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Mind Game (2004)
20-year-old manga artist Nishi has gone more than a decade without professing his love for childhood friend Myon, who now lives with her older sister Yan and is pledged to be married. Myon's fiancée Ryo meets them at her father's restaurant, where they're bullied by a huge yakuza thug. Myon is assaulted, Nishi is shot and killed (it gets dark in a hurry, folks), and he meets an ever-changing God in limbo. Regretting his life as a coward, Nishi somehow dodges fate and returns to Earth a changed man: he shoots the thug with his own gun, flees the scene with Myon and Yan, they're pursued by yakuza members, get swallowed by a huge whale after driving off a bridge, and are now trapped in the whale's belly with an old man and no chance of escape. Of course, they try anyway.
That's the short version...so if it doesn't sound like a good time, you're better off completely avoiding Masaaki Yuasa's Mind Game (2004). Based on the 1994 manga series by Robin Nishi -- and possibly a skewed exaggeration of his own life, given the protagonist's name and enthusiasm for comics -- it offers a visually inventive and wild ride that isn't one you can just plop down and watch casually. The story, even if you're paying close attention, may not make a lick of sense from a narrative standpoint; instead, Mind Game creates a surreal, existential atmosphere that ultimately celebrates living life to the fullest. This is a film that demands total attention and an ability to make quick visual adjustments: it rarely (if ever) stands still, frequently jumping between animation formats ranging from hand-drawn sketches to varying CGI elements, with manipulated photo collages and a bit of rotoscoping tossed in for good measure.
But those wildly different animation styles, eye-catching as they are, often cripple Mind Game's narrative flow and make it unnecessarily hard(er) to follow at times. I don't mean the occasional cut-away or "inner thought" diversion, which are amusing and rare enough not to overstay their welcome, but the clashing techniques used in close-ups and medium shots of the same character that can make us think we're looking at two different people. It's interesting at first but feels overdone, even within the elastic boundaries of a story that's already a few giant leaps off the beaten path. I'll admit that subsequent viewings made it easier to digest -- I actually watched Mind Game three times before writing this, which is a first -- but these elements are still the most obvious example of "style over substance". Even so, the film's overall aesthetic is off the charts and should absolutely thrill fans of creative, hand-drawn animation: praised by the likes of Bill Plympton (I Married a Strange Person) and the late Satoshi Kon (Paprika) while being compared to the work of Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat), it's a safe bat that your opinion of those directors will probably be a reliable gauge of interest here.
Although die-hard fans of Mind Game may already own it via last year's successful Kickstarter campaign, everyone else can pick it up a little easier thanks to GKIDS' new Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. Armed with a disclaimer on the back that "Mind Game is intended for adult audiences" (probably a good idea, given the distributor's name), it's a long overdue release that offers predictably great A/V specs and a few bonus features that, while somewhat disappointing, at least offer a peek behind the curtain of perhaps this century's most bizarre animated adventure. I'm not aware of any major differences between this release and the Kickstarter Blu-ray -- which is still available, if you've got money to burn -- aside from the packaging, but I'd love to hear any comments from owners of that disc.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, it's obvious that Mind Game was given a new scan for Blu-ray -- this crisp 1080p transfer looks nothing like a 2004-era home video release, as the film's bright and vivid palette absolutely pops of the screen in all the right ways. Image detail and black levels are well-rendered and create a lot of depth, while the varying formats and animation techniques all look as good as possible under the circumstances. (That said, this was my first full exposure to Mind Game, so I don't have a genuine point of reference.) No obvious digital imperfections could be spotted along the way, aside for small amounts of banding that are almost expected on animated releases. But needless to say, what's here is certainly eye-catching and clearly the highlight of this release: Mind Game is a visually-driven production, and this Blu-ray will likely be its best presentation on home video for quite some time.
Not to be outdone is the crisp, aggressive DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix, which is presented in its original Japanese with optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles. There's a lot to follow here: dialogue ranges from quiet conversations to violent outbursts, while a number of panning effects and other elements tend to bounce around at will. Echoes and bustling scenes have a great rear presence. Low frequency is limited but makes itself known on occasion (the climactic escape, for example, surges ahead at full throttle). Overall, it's a fine presentation that complements the loopy visuals perfectly, while the sporadic music cues by Seiichi Yamamoto (one-time drummer for Japanese noise-rock band Boredoms, as well as a versatile solo artist) are mixed well without fighting for attention.
GKIDS' animated interface is smooth and simple to navigate, offering separate options for subtitle setup, chapter selection, and bonus features, with no annoying trailers beforehand and a handy "Resume" function. This two-disc release (one Blu-ray, one DVD) arrives in a dual-hubbed keepcase with attractive two-sided artwork and a matching slipcover. No inserts are included.
There's a decent mix of extras here, but they're not all put together in the most thoughtful manner. Leading things off are three separate Production Artwork Galleries (background designs, character designs, and mechanics/props) with nearly a hundred total pages between them, although there's not much in the way of context. On a related note is a full-length but only partially "complete" Film Animatic that, for whatever reason, is boxed inside an extremely small corner frame (10-15% of the 2.35:1 frame) as the movie plays. Also here is Mind Game's Theatrical Trailer (1:44), which perfectly captures its gonzo atmosphere without giving away too much.
The last and best extra is a collection of Scenes with Director's Commentary (4 clips, 31:26 total) that dissect two sequences from the outside world, escaping the whale, and the ending montage. Director Masaaki Yuasa does a great job of breaking down little details -- ridiculously minute and inconsequential at times, even -- that most viewers likely missed the first (or even fifth) time through, which makes me wish he would have sat down for a full-length commentary. Some segments are even slowed down, stopped, and reversed as he goes into greater detail about the on-screen items. This abridged session is presented in Japanese with optional English subtitles, although the clips are poor quality with obvious aliasing and don't look anywhere near as good as the main feature.
Masaaki Yuasa's Mind Game is a unique, visually innovative adventure that pushes the expanding boundaries of feature-length animation. Those who don't mind sacrificing a clear, accessible narrative will flip for its take-no-prisoners approach to storytelling, although there are times when a few opposing visual styles stepped right in the way of the film's overall effectiveness. Mind Game is the kind of animated production I'd have completely fallen for in my teens and twenties -- but even from a more adult perspective, there's still a lot of like about its enthusiastic approach and obvious lust for life. GKIDS' Blu-ray presentation offers an outstanding A/V presentation but only two or three good-to-great extras -- and though the main feature's limited appeal might make this more of a rental for newcomers, there's a stronger amount of replay value here than I originally thought. Firmly Recommended, but only for select audiences.