Tatami Galaxy Episode 3 – Waste of Effort
I suppose it was bound to happen, but I’m not exactly wild about this week’s episode of Tatami Galaxy. I can’t quite put my finger on why, although thinking about it has made me question why I like the show in the first place.
I think the main reason is how much it feels like classic tragedy. In every episode thus far, our hero has been buffeted around by the cruelties of human interaction, only to come to a nexus, a point where he will decide his future. And he chooses the wrong path: he falls prey to his human failings and ignores the virtuous path that would make him a better person.
There’s an elegant, straightforward structure to it; it is, after all, a form honed by thousands of years of practice. It’s a morality play, with a simple line between right and wrong, but one that acknowledges that weakness and frailty exert a far greater pull on our decisions than we’d like to admit. Plus, the pathos is that much stronger when it results out of the hero’s own error.
This episode is nothing like what I’ve described above. Sure, the recurring elements are there: Ozu appearing as a mythical monster in the first meeting, the fortuneteller charging increasingly usurious prices, Ozu telling our hero they are bound by a “black thread of fate” that would have brought them together no matter what he did, Akashi being curt and unapproachable to everyone except the hero, who she warms up to and gets him to promise something, which is fails to live up to, etc., but they feel forced in, an obligatory nod at a structure the show otherwise forsakes.
The show begins, as the rest have, in media res, with the sinister campus cycle clean-up crew making off with super high-performance bike our hero has spent the last two years waiting to buy. After the opening credits, we see how he got there: the freshman year spent wasted trying to train his frail body to become a proper cyclist, the sophomore year spent pinching pennies and working sketchy jobs to pay for the best bike he can, only to have it snatched away in a second.
Inconsolable, he turns to his first love, a cheap basket bike he calls Manami, and enters the Shimanami Cup, the biggest bike race of the year. After everything that could go wrong does, including the race winner using his stolen bike, he gets frustrated and makes a day-long marathon ride back home, finally falling asleep, exhausted, sitting in the rain near a bridge.
He is rescued by Akashi, who drags his carcass to the Birdman club, where she is now chief engineer. The Birdman club is a team of students trying to create a device that will allow someone to fly, without relying on propellers or jet engines. It is, clearly, a futile and doomed effort, which is why the club invites our hero to be their pilot. He is, they claim, the only person they could find skinny enough to power the craft according to their very rigid specifications.
But how horrible to achieve your heart’s desire by doing nothing! Does that mean you’ve set your sights too low, made your goals too easy to achieve? Our hero won’t tolerate this, so he enlists Jougasaki from the previous episode to help him train. He works hard, gets in shape, builds some muscles, which makes him far too heavy to fly.
Crushed, he goes out into the night, with Akashi running after him to tell him that she doesn’t think he’s a failure. She only picked him, apparently, because his decision to ride all the way back home from the race in the rain seemed like a futile waste of effort on par with the whole Birdman project. She thought he would be exactly the lazy, shiftless loser they needed to crash a doomed craft into the sea.
Puffed up by this vote of confidence, he goes into the night, where he finds Ozu at the head of the cycle clean-up crew, stealing the Birdman craft. He’s been stealing bikes all along, trying to make money for some secret society, and stole the Birdman flyer because he found a wealthy buyer up north. He asks the protagonist to join him, but just when he accepts, Akashi appears and Ozu flees, making it look like our hero is the leader of the clean up crew.
Akashi demands an explanation, but first the cart the craft is on goes plunging down the hill, leaving the protagonist with no choice but to fly the thing, which ends with him plunging into the bottom of the lake, cursing the futility of it all.
The biggest problem with this episode is the sense of meaningless to all of it. Nothing the main character does has any meaning or impact, with the exception of his all-day and all-night ride back home and his decision to train for the Birdman, both of which turn out to be extremely poor choices.
There’s a good reason for that: this is an episode about wasted effort, about how foolish things are utterly meaningless, no matter how much effort you put into them. And the show captures that, but in doing so, makes for a rather dull episode.
There’s never any hope, never anything but bitter despair. Even when the protagonist is training to be a pilot, his failure is obvious because he’s letting his pride get in the way of doing what he’s supposed to do. That doesn’t really translate well into a dramatic story.
If there’s no tension between success and failure, no chance of success because the success is so meaningless and the character so foolish, then there’s no drama, no interest to the story. It’s just a succession of miserable events.
It doesn’t help that there’s too much plot to cram into one episode. Tatami Galaxy runs at a rapid-fire pace at the best of times, but there’s so much happening in this episode that we never get the chance to appreciate what’s going on, before we’re thrust into something else. It’s hard to feel anything for the characters when you never get a chance to breathe.
Not to mention the character interactions are much more stilted this time around. Watching the protagonist torn between Ozu, the corrupting influence, and Akashi, the pull of virtue, is where the show gets most of its drama. But both are sidelined here, which means neither fills their normal role. Ozu is absent except for his introduction and part at the end, which makes his betrayal essentially meaningless. Sure, he’s there in the shadows, making the protagonist’s life miserable, but he’s not corrupting him so much as screwing him over.
Akashi, who normally seems at least fairly warm to our hero is as cold and detached here as she is to everyone else. There’s no sense of the connection they have in previous episodes, leaving her with nothing to do but drive the plot along.
There’s still a lot to like here, from the consistently imaginative art to the fable on meaningless folly the story becomes, but it’s also frustrating. I don’t mind the show trying to break free of the structure it created for itself—in fact, I welcome it—but I want it to do so while maintaining the existential struggle at its core.
Watch the episode on Hulu here.