Sunday, July 7, 2019

This story has never ended


Still Yuasa's masterpiece, after all these years.

2004 (Japan)/2018 (seriously?) (USA)
Written and directed by Masaaki Yuasa (based on the comic by Robin Nishi)

Spoiler alert: kind of N/A, really, but I guess let's say moderately highish

To start with: I know that, officially, it's Mind Game, two words in English (even in Japanese, it's in English), and hence that's the title I've begrudgingly used at the beginning of this review.  But according to the pair of title cards in the film, replicated on the poster and twice again on the blu-ray case, this is wrong; and so, in my heart, it's Mindgame, no space and one word in English.  No, it doesn't really matter.

In any event, it's a reasonable if not especially exciting or evocative title for the sheer immensity of the film it describes. (It sounds cyberpunky, frankly.)  And yet I don't know what else I would call it, this movie that barely distinguishes—no, scratch that, intentionally does not even try to distinguish—between its fractal explosion of wish-fulfillment fantasies and its characters' actual realities.  In the process, it suggests that life is indeed just a state of mind, a game to be played and enjoyed, win or lose.  And the only thing that I even mildly dislike about the movie is the precise formulation its aesop takes, delivered by barely-glimpsed theme words being texted on a non-character's mobile phone, "Your life is the result of your own decisions."  (It's also on the Japanese poster.)

A hard existentialist outlook, even kind of an objectivist one (also a trivially refutable one), it's nonetheless a sentiment that's contradicted in nearly every subsequent moment, by the altruism and kindness espoused by the film in every possible way, from its loving, understanding treatment of its characters, to its characters' loving, understanding treatment of each other, to every instance of the very thin plot that is, fundamentally, based on the infinite love and understanding of the universe itself: Mindgame is the kind of movie where God literally appears in person (or in persons), and mocks the (or a) hero of the piece, but then reminds him, on his way out and in the midst of granting him a miraculous boon, that for all It can't help but despise him, It is still absolutely on his side.  Ultimately, Mindgame's direct address is supplemented by another text, on the same stranger's phone: "This story has never ended."  Deemed important enough to be repeated as white letters on black before the credits, of course it hasn't.  Properly speaking, it never began, either.  What Mindgame's about, after all, is much, much too big to be contained by any 103 minute movie, or even some arbitrarily long movie (which Mindgame sort of, and necessarily, must be), or, for that matter, by anything else.

And that is, to my eyes, what Mindgame's driving at.  That's the simple, radical, mad, foolish, counterfactual idea at the heart of it, and it's the beautiful, melancholy power of it as a work of art: the conviction that nothing could be big enough to contain the endless possibilities of life, especially not, you know, actual human lives.  And, having accepted that this is terribly, tragically unfair to every last damned one of us, Mindgame, being as altruistic and kind as I've said it is, changes the rules so that, for once, life is fair.

Might as well get into it, then. Which sounds like it should be hard, but, happily, it's surprisingly simple to summarize.  Despite the cosmic scope it embraces and the impossible-to-predict turns it takes as early as the end of its first act, of all of Yuasa's features, Mindgame is the most utterly A-to-Z straightforward when considered in terms of its straight-up plot.  Well, it "begins" (for lack of a better way of putting it), with one more stereotypical loser, dreaming big of breaking into the comics industry, this being Nishi (Koji Amada, and the surname the character shares with the author of the Mindgame manga is so not coincidental that, eventually, we'll arrive upon a crazed, self-satiric fantasy wherein Nishi has adopted the pen name "Robin," and has become the coolest motherfucker in any timeline, this being played for laughs at the expense of character and creator alike).  In addition to the dreams we never see Nishi actually pursue, implying he probably doesn't, Nishi is head over heels in love with his childhood sweetheart, Myon (Sayaka Maeda), who probably loves him back, but isn't willing to beg him to make a move, nor, one imagines, is she especially attracted to his feckless ways (nor the manner in which he stares at her tits), which is why she's gotten engaged to another man.  But they remain friends, and Nishi follows them both to Myon's sister Yan's (Seiko Takuma's) yakitori shop.

Into this awkwardly convivial situation arrives catastrophe in the form of a pair of gangsters, eager to collect on some shady loans and reprise themselves against Myon and Yan's profligate dirtbag of a father.  In the resulting violence, a cowering Nishi gets himself shot directly in the ass in such a way that the exit wound comes out his forehead, which is exactly what he sees, over and over and over, from every possible angle, as played back for his edification by a highly disappointed God.  Though consigned to oblivion, for once Nishi shows real initiative, disobeying God and running in the exact opposite direction of the light.  Approving, God lets Nishi return to the moment before his death.  Armed with both foreknowledge and a bold new outlook on existence (not to mention some shockingly tight glutes), Nishi turns the tables on his killer, and one of the strangest crime adventures of all time threatens to spool up.  But, just as quickly, it ends, all in the time it takes to finish a gonzo car chase that, ultimately, concludes with Nishi, Myon, and Yan inside the belly of a very sudden whale.  Once inside, they're received by a warped but friendly old man, swallowed, like them, some thirty years ago (Takashi Fujii).  And, in a sense, it's here that their life—all their lives—finally begin.

So the first act is more-or-less a prologue, existing mostly to introduce the flawed hero and his friends, and to serve as a barely-credible excuse to get them inside a macrocosm of human existence, whereas the largest part of the movie involves them finding ways to survive inside a tiny hermetic universe.  One great thing about Mindgame is that it could have been a nasty portrayal of poisonous small group dynamics, a "hell is other people" No Exit exercise in ugliness; and it's never, ever that.  Rather than just surviving, they thrive, and even as Nishi begins to transcend further beyond his past life's limitations, Mindgame opens up beyond him to its whole cast, having at least as much time for everyone else as him—if anything, Yan, heretofore almost exclusively background noise, steps forward as the most interesting and creative of their quartet.  And so do they play in their paradise, a weird and fishy Eden.  Maybe my favorite little thing?  The fact that the plesiosaur wears a neckerchief.

