Brain-teasing, wildly unpredictable animated feature — that sometimes masquerades as traditional anime — periodically shifts graphic gears to present a cacophony of varied abstract drawing styles. Storyline, if one can so characterize the wigged-out happenings comprising Masaaki Yuasa’s Expressionistic reverie, revolves around a timid, unpublished manga writer, the big-bosomed girl he has loved since the sixth grade, her flat-chested older sister, marauding yakuzas and an old man who has lived in a whale for 30 years. With imaginative handling, this freewheeling juggernaut of a head-trip, its assorted visual treatments rendered in relative degrees of awkwardness and artfulness, could catch on with hip auds worldwide.
A disorienting stream of unrelated images, some in black-and-white, some in color, some flatly drawn, others rounded and shaded, appear under the opening credits. As it turns out, these snatches belong to the collective unconscious of the major and minor characters in the film.
Out-of-context flashbacks and flash-forwards were a staple of late-’60s New Wave filmmaking, but, save for some early Bakshi fare, animated features have rarely strayed from strictly linear through lines. Hence, Yuasa’s “Mind Game,” along with Oshii’s “Ghost in the Shell II,” impresses with its upfront temporal experimentation.
Even after pic has tentatively settled into straightforward narrative, the most plot-bound moment can still signal abrupt reversals, serve as a springboard for an unexpected explosion of feeling, or trigger a memory flash.
Thus in the middle of an elaborate car chase, a yakuza, one of a horde of mafia goons chasing the hero, sees a little canary perched on his finger. Suddeny, all the surrounding fast action crawls to a near-standstill. The yakuza calls out the name of his bygone pet in child-like wonder just before his car, having plunged off a bypass, is smashed to oblivion on the pavement below.
Even the main characters, first pictured in film noirish poses, change stylistically. Yuasa jump-cuts from figures depicted in typical manga-inspired animation to occasional use of photographs of the characters’ designated voice-actors, the live-action photos crudely jiggered to come across as weird substitutes for the hand-drawn originals (an inversion of Hollywood’s penchant for slavishly modeling animated characters after the stars that voice them). Audiences will begin to grasp what they are in for early on as hero Nishi is shot by a bald-headed, soccer-playing psychopath, the bullet traveling from his ass to his brain and beyond, projecting him into the afterlife where a huge 4-D computer screen endlessly reprises his demise.
There he encounters God and a non-stop mutable showcase of whimsical Sally Cruikshank-like, “funny animal” doodles. Told to walk toward the light where he will gradually disappear, our hero runs like hell in the other direction, the first of many madcap dashes from death.
Returning to Earth a changed man, recklessly driven to live each moment to the fullest, Nishi careens around in hyperbolic heroic mode before being swallowed with car, girlfriend, girlfriend’s sister, et al., by a giant whale.
Pic’s overlong “Pinocchio”-like sojourn, which takes up a full third of the film, sets hope and despair morally see-sawing in bipolar limbo. The leviathan womb space features more sexualized, carnivalesque cavortings, with elongated sexual organs as maypoles or balloons as huge breasts in the creation of body-painted silkscreen animation to enliven the intestinal decor.
Characters’ escape from the depths boasts what must be the longest end run in animation history.