Bizarre, confusing, and yet mind-warpingly brilliant – what was initially an Asanuma Shintarou fact-finding mission on my part turned into a very trippy and fulfilling mind trip into the world of The (4.5) Tatami Galaxy.
Story. We kick start things with paragraphs on end of extremely quick narration from our protagonist, Watashi, who recounts his life as a fresh university student with hopes of achieving his desired ‘rose-coloured campus life’. Which circle does he choose? Where does he end up? Would he be happy in the tennis circle, the softball circle, the drama circle or the cycling circle? Would he be happy if he chose to meet his pen pal, to be with a life-sized doll or to go drinking with a friend of his? There are so many possibilities, permutations and combinations, that it is just so difficult to decide! However, this series does not leave viewers to speculate, because in what is a most fascinating take on repeated ‘what if’s, Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei gives us a full blown account of how Watashi’s life for the next couple of years would pan out depending on which circle he chooses at the start of his university life. And that is the point at which the hands on the clock start spiralling out of control, because each episode after depicts Watashi’s life, but that in a different club. It is as if we hit the ‘reset’ button at the end of each episode and Watashi gets a retake on the past two years of his life. One would think that’s a convenient setting – Don’t like it? Then just redo it. But at what point do we keep turning back time? How many times do we repeat life until we are satisfied with its outcome? That really, is what I believe to be Yojouhan‘s overarching theme, and it was one that the series not only addressed, but explored very thoroughly and very satisfyingly.
Concept. With Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei, perseverance is key because three episodes in and it seems as if the story is still going pretty much nowhere. Add to that the episodic first-person narrative of the series, and what we get is a recount (on steroids) of the protagonist’s life set on loop. It doesn’t exactly sound that appealing, but just trust me on this, stick to it all the way to the end and what you will get is a really satisfying ending. Because while the episodic and repetitive nature of the series serves to confuse, it is this very style of narrative that definitely helps put Watashi’s perspective across clearly. With each repetition, we get yet another piece of the tatami puzzle; with each repetition, we get more insight into all the different worlds that Watashi has lived in; with each repetition, this series manages to drive its point across even more clearly than before. And what’s really impressive is how this series managed to weave the storyline from each parallel world so seamlessly. We had references here and there with the castella, the neko ramen and the proxy wars, to name a few, but none of them were at all out of place or mentioned in vain.
Just what I love about this series is how thought provoking it turned out to be (at least, that is my take on it. What can I say? I like to think… lol). We saw the extent to which Watashi’s life would be different depending on the choices he made – indeed, one’s fate could change from the tiniest of choices. Watashi’s ups and downs were central in showing us that, from him wanting that ‘rose-coloured campus life’, to him cooping himself up in his room (to that I say, viva hikkikomori lifestyle!), and finally to him agonising about being trapped in his tatami hell and fervently wishing that he had done ALL that he had done in the previous episodes upon traversing all the different parallel worlds. That really laid on the ‘what if’s oh so heavily and gets one thinking twice / thrice / many times over just what decision would be the would be the “best” decision.
And I pause at the mention of the “best” decision. Because what really is the “best” decision? Looking back on the episodes, viewers went on the journey with Watashi as he experienced life in the various circles, and not one of them stood out as being the “best” outcome to me. Which then begs the question as to whether there really is such a thing as a ‘rose-coloured campus life’. What is a ‘rose-coloured campus life’ in the first place? It was obviously a term that Watashi coined, and he was so caught up in the pursuit of his ideal, that he lost sight of what happiness stood right before his very eyes. And that was what really got to me, because I do think that we are often so overwhelmed in the pursuit of our notion of ideal that we do not live in the ‘now’. My takeaway from Yojouhan: hold back on the obsessing; stop and smell the roses once in awhile.
Characters. Yojouhan has a series of very colourful characters, each playing a pivotal role in the story. There’s our protagonist, whom we know only as Watashi (Asanuma Shintarou), who takes us through his many parallel lives. Then there is his friend from the dark side of the moon, Ozu (Yoshino Hiroyuki) – Watashi’s first encounter with his worst encounter. According to Watashi, 8 out of 10 people would believe Ozu to be a youkai if they saw him in the dark, while the remaining 2 could be convinced of it. He serves as the troublemaker in this series, eating the unhappiness of others as a topping on his rice, as Watashi so delicately puts it. And while Watashi is convinced that his soul would have stayed unblemished had he not met Ozu, he just can’t seem to shake him off because the two are connected by the so-called black string of fate. We also have the level-headed Akashi (Sakamoto Maaya) whom Watashi finally reaches out to, Jougasaki (Suwabe Junichi) who is just sooo weird (seriously, a love doll? *shudder*), the senpai figure Higuchi (Fujiwara Keiji) and even a vague fortune teller (Mayama Ako) whose fees just keep increasing lol (but I guess if her advice is legit, then why not?). These characters really do get up to some of the most amusing antics and there is never a dull moment watching their interactions. While comedy isn’t the main aspect of this series, Yojouhan was still spot on with its humour and managed to incite a good number of laughs.
