As it is a subject that will likely come up many, many times in the course of my writings on anime for The Stereogram, Masaaki Yuasa is my favorite currently-living director working in the anime scene. In an industry fueled by pandering (generally to lowest-common-denominator male enthusiasts), he is one of the few people willing to look beyond selling merchandise and expand the medium. Each of his works brim with passion he poured into them; there are few anime directors who are as recognizable, especially not in the modern age.
The Tatami Galaxy, Yuasa’s fourth directing effort, is in many ways a reaction against generic means of storytelling, an issue common in modern anime. Though The Tatami Galaxy initially presents itself in a standard form, with a few notable exceptions, it soon becomes a commentary on formulaic plot design, eventually collapsing upon itself in a fantastic conclusion.
The show opens with an unnamed protagonist (referred to as “Watashi” in the credits, a Japanese first-person singular pronoun) entering college, seeking what he refers to as the “rose-colored campus life.” In order to attain it, he joins a club. Hijinks and drama ensue, assisted by Ozu, a demonic, mischievous classmate and fast friend of the protagonist. Watashi meets a robed man claiming to be a god of matrimony, who tells him that he must seize an ensuing opportunity, lest he be miserable and alone forever. So Watashi screws it up at the end of the episode and the world resets to the beginning of his college career.
Much of The Tatami Galaxy is Watashi screwing things up and the world resetting. Episode one sets a basic formula that the rest of the series followed: Watashi joins a club, Watashi meets Ozu, Watashi strives towards some goal that he believes will give him an ideal college life, a few members of the rotating cast appear in various roles, Watashi meets his love, Watashi screws up, and the world resets. Outside of the first episode and the final two, that’s it. That is the structure, and it is followed to a T. There are other elements in it that change at times, stranger characters and thematic devices that tie everything together: a beautiful Dutch wife, a popular tokusatsu show presenting ideals the protagonist wants to follow, a horse-riding cowboy symbolizing his libido, a mysterious ramen cart that may serve cats in their food, and so on. It wouldn’t be a Yuasa production without a healthy share of esoteric elements.
It’s easy to get frustrated at this setup as the show progresses, which I’m sure is intentional. Watashi makes worse and worse decisions as it goes on. His actions appear more and more idiotic as he continually fails to make the one decision that would break the cycle. Based on the conclusion (which I shall not spoil as it is pure, pure brilliance), it’s easy to assume that this entire structure serves as a commentary on simplistic romance stories and how they relate to our lives.
When examining The Tatami Galaxy’s narrative, parallels to other common tropes rise up. The joints where the individual episodes change mark larger joints where the structure can then be applied to other works. Watashi’s quest for happiness can, in many ways, be compared to Joseph Campbell’s concept of the monomyth. Our protagonist is called to adventure by entering college, seeking the boon of a perfect campus life. The clubs and Ozu act as the threshold, beyond which conflict lays. A few elements spotting the individual storylines may be seen as “supernatural aid”. As each plot ends, Watashi reaches a point where he must meet his revelation, where he must make a choice to gain the true boon for which he’s been searching. But he is locked at the cycle’s zenith, gaining nothing from his journey, experiencing rebirth with each attempt.
One of the prevailing themes of The Tatami Galaxy is that our lives are the result of a multitude of choices we’ve made, merging and splitting, across an infinite span of possible lives that we could’ve lived. Each of the junction points of the tale represents one of these choices, and they lead to the production of different stories and characters. With each reset of the world, Watashi’s choices change, creating different Watashis with different ideals and worldviews, but they all end up choosing a “rose-colored campus life” over everything else. They each have a false boon they quest for that ends up working against their own happiness.
Ultimately, it adds up to Watashi learning that his perfect campus life is a meaningless ideal. Does that make his choices all meaningless, as his ideal life is unattainable? Is happiness unreachable? What is the true boon that lay behind the facade? The Tatami Galaxy wraps up every plot point and question neatly and wonderfully. I’ve rewatched the conclusion many times, and it’s still one of the most emotionally resounding narratives I’ve ever had the luck to experience.
As one would expect from a Yuasa joint, the animation is lush and organic. Filtered footage of shrines and apartments create a sense of alienation as the fluid characters make their way across the sets. Heavy contrast is created between static characters and backgrounds while others move and interact and live and breathe. The music does its job, sitting in the back and adding to the effect when necessary. It works well when it has to, but, outside of a specific song used in the climactic scene of the conclusion, it’s generally not noticeable. The opening and ending sequences are fantastic, and the latter is used to great effect as a symbolic element near the end of the series.
What truly separates The Tatami Galaxy from most romantic anime is not its lush animation, nor its great soundtrack, nor Yuasa’s esoteric sensibilities, but that it has something to say. Its story is dripping with world-worn experience, telling its tale to improve the lives of others, not to be fluff that will earn a few bucks and flow back into obscurity among the ranks of many other formulaic narratives. It is a work of vision, and I hope that in the future it may be recognized as such.