Home > Episode Reviews, First Impressions, Tatami Galaxy > Tatami Galaxy Episode 1 – Finally the Anime Directors Are Taking Acid

Tatami Galaxy Episode 1 – Finally the Anime Directors Are Taking Acid

One of the things about watching a medium as talentless and unoriginal as anime is that you constantly have to qualify things. Yeah, sure, Hayate the Combat Butler is funny—for anime, where you occasionally have to be familiar with the formulas of Japanese “comedy” to even understand that something was even intended to be funny. And Toradora’s female characters are pretty well-realized, because they behave in a manner consistent with real girls rather than doing what was precisely calculated (by male anime directors) to appeal to their (predominately male) audience in just such a way as to get that audience to purchase a full body pillow adorned with that character’s figure.

You end up creating a kind of mental ghetto, a protective barrier to justify your interest in such flawed creations. If you can only evaluate anime against itself, you get used to the relentless mediocrity of most of it. You begin to make excuses for the shows, and for why you’re wasting so much of your life on mindless drivel when you could be filling it with so many other worthwhile things.

So when something comes around that’s actually capable of standing on its own merits, it completely floors you.

This very last show to premiere this season, Tatami Galaxy, is just such a show. It’s not just good for an anime; it’s brilliant regardless of how you feel about the medium. It’s the kind of show that can draw in people who otherwise wouldn’t care about anime.

Meet our nameless hero

Part of it is that it doesn’t look like anime. Most anime character designs are pretty standard: you’ve got big eyes, small mouth, crazy clothes and hair. Even if the show is going for a more “realistic look” (no blue hair, eyes only slightly bulbous), it’s still more like traditional anime than the widely divergent character designs in Western animation. Even manga has more variation in its characters.

Tatami Galaxy’s characters all look straight out of 70s underground manga. Their exaggerated animation looks primitive and lo-fi, like it was hand-drawn by one person in a week, but that’s the point. The visuals in this show aren’t trying to perfectly capture reality, just represent it, which is why the best friend of our unnamed main character is drawn like a yokai, a Japanese monster similar to a vampire. Tatami Galaxy never just shows you what’s happening: it weaves conversations between flashbacks and metaphorical representations of the characters’ imaginations and mental states with skill.

This is what Ozu always looks like (minus the Virtual Boy filter)

And it’s consistently gorgeous, even at the dizzying pace it moves at. While the show blends styles, it never feels jarring, and nearly everything it attempts is fresh and original. Even when it’s imitating live action art films, it’s doing so in a way that I’ve never seen in animation. It’s a constant, gorgeous hallucination, but one that seems more real than anime trying to capture the 3D world.

In real life, there’s always more going on in any conversation than just what’s happening on the surface, especially when romance is involved—one’s past relationships, friends and the rest of a whole life’s worth of experience in the past, as backstory. Tatami Galaxy limits itself—in this episode at least—to the two years of college our main character has frivolously wasted so far, but it skips back and forth through time at all times to provide the proper backdrop. It’s nonlinear not for the sake of disorienting, but to place everything in context, to give us as big a picture as we need to know how pathetic its characters are.

This rapid-fire stream of consciousness is breathlessly narrated by the nameless main character, a socially inept loser who has wasted his first two years of college with Ozu, an antisocial trickster with even less social tact. Alienated from the tennis club they join and, eventually, the rest of the college, the two have become “black cupids”, evil spirits dedicated to destroying relationships.

These two are a terror to anyone playing tennis looking to get lucky. Wait, what?

All this hatred towards romance naturally stems from the fact that ol’ nameless secretly wants a girlfriend of his own. But the only girl he seems to know is Akashi, an engineering student a year younger than him and about as cold and distant as he is. Still, she seems fairly warm towards him, if only he’d both recognize that and be willing to make a move.

But our hero is a shy young man, inexperienced in romance, so he remains oblivious to his own feelings. For as much as it deals with teenage romance, most anime doesn’t capture the painful lack of self-awareness that naturally comes with falling in love for the first time—it’s too busy trying to idealize young love. Tatami Galaxy, however, is an introspective show narrated by an introspective young man, and knows exactly how to capture that. The main character is tormented by the conflicting desires of wanting to be a normal person with friends and someone to love, and his friends and own natural desire to hole up inside his own shell.

I love Akashi...

Both have a desperate attraction to each other, a feeling that’s cold, awkward and resigned, but still sweet in its own way. There’s no passion between them–our hero admits as much, and can’t remember the promise he made she constantly reminds him of, to take her to a ramen cart only he can find reliably. Still, he eventually convinces himself to make a move. He can’t summon up enough courage to ask her out, though, and ends up being thrown off a bridge, regretting the miserable turn his life has taken these past two years and wishing he could do it all over again.

...because she shoots laser beams out her eyes!

So the whole thing rewinds, and that’s the end of the episode. Cue the ending theme, with its dancing floor plans over minimalist electronica. Is the next episode going to further the plot, or just repeat the same timeline with different events?

That’s the thing I’m most worried about with Tatami Galaxy: repetition. The whole first episode blew me away: the novel character designs, the way the animation blends old-school hand-drawn and modern digital animation with live action backgrounds to make full-blown psychedelia, the quiet, introspective story, driven by its characters’ desperate struggle to connect with someone. I’m worried that instead of delving deeper, with even crazier animation and deeper probing into its characters, that it will get mired in the same pattern like so many other shows. Except even if it does that, it will still be an accomplishment, merely because the pattern it is repeating is so singular, and so beautiful.

BUUUURNING MAN! (Actually, it says (Actually, it says 'Big'. I guess they couldn't think of anything else to put there)

Even if you don’t follow the show, watch the first episode of Tatami Galaxy. It’s a beautiful experience that is peerless in its combination of bold style and thoughtful introspection—in both the East and West.

  1. aseariel
    May 22, 2010 at 1:28 am

    I don’t know that this will be particularly useful, but the symbol above (大 if you have your Asian characters installed) is actually the kanji for “large, big.” 火 is the kanji for “fire.”

    The show sounds interesting; thanks for the reviews so far. 🙂

    • May 22, 2010 at 9:33 am

      You’re right. I knew I should have looked it up!

      Anyway, it’s been fixed.

  2. ToastyBiggins
    November 2, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    That giant burning kanji is a reference to the daimonji festival in Japan. Every August in Kyoto five massive bonfires are lit in the shapes of certain characters on a mountainside so they can be seen for miles around. I have no idea if this has anything to do with the episode, but I just thought I should mention it. Sorry if you knew this already!

    I’m gonna go watch this show now. Looks awesome!

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