writer, director, editor
On the Adapted Works of Tomihiko Morimi
October 22, 2021
"Could Icarus have ridden the wind had he not tried so hard to flap his wings?"

Japanese author Tomihiko Morimi is a popular contemporary name in his home country, with his now two-decade writing career spanning various genres from mystery, science fiction, and coming-of-age to romance, comedy, and drama. However, despite his varied works, Morimi has consistently returned to a loosely connected series of campus novels set in the city of Kyoto, all of which have since received critically acclaimed screen adaptations. Having been in love with these particular works ever since I first discovered them in 2010, here I'd like to discuss The Tatami Galaxy, Night is Short, Walk on Girl, and Tatami Time Machine Blues. Out of all adaptations of Morimi's literary repertoire, these three works share several elements not found in adaptations of his other writings; a vague continuity runs through each, with various characters recurring in small roles across the different stories; an air of psychological whimsy persists, as does a simplistic yet expressive artstyle. Notably, the adaptations of The Tatami Galaxy and Night is Short, Walk on Girl share a director: the legendary Masaaki Yuasa, one of the most talented directors working in Japan.

To properly examine the narrative and artistic successes of these adaptations, I'll start with my personal favorite: The Tatami Galaxy. This adaptation, an 11 episode project from Studio Madhouse, holds a degree of infamy for its particular style of narration; the show's entirety is narrated by the protagonist Watashi (the Japanese word for "I" or "Me") and to call his delivery "mile-a-minute" would be underselling it.

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The Tatami Galaxy

The Tatami Galaxy focuses on Watashi's experiences at Kyoto University. However, fittingly for a narrator who speeds along without regard for the audience, Watashi spends his time trapped in his own head. The story manifests as a series of time loops, which are used to explore how Watashi's life may have differed if he had made different choices at key junctures in his college experience. At his core, Watashi aspires for a "rose-colored campus life," the picturesque ideal abound with close friends, whirlwind romances, and exciting misadventures. Alas, Watashi's personality turns this aspiration quixotic; he is shy, inward, and reticent to individual action. On a certain level, Watashi hopes for this rose-colored life to happen at him rather than forging it by his own will. As such, his most critical choice in most depicted time loops is one made at the start of his time at university: which social club to join. This ranges from a cycling club to a tennis club to a filmmaking club, among several others. Regardless of his choice, he always runs into two specific characters. The first is Akashi, an engineering student and Watashi's primary romantic interest. The second is Ozu, referred to both as Watashi's closest friend and his least favorite person. Ozu is depicted with an unusually demonic appearance and serves to tempt Watashi into a series of questionable choices in every loop.

"If you were to meet [Ozu] in the street late at night, eight out of ten people would mistake him for a youkai. The remaining two are certainly youkai themselves."

Both the adaptation and the original novel begin in Watashi's 3rd year of college as he laments how he wasted his first two years of college life due to the machinations of Ozu. While the influence of Ozu certainly hasn't been a benefit for Watashi, the story continuously returns to Watashi's general refusal to take responsibility for his circumstances. Among the most "grounding" elements in the adaptation is a nameless fortune teller whom Watashi consistently finds working on the street. The fortune teller plays the part of Watashi's repressed drive to take control of his own life, constantly warning him that opportunities are passing him by while simultaneously increasing her price every time he visits her. Through flashback, we learn that Watashi has already befriended his love interest, Akashi, and even made a promise to take her to his favorite ramen shop at some point in the past, though he has yet to follow through on this promise (in fact, Watashi appears to have forgotten about this promise entirely). Several characters remark that Akashi acts differently around Watashi in a way that indicates she may be interested in him, however Watashi's cowardice prevents him from exploring this possibility. Even after consulting a character ambiguously depicted as a literal deity of matchmaking, all the deity can do is put Watashi in the right situation to approach Akashi, but making the steps to pursue her romantically is something Watashi has to do himself, something he continually refuses.

As an exploration as to the turning point that college life often serves, it's unsurprising that a major thematic throughline in The Tatami Galaxy is sexuality, its commanding presence in the minds of young adults and its repression in the face of lascivious antagonism. Though this theme is primarily addressed in the later parts of the story, it is introduced as early as the second episode. Watashi's view of sexuality is often framed through two upperclassmen, the breast-obsessed jock Jougasaki and the sensual dental hygienist Hanuki. After the audience is first introduced to the "time loop" mechanic per the end of episode one, the second episode depicts Watashi's campus life if he had joined the filmmaking club, of which Jougasaki is the president. Following a string of poorly-received art films meant to challenge Jougasaki's reign of "sex-and-violence" style action flicks, Watashi vows to take down Jougasaki in any way he can and, with Ozu's assistance, creates an exposé documentary in which it is revealed that Jougasaki keeps a life-sized sex doll named Kaori, which recurs in later episodes as the crystallization of deluded romantics.

