The 4.5 Tatami Room of Forking Paths

After finishing Tatami Galaxy, I am pretty sure that anime needs more Borgesian labyrinths. Actually, everything needs more Borgesian labyrinths, but especially anime. Because.

For waiting this long to watch the show, yeah.

Anyway, Tatami Galaxy is a lot of fun: our Nameless Protagonist is often a hilariously terrible person, pursuing the patently ridiculous dream of the rose-colored college life with the end result that he is surrounded by raven-haired maidens (one suspects that they will not remain maidens for long, but that is also why the program is For Mature Audiences Only). The escapades and antics are familiar to anyone who ever set foot into the hallowed grounds of Higher Education, with the minor fact that there is a great deal more fun being had in Tatami Galaxy‘s university than actual education. Also, casting Nobuyuki Hiyama as Johnny the Libido Cowboy was pretty much the best move ever.

Setting aside such grave concerns, however, I feel that taking a moment to take Tatami Galaxy a bit seriously might be in order. Quite early on, I noticed that the story seemed to be patterned along the lines of most visual novels: Watashi is clearly meant as a parody of the cipher narrator of most romance-oriented visual novels, and he sees all his choices at college as a means to the end of the perfect college life where he gets to have lots of sex with lots of hot girls. When one particular route turns out to be more disastrous on his life than planned—largely because he picked a club not because he was interested in being in the club, but because he thought that if he joined it he could move closer to his dubious goal[1]—he essentially reloads his saved game from the first day of university and tries again to trip the hidden event flags that net him an abundance of raven-haired maidens and the college life of his dreams.

From this, Tatami Galaxy can be seen as a fairly straightforward cautionary tale for the visual novel generation: you can’t be something you’re not in an attempt to game life to achieve a goal, and you must also live with the decisions you make, as there is no way to backtrack when you hit a Bad End. But then, at the very end of the series, the full conceit of the show is revealed: Watashi is caught in an endless labyrinth of 4.5 tatami rooms, all belonging to slightly different versions of him that seem to be having entirely more fun than the one who wanders the tatami labyrinth. It’s also crucial that Yuasa began to use more live-action footage in the sequences with the wandering Watashi perhaps it was simply a budget-saving move, but it implies to us, the viewer, that this particular Watashi is the “real” Watashi, and that the show prior to this point has been a hallucination of the wandering Watashi, a dream that passes for reality, or a reality that passed like a dream.

Which brings us to Borges, because any mention of “labyrinths” and especially in close conjunction with “dreams” requires bringing him up. I’ve been slowly working through the recent Penguin retranslation of his works[2], which means that I sort of have Borges on the brain. One of Borges’s most famous stories, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, is known for its description of an infinite novel, a labyrinth that branches in time rather than in space:

In all fictions, each time a man meets diverse alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the work of the virtually impossible-to-disentangle Ts’ui Pen, the character chooses—simultaneously—all of them. He creates, thereby, ‘several futures’, several times, which themselves proliferate and fork. [3]

The fictional novel in the story is considered the first instance—in 1941—of hypertext, and anyone who’s gotten lost on Wikipedia with twenty tabs open knows, without being told, how headache-inducing this sort of thing is.

The thing is, this is the exact environment visual novels and Tatami Galaxy operate in, even more literally than in the Wikipedia example, for in these it is time that branches, not (tab bar) space. Watashi literally makes all the myriad decisions of his college life simultaneously—each room of the tatami labyrinth is slightly different, reflecting a slightly different choice he made in that particular fork. Despite the fact that he has been granted the agency to literally do everything in the world (apparently through the arcane ritual of “locking himself in his room”), he finds himself rather miserable, as he fundamentally can’t do everything without simultaneously doing nothing. And so, he becomes stuck inside the hypertext labyrinth, vast stretches of forking possibilities stymieing him into a stagnant life, unable to pick a life and go for it. At least, until he realizes that he’s trapped in this paralyzing labyrinth and resolves to escape it by making a very important decision.

If we want to get really metatext here, though, it’s also possible that the whole of Tatami Galaxy takes place in a relatively short period of time, as Watashi puzzles out whether or not he should return the fifth Mochiguman toy to Akashi. Here, the story takes on the structure of Watashi unconsciously reflecting upon past opportunities and missed connections to his current situation, finally determining that Akashi is the risk he wants to take. The tangled, dreamlike narratives and labyrinth result from Watashi’s consideration of what might have been, or what will happen if he doesn’t make the next move with Akashi. This also explains the terrible dooms that always befalls Watashi before another reload: any doom that occurs happens after he consciously rejects returning the toy to Akashi, which implies that he can’t imagine a positive thing that would come from not pursuing Akashi. He betrays himself in these scenarios; the fortune-teller needn’t be the Fate stand-in, but rather a stand-in for the intuitive understanding of Watashi’s desires that he is unwillfully (or, perhaps, willfully) challenging.

Regardless of the level of narrative complexity, though, the end results are the same: Watashi accepts his past decisions and regrets—bad and good, hastily made and carefully thought-out—and decides to move forward. It matters not, at this point, which past is “real” or whether any of them are real at all; what does matter is the acceptance of their existence (or non-existence) and moving forward with his life. As life is defined entirely by limits, he can’t do everything there is to do in life—he can’t even do everything he might want to do in life—but he can do what seems most important now, and take pleasure from—or in spite of—whatever may result.

[1] I typoed this as “gaol” initially. I thought at least one of you might be amused by this. ^
[2] Yes I know the Hurley translation isn’t as good as the di Giovanni translations. Yes I will track those down and read them. No I don’t want to listen to your 400 word rant on this topic. ^
[3] Borges, Jorge Luis, trans. Andrew Hurley. Collected Fictions. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. p.125 ^

3 Responses to “The 4.5 Tatami Room of Forking Paths”


  1. 1 Brack 22 August 2010 at 11:15 am

    I’m not sure that metatextual reading works. For a start, we get the very physical element of the money the episode 10 protagonist collects from each Tatami Room and leaves behind for the episode 4 version of himself to find. And in the finale the protagonist has knowledge of Ozu that Ozu does not expect him to have. It certainly seems much more likely to be literal, rather than taking place in the protagonist’s mind.

    However I think you are on the right lines in terms of the episode 10’s protagonist’s thought process, except I’d say he’s literally doing the reflecting by deducing the aspects of each of the other episode protagonists’ lives from the evidence of their rooms. While he thinks any of their lives would be better than the one he has, by seeing all their lives, and by extension that of the supporting casts, he’s got a sense of perspective that the “Rosy Coloured Campus Life” desiring protagonists lacked.

    As we’ve seen from the earlier episodes, while the protagonist’s life is driven by his single minded pursuit of an unrealistic goal, everyone else’s lives are fairly consistent because they sample more of campus life than he does, and don’t over think things so much. Once the last protagonist gets that perspective and escapes the Tatami Galaxy, we see him turn into an Ozu-like figure, imitating that character’s sense of awareness of the world by physically taking on his appearance.

    The fact the show refuses to show you the outcome of his and Akashi’s relationship I think adds to the suggestion that it’s less the relationship that’s important, and more that the Mochiguman toy represents something that was outside the narrow world that the earlier protagonists had created. I’m not so sure he was deliberately not returning the toy in those worlds, more that he’d become so blinkered by his thwarted dreams he couldn’t remember the meaning of it any longer.

  2. 2 moritheil 30 September 2010 at 12:47 am

    That sounds like fantastic metatextual fun.

  3. 3 outdoor venue 10 September 2014 at 12:43 pm

    Very nice article. I definitely love this website. Thanks!


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