The Tatami Galaxy or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ride

Hey guys, it’s Bobduh. New review today! Hopefully a little less overwhelming than the last, since I have no grand argument I wish to prove on this one. I just watched a really great show and want to talk about it.

The Tatami Galaxy or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ride

The Tatami Galaxy is a dizzying spectacle of an anime. Adapted by Yuasa Masaaki (the extremely distinctive director behind Mind Game, Kaiba, Kemonozume, and recently Kick-Heart) from a novel (a real novel, not just a My Light Novel Can’t Be This Pandering and Derivative LN) by Morimi Tomihiko (the writer of Uchouten Kazoku, which is currently my choice for best show of the year), it’s basically perfect. Not gonna slowroll that – this goes on my list with Madoka and Katanagatari of shows that I couldn’t see meaningfully improved. It’s already there.

The Tatami Galaxy

Writing-wise, the show is fundamentally a very classic story. Watashi (like in Jinrui, the protagonist is never given an actual name) enters college with dreams of discovering that mystical rose-colored campus life, but is swiftly dragged into petty schemes and mad feuds by his ever-looming classmate Ozu. As one potential club and life path after another end in disappointment and regret, the show continuously whips back the clock, using its runtime to illustrate as many theoretical campus lives as possible. Our hero gets caught in a Scientology-esque pyramid scheme, finds himself running an elicit bike-thieving operation, somehow becomes the bodyguard of a beloved mannequin wife, and all manner of wacky, improbable, gorgeously depicted nonsense beside. Through all these potential lives, various characters continuously pop up in a variety of guises, and the way the show uses its nonlinear narrative to both continuously build Watashi’s character and fill out our impression and understanding of these side characters is absolutely masterful.

Masterful is pretty much the word when it comes to Tatami Galaxy – every element of its production glimmers with polish, and the story’s construction is a perfect little tatami box of its own. The show makes no secret of its themes – every single episode, Watashi laments the fact his dreams elude him. Every single episode, Watashi curses fate for all the things he can’t control, and even those he can but chooses to believe he cannot (his ability to rationalize and lack of self-awareness is kind of awe-inspiring). And every episode, a fortune teller warns him that opportunity always lies in front of him, if he would only reach out and grasp it. Literally, in this case – the show’s one omnipresent plot thread is the missing keychain of Akashi, the nice girl from class who seems to like him even though he’s obviously too much of a failure to be worth admiring (his own thoughts, of course). Watashi laments his entrapment within the 4.5 tatami mats of his prison, but our lives are only prisons if we see them that way. Ultimately, Watashi seizes the keychain that’s been in front of him all along, realizing that his dreams of a rose-colored life have only blinded him to the beautifully colored lives he’s been living all along. He no longer projects his failures and personal ugliness outwards, and by embracing Ozu metaphorically embraces all the cracks and imperfections that made each of his lives worth living, take responsibility for his own journey. He gives up on “I’d much rather have a raven-haired maiden than someone who understands me,” and strikes up a conversation with the girl who liked his movies, the girl who enjoyed his silly performances, the girl who wanted to visit his favorite ramen shop. Like Uchouten Kazoku, this show’s answer to the question of the meaning of life seems to be “drink your tea.”

The Tatami Galaxy

But talking about Tatami Galaxy’s story is a poor way to illustrate its greatness. Yes, its themes are resonant and well-portrayed – but Tatami Galaxy is a ride. It will regularly spin through a dozen visual styles in a single minute, combines gloriously abstract representations and actual live footage, illustrates its protagonists’ barreling inner monologue through an endless buffet of visual metaphors, and is peppered throughout with moments of visual/narrative splendor that basically scream “this is what anime can REALLY do.” It is clear the direction and animation team brought all of their love of craft to bear on this show – it’s inventive and distinctive and regularly beautiful.

