Director Masaaki Yuasa has a talent for capturing the post-modern twenty-something male ripe with paranoia and grossly ill-equipped to deal with adulthood. He did it before in the buoyant Mind Game, in which he taught us to love life, and he's done it again in Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei, which tells us not to take it for granted. Here, his symbol is the '4.5 tatami' apartment, a product of Japanese modernity that can incorporate everything anyone needs to live in a claustrophobic sort of efficiency. But in its simplest form, it is also a box. Anyone who spends their days in a 4.5 tatami apartment is in many ways effectively contained, packaged, cut off.
The main character Watashi (literally meaning 'I') happens to be stuck in a metaphorical 4.5 tatami room because he put himself there. Desperate to package his life into a perfect, rosy university adventure in which he's popular and girls love him, he only ends up encountering disaster. And when things go wrong, he imagines he could have attained said bliss had he joined a different club or chosen a different girl. 'Is this it?' he says in a moment of bitter reflection. 'There's got to be some more meaningful life out there. More rose-coloured, more sparkling. There might have been some university life without a single dark cloud that would have satisfied me.' He reminds me of students during freshers week, who force themselves into unnatural social situations with hundreds of drunk, horny strangers for fear of missing out. All the while, they fail to notice the bloody obvious - that there's a degree passing them by.
Then again, why would shallow and paranoid twenty-somethings ever do the obviously sensible when hiding away in overcomplicated fantasies seems so much more attractive?
Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei shares another habit with Mind Game in that their respective protagonists get multiple chances to redeem themselves. While Nishi dies and comes back to life, Watashi travels back in time to relive his first two years of university every episode. Although undoubtedly the engine that drives the narrative, this gimmick risks leaving some viewers either scratching their heads or, worse, feeling patronised. A Groundhog Day-esque story needs to work extra hard not to lose suspense as its audience essentially watches the same events again and again, and Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei only partly succeeds at this. In my case, the first three iterations seemed the least rewarding. I felt a twinge of disappointment when the second episode showed Watashi screwing up his life all over again, only while in the movie club instead of playing tennis. After the third instalment, I took a long break.
Luckily, nothing covers cracks more thickly than persistent charm and the show's mad situational comedy dispels any misgivings by the fourth episode. Regardless of the repetition, Watashi's pathetic delusions remain inherently some of the funniest tragedies I've seen this side of Welcome to the NHK. Each episode paints a slightly different facet of his university days, usually as they roll unwittingly and naturally into disorder. Best of all, this is a show that has a coherent ending in mind - every rehashed moment represents a vital fragment of the story's mosaic, making the final scene an elegant and wholly gratifying construction.
The character designs have a stylish comic book economy that give the impression the animators completed each frame in just a few strokes. The exception is Ozu, Watashi's friend who has a frightfully amphibious face: a head like a fish's, teeth like a shark's, and unnervingly dark lips set against a pale visage. Occasionally, in his wiliest moments, they give him a wagging fox tail. Other than that, most of the artistry occurs in the background details (fractal patterns in the trees and the scenery made of eerie black-and-white live-action photography), the framing of the shots, and the precision editing, which cement Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei's patchwork aesthetic beautifully.
On the other hand, the score functions without demanding or even deserving any attention.
Watashi's nondescript name seems appropriate considering his mediocre personality and his somewhat gauche, vaguely intelligent, blandly self-centred attitude towards everything. For instance, he's bitter about his lack of romance though he makes no serious effort to establish one, and he expects club members to embrace him when he harbours nothing but contempt for them. His only point of fascination is a tendency to overthink things in gorgeously poetic yet amusingly petty monologues, which flow with the kind of riptide speed that make subtitles damn hard to follow. Moreover, this is a story steeped in Watashi's subjectivity; his observations colour every aspect of the show, from dictating the confused pace of the story with his torrential dialogue, to defining even the characterisation of his supporting cast.
