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?
StoryDirector 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.AnimationThe 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.SoundOn the other hand, the score functions without demanding or even deserving any attention.CharactersWatashi'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.OverallHumorously 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.
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. Story/Plot: 10/10 Animation/Graphics: 9/10 Music/Background: 8/10 Characters: 9/10 Overall: 10/10 For Fans Of: Bakemonogatari, Welcome to the N.H.K!
The Tatami Galaxy should have been a movie. That's my criticism in a nutshell. While I was watching Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei, I was struck by the feeling that it didn't quite feel like an anime. I don't mean that because it wasn't filled with accidental groping and meaningless drama born from misunderstandings, or even that its art style wasn't generic sparkly eye bullshit. What I realized in the final episode was that Tatami Galaxy didn't feel like an Anime Show, but rather felt like an Anime Movie in every aspect. The themes, the subject matter, the presentation, the art, the narrative, the execution all scream "Movie" and it would have been much better off had it been so. Pretty much every gripe I have with the show has to do with its length. The story and message aren't particularly deep or complex, or even unique, and so there's no need for it to have an 11 episode runtime to examine it. I've seen this premise before, many times. Groundhog day with the twist that the participant is not fully aware of the loop. It's Endless 8. It's not like anything new is being said here. I don't think it's possible to make it all the way to the end of Tatami Galaxy and not end up liking it, but I had to suffer through 5 episodes of boredom before the story became engaging. That's a big crime to me. The show would have been much improved if several episodes, perhaps around 6 or 7 were cut entirely. Another problem with length is that the characters are never very fleshed out, despite the screen time they're given. Like the Endless 8, the first several episodes are the exact same events and circumstances happening under different settings. What I would have expected, and what would have alleviated much of the boredom is if we got to see the characters from different angles through the repeats. If through each repeat a new side of a character was revealed. As it was, we see the same characters presented in pretty much exactly the same way every time. Once we learn the secrets behind Jougasaki, we know everything there is to know about him. We see Akashi in every single episode, and learn practically nothing about her. Nothing that we didn't know from our first encounter with her. The same scenes play over and over and nothing is learned, nothing changes. The show never explained anything to do with the time warp, or the maze of rooms. Why is this happening, how is it happening? Maybe I don't need to know, but what about "The Master" acting the god of love? Was that real? he never makes any further allusions to it past the first episode. It's almost like they forgot they did that and made him into a normal character. Where the show really hits its stride is around the episode where our main character chooses the doll to be his love. Incredibly interesting and surreal to see his psychology break down, this is one of the show's high water marks. From there the rest of the show deviates drastically from the formulaic episodes before it. Even if our protagonist ends up in the same position with the same people because of the same person, the journey is unpredictable and an enjoyable ride. If the show had been like this from the beginning, it would be one of my all time favorite shows. Entertainment is meant to be that, entertainment. It can make you sad, it can make you tense, it can make you excited. If it makes you bored, it has failed. For nearly half the show, I was bored with Tatami Galaxy. However, the show picked up, and the ending was fantastic. The second to last episode is one of the most interesting, engaging, and entertaining episodes of anime I've ever watched. The visual style is certainly avant-garde, and that might score too many points with some people, but to me, it's just decoration. Tatami Galaxy could have been much better. It's flawed, and more than it needed to be. The runtime could have been cut down drastically, to movie length, or the characters could have been fleshed out more. Despite these complaints Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei is a good show.
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