Staff & Seiyuus. Produced in traditional animation by Madhouse under the direction of Masaaki Yuasa, this series is based on a novel written by Tomihiko Morimi. Story aside, the animation was different from most of the anime I have seen, but it took no time at all for me to get used to. High praise has to be given to Nakamura Yuusuke for his character design. The art in Yojouhan is not conventionally pretty, but part of its charm really was in the traditional animation, which was so psychedelic that that was what made it so special for me.
As I mentioned, Asanuma Shintarou was what brought me to this series. I stumbled upon it on his MAL page, on which I read a comment that his Watashi was the fastest anyone has spoken without stumbling. What happened after was a click on the Yojouhan page, the names Maaya Sakamoto (a personal favourite), Kaida Yuko, Yoshino Hiroyuki, Suwabe Junichi, Oohara Sayaka and Fujiwara Keiji, and I started on this series immediately. Overall, the voice acting was very well done – not too over the top (that’s right, even with Asanuma’s shinkansen talking speed), not too submissive, and complimented the characters beautifully. The seiyuus did wonderfully in bringing the characters to life while still retaining a whole lot of composure (honestly, this is difficult considering how whacky these colourful characters are). Notable mention has to be given to Asanuma, who in spite of the presence of many heavyweights, was undoubtedly the star of the series as Watashi. He had this raw quality in his delivery of Watashi’s lines that really made the character so much more believable and relatable. In fact, Asanuma managed to capture the nuances of each Watashi so brilliantly, that I was very surprised when I read that this seiyuu is not professionally trained in voice acting. I liked him from Diamond no Ace and even more after Tokyo Ghoul, but his take on Watashi opened my ears to a whole new side of Asanuma and I really appreciate what he did with this role.
Music. While I loved the entire concept and delivery of Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei, I must admit that the music was what made me like it so so much more. At the start, Ajikan’s light, peppy and extremely happifying OP (in what I believe to be a very un-Ajikan outing), really gets viewers into the groove of the show. With lyrics that project our protagonist’s thoughts (僕たちの現在を繰り返すことだらけでも – To repeat this moment of ours), Yojoukan’s OP sets the mood perfectly. This mood doesn’t just end with the end of each episode, because the ED certainly leaves a very lasting impression. Ishiwatari Junji & Sunahara Yoshinori + Yakushimaru Etsuko are responsible for the hypnotic ending theme, Kamisama no Iu Toori. From the way the music filters in at the end of each episode, to the electronic instrumentation and the domino trail of tatami mats presented by the accompanying sequence, this ED exuded an air of mystery that really kept me drawn into the tatami world. Then of course, we have all the music in between, courtesy of Ooshima Michiru. In true Ooshima fashion, the OST is beautiful. She stuck to her classical roots with this OST (as always, with beautiful use of the various string instruments as well as the flute), but also spiced things up with hints of traditional and jazz influences. Her tracks really suit the atmosphere of this series and add many more dimensions to this already multi-dimensional world of a series.
Final thoughts. Truth be told I started watching Yojouhan on a mere whim, and purely out of curiosity (the storyline really intrigued me and the fact that it’s noitamina was yet another pleasant discovery (because this time slot hosts some of the best series), and it has an 8.60 rating on MAL scored by 19196 users). That said, from the get go I was pulled into the warped world of 4.5 tatami rooms, unable to get out and not wanting to do so until I went through the entire spectrum of tatami worlds. Watching this was one of the best spur-of-the-moment choices that I could have made on a Sunday night (I literally watched till I fell asleep, woke up on Monday and continued watching till I finished it). And I would not want to imagine what the past couple of days of my anime watching life would be like now had I not done so.
仄些細な決断の違いで私の運命が変わる。部数の私が生まれる、部数の四畳半が生まれる。従って、この四畳半世界は原理的に果てはないのだ。(hono sasai na ketsudan no chigau de watashi no unmei ga kawaru. buusu no watashi ga umareru, busuu no yojouhan ga umareru. Shitagatte, kono yojouhan sekai wa genriteki ni hate wa nai no da.) – My fate would change from the tiniest of choices. A number of ‘I’s are born, a number of 4.5 tatami rooms are born. In other words, there is theoretically no end to this 4.5 tatami world.