Thursday, 18 April 2013

四畳半神話大系/ Yojōhan Shinwa Taikei / 4 ½ Tatami Mythological Chronicles / The Tatami Galaxy

The artsy Noitamina time slot and arguably anime’s newest auteur, Yuasa Masaaki, suit one another well. Noitamina often offering the more experimental yet popular of today’s anime, it seemed a logical step from Kaiba for the director to work on another series for Madhouse, this time to air in the celebrated programming block. On the other hand, arguably Kemonozume would have been too odd for the context and Kaiba would not have been given nearly enough time to become what it deserved to be in only eleven episodes, so instead comes this, an adaptation of the rather strange novel called in English The Tatami Galaxy – only the second time Madhouse have done a series for Noitamina, the other being Paradise Kiss.
The plot is that a rather ordinary university student – never given a name – lives in a 4 ½-tatami room in Kyoto as he joins the different clubs his university offers, or takes up other extracurricular activities. Each time, usually through the interference of his strange-looking friend Ozu, and more often than not thanks to making bad decisions in his romantic affairs with various women – one of whom doesn’t really exist and another of who is someone else’s love doll – he ends up deeply regretting how he spent his university years, and wishes for the clock to be turned back so that he may do it all again differently. And again and again, he gets his wish, until eventually he begins to discover the myriad parallel lives he has lived from a strange place outside them, and begins trying to have an affect on them – often inadvertently setting into motion different events we say in previous episodes.

Oddly, while perhaps the most bizarre and transcendental of all the anime Yuasa has directed – save perhaps Mind Game – it is also the most immediate and accessible. The protagonist is recognisably just like a very large chunk of the target audience, being lonely, highly intelligent, essentially good-hearted though prone to being easily influenced, and crucially not unable to get feminine attention through some happy chance circumstances. Yet he also ends up in some desperately pitiable situations and there is a certain schadenfreude that comes from watching him be manipulated so easily and so cruelly by the Machiavellian Ozu.

The series was highly lauded – it was the first time a series rather than a feature won the Japan Media Arts Festival animation grand prize, for example. Its simple premise and repetition kept it just on the right side of utterly bizarre, and the now-familiar simplistic yet oddly sophisticated visual style of Yuasa anime again reached a wider audience. Certainly, I found it enjoyable – it was funny, it was clever, it was innovative and it no doubt played a considerable part in getting Yuasa’s 10-minute ‘Kick-Heart’ crowdfunded project for Production I.G. started (though I have no idea why Madhouse haven’t just got him working on another full series). I liked the bold visuals, with their Shaft-like shifts in style, the simplicity of the main characters, the stylisation of the secondary figures and the bizarre use of a cowboy as personification of the narrator’s libido – and genitals.

But…the fact is that what I was holding this up against was Kaiba, and I still have difficulty expressing just how highly I regarded that series. It looked so simplistic and babyish but there was so much under its surface and it was just so stunningly good – it was moving, it was intellectually challenging and it was quite brilliant in the way its visuals made the world so unique as it shifted and ebbed in a Protean mass of primary colours. The Tatami Galaxy, I am quite sure, shut out less of its potential audience at the beginning, with few likely to be put off by the visual style even if it’s relatively bold. But at the same time it just didn’t have the scope, the sincerity or the sheer emotional power. It feels much closer to Kemonozume than to Kaiba. Thus, I live in hope that – wrestler/nun short film aside – the next thing Yuasa works on will be more like Kaiba, and have that level of beauty.  

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