Mind Game (Masaaki Yuasa, 2004)

“The Citizen Kane of animation” – Bill Plympton

Drafthouse Films LogoBased on Robin Nishi’s underground manga, Masaaki Yuasa’s Mind Game is a singularly daring first feature that fully embraces the creative freedom of animation.  This surrealistic adventure follows aspiring comic book artist Nishi from death and back again, then into the belly of a whale where he learns to pursue his dreams and take charge of his life while in the company of his childhood crush, her no-nonsense sister, and an elderly man trapped inside for more than 30 years.  Mind Game, another vibrant and imaginative work of Japan’s celebrated Studio 4°C, blends flat animation, CGI, and digitally-painted live action into a roughly hewn, artistically exaggerated, cult masterpiece.  Technically surreal and aesthetically defying, Mind Game is a brave and inspiring work of art unlike anything in Japanese anime and global animation.

Special Features:

  • Audio commentary with director Masaaki Yuasa
  • Footage from the Mind Game completion reception
  • Pre-screening discussions at the Mind Game premiere
  • Cast and crew interviews
  • Koji Morimoto’s Noiseman Sound Insect, a 15-minute anime produced by Studio 4°C and featuring the designs and animation of Masaaki Yuasa
  • Cat Soup, Tatsuo Sato’s experimental 33-minute anime written and produced by Masaaki Yuasa
  • Masaaki Yuasa’s crowd-funded short, Kick-Heart
  • Trailer
  • A 16-page booklet featuring an interview with Yuasa and an essay by Japanese film scholar Mark Shilling

Kami-sama Edition – Package Includes:

  • Mind Game on Blu-ray or Standard DVD featuring over 4 hours of bonus material!
  • DRM-free Digital Download of the film in 1080p, 720p, and mobile/tablet formats
  • Instant Download of Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by Seiichi Yamamoto and including Fayray’s closing song “Saisho de Saigo no Koi”
  • Storyboards and concept art by Masaaki Yuasa
  • Complete Mind Game manga by Robin Nishi
  • Illustrated Postcards

Masaaki Yuasa’s adaptation of Robin Nishi’s little known manga is precisely the kind of bold vision that one should expect from a first feature.  Yuasa’s film is a madcap, hallucinogenic ego/acid trip into past regrets and future ambitions told from the perspective of an aimless 20-year old (also named Nishi) who has lost his high school sweetheart and failed to carry through on his dream to be a comic book artist.  Nishi runs into his lost love, Myon, and proclaims his continued love for her, but she is set to marry the hunky Ryo.  Myon takes Nishi to her family’s yakitori restaurant where he meets Ryo, Myon’s sister Yan, and their father, as well as a pair of yakuza intent on finding the father and doing him physical harm.  The gangsters throw their muscle around and Nishi is killed in as embarrassing a manner as imaginable – shot through the anus while cowering in a ball.  Nishi is transported to a limbo afterlife where a being called Kami-sama (God) directs him to a portal where his existence will be concluded.  Nishi rejects the offer and desperately runs to an opposite portal that would return him to life.  Impressed by his determination, Kami-sama allows Nishi to return to the moment before his death and Nishi kills one of the gangsters, escapes with Myon and Yan in the yakuza’s car, and drives the car off the bridge to escape a horde of pursuing gangsters, only to be swallowed by a massive whale.  There, the trio meet an old man who has been trapped within the whale for more than 30 years.  They live with him in his elaborate home of hanging platforms and begin to reconsider their lives.  Myon begins to swim, a practice she gave up when she began to develop breasts (which are now sizable), while Yan experiments in art and dance.  Nishi practices drawing manga and becomes sexually intimate with Myon.  Together, they all agree that their ambitions require they escape the whale (which may be dying), and the group effect a plan to construct a motor boat using the engine and fuel of the car they arrived in.  Mind Game culminates in a bravura climax – a ten-minute montage cutting their efforts to surmount the rushing waterfall pouring in from the whale’s maw against an array of images canvassing their lofty dreams and aspirations beyond the whale’s interior.  It is as exhilarating a sequence as one is likely to witness and a fitting culmination to the film’s message of “living your life to its maximum potential.”

