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Mind Game
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by Jay Seaver

"Exhilarating, life-affirming, a jolt of electricity straight to the eyes."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Just look at this thing. Seriously, don't try too hard to follow the story or expect too much for the characters - that stuff is there, and it's not bad, but it's the visuals from Yuasa Masaaki - set to the music of Seiichi Yamanoto - that will grab you, challenging you to keep up. You probably will not like all of them, but that's okay; the movie is so stuffed to the gills with new sights that you will likely see enough to be well satisfied by the time the movie is over.

The story, such as it is, involves aspiring manga artist Robin Nishi (also the name of the man who create the manga that this film is adapted from) meeting his childhood girlfriend Myon, only to hear that she is about to become engaged to big, handsome Ryo. He offers his congratulations, of course, even if he's still carrying a huge torch for her. It's not to be, though, as a pair of yakuza burst into the bar run by Myon's sister Yan, looking for the girls' father, and kill Nishi (in a most humiliating manner) as he tries to stand up for Myon.

But wait! Nishi pulls a fast one on God, returns to Earth moments before his death, and turns the tables. He and the girls make a run for it, stealing the gangsters' car, only to be chased by what seems like half the yakuza in a mad dash that sends them careening off into the water. The car is swallowed by a whale, and inside they encounter a man who has been living there for thirty years, and has built himself a sort of treehouse out of other junk that the beast has swallowed. They spend some time there, in a sort of innocent, Edenic idyll, until it becomes clear that not only is the whale dying, but the young people have goals they want to accomplish on the outside. So they make their plans to escape.

"Anime" and "manga" have become much-abused words over the past few years, used by some to describe any animation or comics from Japan (despite the fact that the words simply mean animation and comics, period), and by others to describe a specific visual style. Mindgame most assuredly fits the first definition better than the second. The recent movies Mindgame most recalls, visually, are Waking Life and The Triplets of Belleville, although that's not quite right either. It seems like a much more European style than American or Japanese, though it has elements from all.

Yuasa also uses CGI, principly for backgrounds and certain lighting effects, as well as cutaways to digitally-painted live action (where the Waking Life influence is strongest) but the main tool here is traditional 2-D animation. The character designs are less formal than the very posed, static look most often associated with anime, and they're constantly in motion. They're artfully exaggerated, though it's hard for me to describe just how. There are many extremely busty girls in animation, for example, but Myon's different; her face and figure are smooth, simple shapes first, and literal representations of anatomy second. Yuasa is keenly aware of what you can do with a two-dimensional medium, and makes powerful use of abstraction. He happily warps perspective or bends limbs Olive Oyl-style if that conveys the idea he wants to get across.

And he throws images at the audience fast. The movie cuts between flat animation and colored live-action and back before you've quite acclimated to the first cut, he'll stick a clever bit of design in the middle of a montage where it's difficult to get a good look at it immediately. When Nishi is speaking to God, God changes his look roughly every two seconds. The car chase is intense, and the direction of the film can turn on a dime with the movie's stream of consciousness storytelling method. And the escape from the whale is draining for the audience. We've been warned that it's literally like an uphill swim, and we've seen shots of the characters training for this life-or-death sprint, but the visuals emphasize how completely past normal human capabilities it is while the characters themselves aren't quite superhuman. They're straining to do this, and the audience can practically feel the burn in their own muscles.

And then, and then, we're treated to an epilogue that is edited like some of the more frenetic bits of Moulin Rouge. At some point, I'm going to want to have this on DVD with my finger giving the pause button a workout, but as it is, it is a powerful visual demonstration of the youth and potential hidden in these characters, and indeed, the drive to create and compete and excel and live and love that exists within everyone. It's exhausting, but it's also exhilarating. Yamamoto's score enhances these scenes especially; it's exciting, upbeat music that somehow manages to keep up with what Yuasa Masaaki is putting up on screen.

There are going to be people who will see this movie and grumble about MTV-style editing and cartoony images and animated characters with impossible breasts, and while they won't be wrong, they'll be missing the point. This is a movie about milking the most out of one's time on earth, and to go halfway with anything would be a mistake. But just as there are people who will dismiss it out of hand because of the techniques it uses, there will be people who walk out with their mind blown.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=12530&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/13/05 01:24:11
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2005 Fantasia Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Boston Fantastic Film Festival For more in the 2005 Boston Fantastic Film Festival series, click here.

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