Hanuki makes a minor appearance in the first and fourth episodes, but isn't introduced properly until the trilogy of episodes examining Watashi's romanic and sexual frustrations (episodes 6-8). The events of these episodes happen concurrently, as Watashi overloads himself by joining three separate clubs all at once. The trilogy opens with Watashi locked inside the bathroom, internally remarking that his life has led him into a peculiar situation in which he must choose between three women vying for his affection. In this particular loop, Watashi has joined a club for English literacy, where he met Hanuki and gained a romantic penpal named Keiko (unbeknownst to him, this penpal is actually just Ozu). Furthermore, Jougasaki's sex doll, Kaori, has wound up in Watashi's care after Jougasaki leaves the city for an extended period. Tied into all of this is the new character of "Johnny," a phallic cowboy that personifies Watashi's Eros.

Each of these three episodes follow these three doomed romances. Episode 6 depicts Watashi's growing friendship with Hanuki, culminating in the night from the opening sequence, where a drunk Hanuki has invited Watashi into her home. Watashi subsequently escapes to the bathroom after fighting Johnny's drive to return Hanuki's sexual advances.

Episode 7 depicts how, in Jougasaki's absence, Watashi falls in love with Kaori, an artificial avatar of Watashi's ideal "raven-haired maiden," with this romance representing, much like the show's wider premise, Watashi's quixotic longings. Near the episode's end, Watashi describes the life he wishes to lead with Kaori, including the impossibilities of meeting her parents, having children, and growing old in the countryside. At the moment where Johnny compels Watashi into attempting to have sex with Kaori, Jougasaki returns and kicks him away.

Episode 8 depicts the turbulent exchange of letters between Watashi and the penpal Keiko, which culminates in Keiko asking to meet up, something Watashi is reticent to do as his letters implied a "better" version of himself that strayed too far from reality.

In the aftermath of this trilogy, Watashi learns that Ozu had, since their first year of college, been in a relationship he had not known about. This simple fact is enough to bring Watashi out of his delusions by submerging him in doubts; despite his outward hatred for Ozu, Watashi always took some silent pleasure in the notion that, despite wasting his college years, Ozu had done the exact same, and their shared misery brought Watashi a certain solace. In learning that Ozu was living his life to the fullest while also indulging in the same idle activities as Watashi, there is no longer a singular external point of blame Watashi can lay his social and romantic failings on. This leads into the penultimate episode, exploring how Watashi's college life would be if he never left his 4.5 tatami apartment, self-styling as "The Tatami Ideologue," all the while he asks: "Who is responsible?"

Two elements serve as the symbolic core of Watashi's circle of suffering:

  1. A castella cake, which is routinely delivered to Watashi's room near the end of most loops.
  2. A "mochiguma" doll, one of a set of five, which is owned by Akashi. Through varying manners, Akashi always loses this doll and Watashi always finds it, planning to return it to her but never actually doing so.

As Watashi's isolation grows to its peak, he finds himself in a scifi-esque situation in which even if he wanted to leave his room, he cannot do so, for every adjacent space is an identical copy of his 4.5 tatami room, with another castella and another mochiguma doll tied to the overhead lights. As he explores this world of infinitely-repeating space, he finds that each room has slight differences, and realizes that these rooms are from other loops, parallel worlds wherein he made different choices. As he finds traces of the likes of Jougasaki, Hanuki, Akashi, and Ozu, he wonders why the other versions of himself led such discontented lives in worlds of comparable paradise. It's in the aftermath of these macrocosmic reflections that he comes to appreciate the relationships he built, especially his friendship with Ozu and his longstanding crush on Akashi. In vowing to finally take the steps to remove himself from unrealistic dreaming as an excuse to wallow about life, Watashi is finally allowed to escape his 4.5 tatami hell. Ozu also loses the demonic appearance he is usually depicted with, reflecting his true, significantly softer, nature.

It's important to note that Night is Short, Walk on Girl (hereafter Walk on Girl) is the most disconnected work within the "tatami galaxy," if the name wasn't evidence enough. Indeed, Morimi's original novel is completely disconnected from the narratives of The Tatami Galaxy and Tatami Time Machine Blues, with its similarities being relegated to aspects of theme and setting. The adaptation deviates from this, including direct, though minor, appearances from the likes of Ozu and Hanuki (along with a musical number about Jougasaki and Kaori) that tie the film into our other works.1

Walk on Girl follows an unnamed "Girl with Black Hair" and her central love interest, the similarly unnamed "Senpai先輩," an upperclassman who has developed an unreciprocated crush on the Girl with Black Hair, and attempts to win her affection by "coincidentally" showing up in the same places she does to encourage the notion of fated lovers. During a night of bar-hopping for a mutual friend's upcoming wedding, the Girl with Black Hair finds herself in increasingly bizarre situations, with Senpai never far behind.