And it's where Mindgame, which has never once been ordinary, really gets strange.  Best to back up, and talk about how bizarre it is in general, an exercise in style for Yuasa and animation director Koji Morimoto, co-founder of Studio 4°C and a weird director in his own right (they'd previously collaborated on "Noiseman Sound Insect," which is obtuse and baffling in ways even Mindgame isn't, and I don't understand or like the half of it I saw).  To say "style" is misleading, though, at least without pluralizing it, and Mindgame rapidly reveals itself as a madcap parade of mixed media.  At least four and maybe five whole different kinds of animation wind up demonstrated, each quite extraordinary, each in service of the dislocating, psychedelic effect it's usually going for, and even the most "normal" of them (that is, the one that serves as Mindgame's baseline) remains unlikely to be identified as your usual anime (the closest it gets is in a parody, a recontextualization, or maybe a sentimental pastiche—it could be all three—of Tezuka and Astro Boy).  But it's not just "not stereotypically anime," it's not stereotypically anything, and even the character designs in later Yuasa films prove more polished than the angular, sketchy lines that populate Mindgame.  But all these blocky, simplistic, wavering humans and the hasty backgrounds they occupy are normal, at least compared to the photographs that seemingly randomly replace Nishi and Myon and other characters' faces—though this too is at least slightly calculated, to emphasize moments of crystalline clarity, of collisions with reality through fogs of solipsism and goofiness.

And even that's still normal compared to the appearance of God, too multifaceted to be held by a single visage, shifting by primitive, jarring edits in the most discomfiting way, most memorably with a head made out of a crudely stop-motion animated carp.  And so on; for a movie so stuck in Nishi's horniness (the movie itself has a problem with staring at Myon's tits), it doesn't spend as much time rutting as you'd think, but there's sex in it, and that's yet another explosion of style to add to Mindgame's myriad, rendered in either watercolors or colored charcoal, deeply subjective, exquisitely beautiful, and, like everything else here, more than a little silly.

Then there's this scene, which I assure you is very rad and not actually all that perverse.

Yet despite appearing totally chaotic, I don't think there are many wasted gestures in Mindgame.  Sometimes, I suppose, they're only not wasted because they underline the film's ode to beauty and to color and to the act of creation, even if what you've created is, when described in prose, just double-dutch with absurdly huge prosthetic dicks.  (It sounds obscene, but, hell, it looks fun.)  It comes together in the end—the ultimate expression of its ethos, and the ultimate balls-to-the-wall expression of its style, it at last begins to explain what was meant by that disconnected series of eight-frame flashbacks that Yuasa dropped into the first few minutes without any apparent rationale.

Mindgame, demanding its characters abandon paradise—to return to a life of struggle but, perhaps, more enduring joys—takes its cues from every mystical journey made in the past fifty years, but for once we get a 2001 ending that stands utterly apart and distinct from Dave Bowman's trip into that stargate.  As an unhinged cartoon, it's stupidly hilarious and heartstoppingly thrilling all at once, a headlong kinetic dash in a straight line toward the once-known world that seems like it goes on for absolutely ever—because in a deep metaphorical sense, of course, it does—but also never stops being rapturously imaginative in the ways it consistently turns the film's motif of single-minded running into a series of joyously escalating gags.  And, finally, it really goes beyond the infinite, as it must, and gives the characters whom it loves so much everything.  Not just everything they want, but everything they could possibly be, in an exploding torrent of images and ideas that flows with perfect intuition—even if, by the same token, it can't be totally comprehended without a pause button and the damn explainer on the blu-ray—and which maps a sprawling multiverse that tracks from the early twentieth century into the future and embraces not just our foursome but the whole of Japan (and even the world).  Hell, in the most surprising of Mindgame's many generosities, it even acknowledges that it has to love its villainous gangsters, too, awful as they may be.  One assumes the genius here is (Robin) Nishi's; but it must be the purest and most profound iteration of the ideas about existence that Yuasa has spent a fair amount of his career putting onto film.

It still feels as fresh and overpowering now as I presume it must've in 2004, and there's still almost nothing like it, Mindgame's only kin in animation (and, because it's so essentially a work of animation, that really means "its only kin, period") being Linklater's Waking Life, which predated it and maybe influenced it, and Hertzfeldt's It's Such a Beautiful Day, which came after, and which I suspect was influenced by it.  Besides a few aesthetic links—not, I guess, very strong ones—they all have the same basic preoccupation, that is, with human life and the unfairness of the boundaries placed upon it, especially human death.  Waking Life is an intellectualized talk opera that, fascinating as I find it, is kind of just an excuse to wank philosophical for an hour and a half; It's Such a Beautiful Day is so Goddamned overwhelming I've only managed to see it once even though it's probably my second or third favorite film of the 2010s.  Mindgame is, as I've made perhaps overplain, deeply concerned with life and death, and with life after death (it's entirely possible to read the entire film as the shared death dream of its principals on their way to heaven, or to their next life, or to nothingness; it's also possible to read it as their pre-life bardo).  In some respects it's the warmest porridge of the three.  Delicious porridge, too: because it's fun and funny and a real blast, even if it's got real shit to say.  I guess that's why it's still Yuasa's masterpiece, after all these years.

Score: 10/10

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