Returning to The Tatami Galaxy feels a bit like returning home. It was a show I initially watched early on in my post-college return to anime, and even wrote about for reddit back when I was writing for upvotes rather than rent. It, like basically all Yuasa productions, embodies the intersection of animated creativity and thematic inquiry that specifically enthralls me about anime – an intersection frequented entirely by creators who simply cannot suppress their own artistic inquisitiveness, who are working in animation specifically because it offers more fanciful freedom than any other pursuit they could imagine, more ability to capture life as experienced rather than simply as recorded, more potential for bending narrative and art design to unimaginable, transcendent purposes.
It’s also a nostalgic experience because it’s all about college, and more specifically the sense of restless potential and terrifying opportunity cost attendant in giving yourself a handful of free years to decide what you want to do with the rest of your life. That’s a terrifying responsibility, and it’s no surprise that many of us don’t handle it gracefully. In truth, the percentage of us who actually make use of our undergraduate degree in our future work isn’t terribly significant; most jobs accept some degree of on-site training, and most bachelor’s degrees aren’t particularly applicable to 9-to-5 labor. The crux of college is casting your net widely such as to snag as many unexpected passions as possible – your freedom and diversity of opportunity are limited, so you might as well try all the flavors while you’ve got the chance.
Which is, of course, the anxiety gripping our poor Atashi. For him, paralyzed by a desire for the “perfect” life and oblivious to the pleasures right in front of him, the precise opposite advice might be in order. No matter what path you pursue, no external stimulus is going to address an emotional core of dissatisfaction; no matter which club you choose, it’s still you attending that club. Therefore, if the potential of missed opportunities is sapping the flavor from your daily life, what is needed is not a fresh stack of opportunities, but a change in mindset. A reorientation of your perspective, away from the grass that always looks greener and towards the people right beside you, who enrich you and are enriched by you in turn through time and attention shared, regardless of what exactly you’re doing.
Time spent with the people you love is always time well spent. Chasing an ideal will never sustain you, but learning to embrace incidental joys makes all the disappointments of life easier to bear. Perhaps that is the great metaphor presented by The Tatami Galaxy’s mixture of abstracted and hyperreal images: Atashi lives mostly in ill-defined fantasies that might become fulfilling, but his memory is defined by incidental details that struck like lightning, cicadas and keychains and fireworks in the dark. We’d like to envision our lives as majestic arcs towards fated conclusions, but we are truthfully more like collections of such baubles, hoarders of moments that stick in the throat and itch at the mind, clinging to our consciousness as we stumble forward.
Episode three opens with more starkly lit superflat scenery, Atashi’s rough description of the landscape raised into his personal reality. Bone-white roadways speak to the overbearing sun above, while trees and shrubbery are conveyed as layered patterns, flat objects with similarly flat, repeating designs. And why shouldn’t they be? Are lushly detailed, realistic depictions of foliage more real to Atashi’s experience, or more useful for us as viewers in sharing that experience, or even more “beautiful” in some arbitrary aesthetic sense? Atashi is biking down a road past some greenery, and that is all his recollection of this encounter needs us to know.
Anyway, Atashi’s here, and he wants us to admire his new hydrofoil bike. And I am admiring it: I’m admiring the audacity of attempting to animate an episode all about traditionally drawn bikes, and I’m admiring the convenience of this particular bike design’s ability to hide the nitty-gritty mechanical instruments of spokes and chains and whatnot. Animating bikes is a ludicrous ask for a television production, but Yuasa’s productions are nothing if not ambitious. And so bike riding we go, against all the odds, in one more grasp towards that ideal, ever-so-distant rose-colored campus life.
As someone who is fundamentally incapable of living in the moment, Atashi’s biking-centered attempt at happiness suits him perfectly: it collapses all of his desires into one distant trophy, the gold medal that will validate all of his efforts, a symbol at last of time well spent. He keeps making the fundamental attribution era of believing dissatisfaction is something external to his emotional experience, a result of failing to jump some specific hurdle that would make sense of his emotional disarray. The truth, of course, is that any activity assigned the duty of validating your insecurities will buckle under the strain; satisfaction must come from within, as the spirit in which you engage in a task, not the output you hope to extract from it. There’s no way to stop wanting more except to, well, stop wanting more. No amount of “more” will teach you to be comfortable with what you currently have.
Likewise, the more you focus your satisfaction on a single point, the easier it is to be robbed of that satisfaction. So it goes for Atashi, who swiftly finds his fought-for bike stolen by the Cheery Cycle Cleanup Group, the “crystallization of my past two years” lost in an instant. The more he attempts to clearly define happiness, the more it inevitably slips away. And yet, as Tatami Galaxy’s continuing pileup of episodes makes clear, we are capable of finding joy in basically any aspect of the world around us. It is always within our hands to simply stop and seize that joy, rather than pinning our hopes on some superior joy hiding just around the corner.
But let’s at least let Atashi attempt to explain himself. For attempt three, he strikes on “Cycling Club Soleil” as his route to happiness, an admission accompanied by this production’s consistently ecstatic visions. Yuasa’s imaginative, interiority-expressing approach to art and color design is celebrated anew by each episode opening, as Atashi literally strides through a rose-colored campus montage. Whether you accomplish this act of emotional mirroring through subtle shifts in hue like Hyouka or through bold color splashes like Tatami Galaxy, the effect is the same: you are embracing animation’s unique capacity for articulating life as it is personally experienced, as opposed to the impassive photography of cinema.
