Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei (or The Tatami Galaxy) is an anime about a university student stuck in a Groundhog Day-esque time loop. In the span of each episode, our nameless main character (he is referred to as Watashi, basically meaning "myself") goes over the same two years of university, unaware of the loop, each time joining a different club, in search of a "rose-coloured campus life".
Yojouhan is a rare example of a series with time loops where the loops themselves are actually played with. Throughout the 11 episodes, there are several different stories, but many of the episodes focus on the same stories as others. What makes these episodes work is that we see the stories from different angles. In some episodes, we see segments of the story that aren't entirely clear, though at the time are not distracting. In later episodes, these plot points are often explained when Watashi's perspective changes and we see what actually happened. The best part of this, though, is that every episode lends pieces to a larger story. While the series is episodic, what we see effectively falls into place like a jigsaw puzzle, all coming to fruition in the final episode making for one of the most satisfying conclusions I've ever seen.
As a result of this, the first few episodes of the series don't make complete sense. They come off as being more abstract than part of an actual plot, but as the series goes on the beginning is referred to in a way that makes this start a vital piece of the puzzle. The second episode is actually repeated later in the story with only very minor changes, and yet while this sounds boring it actually comes off as a masterstroke in that the episode stays interesting because of all the things that suddenly make more sense as a result. At the same time, showing the episode as second is a necessary touch because it turns into not only excellent foreshadowing rather than a convenient explanation, but is also referenced to by episodes inbetween. However, the start is hardly a throwaway. While not as strong as the rest of the series upon viewing, the bizarre and abstract style make the beginning an enjoyable watch anyway.
On that note, the way the series is presented is part of the genius. Upon starting the show, the first thing that will strike you is undoubtedly the art. The characters are drawn in an oddly cartoony way, using only one-tone colours for the art and having a rubbery kind of movement to them. This seems like an odd choice, but it does help to draw you into the unique world of Yojouhan, and later in the story it even gets used for plot purposes. This is also combined with a lot of black and white live-action shots, wherein the characters are sometimes drawn over the actors.
The strange presentation doesn't stop there, though. One strange feature of Yojouhan is that Watashi is very fond of monologuing, in a way very reminiscent of Kyon. He does so, however, at a very high speed. If the show has a fault, it is this, but it's more of a double-edged sword than a flaw outright. For people who aren't great at reading, the high speed of the subtitles can often make the things Watashi says hard to keep up with, but it's rarely overwhelming. On the plus side of it, it helps to keep the pacing of Yojouhan fast, which keeps the series interesting, an important factor in a series that is driven with an abundance of dialogue (excellent though the dialogue may be).
For a show that could have easily been dull or just weird if it had been handled wrongly, it only makes sense that even more precautions are made to make sure that there isn't a dull second in Yojouhan, as evidenced by the motormouthed narration. What helps with this is that rather than being thrown into an entirely new plot every time, there are a few elements that remain the same throughout every story. The beginning and end of each episode are usually the same, as well as Watashi's meeting with a fortune teller. This helps the viewer to keep a pace with the series, which may have been otherwise hard to do.
The characters of Yojouhan aren't really the focus point, but they aren't an afterthought by any means. While each member of the cast is a vibrant and distinctive individual in of themselves, the actual characterisation isn't really the strong point of the characters, but rather how they are used. Just like the story, each character and their actions throughout the two years are explained slightly more with each new perspective. This ends with more or less every character coming out good, but one character in particular sticks out as being an excellent example of defied expectations, showing their nature as a 3-dimensional character as we see their story from each side fall into place. I won't spoil who it is, but anybody who has seen the series should know who I mean. Watashi himself, while an unremarkable person, is hard not to like for his enjoyable musings and relatable situations, and as the series goes on he does develop well, if not remarkably so.
Of course, the time loops persist for as long as Watashi continues to miss the proper way to live the two years, with conclusions that have been dangling in front of his eyes the whole time. Some of the conclusions become expected after a mere few episodes, but other, more important ones (as well as the entire point of the time loops) are less obvious and yet no less excellent.
Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei is an exercise in series structure unlike anything before it. The way the entire series is built comes off as nothing short of genius. I have yet to see any of acclaimed director Yuasa Masaki's previous works, but Yojouhan makes it blatantly clear that he lives up to the reputation that precedes him. I can only hope Kaiba, Cat Soup and Mind Game are nearly as good as this, because now Masaki has set an excellent example of how to make a truly great, original anime.
For Fans Of: Bakemonogatari, Welcome to the N.H.K!