A review requested by Nathan Morrow, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

As titles go, Mind Game is perfect: it describes exactly what the movie is and plans to do to its audience (it's also in English, spelled in Latin characters, despite the film being overwhelmingly in Japanese). The 2004 animated feature is a psychological portrait that uses metaphysics, memory, and delirious shifts in perception to keep things from ever making perfect sense, and then having allowed itself to start to level off in its second half, it jumps into a finale that intuitively works but God help you if you decide to apply linear logic to it. I've seen the film three times now, and I'm still not completely sure I know how to parse everything that happens, other than being comfortable in declaring that all of it feels right, relative to where the characters are at any given moment. And that is all that the film requires, given that it is far more interesting in portraying a state of mind than telling a story. It can be best compared to another film that also, coincidentally, first appeared in 2004, an ocean away: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which also places us inside of a character's memories for lengthy stretches of screen time. The most important difference being that Eternal Sunshine, no matter how much inventive camerawork and editing were thrown its way, is still ultimately bound by what actors are physically capable of doing. Mind Game, being animated, is under no such limitation; and it takes the absolute fullest possible advantage of its medium.

The movie was the feature directorial debut of Yuasa Masaaki, with the animation direction specifically overseen by Morimoto Koji, and it is absolutely the movie that happens when somebody who has been kicking around the industry for a while finally pukes out everything he's absorbed into one frenzied blast of inspiration. If nothing else, Mind Game might well be the most-animated Japanese film of the 2000s, utilising at least three absolutely different aesthetic vocabularies as it goes along, none of which are the big-eyed clear line drawings with bold colors that most of us first think of as anime (though there are a couple of dream sequences where old-school anime is broadly parodied). Even within its individual flavors, which range from photorealistic drawings to sketches that feel like a bored teenager's doodles, the animation in Mind Game to any one sort of thing - its most distinctive trait, visually, is the way that the protagonist's whole body can be warped into extreme shapes and exaggerated facial expressions. It resembles, if it resembles any one thing, the similarly intense caricatures of emotions in Takahata Isao's My Neighbors the Yamadas, on which Yuasa was one of the primary animators.

The film's internal breakage is always linked to the strength and nature of the emotional state entered by its lead character, and I guess we should meet him right about now, huh? Mind Game centers on Nishi (Imada Koji), a young man who could charitably be described as a pathetic loser; his career as an aspiring manga artist hasn't quite exploded yet, and his personal life is a shambles, as we find out in the exact moment of meeting him, as he encounters his childhood crush Myon (Maeda Sayaka) in the subway, as she's on the run from gangsters, if in fact she is. By this point, the film has already begun relaxing the normal rules of continuity and chronology, and the opening scenes don't obviously slot into any gap in the onscreen plot. What really matters, anyway, isn't the presence of gangsters, but Nishi's unbridled response to seeing Myon again: he freaks out and remembers how much he never remotely got over her, and keeps staring at her large chest. He is as perfect an embodiment of a sexually underdeveloped manchild as you could ever hope to come across, and everything that happens, happens because he trails after Myon like a lost dog. That's how he ends up at the restaurant run by her sister, Yan (Takuma Seiko), when the gangsters show up looking for the sisters' father (Sakata Toshio); that's how he ends up being shot dead; that's how he ends up impressing God It/Him/Herself with the furor of his desire to live; that's how ends up leading Myon and Yan into the belly of an unfathomably enormous whale, where they spend the longest individual portion of the film's running time cooling their heels and visiting with a peculiar but mostly friendly old man (Fujii Takashi). It's not a normal movie. Don't need it to be a normal movie.

The thing I love best about Mind Game and thing that annoys me the most about it are inextricably yoked: this is a film entirely about Nishi's perception of the world and of himself. On the downside, this means that the whole thing is a bit tawdrily obsessed with sex and female bodies (this is a distractingly boob-obsessed film), though sometimes the tawdriness goes all the way back 'round to genius, like the technicolor orgy fantasy in which Nishi uses his phallus as a jump rope, as Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2" plays, like some kind of oversexed remake of Fantasia on acid. So even the downside is only kind of a downside, and the upsides are constant, extreme, and enormously gratifying. Mind Game is, directly as a result of its subjectivity, one of the most radical animated projects made in this century in any ultimately representational style. That radicalism does not mean that the film isn't messy as hell, for it certainly can be. Though it's surprising clear throughout why the fluid style is being employed on a moment-by-moment basis (it is, almost without fail, because of Nishi's mood at that moment, moving between lust, fear, anger, or triumph with visual cues to match). And the digressive parentheticals which make up essentially all of the narrative, no matter how surreal they get in terms of what we're seeing and how much loopy comedy it generates, kind of make perfect sense as the literalisation of Nishi's daydreams.

And radicalism is only so much of a justification for itself; Mind Game is a dazzling feat, a cornucopia of new ideas and arresting, shocking visuals, but it can be a little fatiguing, honestly. After a while, and for me it's during the slowest part of the whale interlude, one begins to wish that the movie didn't feel quite so free to race headlong into every rabbit hole that caught Yuasa's eye. The point of the movie, illustrating a hectic mind in a state of near-constant panic, either romantic or existential, explains and earns the barrage of disconnected moments - I used the word "daydream" earlier, and that's exactly the way the film feels and connects its ideas - but it would be possible to accuse it, accurately, of being bound together by no stronger tie than "cool shit goes down in the most unpredictable ways". Frequently, that's enough: the scene between Nishi and God, who transforms in appearance with every movement and cut, is a marvel of animation and sarcastic theology alike, and it would never have showed up in a film that was exercising any kind of discipline or restraint. The same for the closing montage, which wraps up the fates of just about every character of note in quick bursts of visual storytelling that legitimately can't be unpacked without a pause button.

At any rate, you can't separate out the weaknesses from the commanding, singular strength of how well this movie uses the specific capabilities of animation to plow through its protagonist's head. Subjectivity divorced from physical plausibility is a miraculous combination, and it's enough to make Mind Game one of the essential animated features in the last 15 years. In fairness, it might well be the case that this is an animated film mostly for other animators and animation buffs; but as an animation buff in good standing, I don't personally have any problem with that. It just makes it slightly - slightly - hard to be quite as active in recommending it to the world at large as I'd like to.