Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 23rd 2010
The Tatami Galaxy
Episodes 1-4 Streaming
A nameless college student seeks the so-called "rose-colored campus life" of young adulthood, but it seems that no matter which club he joins, it only ends in disaster. As he explores different realities, signing up for various clubs in his first two college years, the same few people continue to haunt him: Ozu, a demon-faced friend full of malicious intentions, Akashi, a young woman who is as unattainable as she is beautiful, and Higuchi, a mysterious kimono-clad man who claims to be the god of the local shrine. Whether it's breaking up couples in the Tennis Circle, exposing the misdeeds of the movie club president, piloting a bicycle-powered aircraft, or simply trying to resolve an ages-old rivalry, the protagonist seems doomed to a much gloomier campus life than he imagined.
In his last two outings with Studio Madhouse, renowned director Masaaki Yuasa was free to roam with his own story concepts. This resulted in Kemonozume, which is really just a monster-slaying feudal adventure, and then Kaiba, which is so all over the place that it defies plot summarization. So maybe it's for the best that the latest Yuasa-Madhouse project, The Tatami Galaxy, is based on outside source material, in this case a novel by Tomihiko Morimi. Yuasa gets to do what he does best—namely, directing and drawing—while the writing is left to a true writer, resulting in the ideal marriage of creative minds. For where Morimi's dark humor goes, Yuasa's unmatched visual style follows, resulting in an instant contender for the top anime series of 2010.
Although the original novel dates back to 2004, modern-day anime fans will see many of their favorite cynics reflected in the series' nameless protagonist: Kyon from Haruhi Suzumiya, Satou from Welcome to the NHK, and a heaping spoonful of Zetsubou-sensei to top it all off. Roll these guys up into a single human form and one might ultimately come out with Tatami's bespectacled leading man, whose high-speed sarcasm provides much of the series' impetus. He is just as likely to criticize himself as he is to criticize the ways of society, and the dialogue only gets better when Ozu enters the picture and the two of them start trading barbs. (Whether Ozu is just a really mean guy, or some archetypal trickster-figure drifting through different realities, is a question left unanswered—and remains one of the many intriguing quirks in the show.)
Speaking of intriguing quirks, the very format of the series is part of what makes it so fascinating: every episode begins with the protagonist joining a college club, meeting Ozu and the other main characters, getting into some inescapable dilemma, and then forcibly going back in time so he can give the whole thing another try. Despite the strict formula (and certain repeated scenes), each episode plays with the concept in a creative way—a theme-and-variations on the absurdity of modern life—and only gets more creative as the show progresses. The second episode, about the comeuppance of an egotistical club president, plays out like a typical screwball revenge comedy, but just two episodes later the narrative has already become wondrously loopy: the characters' roles change (Higuchi has gone from shrine god to 8th-year student?), the club activities become increasingly absurd (find a rare 100,000-yen scrubbing brush), and events from early episodes are referenced as if they were happening at the same time. Is it alternate reality? Unreality? Whatever it is, the strange twists and laughs keep coming, and things can only get stranger from this point on.
Of course, much of that captivating strangeness comes from Yuasa's directorial vision; if there was ever an animator ready to portray a world of shifting realities it would be this guy. Those expecting some kind of airbrushed, computer-polished bishoujo production can go ahead and run screaming in the opposite direction, while those who want to sink their eyes into a visual smorgasbord will find plenty to feast on. From the characters' unmistakable features (or in the protagonist's case, a lack of features), to the unexpected color palettes not found in nature, to the many challenging camera angles, to occasional live-action moments, every aspect of the animation and design is marked with the director's personality. If there are any shortcomings, it's that he has to conform to a TV anime budget, and so some scenes are not as impressive as others—but the sum of the parts still surpasses most shows this season (or any season, for that matter). Even the credits sequences, with a frantic college dorm tour in the opening and dancing geometric floorplans in the ending, are the kind that will keep eyes glued to the screen.
It's also in the credits that the show reveals its modern musical sensibilities: a shuffle-rock number by Asian Kung-Fu Generation in the opener, and then some soothing pop-electronica to close things out. Both songs are tuneful and worthy of stand-alone listening, but the real audio masterpiece in this series is to be found within each episode—and no, it's not the background music. Shintaro Asanuma's high-speed delivery as the protagonist is what will really make viewers' ears perk up; for anyone to do what he does takes some serious acting talent and not simply the ability to stand behind a mic. The distinctive voices of Ozu (sleazy) and Akashi (sweet) also add some interest to the cast, but clearly it's the protagonist who carries each episode with his incredible stream-of-consciousness commentary.
In just four episodes, The Tatami Galaxy accomplishes more that most shows do in 12 or 13. The themes of the series are nothing new—everyone's seen their fair share of observational humor, black comedy, slice-of-life drama, and arthouse nonsense. But nothing combines it quite like Tatami does, and certainly nobody presents it the way Masaaki Yuasa does. After two acclaimed TV series where Yuasa handled both story and art duties, resulting in sometimes shaky plotlines, the director now has some well-structured source material to work from—and the third time is turning out to be a charm. Filled with gleeful cynicism, unstoppable energy, and pointed observations on life, this is one of the few anime titles that deserves all the praise it gets. And just think: it's not even finished airing yet.
Overall : A
Story : A
Animation : B
Art : A+
Music : B
+ Unforgettable lead character, reality-bending plot twists, razor-sharp humor, and striking visuals add up to an instant masterpiece.
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