Oof, you guys really chose a brutal one this time. The Tatami Galaxy is one of the most rich and dense anime out there, spectacular in terms of visuals and nearly as impressive in terms of storytelling. It’s likely Masaaki Yuasa’s best work to date, and Yuasa is easily one of the strongest candidates for “best currently working director.” Even just its first episode is absolute madness, a madcap, stream-of-consciousness narrator accompanied by wild, spiraling visuals. The Tatami Galaxy is one of the few shows that starts with a high “difficulty level,” meaning it’s not just hard to comprehend, but even just keeping up with its subtitles demands a high speed-reading fluency. Even just the pre-OP sequence could warrant a page or two of unpacking.
So let’s do exactly that.
The show switches art styles within its first thirty seconds, opening with an aerial shot that falls somewhere between a map and an ancient scroll before honing in on the magic shrine and ramen cart. The first character introduced is also one of the principal characters of Tomihiko Morimi’s other adaptation – the city of Kyoto, a city he clearly loves. Morimi is a classic novelist with clear, specific hangups, pet ideas that range from his fondness for Kyoto to his fascination with identity, young turning points, and the nebulous nature of life purpose. But we’ll get to all of that.
The second style introduced is an unexpected one – actual live-action footage of a Kyoto shrine, that’s simply been color filtered to feel more congruous with the rest of the material. And then we finally get to the show’s most consistent style, a looping, angular design sensibility that feels simultaneously cartoonish and magical, capable of evoking comic whimsy or epic wonder.
The Tatami Galaxy’s style prioritizes color contrast. Its characters are often portrayed in black and white, and if they have color, it is color that echoes their environment. This choice makes for consistently theatrical contrasts, contrasts the show isn’t afraid to lean into – early on, we see a pair of shots that wholly embrace one of the set’s colors before wholly embracing the other. And when a second character enters the frame, we see another use of this color focus, as the newcomer is immediately defined by the splash of purple he adds to the frame. Right after that, a jump to more live action shots demonstrates a third advantage of the binary color scheme, as that choice both helps the live action shots fit in with the rest and makes for far more stirring individual shots. The Tatami Galaxy’s color minimalism both contributes to its aesthetic cohesion and allows for clear visual storytelling flourishes.
The newcomer to the bar introduces himself as a god, and says that he knows all about the narrator’s wasted life. Accompanied with one of the first episode’s most iconic shots, a beautifully proportioned profile emphasizing the significance of this man, we learn that the narrator is unhappy with his life, blames a man named Ozu, and seems entranced by a girl named Akashi. And then, as the paper-patterned trees shake in the wind, we are led into the explosive opening song. Yuasa shows always have great songs.
Following that busy-as-hell opening, we’re truly introduced to the narrator and his mission through another busy-as-hell introductory sequence. As the narrator rambles about his failure to have a rose-colored high school life and college ambitions, we learn a lot more than he himself wants to be saying. In fact, the things we learn about the narrator here seem more reflective of the storytelling in a traditional novel than an anime, something only possible because this show has such a rambling, continuous monologue.
He talks of joining clubs and finding fortune, and through his words we learn he is bitter and near-sighted and not capable of seeing his own faults. He treats social interactions as a game to win, and is thus isolated, and frames this isolation as “no fair, nobody told me the rules.” All the while, his failures are framed in those wild two-tone contrasts, creating a sense of suspicion and unreality. Considering what a blowhard he is, can we even trust his fantasies?
Finally, the narrator meets Ozu, a man he immediately frames as a demon. And indeed, the visuals support this – but at this point, it already seems a little hard to trust this show’s visuals. Ozu responds to these attacks, something we might have considered simply an internal thought, with “you say some pretty mean things” – a line that will echo throughout the series. And then the two embrace their unhappiness together on the far banks of the river from the happy couples, plotting dark plans at a location that’s also a consistent favorite of Tomihiko Morimi (here it is in Eccentric Family).
The conversation here between the narrator and Ozu sets the tone of their relationship. The narrator is always hesitant to go along with Ozu, but not that hesitant. Even though he frames Ozu as the evil imp, it’s clear that Ozu is the one who’s simply having a good time, while the narrator is truly bitter. As loathe as the narrator is to admit it (“my soul would surely have stayed unblemished if not for meeting him”), the two clearly enable each other.
The first attack of the Black Cupids is one of the standout visual setpieces in an episode already defined by visual wonder. The contrast between the sparkling bottle rocket effects and near-black backgrounds makes for a visual feast, emphasizing how much work this show can do with a sparse economy of color. And even though the actual visual techniques are far different, the moment where Akashi calmly takes a sip of her drink as fireworks spiral around her demonstrates just the same effect as something like Kumiko being stunned by Reina. You don’t need to sell a character’s allure in dialogue when you have moments of visual beauty this good.
The episode continues swiftly from there, laying out the various relationships and personalities of the narrator, Ozu, and the freshman Akashi. The narrator’s meeting with the fortune teller is another strong example of his personality – hearing that he “is not blessed with a situation where he can make the most of his talents,” the narrator is quick to agree, happy to hear that someone else understands how talented and unappreciated he is. And yet, the narrator’s admission that he “would rather have a beautiful, raven-haired maiden than someone who is able to comprehend a person such as myself” makes it clear that he is not entirely blind to his own nature. The narrator knows he is a lost soul, but prefers the romance of his daydreams to the routine of his daily life.
The three characters spin around each other, Ozu and the narrator connected by some black thread of fate, the narrator and Akashi connected by circumstance and what seems like a legitimate personal bond. Their few conversations feel very true to a specific kind of insecure youth – Akashi is standoffish but persistent in her affection, the narrator is all bluster and fear. The narrator is the kind of guy who rationalizes his insecurity and loneliness as “everyone else is weak” or “everyone else doesn’t understand how hard I have it,” but that doesn’t make him a bad guy. He’s just young and unsure and kind of bad at everything.
Visual images that will echo again and again appear here for the first time, already attaching themselves to characters and connecting scenes together. The moths, which flutter in the constrained light of the narrator’s small room and terrify Akashi. Her Mochiguman dolls, a symbol of security that also hangs from the narrator’s ceiling. The promise to go the Neko Ramen, and the climactic meeting on the bridge. In the end, after an episode filled with charged encounters and visual wonders, the narrator is left only with regrets. Was this really the closest he could come to a rose-colored life? And if he got a chance to do it all over, could he get it right that second time?
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