‘Tatami,’ the cultural knowledge of which probably is visually clear to everyone who has been accustomed to watching anime for a while now, you’ll know when I say that it is a type of flooring material used in the traditional style Japanese houses. The word is actually derived from the verb ‘tatamu,’ which means “to fold” or “to pile.” Now, placing the word side by side particularly with the word ‘Galaxy’ definitely has a connotative implication of ‘claustrophobia’ which I guess most people did perceive.
Yes, the show throws the protagonist’s life as living in a 4.5 tatami room, almost like in a huge cube and the events occurring all around his college life are directly relatable to the claustrophobic experiences he comprehends while expounding in the aspects of the space.
The show exhibits traits of dark comedy, much relatable to the anime Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei. Heck, even the protagonists look way similar. Though Itoshiko is a character who completely taints himself to pessimistic way of life exhibiting suicidal tendencies, the protagonist here is ideologically much more alive and doesn’t live by tending to hang himself every day, nor is his life psychologically contorted to the point of living every second in horror within the walls of his apartment, as seen in the films of Roman Polanski who also dealt with the theme of claustrophobia.
The show is perhaps also relatable to the anime Welcome to the N.H.K., which portrays the life of a shut-in/NEET, but the line differentiating both the series is on the level of layered and visual symbolisms which is the main concern for this series, a symbolic succession resulting in an exalting fulfillment.
The plot follows freshman ‘Watashi’ (which translates into the subjective pronoun ‘I’) as he narrates his life, ready to experience a “rose-colored campus life,” putting away his disastrous high school life with renewed optimism. His ideal of college/bachelor life is that of a conventional one, ready to stretch out an arm to a raven haired maiden by the grace of cupid and flowing down the river of young love.
But the flow is dammed by Ozu, a mischievous character who is up to wreck everyone’s love life in the college and ironically is Watashi’s only friend. Unfortunately for Watashi, Ozu’s accompaniment leads to complications and disillusionment towards his so-called rose-colored campus life because being associated with Ozu leads to a bad reputation all around.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, a lot of other references to the theme are brimming in ever symbolic corner throughout the series. Ozu keeps on reminding him how both of them are tied with the “black thread of fate” which resonates the claustrophobic nature of the title.
Watashi has seniors: Jougasaki, who is the president of the Movie Club that he had once joined and Higuchi, of whom he is a forced disciple and is caught in between an aging tussle of pranks between these two characters, which goes by the name ‘proxy-proxy war,’ in which one side either gets their robes dyed pink or the other gets their film tapes replaced and vice versa.
Plot analysis and the philosophy of the anime
Our protagonist droops with the weight from both sides, Jougasaki has a secret that he heaves on Watashi fearing it might be a potential weakness on his part in the ‘proxy-proxy war’ and threatens to beat him up if it’s out while being a forced disciple of Higuchi he has to go on with the pranks on Jougasaki, replacing his film tapes, releasing swarm of cockroaches into his apartment and so on. Watashi is getting squeezed in slowly by closing in of the walls in his 4.5 tatami galaxy.
Even with all the complications around him leading to his cornered situation, Watashi doesn’t let go of his dream of living a ‘rose-colored campus life’ and thus cooks up a make believe love triangle of his own, including ‘Hanuki,’ a foxy lady who studies dentistry in the same university and is a senior of Watashi, and two other characters. He is well aware of the consequences he could end up in being in multiple relationships, which is again a cornered or claustrophobic one, as time ticks on his lovers are narrowing down their distancing from him and the moment of denouement in his ‘rose-colored campus life’ is gradually coming to a close, a climactic revelation.
But Watashi is addicted to this claustrophobia, he subconsciously finds a sort of masochistic pleasure in living inside the cube. He won’t avoid the make believe love triangle even though he is fully aware that it might end up earning him hate from every side. He keeps on repeating in monologs how Ozu’s accompaniment has ruined his ‘rose-colored campus life,’ but not even for a single once does he let go of his side in pranking.
He has subconsciously adapted to the claustrophobic outcast nature that society has deemed him for being associated with Ozu and he is happy with that. Watashi is a character who is caged between these conflicting layers of sub-conscience and hence suffers from split personality, which brings us to the whole point of the series that follows his rehabilitation from this psychological disorder.
Perhaps his plight is relatable to the famous Campus Novelist Kingsley Amis’ book Lucky Jim, in which the protagonist James Dixon strives within the brick walls of university life.
There are other characters who play their important part in accentuating the plight of the protagonist, fore-fronting them is Akashi-san – a character with cold personality. Surprisingly, there’s a dangling love tryst between Watashi and her, the job to rectify and grab hold of this situation in front which is repeatedly notified in every episode by an anonymous fortune-teller to him.
In a way, Akashi-san could be the key to his rehabilitation. There are few other significant characters, delving into their characterization might leak unwanted spoilers.
Animation, visuals, and sound
About the animation and visuals: There’s a lot to be observed in this part as it’s the main force driving the plot and every other thing. The visuals fuel the entertainment in this series! It’s drenched in symbolic references and there are visual metaphors in every second following the narrative.
The art and animation are surrealistic and perhaps products relatable to the avant-garde movements like expressionism, which was forefronted by paintings like The Scream by Edvard Munch, the horrors of war were manifested in this piece, clearly an epitome of visual metaphor. Very similarly there are instances throughout the series vibrant with visual metaphors pertaining to the situations, like every time Ozu talked about how they were tied with the ‘black thread of fate,’ it was simultaneously established with an image of Ozu and Watashi tied up with the ‘black thread’ as they fell into the depths of a trench. In fact, every episode introduces Ozu in a new avatar pertaining to Watashi’s initial reactions to his mighty evil grin, which adds to many of the reasons why the visuals also carry the humor in this series.
One time, he looks like a kappa rising from the green swamp and dragging Watashi down back with him, and some other time he might look like a gigantic shadow of a demon hailing from the depths of hell reminding Watashi frequently of how much of a good friend he is of him.
Watashi himself is a connoisseur in cooking up visual metaphors as he is expounding within the expanse of his galaxy, he is a philosopher within his own boundaries as well as a scientist observing the various aspects occurring all around within his Tatami Galaxy, and perhaps is content with all of it but yet, he contradicts himself quoting Terayama Shuji: “Throw away books and go out into the city.”
Aside from all the symbolic aspects, the art, in general, is a beautiful one if you open up discarding the conventional detailing. Tatami Galaxy goes back to the rustic style of applying cartoon-esque template for the characters, with feminine elegance established by the presence of Akashi-san in vibrant colors within the frame and yet again dingy shades for ramen stalls, as well as vibrant color palettes for the rest of the part which adds to a sort of psychedelic demeanor.
The drinking feud between Jougasaki and Watashi accompanied by Hanuki for an instance, gradually deludes our vision and the colors seem as if being mixed up in a huge cauldron. The psychedelia is also accentuated by the beautiful muzak sort of background music comprising mostly of classical piano tunes. The animation is thus relatable to the likes of Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei or even to the rustic demeanor of foreign animations like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.
After all the exaggerations I would like to highlight an important point: Whether one should approach the series or not?
A lot of people steer clear of this series because of the animation style which I think is wise if you are not big into visual metaphors and prefer more the conventional style of anime like Death Note and Monster which escalates the plot through twists and climaxes, the sort of excitement stimulated from thrillers. Tatami Galaxy is a series facing in the exact opposite direction to that of exciting thrillers; it is more like a light-headed and romantic Gondola ride through the city of Venice in a moonlit night, making you lay back loosely on your couch as the beautiful piano tune plays in the background. That is all.