Episode 1 gives us a whole lot of information compressed into a very tight package. And it’s not just the rapid, almost stream-of-consciousness narration that provides us that, but the aesthetic style of the show itself. Every item is very deliberate. This will likely be the most image-heavy post as a result. So let’s start by talking characters.
The first character we have, of course, is our protagonist. Note that he remains unnamed throughout the entire episode: he’s either addressed directly by others, or as “senpai”. Otherwise, in his monologues he simply refers to himself as “I” (watashi). This seems to be his working name, as far as things are concerned. Much like his dorm, he seems absolutely average, if perhaps a little unlucky. Some bloggers have commented on his resemblance to Zetsubou-sensei, mostly from the glasses, and he certainly fits a certain archetype – dark, mussed up hair, glasses, a white top and dark pants, formal yet with a bit of a slouch – he’s the quintessential Japanese student, an everyman. Watashi (as I will refer to him) is exactly the sort of typical protagonist that is meant to be related too; the viewer is invited to see the world through his (rose?) tinted lenses.
I think this goes a little further than just simply empathizing with Watashi. The method of the storytelling, in which Watashi narrates a story about events in a certain segment of his life, literally provides us the images that he is seeing directly. I touched on this in my previous post on animation and absurdity; animation is a method where one can directly control what the viewer sees. In animation, it is much easier to avoid the sense of the “objective camera”, passively recording events as they unfold, but rather animation allows a story to be presented, literally, through the eyes of another.
We get some examples of this in the depictions of the following characters. By order of appearance, lets start with the kami of the Shimogamo Shrine, Kamotaketsunominokamo. There’s very little else we know about him, save that he exemplifies the trope of the surprisingly mundane deity (who munches on ramen, no less)
Friends of mine who have watched this episode have made much confusion over his appearance. The first thing they notice, of course, is the enourmous chin – the second is the almost as large nose. He looks strange, certainly by modern standards, but compare his picture with this:
Kamotake certainly looks a little more exaggerated than the woodblock print above, but his character hearkens back to an older, ancient Japan. He reveals that he is a kami to Watashi – and to Watashi, his face is exactly like that of a woodblock print of an ancient Shinto deity that has leapt to life in front of him. . Each character design is charged with particular characteristics that reflect the character – or more accurately, Watashi’s perception of the character.
Likewise, Ozu, Watashi’s friend (or if you prefer, partner in misery) is described as a wicked, evil creature, and his countenance as depicted in our story is an extreme one: his character design invokes an imp, sprite, or other mischievious little demon. Despite this, Ozu is not completely menacing, and we do get a more sympathetic sense of him in this episode. He teases Watashi that he will take Akashi for himself, but it’s unclear whether he’s serious, simply teasing Watashi, or attempting to goad his friend into finding happiness. The very end of the episode has Ozu shouting at Watashi in drag, calling him out on his lack of resolve in approaching Akashi. Ozu strikes me as the sort of character that is a catalyst – he’s definitely someone who will make things happen.
Akashi, on the other hand, is presented as fairly normal looking – of course, given that she is the romantic lead. She has a wonderfully nuanced character design that’s just slightly pretty without being overtly too strong (certainly having Maaya Sakamoto’s voice talents help there); in some ways her design reminds me of Ghibli heroines such as Nausicaa: slightly tomboyish yet with a feminine streak. She’s not presented as stunning or all-out, drop-dead gorgeous, but rather has a “girl-next-door” sort of feel, having certain charming affectations, like her phobia of moths (not even going to get into a discussion of moe here…).
What’s clear is that the “look” of these characters is very purposeful; Tatami Galaxy has thrown away all pretense at a “realistic” or “natural” look for a perfectly artificed aesthetic. These characters look exactly like the way they are described by the narrator. Kamotake is a kami, therefore he looks like a woodblock print from another era. Ozu is impish, therefore he looks like an imp. Akashi is the love interest that Watashi suddenly begins to realize he is attracted to, so she has pretty, yet not drop-dead gorgeous, charm.
If these examples are not as convincing, consider Watashi’s recollections of the past few years he and Ozu spent as “Black Cupids”. In the flashback they literally are dressed in “Black Cupid” costumes as they work their hardest to destroy budding couples:
The scenes are played straight, yet Ozu and Watashi appear in them wearing quite clearly ridiculous outfits. Again, the general trend is towards an emotionalized recollection that is being told by Watashi – no objective camera to be found here.
In regards to the plot, the typical romance story is being played straight, but with a slightly different, and I think more touchingly realistic take. What really has Watashi on edge in terms of having any sort of relationship with Akashi is a bit of pride and a bit of fear. Pride, because to attempt romance now would have been in some ways a betrayal of his past self – it would force him to let go of the bitterness that he has in some way built his identity on. Rather than give in directly to loneliness, Watashi instead has embraced it and made it part of who he is – to quote him directly:
“It would go against my beliefs to seek the comfort of a stranger from this transient loneliness. Is it not because I scorn those inexcusable students who cannot bear the isolation and greedily seek out others that I ran to the name of limitless notoriety as “one who hinders love”?”
Getting together with Akashi is tantamount to betraying his own identity that he has built over the past two years – yet at the same time he is paradoxically galvanized by his same bitterness: he won’t allow Ozu to win. This frustration is exemplified in the scene where Watashi destroys the Castella cake that Ozu brought him, consuming it all while muttering that he will not lose.
The second thing holding back Watashi is of course a much more common trope, fear – as shown in his awkward and stiff interaction with Akashi. It is clear just by watching that poor Watashi seems unable to progress anywhere with Akashi on his own – now that he’s so very conscious that he does like her he now seizes up in her presence and is unable to speak more than a few words, and then leaves. It is at this point that Ozu steps in, and what an entrance he makes:
Ozu is the real wild card in this show – and like I said earlier, might be a catalyst driving events along. Perhaps episode 2 might give us a little more perspective on how things will play out. Nevertheless, Episode 1 has proven to me very well that Tatami Galaxy is quite deliberately thought-out – very little has been left to chance here.