The Genius Adaptations of Tomihiko Morimi's Novels

by Kim Morrissy,

If you're a fan of the anime director Masaaki Yuasa, then you've probably come across the novelist Tomihiko Morimi in some form. The Tatami Galaxy and Night is Short, Walk On Girl are adaptations of two Morimi's novels by the same names, and they also happen to be among Yuasa's most creative and critically acclaimed projects. Is that a coincidence? Absolutely not.

Tomihiko Morimi is one of the most popular contemporary authors in Japan. He first made his literary debut in 2003 when he won the Japan Fantasy Novel Award for Taiyō no Tō (“Tower of the Sun”), and he's continued to produce hit after hit since then. Although he's a versatile writer, capable of morphing his writing style to suit the needs of his stories, I would sum up the appeal of his works as “humorous yet touching.” You laugh and smile at the witty prose throughout, but you finish with a pang in your heart.

Despite the mainstream popularity of Morimi's works in Japan, it's interesting to note that as of the time of this writing, none of his books have been adapted into live-action, which is the more typical route for bestselling novels. Although there are certainly business factors which explain that situation, from a purely artistic perspective, I can see why animators in particular would be drawn to Morimi's works. His vivid descriptions, larger-than-life characters, and supernatural motifs spark one's desire to draw. As Yuasa has noted in various interviews about his adaptations, the only way he can see himself capturing the magic of Morimi's writing is by discarding realism altogether and leaning fully into the exaggerated style of expression that animation can achieve.

Yuasa isn't the only anime director to tackle a Morimi adaptation. Masayuki Yoshihara directed a TV anime for The Eccentric Family at P.A. Works in 2013 and followed this up with a second season in 2017. Hiroyasu Ishida from Studio Colorido directed a film adaptation for Penguin Highway, which will be showing in Japan from August 17. Each director has had a different approach to bringing Morimi's stories to life, but they all share the same proclivity for visual flair.

Let's take a closer look at the novels that have made it to anime so that we can understand some of their fascinating adaptation choices.

The Tatami Galaxy and Night is Short, Walk On Girl

Both of these novels were adapted by Yuasa, and they also share the same setting and some of the same characters, so it makes sense to put them together. The Tatami Galaxy was first published in 2005, and is drawn quite heavily from Morimi's experiences as a student at Kyoto University. The story is about a vain and pretentious third-year university student who considers his life thus far on campus “wasted.” As he goes on misadventures with his mischievous fellow student Ozu, whom he regards as a demon, he tries to search for a way out of his current life but doesn't know what he's looking for.

The novel is actually quite different from the anime, even if they share a similar narrative structure. Each chapter in the novel or episode in the anime corresponds to a different parallel universe in which the protagonist picked a different university club to join, but the outcomes in the two versions are very different. For one thing, there are only four chapters in the book, while the anime has eleven episodes. The anime takes various events and characters referenced throughout the novel and fleshes them out into entire episodes.

But the stories themselves also end differently. Each anime episode ends with the protagonist's failure to win over the girl he likes and break himself out of the cycle, but in the novel, his eventual success at finding love is part of each cycle. It just isn't framed as a goal or accomplishment, but rather as another incidental occurrence. As the protagonist states near the end of each chapter: “I won't bore you with the details. There's nothing to add to a story about requited love.”

Basically, the theme of The Tatami Galaxy (the book) is “it's funny how life works out.” You can see a consistent theme about the connectedness of all people in Morimi's work and how all roads eventually lead to the same place. But the anime is about how you can change your fate once you work out what it is that you want to do. It ends up capturing the uncertainty and confusion of young adult life extremely well. However, I also think that Morimi's angle is truer to life; there's no need to be so hung up about choosing the “correct” path to happiness.

These differences are what make Yuasa's work so interesting. He isn't shy about making changes in his adaptations. “I tried to be faithful to my first impression of the novel,” he once said about Night is Short, Walk On Girl. “I may have misunderstood some scenes or may have had different images compared to other readers. However, sometimes, those misunderstandings can create an entertaining animation.”

His take on Night is Short, Walk On Girl is even more drastically different than the original novel. While the novel takes place over a year, the film crams all the major events into a single evening. By all accounts, the film should have been a mess, but fortunately it manages to be coherent because the concept of the novel is simple to begin with: a girl goes out and meets different people, and all of her encounters have a deeper impression on her than she initially realizes.