Much in the vein of The Tatami Galaxy, Walk on Girl is comprised of four substories occurring over the course of a single night. The first story follows the Girl with Black Hair as she plunges herself into the world of "adulthood" via her love for alcohol, leading her to a drinking contest with the legendary Rihaku. The second story follows Senpai's quest to retrieve the Girl with Black Hair's childhood copy of Ra Ta Ta Tam at a night market in order to win her heart. The third story follows a pop-up theatre troupe roping both Senpai and the Girl with Black Hair into its romantic lead roles. The final story follows an outbreak of cold that afflicts most major characters in the story, while the seemingly immune Girl with Black Hair brings home remedies house-to-house.

The life-affirming central thesis of Walk on Girl is primarily examined though its two leads. The Girl with Black Hair's journey of whimsy is reflective of her belief that all things happen for a reason, thus if she merely gives herself over to chance and wonder, things will naturally work themselves out. Senpai believes in the antithesis, spending the entire film attempting to "force chance," willing to take all the steps of courtship but only through the plausible deniability of coincidence. The film repeatedly returns to its ethos of grabbing control of life's reigns, most directly during an early scene wherein several characters compare watches; the Girl with Black Hair's watch reads normally, however the watches of her upperclassmen replace hours with months and the watches of elderly men replace those months with years.

This notion of transience extends to a second theme regarding the interconnected web of humanity; Senpai makes repeated references to the East Asian concept of the red thread of fate; during the second story, an Ozu stand-in regales the Girl with Black Hair with stories about how the authors on a bookshelf are linked to each other through a string of varying interactions; in the final story, as the elderly Rihaku laments his life of isolation, the Girl with Black Hair rebuffs that he is still inextricably bound to others through the very acts he undertakes to isolate himself.

An Aside About Terayama Shūji

In the 10th episode of The Tatami Galaxy, Watashi namedrops Throw Away Your Books, Rally In the Streets, an experimental play and later feature-length film written and directed by Terayama Shūji. Having previously discussed Shuji's work in short story, I felt it apt to address the thematic parallels between The Tatami Galaxy and Throw Away Your Books, Rally In the Streets.

Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets also follows a listless twentysomething protagonist who is disillusioned with how his life has turned out. Though the protagonist's name is given at the very start of the film (name), the character is credited as the nameless "Ore" (another Japanese word for "I" or "Me" that carries masculine connotations). This protagonist's disillusionment is derived from his family which has settled into ruts of bizarre mediocrity. His father is a pervert, his grandmother is a bum, and his younger sister is romantically involved with her pet rabbit.

In the vein of Terayama's tripartite film The Young Person's Guide to Cinema, disconnected stories tinted vivid colors are collaged together to convey the story's ethos. The opening scene is an indictment of the audience, filmed in black and white. Much of the protagonist's family life is tinted a bright green. Several oneiric sequences are tinted shades of pink and purple. But the direct depictions of the protagonist's troubled youth are in plain color; his homoerotic time spent in the soccer team locker rooms, his bursting into tears when visiting a prostitute to lose his virginity, his attempts to console his sister in the aftermath of a gang rape.

Though its commentary is obliquely directed at Japan's faltering national identity

The Tatami Galaxy borrows several elements from Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets; it borrows its vivid monochromatic style; it borrows the use of a man-powered airplane as a metaphor for the protagonist who is identified by a universal pronoun; it borrows the protagonist speaking directly to the audience during the story's closing moments.

Though Yuasa did not return as director for the third installment in this universe, Tatami Time Machine Blues, he did handpick a talented replacement; the up-and-coming Shingo Natsume, who storyboarded Night is Short, Walk on Girl and has directed several well-regarded works in recent years, including Space Dandy, Boogiepop (2019), and Sonny Boy.

Tatami Time Machine Blues is a crossover sequel to The Tatami Galaxy, incorporating elements from Makoto Ueda's 2005 film Summer Time Machine Blues. Ueda is a longtime collaborator of Morimi's, having written the screenplays for Night is Short, Walk on Girl, as well as the earlier Morimi adaptation Penguin Highway. Despite my love for The Tatami Galaxy, I went into Tatami Time Machine Blues with a certain reservation; the wider story is more-or-less the exact same as the admittedly mediocre Summer Time Machine Blues, though now including the likes of Watashi, Akashi, Ozu, et al. Both Summer Time Machine Blues and Tatami Time Machine Blues take place in a particularly sweltering summer as the heroes glue themselves to the only room with an air conditioner, though this air conditioner is old and can only be turned on via a remote, which is destroyed at the start of both stories via accident. Upon the sudden appearance of a time machine, the heroes opt to travel back in time to retrieve the remote from before it ever breaks. While the premise is comical, the plot is a rather standard causal loop story akin to Predestination, Timecrimes, or Terminator. Not only that, but, despite being billed as a sequel, the emotional progress attained in The Tatami Galaxy is absent; Ozu is once again depicted with his demonic visage and Watashi is once again largely a stranger to Akashi.

  1. There's also an easter egg in episode 8 of The Tatami Galaxy, in which Watashi reads the original Night is Short, Walk on Girl.

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