishi still loves Myon, but he’s altogether too indecisive and wrapped up in his own thoughts to earnestly confess his feelings to her and, worse still, she’s now engaged to some other guy.
This is not an evening for the weak of heart. As it turns out, Myon’s father is in conflict with the yakuza and no sooner have Nishi, Myon and her fiance traded awkward introductions than two gangsters bust in. One of them beats the hell out of Myon’s fiance and then threatens to rape her (be warned, this is as strong a sexual assault as I’ve seen in anime) when he notices Nishi cowering in the corner and whips out a gun… To say more would be unfair, really.
Stylistically, Mind Game holds nothing back. Straight away, characters are switching from exaggerated live-action caricatures to roughly drawn, expressive anime designs. Kyoto Animation, this is not. Some may accuse Mind Game of over-indulging its creativity and after the third or fourth musical interlude in the (literal) belly of a giant whale I’m tempted to agree, but one thing for sure is that this is not a drab or boring anime to look at. It’s expressive and funny and feels like Yuasa is barfing rainbows straight into my eyes.
With the benefit of hindsight, Mind Game is laced with many of the same story threads that Yuasa has since become known for. As in The Tatami Galaxy, Mind Game’s characters are crippled with an existential dread, stranded and lost as time passes them, culminating in a cathartic realisation that to shape one’s life, to find one’s place, it is necessary to break your shell and fly.
Just as the physical act of running symbolises friendship and humanity in Devilman Crybaby, Mind Game culminates in a fantastic emotional release when Nishi & co. go hell-for-leather to escape their existential prison. Free of regret and ready to accept the world for all that it is, they run for their lives, naked as the day they were born, using every ounce of themselves, every tiny hair, to push themselves further forwards. This scene, which is underscored with an intensely beating drum and has the characters screaming and crying as they relive pivotal moments in their lives, is powerful, hot-blooded and great. Mind Game is earnestly encouraging us to believe in ourselves, to believe that we are greater than the sum of our parts and to rely on our friends and family to help us along the way, and it’s that messy emotional resonance that will stay with me most of all.
This was the first time I’d seen Mind Game in HD. It looks great in an otherwise bare-bones release from All the Anime, but let’s be honest here, it has been 14 long years for Mind Game to be released in the UK and even at the best of times an indie anime like this is hardly going to set their tills ringing. That this is being released in the UK at all is reason enough for celebration. Well played, All the Anime. Please have my money.
Mind Game is a supernova of an anime film. It’s as bright, messy and brilliant as that implies. I can’t say it’s perfect because I feel like it indulges a little too freely in the weird hallucinatory interludes that one expects of a film that looks like this and therefore isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but when it finally climaxes, it’s like having a mouthful of Skittles and drinking Coke at the same time.