This is particularly the case with the mysteriously ugly Ozu, who triggers the strongest emotional reactions. Watashi's language becomes most emphatic when he talks about his friend, who he describes as being able to eat 'fifteen helpings of people's misfortunes' and having 'a laugh so unnatural it was like he wasn't born with the proper muscles to do it'. More than once, he refers to their relationship as like being tied together by 'a dark thread of fate', which is the long way of saying Ozu is his foil. A shameless hedonist who, unlike Watashi, easily flows with his every destructive whim, Ozu appears like a veritable Loki, a subversive trickster of the most entertaining kind.
That's probably the root of Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei's success - its exhuberant and vivacious supporting cast. Every eccentric twist in the story seems all the funnier or unnerving because they make it so.
Humorously misanthropic, weird and offbeat, but also hopeful, Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei is the perfect antidote for the lies we tell ourselves that life would be perfect if only we could attain a certain status or join a certain social group or just be someone else. Furthermore, the show turns out to be one of the surprising triumphs of 2010. Not that standing out is particularly tough in a year marked for its famine of originality, but I am surprised that among the current trend of aimless moe and gratutious ecchi shows, someone is still making daring, life-affirming programmes about empathetic human beings. Thank you, Yuasa.
Despite being seemingly yet another romantic school comedy, Tatami Galaxy is not one of the same crap you will forget a week after you complete it. There is a lot more going on in it than petty problems common people face every day. It is multi-layered, with hints of science fiction, psychological introspection, and even witty life lessons.
Unlike many series which are showing you something in the first episodes that is not representative of the rest of the series, Tatami Galaxy doesn’t try to fool you about its content. It’s a consistent train of thought coming from a university student that thinks way too fast and way too much to the point it stops being healthy. It is overthinking but unlike many other shows, it is not pretentious since he is simply rationalizing his insecurities instead of trying to pass as wise.
It has a very artistic presentation, which unlike many other series it is not there simply as pretty backgrounds, nor as a trick for fooling the viewer into thinking the show is more than it actually is. The artwork is representative of the protagonist’s messed up mentality and not some poor excuse to make fan service seem artistic.
It is also one of the very few exceptions where the seemingly episodic structure ends up coming together at the end. Despite appearances, every episode is not a stand-alone event with zero effect on the rest. There is even a solid ending, a thing that is very rare in slice of life series and comedies in general.
It is also one of the very few exceptions where time resets are done right. They are always shit because they take away tension by giving the protagonist a cheap way to redo events. The difference with Tatami Galaxy is that it’s not really about time resets as it is about alternative realities and doesn’t let the protagonist know they exist until the very end.
This way they are not overused, they bring together seemingly irrelevant events, and without trying to keep you interested during those events with tasteless fan service. Most anime are all about escapism, with cute girls in an eternally frozen paradise you have no wish to leave from. Tatami Galaxy dares to go the other way; it is not trying to make you feel fluffy inside; it tells you to break free of the illusion. It is cathartic and not otaku bait.
The message of the show is finding a way out of your fear of disappointment caused by bad choices. The protagonist constantly thinks that making the right decisions is all it takes to be happy in life, when in reality it’s how you handle your choices that matters. This is something I rarely see in other series; they just use amnesia and time travel to change choices instead of changing the attitude.
The show also does a good job at fleshing out its secondary cast instead of leaving them as background decorations or counterparts for the protagonist. Nobody is defined by a few simple quirks and is always relevant with the themes. By the end of the series they all evolve far beyond the archetypes they began as.
And even if you leave aside all that, it is still a very good comedy, ranging from slapstick to psychological, and does it all without dragging a joke to last more than it has to, or keeps repeating it in every episode. Also, since the protagonist thinks and talks very fast, the number of jokes per minute is much higher than your average comedy.
