GoCritic! Review: Mind Game
- Emilian Lungu re-evaluates Japanese filmmaker Masaachi Yuasa’s cult 2004 film from a present-day standpoint
Masaaki Yuasa’s feature debut Mind Game is an animated experimental film from 2004 based on the manga by Robin Nishi. Now considered a cult film for its singularity, the movie balances out the positive and negative in terms of its values. Screened as part of a special retrospective dedicated to Yuasa at the 17th edition of Animest, the audience watching it nowadays can only watch it from an anachronic viewpoint, though its unique features shine through to this day.
The film focuses on a young man recently out of high school, Nishi, as he pursues his old crush, Myon, who is about to get married. This pursuit sends him on a trip to heaven and back after an encounter with the yakuza, whom he later manages to escape, only to get himself trapped in a purgatory-like space alongside Myon and her sister.
Most of the film’s world renown is directly correlated to its unique animation approach and the dynamics which result from merging different styles. Both quirky and charming, it often establishes parallels between hyper-realistic and low-resolution animation, creating a humorous effect through its uncanniness. Naturally, this effect is achieved through various means, especially in the film’s narrative as the protagonists are involved in extremely psychedelic or adrenaline-charged events, particularly when it comes to the liminal spaces they end up in.
The film works because it conveys a philosophical message constructed around the limbo-like spaces it creates, which encapsulates its characters. Firstly, there’s the purgatory where Nishi is trapped, depicted through psychedelic colouring and motifs, which he decides to escape of his own accord instead of choosing the corridor of the dead, in a fight against his own fate. And then there’s the whale’s belly which the characters find themselves trapped in and where they manage to make a living while figuring out a way to escape. In this sense, the film tells a story of perseverance, of pushing your limits in the most difficult circumstances, out of a sheer desire to be alive and free.
However, the film might be susceptible to political criticism due to its use of hypersexualised depictions and reactions as tropes for eroticism. Of course, hyper-sexualization isn’t new in anime; it tends to recur in almost all comedic love stories. But what makes it stand out here are the real-life inserts (such as Nishi’s hyperreal humanised face, modified from his previous, doodly one) which connect the world of reality and animation in a non-ambiguous way and snap the viewer out of any fantasy world. The overemphasis of breast size, for example, serves as comic exaggeration, but also as a lure for the protagonist - and his perverted reaction - who takes great pleasure from the act of gazing.
A curious gaze vis-à-vis the naked female body seems to be a characteristic possessed by most male characters in the Japanese anime culture, which constructs a prevalent perverted-male stereotype. While this awkward manifestation of sexual desire goes unquestioned in manga and anime, it should, in this instance, be read in a key of harassment. The film is a breeding ground for such misconduct: female characters aren’t allowed privacy, particularly in the bathhouse context (which is a standard topos for peeping toms in anime) and they’re disturbingly over-sexualised and reduced to mere objects of desire rather than subjects with their own agency.
Obviously, Mind Game has many merits as a revolutionary animated feature film which is brilliant and extremely imaginative in its production, but it falls down under the weight of a gender commentary which reiterates the tropes that have been used in cinema (and particularly anime) in the past, without ever questioning them. Its meaning and semantic consistency are likely to raise an eyebrow or two, at least, among today’s audiences.
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