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A college kid finally works up the guts to approach that girl he's had his eye on in class, and moves out of his dorm to an tiny studio apartment. Insignificant events from an outsider's perspective. But an epic of introspection and obsessive weighing of possibilities paved the way for those little steps on the way to becoming a more secure, independent and mature person.
In the case of this series, this equates to the protagonist escaping from the maze of eponymous 4 1/2-mat rooms he was stuck in, like Rip Van Winkle, for an eternity that was actually just the blink of an eye. The whole series boils down to the protagonist making the decision to take that first step of leaving his room and going out there and approaching the girl he has a crush on. All of the introspection in the world doesn't weigh as much as a single step in real life. Every episode seems in retrospect like a circuitous route towards that goal, a fabulous invention of the brain that flashed by in a split second about what might have been if this-or-that had happened.
The beauty of this series is that it has no clear-cut explanation, but everyone will have their own explanation. The puzzle pieces do fit together. Notwithstanding the overwhelming cascade of seemingly unconnected images, it isn't random. If you choose to look hard enough, everything falls into place. It would take someone pedantically noting all of the various meanings suggested by the images - the various permutations of the dialogue that recurs with slight changes in nuance, the characters whose roles change constantly, the way the different stories intersect and diverge with each succeeding episode, the way the meaning of each episode changes with each succeeding episode - to do justice to the huge amount of thought obvious put into ensuring that all of the pieces fit together, but the size of the task seems intentionally to discourage any such attempt. And doing so may be besides the point.
But that's where my mixed feelings about this series lie: That to truly appreciate its beautiful and unprecedentedly layered and nuanced message about simply going out there and living your life, and not shutting yourself up in a 4 1/2 tatami galaxy of prevarication, you have to hole yourself up in an ivory tower to figure it out. It's simultaneously one of the most humane anime series ever made, one of the most technically accomplished, original and sophisticated in construction, and one of the most daunting and unapproachable. In the sheep's clothing of a more approachable style aimed at bringing in the fans, Yuasa has created his most impenetrable and avant-garde anime yet.
But that's not exactly accurate. The genius of the series is that it's a meticulously and deliberately constructed jumble. As you're watching it, it makes exactly as much sense as the director wants it to make - just enough for you to be able to suspect there's a way it all ties together, but holding back just enough that it doesn't all quite gel. You're not necessarily meant to connect all of the dots, at least not immediately. It's the indistinct picture the speed-talking narrator and rapid-fire visuals paint in your mind that is the point.
You wouldn't guess it from what's been written about the show, because everyone who's bothered to write about it loved it, but I think this is a polarizing series - you're either going to love every second, or you're not going to be able to finish the first episode. I don't think you can reach any meaningful conclusion just by comparing the number of people who viewed the first episode and last episode on YouTube, but for reference, it's 14,000 views for the first episode and 2000 for the last. Rather than getting depressed by this statistic, I'm heartened by the thought that there are actually even 2000 fans of sophisticated, experimental, progressive anime in the world.
You pretty much knew what you were in for once you saw the first episode. The series admirably maintained the tone and level of production quality you saw in episode 1 through every single episode. The series didn't feel either too long or too short for what it set out to accomplish. It achieved a remarkable degree of character development, and its characters were well fleshed out and interesting. They were somewhat tinged by the conventions of anime, moreso than Yuasa's previous outings, but they were still individuals with unique personalities, and not merely cardboard cutouts neatly fitting into one of the of stereotypical character types that you usually see in anime.
Rather than an ordinary drama about the trials and tribulations of campus life, that most exciting and scary time in our lives when life begins to open up for us, the likes of which we've all seen done to death already, this story is college life viewed through the kaleidoscope of Masaaki Yuasa's mind - a brilliant animator bursting with visual ideas, and a sophisticated storyteller who always pays his audience the ultimate respect of challenging them with new dramatic forms.