The comparison of Mind Game to Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) by acclaimed American animator Bill Plympton is an interesting one.  The invocation of Kane is shorthand for describing a work as a masterpiece, but Plympton goes farther, using Welles’s film to describe Mind Game as a certain kind of masterpiece.  He goes on, “It is such an ambitious and visually unique film.  It’s just full of action and full of crazy ideas and surrealism and humour and just beautiful, beautiful craftsmanship.”  Plympton hails Mind Game for its technical inventiveness and the impact of Yuasa’s creativity on his storytelling.  While many focus on Citizen Kane‘s flashback structure, its connection to real life newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Welles’s stellar Mercury Theatre Cast, and the director’s own cult of personality, Kane‘s place as an achievement in special effects is often missed, yet the film is loaded with virtually every visual trick available at the time – matte shots, miniatures, invisible wipes, crane shots, close-ups, deep focus, forced perspectives, even shadow puppets and that crazy superimposed cockatoo!  Yuasa’s Mind Game (a first feature much like Welles’s Citizen Kane) similarly blends all manner of animated forms to create an eye-catching and highly original film that breaks the mold for anime.  Mind Game uses traditional flat animation, CGI, and even coloured live-action footage of the voice actors all within a single narrative, creating a stylistic array usually reserved for anthology films.  Further, Yuasa prefers in Mind Game a rough, sketchy style uncharacteristic to Japanese animation and appearing more consistent to European works.  Yet, for the film’s frenetic pace and varied visuals, Yuasa employs his multitude of techniques methodically, reserving his more disjunctive elements (such as the live-action footage) for Mind Game‘s grimmer portions prior to Nishi, Myon, and Yan’s entering the whale.  For the remainder of the film, where Mind Game‘s characters engage in self-reflection and experimentation, Yuasa settles into his more traditional and less disruptive flat style, preferring to use colour, movement, and distortion within that format to visually explore his characters’ spiritual growth, while still preserving its expressive, experimental sensibility.

It might also be noted that Mind Game and Citizen Kane are not merely ambitious films, but are also films about ambition.  Kane considers the consequences of achieving your ambitions early and how success calcifies ideals into entitlement, inflexibility, and isolation.  In the case of Mind Game, ambition is not a default position, but rather an ethic that must be put into force.  Yuasa describes a nuance in his treatment of ambition different from the original manga, stating:

The original manga says, “Do it!  Go for it! Don’t let anything stop you!  You can do anything if you try!”  Well, I personally don’t have the confidence to go that far, so I sort of reined in the message a bit.  So it’s still “You can do anything if you try!” but tempered a bit; I have him slam headlong into a wall afterwards.  Even if you fail, the important thing is to try.  The result isn’t important.  The important thing is to enjoy the process of striving.

Looking at Mind Game, it’s easy to see Yuasa emulating the film’s message, trusting his own instincts and believing that audiences can be accepting of his unconventional and sometimes inconsistent styles.  Initially, Yuasa seemed right – critics celebrated Mind Game and it won various awards and prizes, including a sweep at the 2005 Fantasia Festival where it won for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Script, won a special award for “Visual Accomplishment,” and came first for the audience prize for Best Animation Film and second for Most Groundbreaking Film.  Still, a somewhat lackluster popular reception of the film cooled interest in Mind Game outside of Japan, leading to only a Region 4 Australian DVD (now out of print?) and no official North American edition on hard media.

Mind Game Special BoxMind Game seems like an ideal title for a Drafthouse Films release – a critically acclaimed work of experimental anime that remains as fresh, fun, and impressive as it did a decade ago.  Yuasa merges artistic pretensions with recognizable anime tropes (an introverted young man; a big-boobed young woman; an eccentric old man; various shouted proclamations), epitomizing the label’s desire to break “the barriers between grindhouse and art-house” with “provocative, visionary and artfully unusual films new and old from around the world.”  Drafthouse Films tends to use existing promotional material for its covers, but we must admit to being underwhelmed by Mind Game‘s poster, a collection of characters stacked atop each other over a high-angle, fish-eyed view of Tokyo.  We much prefer the packaging to the Japanese “Special” and “Perfect” DVD editions, and considering we have little interest in a bare-bones edition of Mind Game, we naturally support these designs for a Drafthouse release.

Mind Game Perfect BoxCredits:  The majority of the special features and additional content cited above are taken from the Mind Game Perfect Collection.  We’ve included 3 short films Yuasa has been involved in, including his most recent effort, Kick-Heart (2013).  Yuasa has spoken about wanting to put behind him the darkness of his unnerving Cat Soup (2001), and you can observe that shift in Mind Game and Kick-Heart.  We’ve included an essay by Mark Shilling given his positive assessment of the film and his interview with Masaaki Yuasa in The Japan Times.  Yuasa has frequently been interviewed on his work, and so we’ve put him at the forefront of this imagined package, including a booklet interview.  Our link connects to an interview with Yuasa specifically on Mind Game, but a new interview with the director need not be so specific.

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8 thoughts on “Mind Game (Masaaki Yuasa, 2004)

  1. sp4zz November 21, 2014 / 2:26 am

    Fantastic! I absolutely love Mind Game (and Cat Soup) and this would make one hell of a package!

  2. The Vern November 21, 2014 / 6:40 am

    I’m atill tripping like crazy after watching that trailer. This would be quite the rush in theaters

  3. Neil May 12, 2015 / 1:59 pm

    Is the kami sama edition a real thing? If it is where can I get it? I really want a blu ray of mind game.

    • spinenumbered May 12, 2015 / 2:06 pm

      Sorry, the Kami-sama edition is an invention, just like all the editions discussed here. It’s just a way of paying tribute to some great movies (and offering some well-meant suggestions to those boutique labels out there). To the best of my knowledge, there is no Blu-ray edition of Mind Game on the market, although the Japanese Perfect Collection DVD supposedly contains most of this material.

      • Neil May 12, 2015 / 2:42 pm

        Oh ok, thanks for the speedy response.

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