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 Morimo'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.
Sion Sono, among Japan's most subversive filmmakers, has a few unusual penchants that tend to stick out when viewing his admittedly-wide filmography. A recurring motif running throughout Sono’s stories, especially in his most notable works, is an exploration of the feminine, especially through the lens of sex. Appearing primarily in Strange Circus, Guilty of Romance, Antiporno, Tag, Love Exposure, Forest of Love, and, to a lesser extent, in Suicide Club, this theme stands out due to Sono’s particular and explicit means of expressing it.
Sono's use of sex as a narrative and cinematic device comes against the backdrop of Japan's history of sex in media, including its once-popular mode of "pink films," which included vast arrays of sexual content. Similar its Western counterpart, the Golden Age of Pornography, the pink film encompassed sex in various forms but largely remained in the realm of the pornographic. Among the most notable string of pink films were Nikkatsu's "Roman Porno" series, which allowed for great artistic freedom on the part of writers and directors, so long as the films adhered to a minimum of four sexual scenes per hour of content. The inclusion of sex in art is an unfortunate point of contention, primarily due to moral arguments on the obscene. For better or worse, sexual content straddles a line in artistic integrity and intent that is difficult to balance; lean too far in one direction and the predominant takeaway is one of pornography. As such, using sexual content as a means of artistic critique of wider parts of the human condition is agonizingly difficult to successfully accomplish considering how much sex is a part of the lives of most people.
When it comes to Sion Sono, his particular use of sex in cinema is often as part of a larger story of family, identity, and meaning. Strange Circus is arguably the most direct exploration of sex and family dynamics; the story follows the young Mitsuko, who is groomed by her father, Gozo, over the course of several years; he begins by forcing her into clandestinely watching him and her mother having sex from the confines of a locked cello case; the father eventually forces himself on Mitsuko, leading to a long relationship. Mitsuko’s mother finds out about this and becomes intensely jealous, opting to wear youthful clothing when sexually engaging the father herself. Initially, this twisted tale is depicted as a fiction-within-fiction; the story of Mitsuko is the plot of a novel being written by wheelchair-bound erotic novelist Taeko (Masumi Miyazaki). As the film progresses, the boundaries between this in-universe fiction and the film itself are blurred as Taeko is revealed to be Mitsuko's mother, Sayuri, herself, who had accidentally injured Mitsuko, leading her to be pulled from the family and placed in foster care. Sayuri subsequently cripples the abusive Gozo and keeps him trapped in the cello case, intermittently torturing him. Even this narrative is thrown into question, being nested in a series of dream sequences and the film's wider frame story of the titular "strange circus" of drag queens preparing a guillotine.