Patrick Farley once created a webcomic, one of the very best I have ever read, named The Guy I Almost Was. In it, a young man disgusted by the turns his life has taken imagines a radically new set of future possibilities for himself, and uses that as a way to reflect on all the false assumptions that led him to that point. At the end, he finds better things on his own, but he can't help but wonder about that other person he could have become. "Would he envy me? Or would I envy him?" The answer, it seems, is less important than always keeping such a question close to mind, because you're going to get a different answer each time you ask.
The Tatami Galaxy, adapted from a novel by Tomihiko Morimi, the same fellow who gave us the magnificent The Eccentric Family, is a little like that. It's about the way we imagine our choices could change our lives, but also about how who and what we already are narrows down those choices in ways invisible to us. But we are the sum total of our choices, an idea also propounded by director Masaaki Yuasa's soul-stirring feature Mind Game. What's best is how these weighty ideas haven't been used to advance some ponderous, solemn project a la Mamoru Oshii, but a rollicking, surreal, staccato-paced comedy of farcical errors, the kind of thing you watch once to see what happens and then watch again (and again) to tease out all the things you missed.
If I had it all to do over again ...
The nameless protagonist of The Tatami Galaxy is a hapless college student, a guy with owlish granny glasses and an unruly brush of black hair that makes him look a little like author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. He's something of a romantic at heart, and so when confronted with the possibility of joining one of any number of the campus's activity clubs, he forms an obsession with finding the best of all possible choices, the better to have that "rose-colored campus life" he's been dreaming out. His choice of club is complicated by the presence of Ozu, a wormy fellow student with a sniggering, prankish attitude towards everything. (Fans of Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple might compare him to that show's Nijima.) He and Ozu end up using their friendship, such as it is, to ruin the fun of other folks in the club, but our protagonist wants true romance, even if it can't admit it and doesn't know how to reach for it.
One night at a ramen stand in the area, the protagonist (we'll call him Watashi, or "I" for short) meets Seitarō Higuchi, another elder student who passes himself off as a God of Matrimony. Jut-jawed, with an easy smile always gracing a face with perpetually closed eyes, he prods Watashi into following his heart wherever it may lead. The kid's heart is set on Akashi, an engineering student he met at a used book-selling fair a while back, whose aloof and sharp manner have sent many a prospect scurrying for the hills. But Watashi's chances for making his feelings clear to her are scotched when one of Ozu's crazy pranks spirals hopelessly out of control and a mob drives them both off a bridge and into the river below.
Freeze-frame. Rewind. Then the second episode begins, almost note-for-note identical to the way the first one opens. Except this time instead of the tennis club, Watashi decides to join the cinema club, where he once again experiences humiliation and decides to band together with Ozu to get even. The target of said humiliation is the head of the cinema club, Masaki Jōgasaki, handsome and manly, but with enough skeletons in his closet to overcrowd a morgue. Jōgasaki and Higuchi have also been waging a "proxy war" between them — essentially a tarted-up rivalry where each takes revenge on the other more out of the need to continue a tradition than out of any genuine resentment. But as before, Watashi singles out Akashi as the only decent person of the lot; and as before, he blows the chance to connect with her. Freeze. Rewind.
And again. This time, it's the cycling club, where Watashi's unmanly physique puts him at a disadvantage. But wait: Akashi's engineering project is a glider that requires a pilot with as little body mass as possible! This seems like a shoo-in for Watashi to get into Akashi's good graces, but he tries to bulk up to impress her, and ends up engendering yet another disaster. And again: the softball circle, which turns out to be an Amway-like cult where Watashi develops a massive crush on the founder's daughter. And again: an English conversation circle, where Watashi ends up becoming the target of Hanuki, a dental hygienist and fellow-traveler in Watahi's social circle whose affections become downright predatory when she's drunk. And ...
"Groundhog Day!" I wrote on my first page of notes while watching The Tatami Galaxy. But that is as much wrong as it is right. Right in the sense that yes, it's about someone trapped in a loop of their own circumstances, and who has to essentially become a better person to escape them. (Steins;Gate had much the same flavor to it, if an entirely different mode of execution.) Wrong, though, in the sense that the show has a larger palette of ingredients than just the presence of a loop. It becomes, in time, a way for both the audience and the protagonist to look at all the different phases of his life, and for us to come to conclusions about them that might not be visible to him — no, not even when he has, as he does near the end, the luxury of seeing the consequences of all the choices he's made laid out side by side.
Each time Watashi sets out anew, the show takes the time to add or reveal more elements that weren't previously there. This in time nudges the action in a different direction, away from his constant enlistenments with new clubs and towards the complicated web of relationships he has with Ozu, Akashi, Hanuki, Jōgasaki, and even Jōgasaki's "girlfriend", a RealDoll-like creation named Kaori that at one point Watashi contemplates running off with. In another take on this version of his adventures, he ends up becoming a pen pal to a mysterious girl onto whom he can project all his notions of an ideal girlfriend. The whole thing turns out to be a prank played on him by Ozu, with the letters penned by Akashi — but even then he still doesn't connect with her, because he's ashamed of the fake personality he created for himself in those letters, one he never did end up fulfilling in real life.
