Thanks, Brian...

*Vital Update Dept: The unexpected color sequence in Yotsuba&! Vol. 3 was just great; it’s exactly the sort of effortlessly cool surprise that makes any comic a little bit better. Just from flipping through this volume, it’s clear that Asagi (the oldest of the sisters living next door) is the best character in the series, followed closely by her Mom and Dad (the latter making his long-awaited debut this volume). The passive-aggressive family dynamics at work are by far the funniest things in this book, and offer a vital dose of bitterness to the book’s generally mild outlook. That said, the interactions between Yotsuba and Asagi’s mean friend are pretty great too. Sadly, with the next volume it seems the series will be all caught up to the Japanese editions, though I think the series is still being serialized monthly.

Mind Game

This is not comics; it’s an anime feature film (the official site seems to be down at the moment), from 2004. It’s also not yet licensed for home video release in the US, though it has played several North American film festivals. Most recently, it appeared to much acclaim at Montreal’s venerable Fantasia Film Festival, where it won jury awards for Best Film, Best Script, and Special Award - Visual Accomplishment; writer/director Masaaki Yuasa also tied with Gen Sekiguchi of the live-action Survive Style 5+ for Best Director. And yet, there’s not been very much discussion of the film, though what reviews there are tend to be positive (among them A.O. Scott of The New York Times, though his is a more measured critique than average). Perhaps it’s because Mind Game not only doesn’t play by the typical rules of anime genre conventions (whether the genre in question is comedy, sci-fi, etc.), it relegates its acknowledgement of such conventions to fantasy sequences flittering across the main action of the story; it’s not at all a realistically grounded film, but its flights of fantasy seem to be its very own, madly mixing looser 'alternative' cartoon styles into its frothing visual brew. Contrast this with the excellent FLCL, which was downright Morrisonian in its desire to fully integrate glorious genre pop stylings right into its personal comedy/drama.

But like FLCL, Mind Game is a truly impressive achievement, absolutely worth watching for anyone who can see it, and hopefully destined for a full-blown R1 dvd release. Technically it’s outstanding, though that’s no surprise considering its formidable pedigree. Chief animation production is by the highly-regarded Studio 4ºC, with the always-excellent Koji Morimoto (director of Beyond, the best of the shorts in The Animatrix) positioned among the animation directors. Additional animation work is supplied by such industry heavyweights as Production I.G. (Ghost in the Shell, Kill Bill) and Gainax (Neon Genesis Evangelion, FLCL), and the popular Madhouse Studios later became involved in promotion, if not actual production. The musical side of things features contributions by both Shinichiro Watanabe (director of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo) and the wonderful Yoko Kanno. And writer/director Yuasa himself previously provided the scenario, storyboards, and animation production for the cult classic Cat Soup (based on manga printed in English in the Comics Underground Japan anthology). So there’s certainly no lack of talent behind the scenes.

And yet, even with all of these formidable talents at the helm, Mind Game puts one in the mind of something entirely different, something uniquely its own. Ed Halter of The Village Voice noted a certain Ralph Bakshi vibe at work, and I must strenuously agree. Indeed, Mind Game is very similar in certain aspects to Bakshi’s 1973 feature Heavy Traffic (his best work, btw), in that both films revolve around a semi-autobiographical sad-sack novice comics artist who wanders around an often violent, hallucinatory, history-of-animation-informed environment attempting to win the heart of a top-heavy girl he knows while discovering some things about life and growing a bit as a person. Both films even sport a scene in which the young creator describes a story to another character, which is then presented to us in a different animation style than what’s come before. It’s pretty astonishing.

And yet, there’s never any distracting familiarity to Mind Game, only informed and loving homage. Mostly it’s because Yuasa (and Robin Nishi, creator of the original manga and the model for the film’s lead character) has grown up in an entirely different environment than Bakshi, and has a totally separate set of cultural/artistic references to work from. But also, it’s a matter of experience - Mind Game has some of the best in the business working at it, and it’s quite astonishing a visual achievement. The traditional animation looks great, but there’s also gorgeous cloaked 3D environments (reminiscent of those found in The Triplets of Belleville), sudden blasts of digitized live-action for character close-ups, and gorgeously encyclopedic visual citations; I can’t say I’d quite expected that extended tribute to Disney’s Fantasia to pop up, but there it was, and there’s some extraordinary bits of background business (I adored bit with the nervous gangster furiously trying to roll up his car’s window in the face of an oncoming tidal wave).

But - what’s the movie about? That is the question, eh? Actually, it’s quite beautifully structured, though not easily appreciable. The film opens with a short chase scene, setting up a meeting between our dopey manga artist lead (he’s also named ‘Nishi’) and Myon, a childhood pal he’s always had a crush on. Then, we immediately get a strange, lengthy, fragmented title sequence. The film proper then begins, as Nishi and Myon go to visit the latter’s dad’s noodle shop, manned by Myon’s older sister. Unfortunately, a mean pair of Yakuza soon arrive to extort cash, and cowardly Nishi winds up dead from a gunshot directly to his asshole (with an exit wound on the top of his head). He dies, and his spirit rises to meet an ever-shifting God, a walking omnibus of funny creature character designs.

There’s other forces at work too, though. An Astro Boy-like character (as always, Tezuka remains the real god here) is seen turning back time, and Nishi suddenly decides to make a run back to the living work, managing to defeat his own death and rescue the girls from the whole terrible scene. And then, not to spoil too much, they wind up stuck with a fourth party in A Certain Hideout.

It’s in that hideout, a dank, colorless place, where most of the rest of the film takes place. It’s a daring gamble - Yuasa seems to be intentionally making the film’s visual style as drab as possible here, so that the occasional bursts of fantasy and imagination will have that much more impact, the audience wanting to get out as much as the characters. And indeed, it’s here where the story becomes far more allegorical than before, as all four characters come to terms with their own desires, their own dreams for themselves, their own individuality. Things occasionally become outright expressionistic: a sex scene causes the characters involved to literally explode into sloshes and smears of vivid color, defying the dark environs, shapes and forms suggesting wings and tentacles. Ultimately, the film bursts into a frankly incredible final action scene, which begins as merely invigorating, then becomes entirely outrageous (one character literally has a skyscraper thrown at him), then gradually becomes mixed with and entirely replaced by fragmented visions of the characters’ futures, their potentials exploding onto the screen in defiance of logical plotting and storytelling cohesion.

And then, the fragmented title sequence is played for us again. And suddenly, it all makes perfect sense. C’mon - trust me.

I have to wonder how this project might be received by a larger audience. Surely, the film’s irony-free ‘up with people, up with life!’ denouement is very very easy to sit back and snark away at; I imagine that had the film not been crafted with such consummate technical skill that such reactions would become all but obligatory for some audiences. They probably still are. But this is an unembarrassed film, a fantasy autobiography so positive, so effervescent, that it’s almost tiring in its explosive rejection of all things self-absorbed and naval-gazing. It’s utterly admirable work, beyond being often hugely entertaining. You’ll be forgiven for thinking that an awful lot of contemporary anime is boringly derivative, flat and sleepy. But just as FLCL knocked me awake, this one utterly captured my attention, and it’ll be doing the same for quite a few people in the months to come. I hope more people see it.