Readers Write In #144: The Tatami Galaxy: An absurd love story across universes

Posted on February 17, 2020

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(by Adhithya KR)

Stories are a medium of escape. They let the creator give life to a hundred different lives they might have lived in their head. A chance decision taken one morning while registering for a certain class or talking to a certain person might have changed everything about life. Roads that are casually explored lead to journeys so integral to the identity of the person that any other life seems unimaginable.

But regardless of the choice you make, the road you take, aren’t you still the same old person underneath? Does it matter what you pick at the end of the day?

The Tatami Galaxy picks up on this premise and in a set of 11 episodes of twenty minutes each, it pushes the boundaries of every aspect of storytelling. The anime starts with a nameless narrator (let’s call him ‘I’) who is regretting the day he met his friend Ozu and how his college life turned out dismally because of the club he entered on the first day. He talks to Higuchi, a matchmaking God, about his chances with his junior Akashi and the episode proceeds with a wistful tone. It ends with Nameless wondering what would happen if he could go back in time and live a different life…

His wish is granted. The clock resets and he picks a different club. Again and again, over the course of the show, he experiments with different ways of life – but the basic characters remain unchanged. Ozu is still a scheming rascal who double-crosses him every chance he gets, Higuchi is a stoic master and other characters enter the story who stay consistent but seem fresh with every story. In one episode, Nameless is involved in a caper involving a movie screening from which he flees for his life and in another, he is a spectator watching the same events unfold albeit from a distance. The world is the same, the characters are the same, but the lens keeps shifting as if to explore what the characters would do in this situation. Nameless and his crush Akashi meet, in different ways, in different places, with something holding Nameless back every time he wants to take the next step. The meta nature of his story just makes it funnier for the real audience.

The animation itself seems to be a character of its own, with each episode set in a different genre. One episode is an ideological clash, with cinephiles battling it out over commercial and art cinema. The same characters are allies in another episode – A sports drama that borders on a crime thriller. In yet another episode, a feud carried across generations of students culminates in a ridiculous confrontation.

Live footage, like that of purple light shimmering on a river, or a boiling kettle, are seamlessly sewn in with the animation. It’s almost as if you can reach out and touch it. At other times, fluid characters become rigidly cubical and the Tatami mats after which the show is named slide around in choreographed patterns, casting a hypnotic trance. The caricature-like faces set against the backdrop of a highly detailed world bring back memories of Tintin comics. In spite of the dazzling visuals, the anime succeeds in being emotional at the same time, with a lingering feeling of longing created whenever Nameless and Akashi are on the screen together.

The genius portion of the show is probably when Nameless rewinds a particular point in time across the span of three episodes and though he relates the same set of events in all three, they seem unrecognisable when set side by side. The first one is the hilarious attempt of a sexually frustrated college freshman to remain ‘true to his ideals’. The second one is a “Lars and the Real Girl” type story where Nameless justifies his feelings for a life-sized doll in an almost poetic manner. The third one is Nameless’s search for a mystery penpal whom he has always stood up at the last moment. With distinct visual styles ranging from pastel colours to sharp squares, dark lighting in one narrative versus silhouettes under lightning flashes in the other, the three stories seem like they are happening through the eyes of completely different people inside the same person. It’s the Rashomon effect – but there’s only one narrator here.

The reason this anime is so engaging is that though every episode seems alien compared to the ones that preceded it, there’s always the specter of Ozu the mischiefmaker or the Ramen noodle cart or the Castella cake or the old fortune-teller popping up to tie down things with a sense of familiarity. As the show approaches its end and the bizarre narratives begin to tie up, the question becomes an existential one. Why do we make the choices we make? Is an introvert fond of remaining cooped up in his room only because he knows that there’s a world outside which he can reject? Is what a person needs always dangling in front of his eyes and his inability to grasp it the cause of his misery?

The cathartic ending of this anime completed the journey for me. I’m left with this feeling that I’ve learned something which I can’t quite put into words. Finding the Tatami galaxy on Netflix was probably the best thing that’s happened to me in a while. I wonder, what would have happened if I had chosen something else to watch?