The Tatami Galaxy Review

Last November I stumbled upon an exhibit for Japanese illustrator Yusuke Nakamura. The rooms were filled with spectacular multicolored images plastered against white walls, like paint against a blank canvas. Nakamura’s artwork can be seen on various promotional posters as well as album cover art for the Japanese group Asian Kung Fu Generation. There I found a poster for the 2010 animated series The Tatami Galaxy, along with a video advertisement.

Like Nakamura’s pieces, Tatami is vibrant, surreal and imaginative. Winner of the Grand Prize in the animation category of the 2010 Japan Media Arts Festival, it’s a seminal piece for director Masaaki Yuasa, who led the development of last year’s hit Devilman Crybaby. The series is set in Kyoto, Japan’s traditional capital and a common tourist destination. While many shows use Kyoto to show off the architecture, Tatami uses its urban settings as a launchpad for our protagonist’s story.

The Tatami Galaxy Review: There are no Rose-Colored Tatami Mats

Alternative Title: Yojo-Han Shinwa Taikei, Yojou-Han Shinwa Taikei, Yojohan Shinwa Taikei, 四畳半神話大系.
Release Date: April 23 2010
Studio: Madhouse
Genre: Comedy, Mystery, Romance
Theme: Psychological, Time Travel

The protagonist, Watashi (“I” in Japanese), is a hapless college student who pursues a “rose colored campus life.” In an effort to attain this, he joins the tennis club in hopes that it will inevitably lead to close relationships, many shenanigans and potentially a girlfriend. Two years later, none of this comes to fruition and Watashi is left irritated with his errant decision. At nadir he demands a second chance to redo the past two years, to which his prayers are answered and he starts back at the beginning of college. Wash, rinse and repeat for each episode.

While the scenarios change, the cast of characters never do. Ozu, a hybrid ally/foe who always is involved with whatever club Watashi joins, plays devil’s advocate to the protagonist’s choices. Akashi, an engineering major and Watashi’s junior, serves as the primary love interest. Not to mention eighth year students Seitaro Higuchi and Masaki Jougasaki  (let us pray for their lack of student loan debt) who are constantly interfering with Watashi’s objectives, or at least that’s what he leads us to believe.

The answers Watashi seeks are right in front of him and yet he ignores them through illogical thinking. His main conclusion that he constantly professes is how his soul would have been saved if he had never met Ozu. Yet Ozu is helping Watashi engage in rambunctious activities that fulfills his “rose-colored campus life.” Through Watashi’s distorted lens, he only sees a devious inhuman creature bearing sharp teeth, when in reality Ozu looks like an average college student to everyone else.

Deja vu is a featured motif as phrases and scenarios are repeated in hopes that Watashi will act differently in just one of the timelines. While some events feature repeated dialogue, Watashi’s actions vary in each timeline as he scrambles to attain happiness. Jokes cleverly build upon another as well, such as how an old fortuneteller woman who gives the same advice to Watashi and yet raises her prices by 1,000 yen in each subsequent episode.

The supporting cast is rock solid and several members prove to have higher awareness skills than Watashi. His upstairs neighbor Seitaro sings a foreboding song in the 4th episode about the dangers of falling into circular thinking. As a man who lives day to day with little ambition beyond traveling the globe, he’s most comparable to Jeff Bridge’s character “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski. His seemingly aloof, yet sage-like demeanor contrasts effectively with Watashi’s idealistic dream chasing. Seitaro is content with following his course of life while Watashi is always striving for something greater, which only ever causes him added anguish.

Tatami’s most brilliant technique is how it utilizes animation to drive its narrative. As the audience becomes entrenched in Watashi’s universe, reality becomes distorted between animation and a mix of realistic photography. Singular-colored frames replace mixed color palettes, forcing his thinking through a black-and-white filtered lens. Its psychological elements are not to the point where the writers are throwing a textbook at its viewers. Watashi’s struggle to break out of his circular pathology is a common conundrum.

Watashi brings up his role of playing Icarus on multiple occasions and he does it almost too well as he fears flying too close to the sun. The “sun” in this case being his apartment’s overhead light while the “opportunity” is a miniature doll called “mochiguman” that dangles from the ceiling. The doll keychain belongs to Akashi and easily presents a chance for Watashi to return the item and use it as segway into asking her out on a date. Despite Akashi always somehow being involved with his activities and wishing to support him, he’s too arrogant and wrapped up in his idealistic wishes to see his opportunity with her.

Aside from stiff-arming the supporting cast, Watashi also antagonizes himself on multiple occasions. His sexual urges are represented by Johnny, a hilarious wild horse-riding cowboy who is desperate for action, but is constantly discouraged by Watashi’s docility. When Johnny isn’t begging for initiative he’s seen riding horseback on a hamster wheel, representing his perpetual frustration.

The bookends to each episode, the opening and endings, are excellent. Asian Kung Fu Generation blast a nostalgic ‘90s-esque rock jam while the camera speeds through an endless plethora of shoe-box sized apartments in the opening. In each episode’s ending, a haunting electronic tune is accompanied by constantly sprouting tatami mats in muted colors, further playing to Watashi’s circular thinking. In the final episode the opening and ending switch time slots to signal a new beginning for Watashi when he breaks through in the finale.

For non-Japanese speakers, keeping up with Watashi’s blistering speech patterns can make subtitling reading a strenuous chore. In addition, the subtitles occasionally phase in with the white backgrounds, so be mindful of their coloring. As an abstract piece, the repeating dialogue and scenarios can wear thin if the story isn’t engaging. However, none of these factors deterred me from enjoying the series as a whole.

Tatami made a courageous effort to slide into my all-time favorites list, but it comes up a bit short. As psychologically stimulating as a character like Watashi is, I prefer his development to come alongside others who face a similar dilemma in order for it speak to me on a spiritual level. Nevertheless, this is a unique entry in the romance and psychological genres and is worth your time whether you found your rose-colored campus life or not

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