Then comes the climax, where Watashi elects to join no club at all, and instead spend his college years in his little 4½-mat dorm room (the literal title of the show is "4½ Tatami Mythological Chronicles"). He ends up stuck there, in what amounts to an explicit homage to the movie Cube: Whenever he tries to go outside, or go next door, or even drill through the walls, floors, or ceiling, he ends up right back where he started. But after some exploration, he discovers each adjacent room isn't the exact same room — it's the room he occupied during one of his alternate adventures, all subtly different. Based on the various artifacts he finds in them, he pieces together a view of himself and his friends that comes as great a surprise to us as it does to him.
Could it be possible that Ozu, the prankster, was trying to accomplish something with all of his fiendishness that was just as idealistic and naïve as Watashi was with his attempts to reach Akashi? And even if Watashi does in the end get everything he was longing for, and then some, does that mean he deserves it, or knows what to do with it? Would he really have been a better person if he and Ozu had never crossed paths, or would all the things that lay dormant in him just be exposed another way? The answer the show gives us is a long, sly wink that guarantees a good argument about it between you and your friends over beer long afterwards.
Of the two major talents involved in The Tatami Galaxy, I've mentioned one already, Tomihiko Morimi, whose novel The Eccentric Family was the basis for one of the finest anime of its year. The other, director Masaaki Yuasa, would be legend enough for having given the world his animated feature Mind Game, but also gave us the indescribable (and all the better for it) Cat Soup, and some of the more mindbending moments in Samurai Champloo, Space Dandy, and the anthology project Genius Party.
Throughout all of Yuasa's works, there's the passionate urge to use animation as a transformative medium, to melt reality down and recast it and put his thumbprint on the finished product. When he chaired up Ping Pong, adapted from Taiyō Matsumoto's manga, he took a subject that didn't seem to lend itself to outlandish visualization — table tennis — and transformed it into a hallucinogenic clash of rubber-bodied gods. (I still have to track down his series Kaiba.)
All of Yuasa's trademark touches are present in Tatami Galaxy — the use of forced perspective, the way characters' bodies become fully plastic when their emotions are unleashed, the creative visualizations for things that wouldn't otherwise appear on screen. The best example of this last one is the way Watashi's libido gets anthropomorphized as a kind of cartoon cowboy named Johnny. He (it?) is drawn and animated in a kind of paper-cut-out fashion that's self-consciously different from the rest of the show, including the frame rate, to further distinguish him (it?) as a product of Watashi's mind.
The rest of the show's bright primary colors and strong, simple lines are all derived from the work of Yūsuke Nakamura, a prolific illustrator whose work adorns many a novel cover. Another Yuasa alum and all-around animation veteran, Nobutake Ito — he also provided character work for Ping Pong and key animation for Cat Soup — took Nakamura's original character designs and translated them into goofier, far more elastic animation counterparts. There's barely a shot or a sequence that doesn't writhe with life or bulge out the edges of the frame with energy and invention.
The more you dig, the more you find
When I am disappointed or frustrated with a piece of work, I can't help but think about how it falls short compared to other things in its general wheelhouse. When I'm elated with it, I can't help but compare it to other things in a good way. With Tatami Galaxy, an analogy that came most readily to mind was not with another anime or even a work of literature, but a piece of music.
Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of 20th century music's most envelope-pushing composers, once created a composition called Mantra for two pianos and an array of electronics. At the heart of the piece is a thirteen-tone motif, played in totality twice — once at the beginning and once at the end. In the seventy minutes in between, each of the thirteen notes of the motif or "mantra" is used as the axis around which is staged a whole set of transformations. We hear the piece compressed, inverted, rotated, played backwards, modulated in various ways around each note. Way back when, I wrote a review where I called it "a musical version of Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mt. Fuji. In every picture, the mountain is present, if not always in the form we expect it." The same sort of transformation-around-an-axis happens in each episode of Tatami Galaxy; each time another transformation comes along, the meaning of everything we've seen before is also slightly augmented and expanded. We not only see things from different angles, but with entirely new meanings surrounding them.
Tatami Galaxy was never licensed for physical media in the United States, but Funimation still retains streaming rights to it on its portal in that territory. It's a shame, as it's a prime candidate for being owned on disc and thus protected from vanishing on a moment's notice when the licensing deal expires. That said, a Blu-ray Disc edition (albeit Region B coded) was recently released in the United Kingdom. If you can work around region coding and don't balk at the £54.99 pricetag, it's one of the best investments I can think of unless this title comes Stateside in an edition that can be put on the shelf. I know I plan on revisiting my copy for a good long time to come. The more you dig into it, the more you'll find.