Yuasa's portrayal of the world of Night is Short, Walk On Girl is even more surreal than The Tatami Galaxy, which was plenty surreal itself. This is another big departure from the book. There are references to the supernatural in Night is Short, Walk On Girl, like the God of Old Book Markets who appears at the Shimogamo shrine, but it's more magical realist than surrealist. Our heroine never even realizes that she is talking to a god until he says so. The anime, meanwhile, makes it very clear that he's otherworldly from first glance. All of these changes add up to a very different experience that makes full use of the animation medium.

The Eccentric Family

The Eccentric Family is my favorite of the Morimi adaptations so far because it captures not just the mood of the original book but also the tempo. The novel has a gradual buildup to its climax, with the early chapters focusing on immersing the reader into its fantastical version of Kyoto. The anime keeps that narrative structure; all of its original scenes reinforce the novel's goals and are practically indistinguishable from the source material.

The story is about a family of tanuki (raccoon dogs) with shape-shifting powers. They live in modern Kyoto and can blend into human society, but the adventures in the tanuki world go unnoticed by most humans. Although most of the story is focused on the escapades of the Shimogamo family, they also have family drama to deal with, as the father suffered an untimely death a few years ago, and his children are regarded as fools by the tanuki community.

As you may have noticed from the summary, the narrative of The Eccentric Family is emotionally grounded for all of its fantastical elements, so it makes sense that the visual style is toned down compared to Yuasa's adaptations. But it is still quite cartoony, all things said and done. All of the magical moments are rendered with just the right amount of exaggeration, like trains that squash and stretch in motion. None of these key scenes would have been so effective without the practiced hand of Toshiyuki Inoue, a key animator who exerted great control over when to keep the movements restrained and when to go all out.

Some of the best parts of The Eccentric Family are not in the animation or the dialogue at all but in the background art. The Eccentric Family is just as much a story about the city of Kyoto as it is about the characters, and Yusuke Takada's background art captures this fantasy image of Kyoto quite accurately. It is not the same as the real Kyoto - for one thing, the anime is way more sparsely populated - but the soft colors and delicate shading in each shot evoke a distinct sense of place. Director Masayuki Yoshihara said that the team lived in Kyoto for a month to get a feel for the place, and it shows. When you go to the Shimogamo shrine in real life, you can easily imagine that tanuki and tengu could be living there, just as they do in the anime.

Penguin Highway

The film isn't out in Japan yet, but I've been looking forward to it ever since I saw the beautifully animated trailer. The director Hiroyasu Ishida seems to be fond of sweeping money shots where the camera follows the characters during a chase scene, as similar shots appear in the climaxes of Hinata no Aoshigure and Fastening Days. His track record assures me that the film is in good hands. Studio Colorido productions are also well known for their bright colors and 100% digital animation approach, which feels like a natural fit for the sweet and charming story that is Penguin Highway.

Penguin Highway was first published in 2010, when it won the Japan Science Fiction Grand Prize. That should give you an indication that the story is about more than just cute penguins, contrary to what the trailer might lead you to assume. It's easy to see why the anime staff was so thoroughly charmed by the penguins, though. Although the book mentions a variety of penguin species, all of penguins in the film are adélie penguins, objectively the cutest species of penguin.

Beyond that, there's little indication about the film's adaptation goals from the trailer. At least Morimi has said that he's very impressed with the adaptation. He was initially worried that his novel wouldn't lend itself to a good summer film, but he professed the ending made him cry. “The author shouldn't be the one crying, but I have to admit that I got choked up about it.”

High praise indeed!

If this article has made you interested in checking out Morimi's novels for yourself, you're out of luck unless you can read Japanese. Yen Press recently announced that they've licensed Penguin Highway and Night is Short, Walk On Girl, however, so we'll be seeing English versions of those books down the line. You just have to wait.

For now, there's still the anime adaptations. The Tatami Galaxy and both seasons of The Eccentric Family are on Crunchyroll, while Night is Short, Walk On Girl is getting a limited US theatrical run on August 21 and 22. There's no news yet about an international release for Penguin Highway, but the odds seem likely.

What are your thoughts on the anime adaptations of Morimi's novels? Feel free to share your impressions in the forums.

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