Animators have always had a thing for Surrealism, going back to Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” in 1934 and beyond. (Disney, in fact, collaborated with the most notorious Surrealist of all, Salvador Dali, on 1946’s fabled “Destino” project.) Japanese animators, however, are the arch Surrealists of the movie industry, and their bizarro characters and worlds make Dali look, if not tame, at least relatively sane.
Japanese animated films for the schoolage masses are more often adventure fantasies than gobs in the face of conventional realism, however. Nobita and Doraemon encounter dangers of various sorts in their travels through time and space, but dream no unquiet dreams, take no mental journeys into the Great Unknown.
Animation, though, is the ideal medium for such dreams and journeys, as Masaaki Yuasa’s “Mind Game” so radically proves. Not intended for the multiplexes — in Tokyo it is playing only at Cine Quinto in Shibuya — it is also not the usual sci-fi entertainment for otaku.
Based on a manga series by Robin Nishi that ran in Comic Are! magazine, “Mind Game” is what we hippies used to call a “head movie,” meaning that its rush of images replicates the experience of ingesting certain mind-altering substances. One sequence, in which God Himself appears in a myriad of guises, from the loony to the sinister, recalls that trippiest of ’60s animations, “The Yellow Submarine.” Like, psychedelic, man.
But this is 2004, not 1968 — and Yuasa and his animators at Studio 4 degrees doubtless have no intention of encouraging anyone’s bad lifestyle choices. (Then again, neither did Walt Disney when he made that other trippers’ favorite, “Fantasia.”) They are, however, quite serious about obliterating the usual psychic boundaries between the inner and the outer, between dream and what is usually called reality.
At the same time, they make a full-bore inquiry into the persistence of human folly, desire and hope, and deliver a full-throated paean to living what Henry Miller called “life on all fours” — i.e., with the sort of headlong freedom belonging to children, madmen and saints.
Their film is by turns silly, frantic and aggressively strange, but it’s also funny, sexy and energizing in a primal way that sweeps critical quibbles aside. Instead of the pounding headache I was dreading, I left the theater with an “I can’t believe I saw that” grin, as though I had just watched someone run a marathon in five minutes, leaping tall buildings along the way. Wrung out, in other words, but flat-out astonished as well. What’s the old hippie phrase? My mind was blown.
The story starts ordinarily enough, in Osaka, with college boy Nishi-kun (voice actor: Koji Imada) chancing to meet the voluptuous, sweet-spirited Myon-chan (Sayaka Maeda) — on whom he had had a childhood crush. Brushing aside his awkward attempts to make up for lost time, Myon takes him to a yakitori joint she runs with her older sister, Yan (Seiko Takuma). There he meets her philandering, impecunious lush of a father (Rio Sakata) and her tall, tanned, beaming fiancee Ryo (Tomomitsu Yamaguchi).
Then just as Nishi’s spirits are sinking into his shoes — how can he ever compete with this hunk? — two yakuza come to collect a debt from Dad and end up blowing poor Nishi to Kingdom Come, in the most embarrassing way imaginable. There his spirit meets a terrifyingly mutable God, who points him in the direction of extinction. Instead of accepting his fate, Nishi tears off in the opposite direction — and finds himself alive and back in the yakitoriya again.
Following the Almighty’s parting instructions to “live for all you’re worth,” Nishi escapes in a car with Myon and Yan in tow and gangsters in hot pursuit. In the heat of the chase, he takes a header off a bridge and the car lands inside a passing whale. There he and the others meet a white-bearded old man (Takashi Fuji) who says, in rusty Japanese, that he has a radio. He has also built a Swiss Family Robinson house in the whale’s belly, complete with all the amenities, scavenged from his ruined ship. He has spent 30 years in this one-man paradise, and it looks as though Nishi and company have joined him for 30 more.
But Nishi, burning with the energy of the recently saved, refuses to let his blubbery prison depress him. After all, doesn’t he have all the time in the world to woo Myon? Well, not really, if he ever hopes to see daylight again. But getting out of the whale’s belly will take even more determination than he needed to escape Paradise.
Just as the God in “Mind Game” changes form the way Madonna changes costumes, the film switches from animated characters to human actors who resemble their animated simulacrums (and also provide their voices). This approach — the real intruding on the unreal and vice versa — is reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s in “Waking Life” (2001), a film in which human actors were animated using rotoscoping technology. The two films are also similar as they both wrestle with ultimate issues, though the lost-in-a-dream hero in “Waking Life” is more inclined to abstract verbalizing; Nishi to concrete acting out. Both are caught in impossible traps, but only Nishi, the eternal optimist, fights with every fiber of his being to escape.
Comparisons with other films abound, including the most obvious (Disney’s “Pinocchio”), but Yuasa — a first-time director best known for his work as a key animator on the “Crayon Shinchan” series — has an unbridled style all his own. It’s crude and lewd at times, especially in the early Osaka scenes when the gags seem to have sprung from the nether regions of Kansai comedy, but it’s also capable of a bold erotic lyricism, as when Van, huge balloons strapped to her breasts and crotch, performs an exotic dance that takes that old hippie art — body painting — into a new, aerial dimension.
At the end, “Mind Game” surges into a realm of pure speed, adrenaline and will, in a long, mad sprint toward the ultimate paradiso. That is, this dull, prosaic, everyday Japan of ours, which has rarely looked sweeter. Dali was never like this.