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.
A man is miserable. Despite all his dreams of a “Rose-Colored Campus Life” filled with raven-haired maidens who dote on him, his social life is going nowhere. He has no girlfriend, his only good friend keeps getting him into trouble, and the circle he joined brings him no joy. So he tries again, and again, reliving his first two years of college life ad nauseum, making different decisions each time, having no recollection that he’s already done this all before. Will the man ever be satisfied with how his life turns out?
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