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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
I agree, so much thoughts are put into every moment, it’s almost scary. Surely one of the most ‘dense’ and technically accomplished works of Yuasa.
It wasn’t as easy to invest much emotions into the series, especially early, lot of admiration I developed were for its technical brilliance, not directly towards the characters, but from mid-late episodes I did start to get much more into characters and immersed into the show.
I wrote something about Tatami Galaxy myself when I finished watching it, and I thought the moth imagery was (together with 4.5 tatami mat) so crucial behind the overall message of the show. Moths require moonlight to navigate but chooses to flutter blindly towards man-made source of warmth and light, unaware of its own demise. Kind of reflects Watashi’s choice to shut himself inside 4.5 tatami room, blind to his own illusions. As he switched off the light at the end, no longer were moths hovering around his illusions, as they rushed outside soaring under moonlight. It was beautiful.
I agree that the show is hard to get into, it’s just so overwhelming at the beginning and it takes a couple of episodes for the base structure to settle. Anyone who cannot appreciate the technical and visual brilliance will probably not make it that far.
But it seems I watched the series quite differently from you, Ben. I didn’t so much try to get every detail but felt the show really wanted you to sit back and take in the chaos that unfolds as a whole. It’s like a sophisticated theme park ride: You’re not meant to take in everything, sit back and enjoy the masterfully crafted ride. In some ways it might be easier to pick up the whole picture if you don’t focus too much on the details.
I especially liked how the series has a basic structure of repetition, but in contrast to so many other anime it’s not inside a rigid structure that some things happen. Instead, the structure the necessary center of a series that explores every possible direction. So many anime are made with repeating concepts and ever the same plot building blocks that I really appreciate the series that open up and, instead of just unfold within a small frame, invite all possible ideas and just root them with their concept (Panty and Stocking is another series that is similar in this sense and which I’m therefore enjoying as well).
You hit it on the head when you described this as a divisive show. Opinions on Yuasa and his work vary wildly between each Colony Drop contributor you ask.
Count me as one of those who could not make it past the first episode. I could appreciate the visual spectacle in an abstract sense, but, coming from a literary realist background, Yuasa’s determinedly anti-realist, surreal visual aesthetic has never sat well with me in the first place. Kemonozume and Kaiba, my favorite Yuasa works, were underpinned by strong stories and characters who, while not remotely realistic in an of themselves, featured realistic characterization and personalities. In contrast, YST’s perpetual hysteria left me feeling cold.
Another reason I favor Kemonozume and Kaiba so much is that in both shows one can see distinct changes and refinements in visual style. In the progression from Mind Game-Kemonozume-Kaiba, it felt as if Yuasa was pushing towards a more reserved and restrained look while still maintaining the distinct visual flair for which he’s known. To my untrained eye, it seemed like YST was, in contrast, a partial reversion back to the surrealist/hysterical visual tropes of Mind Game. Granted, Mind Game was a visual achievement (if not my cup of tea), but my fear is that Yuasa is seeing that surrealist/hysterical style less as a thumbtack point on the line of his evolution as an artist and more as his “shtick.” On my worst days I can, and have, dismissed Yuasa as a gimmick director, but like some sort of pseudo-tsundere passive-aggressive I want him to keep proving me wrong.
Regardless, these posts have been among the most eloquent defenses of the series and Yuasa as a director. It’s probably a testament to his creative strengths that despite my misgivings, I’m still highly curious to see what he will do next.
In regard to this series being hidden away on late night TV for otaku. It was aired on the Noitamina block, which (asides from not targeting otaku) gets ridiculously good late night viewer ratings. Compared to the practically none-existent ratings of most of the otaku pandering crap, Noitamina is a huge success. Which is why they can take risks with titles like Yojouhan.
Though I mean, I dunno exactly, but Yojouhan is probably one of Noitaminas lowest rated shows. (but yeah, low ratings on noitamina probably still blows most shows out of the water)
Those youtube views are pretty depressing though :\
Well put about the moths. I also got more into the characters as time went on. Or rather I got more used to them and they didn’t annoy me as much and I was able to appreciate how each episode played around with their personalities.