I wonder how many people who made it to the end of the series had this nagging feeling that I had. I was won over by the technical brilliance of the directing and the animation, and I like to think I got much of what it was trying to say, but I wasn't really hooked or that moved overall. I can see how well constructed it is, and I understand that the visual style does justice to the writing style of the original novel. But what worked as literature might not necessarily work as animation. It's not just that the narrator talks too fast; everything is too fast. There isn't enough of a rhythm. The headlong sprint of the visuals doesn't let up for an instant. But my biggest problem is that the characters didn't feel real to me. They were richly developed and fleshed out, but also smothered by the (intentional) pseudo-literary affectations of the script.
The tone of the show is fascinating: It's not meant to be LOL funny, but it's quite funny in its own quirky, understated, smirk-inducing way. Much of the humor stems from the visuals, i.e. not from the script, but from how the directors have interpreted the script. This is the plus alpha of the show. The visuals are creative and smart. They're cool looking in themselves, stylized and distorted in a constantly shifting and always appealing way as is the hallmark of Masaaki Yuasa, and they add another dimension to the script by fleshing out the story with visual clues. They're what makes this show so rewarding to watch, even if, like me, you're not completely hooked by the material. Tremendous thought obviously went into every moment of every episode. Single images often hint at a fully conceived situation that adds another dimension to a particular character's back story. Flashing by in quick succession, the parade of colorful, imaginative, meaningful images add a tremendous amount to the richness of the characters and story. The show is visual storytelling at its finest. This is the aspect of the show that I find irresistible.
Sometimes the images don't even have any obvious correlation with what's going on, as in the case of the brief image that graces the screen for just a second in the last episode in which an exhausted Johnny is prodded awake for another go. They just add weight to the reality of the situation, in a very roundabout way. It's hilarious because it's so subtle that it takes a brief moment for you to realize what it is you just saw, and it's meaningful because it says a lot about what the protagonist has been doing to while away the time while stuck in his room for all that time.
In other cases, as with the moths in the image above, you have a visual image that is a constant throughout the series and that has a variety of different connotations. In the last episode, you don't need any sort of verbal explanation as to what the giant cloud of moths flocking out of the window are supposed to mean; the image obviously symbolizes the narrator's escape, the knowledge accrued over a multitude of lives lived in the 4 1/2 mat room, and whatever else you might be able to read into it.
Despite my reservations, I don't think anyone else could have adapted this material in such a convincing way. In these difficult times, when ambitious studios with the balls to produce work that doesn't pander to fans are going out of business left and right, it's impressive that a series so out in left field, not even remotely close to anything else out there, even got produced. The show is intellectual in the extreme, hardly the sort of thing that will go down with fans - or general audiences, for that matter. It's even challenging for fans like me who tend to like more ambitious fare.
It's a tough time to be creative in the industry, but as long as there are studios like Madhouse willing to champion creators with talent, there will always be a trickle of good work coming out. But it shouldn't be a trickle. It boggles the mind that, with one of the world's largest animation industries, populated by a huge array of incredibly talented artists with all sorts of different styles, and dozens of new TV series being produced every season, a creator-driven series like this that does something even slightly different is such a rarity.
I salute Madhouse for providing the space to produce another remarkable TV series, and I salute Masaaki Yuasa and his staff for making it. It's criminal that work this good is relegated to a late-night slot and will never get a wide audience, even though I feel that the nature of the material limits its reach. It shouldn't only be seen by a handful of otaku. It's of a high enough artistic caliber that it deserves an audience of the general public.
I have to admit that I still hold out hope that Masaaki Yuasa will make another movie someday. I can't help but feel that his genius is better suited to the movie format. And a movie would get a wider audience. The TV format allows him to experiment with a lot of things, but his TV shows seem too hidden from view. Also, his TV series feel like they're not 100% pure Yuasa. They're more of a patchwork. Some things work, some don't. When he makes things with everything under his control I find it works a lot better, although admittedly this series felt remarkably uniform in tone and quality.
Episode 11 main credits
Animation director: Nobutake Ito
Takayuki Hamada, Ryotaro Makihara
Natsuko Shimizu, Sawako Miyamoto
Shouko Nishigaki, Toshiharu Sugie
Kanako Maru, Akitoshi Yokoyama
Second key animators:
Mai Tsutsumi, Kenichi Fujisawa
Satomi Higuchi, Sayaka Toda