This is also what makes some to give up on the show early on, since there is too much going on to keep track of the jokes, or don’t find the comedy good because it’s not the usual juvenile variant. There are even those who find the ending to be a cop-out or consider the symbolisms of the clock and the moths to be pretentious. I am not one of those people since I loved the comedy, I found the symbolisms relevant, the ending was foreshadowed throughout the series, and had a message of anti-escapism which I happen to be a great supporter of.
I find it to be an amazing series, practically flawless in every category, and easily deserves to be called one the best anime titles of all times.
Mind Game (anime movie)
Cube 2: Hypercube (live action Western movie)
Groundhog Day (live action Western movie)
The choices you make might change, but the end result will always be the same.
For our unnamed main character—we’ll call him Watashi—this couldn’t be more true. He’s a college dropout at the end of his rope, eating a meal at the end of the night at a ramen stand. There, he meets a (self proclaimed) God of Matrimony. After this God’s inexplicably large chin tells Watashi that he basically knows everything about him, our hapless main character is sent on a flashback to his not so great college years.
The flashback of his college years zips on by, and so does Watashi’s narration of events. He talks at a thousand miles per hour, and that might keep people away from watching this show since the dialog is hard to follow. Don’t. Watashi is hard to follow, but the show he’s in isn’t. Think of him as a guy being forced to talk about what happened in his past but does so as fast and painless as he can. He’s selfish, and doesn’t care about easing the viewer into his life nor does he care for seeing people as they are.
You see, while Watashi’s lightspeed narration takes over the soundtrack, the way he sees the world takes over the visuals. Every backdrop looks like a cardboard cutout and the characters lack color, but the design choice is deliberate. The design shows the way Watashi sees the world, so focused on himself that what he sees around him might as well be a parody. The easygoing members of the Softball Club, for example, all have the same smiling face, while the repo men of the Bicycle Police (don’t ask) look more like gorilla’s in prison suits. Yes, really.
This narrow focus from Watashi also affects what the viewer learns about the people in his life, meaning not much is learned about them at all. Instead, the characters are closer to ideas in his life. Jougasaki, for example, is Watashi’s antithesis for success, being handsome, buff, and leads the Misogi Movie Club, while Watashi is average looking, scrawny, and barely keeps his place in any club. Jougasaki and his biceps often play the villain role to Watashi, and his other hobbies include boobs, a far cry from Watashi’s sexual repression.
Then there’s Ozu, the wildcard in Watashi’s life, the kind of guy who can be one’s best friend or worst enemy depending on how one approaches life. Ozu’s described as not having a single good trait about him, but as the show goes on he shows a wit sharper than his teeth and foresight wider than his narrow eyes. Watashi—and the viewer—is never sure how Ozu does what he does, whether it’s getting classified information or hijacking a blimp. But Ozu’s also the fall guy, who Watashi blames for the way his life has turned out.
You see, as Watashi is sent on a flashback through his not so great college years, he thinks that his life might’ve turned out better if he joined a different club, so he joins the Tennis Club. He doesn’t just want a good life, but a rose colored campus life. Through club activities, he plans to surround himself with raven haired maidens and reach sweet, sweet romance. But he can’t make any friends, let alone start a romance, and is instead stuck with Ozu. Whether from Ozu’s mischief, Jougasaki’s villainy, or his own selfishness, Watashi ends up not liking where his life ends up, and relives his flashback to join a different club in hopes of getting a rose colored campus life.
And does it again.
No matter what club Watashi joins, the end result is always the same, and he never seems to learn. Do more than a few things always go wrong after Watashi joins a club? Maybe. Is Watashi setting his expectations too high? Definitely. But how else would he act? He’s fresh out of high school and been sheltered all his life. A guy like that is bound to be a hopelessly naïve fool, as he often points out every time his hopes are dashed. But what’s really baffling—or believable, in his case—is how often he looks past what—or who—he does have, like Akashi.
