Tatami Galaxy Episode 4 – Round and Round
It’s only the fourth episode and already Tatami Galaxy is ruthlessly subverting the formula it has established. Little of the structure that has been in place over the last three episodes is there. Our hero doesn’t join a club, for example, he becomes a disciple of Higuchi, an 8th year student who has played an influential role in every previous episode so far.
What this role means is that he and Ozu play pranks on Jougasaki, Higuchi’s nemesis, and act as Higuchi’s servant. There’s only a weak mention of the golden dream the protagonist has had for his college years in previous episodes, but they quickly give way to acceptance of his fate, which, he eventually realizes is to take up the mantle of his master.
That is the dramatic tension of the episode: will the protagonist continue leading a worthless, lazy life like his master, or can he escape this life of pettiness and do something worthwhile, like date Akashi? The answer, of course, is no.
In fact, our hero’s fate is much worse than even he could have thought. Jougasaki and Higuchi have been caught up in a much larger war of pranks and petty comeuppances dating back to time immemorial.
In each generation, two friends wage war on each other, while training others to be their successors. The protagonist and Ozu (secretly a double agent for Jougasaki) are fated to fight the same unending battle. There’s nothing our hero can do to get out of it, either, because Ozu is of course completely game for a war of trivial cruelties: it’s what he was born to do.
On the surface, the episode falls flat. The struggle of virtue versus human nature at the heart of each episode so far is still here, but the choice is so obvious and easily avoidable that the main character is impossible to sympathize with. It’s easy to understand lacking the courage to tell your feelings to the girl you like, or to suppress the desire for revenge; resisting the temptation to play cheap tricks on people isn’t nearly as universal a struggle.
Even if you abstract it and say the episode is about laziness, the show doesn’t play up the drama of it nearly enough. It never makes it seem like the protagonist has a choice to live anything but a life of laziness. Akashi is presented as a romantic option, a way out of it, like she has been before, but she’s so absent from the episode and it’s portrayed in such a way that it doesn’t seem like a way out at all, just a mindless fantasy delaying the inevitable.
But this is the very thing that makes this episode clever: it’s playing off your knowledge of what’s going to happen. You already know the formula, so your mind fills in the blanks.
There isn’t any flashback for Akashi, for example: she plays another disciple, but her presence here feels forced, an undeveloped character who’s supposed to be a love interest but who, based purely on this episode, seems like a noncharacter. But that’s exactly the point. You already know who she is because you’ve seen the previous episodes (in theory, at least).
Every character is and remains consistent from episode to episode. The circumstance change: what our protagonist does with his spare time, the basic structure of his misfortune, but the episode even calls that into question.
You see, events from previous episodes are referenced here like they actually happened. The main character and Ozu shot fireworks at the couples on the river, the libelous film about Jougasaki was made, Higuchi won the big bicycle race.
Every episode since the first has given hints that there was some sort of continuity despite the time rewinding, but never to this degree. These characters and events are all referenced, to the point where this episode doesn’t make sense without having seen the previous ones. You’re expected to know and understand characters and relationships that aren’t (or barely) explained, but which form the crux of the plot.
It’s a brilliant way to add continuity to a show where time is literally rewound at the end of every episode. Keep everything consistent, except a few necessary elements, and slowly build these together into a world that’s much larger than what you could otherwise fit into 30 minutes of plot. Instead of a linear narrative universe, we get one that’s multidimensional.
I can’t think of another story that’s created a nonlinear timeline the way Tatami Galaxy has. Most stories, even ones with winding, nonlinear narratives like Gravity’s Rainbow or the Illuminatus Trilogy, or convoluted timelines like confusing time-travel independent film Primer, still ground themseles on one of our basic philosophical assumptions about time: that it is linear.
Stories, of course, aren’t required to follow these same assumptions, but every other work of narrative I can think of does. The reason: because that’s how our minds have been trained to think. That’s how we have been taught to perceive narrative, and if we encounter it in a different form, it’s less affective.
It’s like having someone who has never played a video game in their life before suddenly have one thrust in their face. Even if they’re playing the greatest game ever made, they aren’t going to appreciate it as much as someone who has been playing them for years, because they have no framework for understanding it. They don’t have the prior experience for the work to be effective.
I’m sure some would disagree with me, and argue that people have an ability to see Quality more or less without prior experience, but I’m getting on a philosophical tangent here. My point is, Tatami Galaxy is doing something I’ve never seen before in fiction of any sort. That thing makes it less effective as a dramatic work, but I’m more interested than ever in seeing where this is all going.
Watch this episode here.