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Ten Years Later: The Tatami Galaxy

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My original viewing was nothing short of breathtaking, but rewatching it now has given me an appreciation for how tightly-crafted this entire project turned out to be.

It’s been a VERY productive decade for Masaaki Yuasa, to say the least. Throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s, his unique hand-print landed him a plethora of gigs across some of anime’s biggest names – with animation credits on the long-running Crayon Shin-chan, Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbors the Yamadas and a very trippy segment from Shinichiro Watanabe’s Samurai Champloo. Regardless of his constant collaborations and early works, it wasn’t until the 2010’s when Yuasa would make a name for himself and take the anime world by storm.

So what has Yuasa been up to since The Tatami Galaxy aired in 2010? Well, a whole lot. He created the first successfully crowd-funded anime project, started an animation studio and produced several feature-length films and television shows. His international appeal also skyrocketed, directing his own episode of Adventure Time along with his visceral Netflix debut, Devilman Crybaby. Despite recently stepping down as President of Science Saru (handing the keys to long-time collaborator Eunyoung Choi), Yuasa is still developing a new Netflix show as well as another film. The man has been on his grind for some time now, so I’d say he deserves a nice break. But today’s topic isn’t about the future. No, today we’re rewinding it back to our care-free college years – a time when it felt like the rest of our lives were just beyond our reach, and each day had the potential for something new and exciting. Put on your rose-colored glasses and join me in reminiscing about Masaaki Yuasa’s The Tatami Galaxy.

I think it’s fair to say that the anime we consider our “favorites” changes from time to time. Things move up and down, in and out – and while The Tatami Galaxy rides that wave, shifting places depending on my mood or influenced by the constant barrage of new shows, it’s safe to say that this is the most important anime I have ever watched. Now, why it’s so important has a lot to do with the context of when I first saw it. I watched The Tatami Galaxy when I was a sophomore in college. I was at a crossroads of my young adult life – I had just decided to change majors, dropping basically 2 years of work in order to pursue a lifestyle I would be happy with. That whole process came with a lot of mental baggage. Did I make the right choice? What if this isn’t what I want either? Have I just been wasting my time? Stressors were amassing in my mind, and it felt as if I could hear the clock of life ticking ever so faster with each passing moment. I was at an all-time low in confidence and self-worth. I don’t know if the timing was pure coincidence or if it was fate, but The Tatami Galaxy quite literally saved me.

The Tatami Galaxy is based on a novel by Tomihiko Morimi, who also wrote The Eccentric Family and Night is Short, Walk on Girl (the latter which Yuasa and Science Saru made a film adaption of in 2017). The story follows an unnamed protagonist (simply referred to as “Watashi”, meaning “I”) as he confidently strolls into his freshman year, ready to experience the “rose-colored campus life” he’s always dreamed of. But those rose-tinted goggles don’t hold up in the grand scheme of things. He becomes a complete outcast of his social circle, doesn’t have money, a girlfriend or really anything he thought would come with his ideal college life. By the end of episode one, Watashi finds himself at the bottom of the barrel, wondering if the life he chose to live was the right one. This is when The Tatami Galaxy lays out the blueprint for the rest of this adventure – time rewinds back to the very beginning and episode two begins with Watashi walking onto campus for his freshman year. Our protagonist is stuck in a Groundhog Day styled time-loop wherein he repeats his college experience, joining a different social circle and ultimately failing to live up to his expectations each time. But with each new timeline, it becomes clear that there are elements tying them all together.

Whether he joins the cycling club, the tennis team or the cinema crew, Watashi is always surrounded by a key group of people. His mischievous partner-in-crime Ozu, the cool and collected love interest Akashi, the ‘wise beyond his years’ super senior Higuchi, the mysterious old fortuneteller and several more reoccurring faces. Although Watashi casts himself into a new pond with each episode, the threads of fate have entangled him with these characters time and time again. The Tatami Galaxy is very tongue-in-cheek with its parallel universe shtick, sometimes breaking the fourth wall or paraphrasing plot points for the audience’s sake. But here’s the thing – Tatami Galaxy’s convoluted timeline isn’t the toughest obstacle to maneuver while watching this show. Rather, it’s the dense and lightning-paced monologues that will have you pausing to catch a breath.