This is because Akashi is that friend, who’s also a girl, who might become Watashi’s girlfriend if he just thought to talk to her more. She treats him more fondly than she treats others, but she doesn’t throw herself at him. She has other concerns, like her engineering, and always tells it like she sees it, able to keep even Jougasaki at bay. She isn’t the companion Watashi deserves, but the companion Watashi needs. That said, the romance is non-existent, but this show isn’t a romance; it’s a story about a guy who wouldn’t know opportunity if it dangled in front of his face.
And while Watashi ignores opportunity, he keeps reliving his college years in hopes of getting a rose colored campus life. Through this, the show becomes frustrating, but not for the right reasons.
For theme, it makes sense for the show’s story to be repetitive. Because no matter what choice Watashi makes, the end result is always the same. The problem is the show’s repetitive execution. The first five episodes have different set-ups, but the opening, middle, and final act of each episode is roughly the same. It tries to be different with each episode, but those common threads end up bringing focus to how similar they are.
On the other hand, the last six episodes take the same set-up, but they play out differently and are only similar in their final acts. They don’t try too hard to be unified, and this lets each episode be its own story while still keeping to the show’s theme, which makes for a refreshing watch. But this begs the question of why the show doesn’t do something similar for its first half. The show is supposed to be challenging, I get it, but until the halfway point it’s not even obtuse; just awfully repetitive.
That repetition also brings down the characters. As characters themselves, they’re all great. But their interactions with each other become repetitive. Seeing Watashi dread his first meeting with Ozu loses impact after the second time, and the scene of Watashi saving Akashi from a random moth can only be cute so many times before it becomes old hat. Until the show’s second half, their interactions with each other become predictable, and the sad thing is it doesn’t need to be.
Maybe the nature of the show’s theme ends up making it too easy for it to become repetitive. But since it was able to keep the story refreshing from the halfway point onward, I have to wonder what this show could have become if its effort were better directed in the first half. It definitely has thematic focus, it knows what it wants to say, and has a great cast of characters needed to say it. It could be an excellent show, but it’s not there yet.
I say “yet” because writing and directing is something that can improve with time. I’d like to see this show remade with that improvement in mind, its effort redirected to avoid being repetitive, to be better than it is now. It DID show the ability to be better than it is now, which makes it so frustrating it fell short of being excellent. As it is now, Tatami Galaxy isn’t a rose colored experience, but it’s definitely an opportunity worth grabbing.
What I Liked: Nice use of a cyclic format to convey a sense of futility and despair. The strong cast of secondary characters. Ozu's characterisation. The fact that each character becomes developed gradually through each "timeline" as they come in and our of narrative focus. Brilliant use of colour, texture and mixed media elements. The simplistic but fluid free-form animation. Each episode is fast-paced but enjoyably easy to watch. The final two-parter was an interesting way of connecting all the story arcs and strong way to end the narrative.
What I Didn't: Narration feels overly fast at times, as if rushing through content in an attempt to fit the episode count. The cyclic nature of the episodes and/or the overall "art-house" feel can be rather alienating or frustrating, depending on your viewpoint. The mid-season three parter is arguably the weakest section of the show, mainly due to a lack of variation and detail that the other episodes had.
Final Verdict: For a show that's essentially a bildungsroman with a strange art style, The Tatami Galaxy is as brilliantly surreal as it is deeply cerebral. There's a surprising amount of detail to be found in this mad little show, from the way it utilises a cyclic narrative structure to the way characters develop and move through the world. It does sometimes risk being too clever for its own good, though, as the fast-paced narration and heavy use of symbolism may deter some viewers.
If you overlook the shoddy animation, which many claim to be an 'alternative art style,' this anime is a masterpiece. It is really entertaining and the story is quite good, although it is very difficult for me to go through because of the art style. Also, while the voice actors are superb especially the main character, with his hypnotic and drawing voice, there could have been more background music so that the audience could get into the story more. This really had good potential if only it had been executed better which is really a shame, however, if you aren't so picky, good ahead and give it a watch.