And all that visual stuff doesn’t exist in a vacuum, either – it is an integral part of the storytelling, and the two compliment each other perfectly. In fact, the number of relevant, intertwining pieces and details can almost feel overwhelming – the show is absurdly dense with character illustration, visual motifs, and verbal callbacks. I could go in line-by-line and point out stuff like how the fortune teller’s changed appearance signifies the protagonist’s acceptance of the common beauty of the real world over the fanciful elaborations of his inner fantasies, or the similar role color plays in both defining characters visually and providing a continuous hint towards how the consistency of their personalities in spite of changing circumstances proves they are more “alive” than the MC (a truth he realizes at the end, when he is finally able to see the color in everyone). But I get the feeling the show would not be enriched by me pointing out every single clever little detail – it is meant to be overwhelming, it is meant to be so rich and smart and resonant that its visual and narrative thematic holism act more as a kind of continuous graceful music than a series of neat asides. As the show would attest, life is not meant to be sought or measured, life is meant to be lived.

The Tatami Galaxy

So yeah, that’s The Tatami Galaxy. A gorgeous, smart, tightly written fable of growing up and realizing life doesn’t have any answers, but that’s the way it should be. It features a distinctive, carefully drawn, and endlessly likable cast, a witty, resonant, and thematically bulletproof story, an evocative and continuously shifting visual aesthetic, and a set of creative adventures so immediately appealing that it’s hard not to just be swept away. Though the story is often whimsical and rarely has both feet on the ground, it is firmly set in moments, emotions, and anxieties that anyone can relate to, and is easily the best representation of the manic unease and thousand tiny lives of college that I’ve seen. I give The Tatami Galaxy an extremely obvious 10/10, and would recommend it to anyone interested in things that are good.

What’d you guys think? Any specific character, thematic line, or motif you found particularly compelling? This show offers plenty to unpack, so I’d love to hear your thoughts.

10 thoughts on “The Tatami Galaxy or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ride

  1. The funny thing is that The Tatami Galaxy isn’t even my favorite Yuasa anime! Check out Kaiba if you haven’t, it’s an imperfect but emotionally devastating examination of love in a world where memories can be switched from body to body. Tatami Galaxy is technically a “better show” but the best moments of Kaiba probably exceeded it for me.

    That said, Tatami Galaxy has been hanging over my head like a specter the whole time I’ve been watching The Eccentric Family. The latter is really great, the director’s doing a phenomenal job considering his lack of experience, and the series wears its heart on its sleeve far more obviously than Tatami Galaxy. But as good as Family is, it’s really, really difficult for anyone to beat Yuasa when he’s at the top of his game. Should I even be comparing the two? Both Tatami Galaxy and Eccentric Family are fantastic and can easily coexist. But I guess that’s how the human mind works: rather than like everything equally we’re influenced by countless biases beyond our control.

  2. I remember on my second viewing that the 2nd episode had a short segment where Watashi and co. produce a series of films. On the first watch, they sound like nonsense, but only on the second viewing do you realize they are exactly like episodes still to come! Touches like this show the story had it all put together more than even one realizes at the end.

    • Yeah, it’s really wonderful how all the pieces of this show reflect off each other both forwards and backwards. The direction clearly facilitates this, but I think it’s also partially just what you get when you base a series off a polished, self-contained novel instead of a serial manga or light novel. I reaaally wish we got more anime based off actual novels.

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  6. This has become one of my favorite anime, and all because I saw it on your list and took an interest in it! Honestly, I couldn’t have explained its appeal better than you did. I have heard people saying that it lacked emotion, and while it certainly isn’t as emotional as other shows, I disagree. You talked about it in your review, so what can I add? It’s a contemplation on the meaning of life. And while being incredibly surreal and crazy in execution, its message is honest and realistic. Just enjoy life, don’ t cling to ideals that are impossible to realize – that will make you unhappy. Many say the opposite, to follow your dreams, but The Tatami Galaxy tells us not to forget to sit back and enjoy the ride.

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