Though Atashi imagines this club life as a casual bike ride shared with a raven-haired maiden, the circle is in truth more of a hardcore athletic club. “Why not quit,” you might ask, and it’s a perfectly reasonable question. Unfortunately, Atashi is not a perfectly reasonable person; he cannot fathom that he could simply do what he wants outside of the club’s confines. He is a man who always needs external direction, some assurance of his placement on the “correct” path – in other words, he is an incurable freshman, and the disease might well be terminal.
Speaking of external direction, it is at this moment that Ozu appears, rising from the club floor like some kind of swamp monster. Atashi frames Ozu’s appearance as an undesired intrusion into his perfect campus life, but the truth seems nearly the opposite. It was just after Atashi realized he didn’t like this club that Ozu appeared – meaning, more honestly, that it was when Atashi lost interest in this club that he gained interest in dicking around with Ozu. Ozu is not some tormenter perpetually diverting Atashi from the rose-colored life path; Ozu is the path Atashi chooses, the friendship he prioritizes over his stultifying club labors.
Atashi and Ozu are in truth close compatriots, creative and restless spirits who constantly find inventive ways to carve their own paths through college. But because Atashi is chasing an ephemeral fantasy of perfect satisfaction, he cannot come to appreciate how regardless of what path he started on, Ozu always makes his journey through college fun and interesting. He has been entirely deluded by the marketing copy of “find yourself at college,” not realizing that “finding yourself” mostly involves looking around you and acknowledging the people you want to spend your time with. As Charlie Kaufman once wrote, “you are what you love, not what loves you.”
Instead of heeding this humble advice, Atashi wastes a year of college attempting to bulk up his body, and then a second year streamlining his bike. Rather than an open canvas for discovery, Atashi sees college as essentially a fuel or currency, something he spends in order to buy happiness and satisfaction. And of course, the end result of all that delayed satisfaction is a stolen bike and a return to Manami, the old one-speeder he picked up at the student co-op. Metaphor becomes text as Atashi begins his long-awaited race four hours late, reflecting “for what reason was I racing? For what reason did I even go to college?” All Atashi knows of happiness is that it is Not Here, and so he bikes heedlessly onward. If you cannot find happiness close at hand, you will assume it is elsewhere – but such an assumption will inevitably lead to dissatisfaction, as if you can’t find happiness close by, you generally can’t find it anywhere.
“Where had all this energy I’d expended gone to? This violated the conservation of energy!” His complaints reflect an unfortunate truth of life: that effort isn’t inherently rewarded, or even rewarding; it’s just effort, and it wears on you all the same. Atashi believes the greatest happiness must necessitate the greatest suffering, but the two quantities don’t have any direct relationship whatsoever. Fortunately, that truth can also be taken in a positive direction: there’s no real need to suffer, as your happiness is unrelated to that effort.
“This opportunity is always dangling in front of your face,” the fortune teller again warns him. “Please grab it.” And right on cue, he is abducted by Akashi, who informs him that his feeble body is just perfect for her circle’s birdman project. It might seem like a powerful coincidence, but that’s life for you – we often find our “rightful” place through serendipity like this, or simply hanging around long enough to realize we’re comfortable where we are, spending our days with the people we know. Atashi, Ozu, and Akashi are all cynical, somewhat antisocial schemers – they would be very good friends, if only Atashi could get over himself.
A vision of what that might look like is Atashi’s brief reward for yet another episode of suffering. Thinking back, he recalls a moment of genuine rose-colored college life, as he and Akashi collectively admired a power station they could spy from their race path. It’s a powerful clue regarding his true destination: a moment of deviating from his intended goal where he simply stopped to admire something beautiful, while appreciating the company of someone who could admire it alongside him. Happiness does not lie at the end of this race; it rests here on the sidelines, in a moment shared by two people who maybe sorta understand each other.
But Atashi, being Atashi, cannot recognize a good thing when he has it. He second-guesses his acceptance of this “shameless fate,” seeing nothing of his beloved Icarus in consenting to be Akashi’s birdman. He trains hard and bulks up, making himself unsuitable for the only circle that ever wanted him. “Akashi, you’ll pilot it after all” says one of her associates, revealing that he actually wasn’t essential – that Akashi brought him in specifically because she wanted to spend time with him, not because only his body could pilot the craft. “The pilot should be a person with a soul charred by idleness and wasted potential,” she remarks, as romantic a confession as any. But it’s Ozu who truly has his number; revealing his identity as Atashi’s bike-stealing nemesis, he offers the damning proclamation that “it doesn’t matter which path you take, you’ll keep ending right where you are now.”
The Birdman plane begins its descent, floating down the tracks as Atashi ponders his latest failure. “Could Icarus have ridden the wind if he didn’t try so hard to flap his wings?” A salient question, perhaps even the answer Atashi seeks – but too little and too late, now that the clocktower has him in its grasp. Like the Mochiguman keychain, this scrap of insight floats upwards and away, the happiness that was so close at hand now as distant and blinding as the sun. The clock strikes its terminal destination. Atashi begins again.