I actually agree completely that it’s best to just sit back and let it wash over you; I was just noting that it’s pretty impressive that they put so much thought into coming up with all of these little one-off images that you’ll only see for a split second but that flesh out the back-story elements. Obviously a technique that harkens back to the opening and ending montages of Mind Game.
Good to hear a bit what you guys at Colony Drop think of the show. It would be nice to get an article on the subject. I peronsally think Mind Game is a successful artistic statement, and it’s still my favorite thing by Yuasa. It never occurred to me that Yuasa’s style could be viewed as a schtick, no more than Kon’s or Miyazaki’s style could be - it’s just the style that comes natural to them - but I can see what you’re saying. I admire Yuasa because, unlike Kon or Miyazaki, with each new project he has gone out of his way to adopt a style that goes in a direction completely different from the style that comes natural to him. AND he succeeded in creating something compelling and novel in that completely different style. The diametric opposite of a schtick. YST did return to the frenetic style of Mind Game, but it went even further in that direction. The frenetic pacing does not in itself bother me, but Mind Game worked because it was balanced between imaginative frenzy and down-to-earth human drama. YST was too unrelievedly frenetic (among other problems).
I agree that Yuasa has returned to some of the things he did in that movie here, but I find they’re two completely different beasts. This series disappointed me, for all its proficiency, because unlike Mind Game, Kemonozume and Kaiba, it didn’t grab me emotionally and I couldn’t stand the characters, much less find them as absolutely believable and appealing as the characters in his previous three productions. I admired his previous work because there was always a solid emotional connection and heft beneath the visual experimentation. Here I didn’t feel that. The characters felt more like props in a grandiose piece of performance art rather than human beings I could relate to. It was too strident and affected. The concept itself precludes genuineness, and I missed feeling that honest, human connection with the characters.
I was thinking of something like Twin Peaks when I wrote that part. I see YST as another kind of quirky show like that that perhaps could have had crossover appeal to the general public (perhaps not) if it had been aired in a REAL time slot and not some time slot that gets “good ratings for an anime", which is still negligible compared to ratings for prime-time shows. I’m fully aware this is sheer fantasy on my part - both the idea that an anime like this could ever air in such a slot, and the idea that general viewers would appreciate this.
I felt rather underwhelmed and kinda frustrated with the ending to this series. At the end it finally became apparent Yuasa was covering the same thematic ground he covered in Mind Game, but with a much less relatable protagonist given the fact that in the end he doesn’t have to face the consequences of the actions he took throughout the series. The solution to his problems seems to come to him all too easily in comparison to Nishi’s case.
I’ll still take Yuasa over most of what’s out there any day, though.
Masao Maruyama actually said at Otakon 2010 that Yuasa is going to do another movie and that he’ll be doing it with Madhouse. I’m glad to know that he’ll be back making movies since I also agree that’s where he belongs. Apparently he’ll also be coming back to work on Shin-Chan.
I was one of those who loved it to death. I think this was the best work of Yuasa, as I loved the structure despite the craziness, but people will differ as regards this.
The show can be so deep for those who dig hard enough, but still so enjoyable for just who take the ride. That’s what makes this series brilliant: it can be so many things to so many people, but it is never anything but good. :)
For some strange reason, I placed my response to you in a comment on another post (don’t know how that happened), so I wanted to re-post it here in case you missed it:
Thanks for the news about the upcoming Yuasa movie. That is great to hear. As is the news about him returning to Shin-chan. I suppose this means he’ll be coming back as an animator on the movies, but I’d love to see another Shin-chan TV episode from him. More Buriburizaemon would be great. So tragic that Shiozawa Kaneto is gone.
Kudos on all the work you put into analyzing this show. Really impressive. It makes me happy to know that many fans other than me actually find this to be their favorite Yuasa show. I’m glad the show connected with fans. It might not have been seen by many people, but many of those who did see it absolutely LOVED it. People might have liked Kaiba or Kemonozume, but not many people adored those shows with all their heart the way some fans did this show. This one seems to have connected more with fans like yourself who actually appreciated how densely packed the show was with meaning. Thanks for doing your bit to promote the show.