Another review from man on the street at the New York Asian Film Festival, Mark Gilson.
For a long time, Studio 4℃ was anime's best kept secret. Founded by Eiko Tanaka, a former line producer for Studio Ghibli, and master animator Koji Morimoto, a veteran of such films as Robot Carnival and Akira. Despite these impressive credentials, Studio 4℃ has remained in the words of Ms. Tanaka "a small, small animation company." Over the years, S4C has carved out a comfortable niche for itself in the Japanese animation industry as a "studio for hire", working on big name projects like, Memories, Spriggan and Steamboy, as well as producing music videos for Japanese artists such as Glay, and an excellent clip for techno artist Ken Ishii's track "Extra", which even aired once or twice on MTV.
S4C's aesthetic has always struck me as one of quality over quantity, working on big name projects in order to fund their own works. Arguably the biggest project they have been involved in was a segment for The Animatrix, which has given the studio some of the recognition it rightfully deserves Stateside. Riding on the crest of that wave of recognition, S4C releases Mind Game, a film I can honestly say looks like no other anime out there.
Mind Game has a lot more in common with experimental animation than traditoinal anime. It feels like hybrid animation, mixing 2D characters with subtle 3D and photographs to forge a visual style that feels more manga than anime. Ms. Tanaka who was present at the screening I attended, basically described using all the elements that were at her studio's disposal in the production of this film. The result is animation rendered with a fresh D.I.Y. feeling that is noticeably different from most other anime productions. Will that turn off some fans of the genre? Well if it does, it's their loss. More so than any animated film I've seen of late, Mind Game takes the visual freedom animation affords it's creators and just runs with it.
The voice cast are all recognizeable Japanese talent, and all pull double duty lending both their voices and likenesses to the characters they portray. There are times, usually in a closeup, where characters faces will morph into the actual images of the people voicing them. This digital rotoscoping made me cringe when I saw it in the trailers for this film, but it's selective use keeps it from being jarring or incongruous. The character designs are partially based on the people voicing them, so when they suddenly turn into real people's faces, it just seems like an extension of these characters. It's a unique way to capitalize on the notoriety of the voice cast in a visual style.
Gone are the typical layers of shading associated with the slick veneer of most anime, with characters rendered in a much flatter color palette. When the characters burst into sudden and vibrant colors as they do throughout the film, it really packs a punch. The story is ultimately a sweet love story. Our hero, Nishi, has a chance encounter with his long lost love, Myon. They go to catch up at her father's yakitori joint, which we learn has been funded by Yakuza money. When Yakuza goons show up, and harass Myon in the search for their cash, Nishi gets between them, and gets shot. He goes to heaven, meets God, and when he's told to head into the light, he promptly runs in the other direction. He comes back and gets a second chance at it all.
The message that runs through Mind Game is really to live without regret. Heavy issues like self-determination, controlling your own destiny, and believing in yourself are buoyed by fabulous visuals to create a new kind of feel-good story. It's definitely unconventional anime, well worth checking out for long time fans and newbies alike.
These days the anime landscape has really changed. Thanks to Kill Bill, Production I.G. has done videos for Linkin Park, and commercials for T-Mobile and Nike, and more than one series in development for the U.S. market.. it's great to see the small studios getting their time in the spotlight. Mind Game is a fine example of S4C doing what it does best. Marching to the beat of it's own drum and creating animation that looks like nothing you've seen before.
Reviewed by Mark Gilson.