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Secret Santa: The Tatami Galaxy

This is part of the Reverse Thieves Secret Santa which I’m proud to finally take part in this year. For this post, I picked the reality bending romance The Tatami Galaxy.

I had heard of this title a few years ago and I had tried to attack it over several attempts. I think why I failed the first few times is because I kept coming at the show hoping for a quick coalescing of the plot and its characters. That didn’t happen because Tatami Galaxy doesn’t want you to like it straight away. It wants you confused, bewildered and never sure if you’re coming or going. Then it gets interesting.

Our hero (he’s never given a name, ever) joins Kyoto University in the hopes of joining one of its clubs and having a romance with one of the “raven-haired” girls in it. It doesn’t matter to him which club. In the long run, he probably should have picked one and stuck with it. Because soon after he joins he meets Ozu, a kind of horrible troll human who looks like a friend on the surface but every time he tangles with the student, the student comes off the worst. Now, because his quest for the girl doesn’t work out, he can repeat the choice of clubs every time. But much like Quantum Leap, our hero just can’t seem to get it right.

The confusion of the series lies in the way the cast give rapid-fire answers and dialogue while running at full tilt toward a goal that only they know. The cast are completely sure of themselves but only within the confines of the version of reality that our hero is in. The same character will not give the same dialogue in each episode even though they’re essentially the same character. Jōgasaki is one such character who is seen through the prism of multiple interpretations. He’s a student who runs the film club. In one reality. In another, he owns a love doll that he makes the hero take care of and yet again in another he’s the target of a proxy war against Higuchi, an eight year student who lives in the same flat complex as our hero. At first, you’re not sure where it’s going but only by keeping an eye on events do you realise that all of the versions of Jōgasaki are in a sense the same. In every version, he’s actually got the love doll and in every version he’s a bit of a ladies man. In every version, he’s got a slight grudge match with Higuchi. The same is true for every major character, including the hero, as the series rewards you for sticking with it.

I liked that the main hero who doesn’t really go through a journey of self-realization so much as a journey to just be himself and not try and swim against the current. He learns about aspects of himself as her tries and fails to get the girl. Every version of reality doesn’t work for him because somehow, it’s the method of his getting what he wants that’s the problem and never the reasons for doing it. He keeps getting the same piece of advice from the old fortune teller but doesn’t listen to her, only coming to settle on a plan to win the heart of Akashi when he’s trapped on his own and realises the answer to whole adventure lies in front of him. From there, he runs toward the future, not worrying about coming up short all while incorporating the advice from the fortune teller, the people around him and his own inner voice. Every crazy idea, every alliance made and every piece of information builds toward Hero’s final resolution. Even when everything’s resolved, he’s there to remind you that sure, yeah, things worked out but that’s just the end of this story. Life, as you know, goes on.

I love Ozu and his interactions with the hero. At times, he’s a pain in the arse, driving every piece of bad luck toward the protagonist but as the series goes on, he becomes just as indispensable to us as the hero does.  His knowledge about the hero, his use of blackmail and manipulation and his general knowledge of what’s going within (this is important because nobody knows that reality is being repeated) each reality help make Ozu the anchor point for each adventure. His relationship with Akashi runs parallel to her relationship with the hero as she becomes more important; she fades from being connected to Ozu and more connected to the hero. At the same time, Ozu’s relationship with the hero changes into one of acceptance on the hero’s part that Ozu might be in a worse place than he. Ozu has a secret in the series that the hero discovers once Ozu goes missing and then you realise that the clues to Ozu’s secret have been dropped all of the time. As the series comes to a conclusion, Ozu’s talks with the hero take on a more playful angle as we learn that Ozu is not the central problem of the show but the hero is. Only by becoming friendly with Ozu, does the hero figure out he’s the problem.

Tatami Galaxy is one of the those shows that you really have to see to appreciate that artistry on display as the animation races in tandem with the script sending you through luxury scenes of black and white self-interviews, multi-coloured dream sequences and rapid live action pieces with the colour scheme of the animation to match together.  It’s one of those works where you go for the story but stay put while the kaleidoscope colours run over you. MADHouse is usually known for the powerhouse animation or the directors vision in action (Wicked City, Paprika, Redline) but here, director Masaaki Yuasa works overtime to make you happy you paid money or even paid attention to the work. He works drama in with double take shots, comedy with CCTV-style animation and tears with long take shots. Really, it is a gorgeous looking show and is gorgeously made.

I’m glad that it’s taken me this long to watch The Tatami Galaxy. If I’d have come to it sooner, it would have been tossed on the pile and added to the “anime you’ve got to get around to see” list. But Tatami had me grinning every time the hero wins or loses because I’d get to see how the scene or the episode played out. That hasn’t happened in a long time for me in anime. I’m glad I waited.

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