By Andrew Osmond.
There are some anime whose best advert is their pedigree. Tatami Galaxy is a series by Masayuki Yuasa, the director of the extraordinary anime Ping Pong. It’s based on a novel by Tomihiko Morimi, whose delightful The Eccentric Family has inspired one anime series and will receive a sequel soon. Additionally, Tatami Galaxy has a brashly bravura title song by the alt-rock band Asian Kung-Fu Generation, who also created the opening song for Erased and (probably!) the best Fullmetal Alchemist title song – “Rewrite,” on the last episodes of the original series.
It’s harder to explain what Tatami Galaxy itself is. It’s a show that prompts the reaction “What the heck is this?” from viewers, before gracefully revealing its shape over eleven episodes. It’s a comedy of college life which could be called “absurdist” except that might suggest something cold and detached. Actually one of Tatami Galaxy’s best assets is its increasingly loveable band of characters. Our hero is a nameless student who has endless foolish, sometimes surreal adventures while striving for the perfect college life. Like the series, his life seems shapeless and meaningless at first, before resolving into an exquisite pattern.
That pattern starts with the show’s chief trick, to tell a multi-branching story. The hero is regularly reset to the beginning of his student days, free to choose another route through college. Each time, he chooses a different club to throw himself into: tennis, movies, cycling, foreign conversation (learning that most difficult and illogical language, English), or weird college cults, benign or sinister. Of course, the multi-branch device may remind many viewers of computer games, especially Japan’s Visual Novels, though there are no gaming references in the series. Tatami Galaxy is also structurally comparable to the anime Higurashi – When They Cry (without gore and grue!), especially in how some episodes return to ‘previous’ timelines, revealed from a new angle.
The central character may not be named, but through the show we get a strong sense of his obsessions and frustrations, bound up with his desire to become popular and court raven-haired maidens. But he’s far less vivid than his closest companion Ozu, a slithering, double-dealing prankster with a lizard’s face and an oleaginous, undulating voice. You may recognise the voice of Mew from Space Dandy; the actor Hiroyuki Yoshino was also great as the tanuki-turned-frog character in The Eccentric Family. Then there’s the corpulent yet elegant Higuchi, a mature student who might be a quack guru or the god of love, and is very reminiscent of Britain’s Stephen Fry. Then there are the girl students, Akashi and Hanuki and Kaori. Akashi is proud, but spectacularly averse to moths, in a funny running sight-gag. Hanuki is sultry and Kaori is… well, that’d be telling. Heh heh.
This is a show about young adults, not schoolkids, and many of its best scenes revolve around sex, generally frustrated. If this year’s American film Sausage Party was an adult Toy Story, then parts of Tatami Galaxy play like an adult Inside Out (though the anime predates Pixar’s film by five years). Meet Johnny, a cowboy character who looks suspiciously like a certain Pixar character, and symbolises our hero’s bucking bronco lust (“Just do it!”). There are plenty of other bawdy visual gags, including one in the opening seconds of the first episode – if you catch it the first time, then shame on you! The strand involving Kaori goes into psycho-horror territory, even as the show flourishes its progressive credentials – there’s a good demonstration of how sex and alcohol are a perilous mix for both genders.
As in other anime by director Masaaki Yuasa, the design is the true star. Tatami Galaxy looks very different from Ping Pong (which followed the look of the source manga by Taiyo Matsumoto), but its presentation is fluid, warmly caricatured, suffused with splashy pastels and without a whiff of anime cliché. Galaxy’s main liability is that its first episode looks like dauntingly hard work, especially as much of the story is told through the hero’s voice-over, delivered at motormouth speed. This is a sub-only release (no dub was ever made), and the words and pictures flow so quickly that viewers will be hitting pause/rewind to keep up.
Be assured, though, that Tatami Galaxy gets easier, and funnier, and more rewarding, the deeper you get into it. Like any good sketch show, you end up waiting for particular characters, lines, and variations on a theme (how many ways are there to say Ozu is ugly?). Episodes are retold with the roles swapped between characters; it’s harder for the hero to laugh at a weird sexual obsession when he catches it himself on a later loop. The last episodes become a joyous medley of earlier stories joined up, leading the hero into mind-bending realms evoking Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, yet giving him a glorious new perspective on the here and now. If you’ve seen Yuasa’s brilliant film Mindgame, the connections with Tatami Galaxy will be obvious, though the series stands up perfectly on its own.
Cultural note: Like The Eccentric Family, Tatami Galaxy is set in Kyoto, and several episodes revolve around one of the city’s great festivals, “Gozan no Okuribi” or “Daimonji,” when huge bonfires are lit on the mountains surrounding the city.