Watashi’s speedy, over-analyzed ramblings may seem redundant, but it’s a very important aspect of his character. Our overtly-critical, often cynical main character will talk himself into a corner, out of a situation and around all sorts of logic to arrive at a conclusion that works in his favor. He spits out words as if there isn’t enough time in the world to get out everything he has to say. Although the clock continues to turn back, Watashi’s mind is working overtime to catch up with the world around him. But no matter how many conclusions he draws in his mind, his lack of action leaves him in the same place he started. And in spite of the wonderful characters and clubs that surround him, Watashi sets his impossible expectations of the perfect campus life. This internal dilemma comes to a head in the last leg of The Tatami Galaxy, sending Watashi on a surreal journey of self-discovery.

The Tatami Galaxy isn’t shy about the themes or messages it wants to get across. Quite the opposite – the show is literally hitting you over the head with visual motifs and repeated lines. While Watashi is busy looking for a specific hue that will satisfy him, he continually ignores the vast array of colors that make his life meaningful. In episode nine, Watashi has a conversation with Master Higuchi, asking if there was another possibility he could have chosen to obtain a more meaningful life. Higuchi (voiced by the late Keiji Fujiwara) gives it to him straight – the perfect, rose-colored life he is searching for does not exist. No amount of campus experiences could fulfill such an impossible dream. Rather than deny one path with the possibility of another, Watashi must accept who he is and what he is capable of. Only when Watashi is able to accept all of his different colors, good and bad, will he be able to step forward and grab the opportunity that’s been dangling in front of him this whole time. There’s no point in lamenting over what could have been. In order to enjoy your life, you need to take things in stride, making sure not to ignore the circumstances surrounding you. The past is in the past and the future is unclear, which means the only thing you can do is enjoy the ride now, in the present. It’s a simple message, but reinforcing it over the course of an entire show, through Watashi’s college experience, gave it so much more impact. And watching The Tatami Galaxy when I did…it couldn’t have come at a more necessary time in my life.

While the show’s main theme deeply resonated with me, it was by no means groundbreaking. It’s Masaaki Yuasa’s mind-bending direction that puts Tatami Galaxy in a league of its own, making it a must-watch even ten years later. From Kaiba to Kick Heart, Yuasa’s obtuse camerawork and abundant use of color make each of his productions a psychedelic experience. Consistency does not exist in his vocabulary – whether its animated or live-action, a wide shot or a dolly shot, Yuasa uses all the tools in his arsenal to paint the picture he wants. If anything, his lack of consistency is the only thing that’s unfailing. Many well-acclaimed animators do their best to recreate real-world beauty through animation. But what sets Yuasa apart is his willingness to depict the real world through his abstract lens. His works feel like a transcendence of limitations, as if anime had been shackled down by tropes and guidelines until this guy came along and smashed through that glasshouse of restricted potential. Not knowing what colors await in the next frame, or how Yuasa will visualize a scene makes every moment of The Tatami Galaxy a trip.

And now, a decade later, I sit here rewatching The Tatami Galaxy. At first, I thought maybe the veneer would have faded. I watched Tatami Galaxy exactly when I needed to, and assumed that the magic could not allure me quite like it did originally. But here I am, wondering why I ever doubted it. Aside from a cheeky 2012 apocalypse reference, Tatami Galaxy hasn’t aged a day. Nothing about its stylish exterior or thematic interior have been challenged by the test of time. Having already faced this densely-packed behemoth once before, I was able to appreciate some of the finer details. Visual metaphors I may have missed, clever foreshadowing, and a blatant reference to Night is Short, Walk on Girl.  My original viewing was nothing short of breathtaking, but rewatching it now has given me an appreciation for how tightly-crafted this entire project turned out to be.

If anything, Tatami Galaxy’s relevance is due for a resurgence. As I write this, we’re all currently confined to our own quarters thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak. As we become accustomed to our personal tatami galaxies, there will no doubt be mental trials to overcome. While my college years already feel like a lifetime ago, the anxieties about life and purpose are no less applicable. Once again, I’m able to find solace within the boundaries of Yuasa’s tatami-shaped Tour de force.