Archive for August, 2010

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 ^


[IMPORTANT HELPFUL NOTE: It may amuse (some of) you to imagine me as a tall, lanky, blonde American, bedecked with cowboy hat and riding spurs, perched upon a horse which happens to be in an elevator at the current moment. You might also want to whistle a bit. Perhaps this will set you in the correct mood for this post, my position, and my general capabilities regarding the following.]

As I have promised for approximately five years, I have rewatched Cowboy Bebop, a series which has caused me no small amount of largely inexplicable consternation over the eight years it has been since I first watched it on one lonely August day when I probably should have been running around outdoors and overturning rocks to see what sort of disgusting things lie under them (either worms or communal copies of Playboy, depending on who you ask). This consternation is largely founded on the fact that I manage to evade the extremes of opinions about Cowboy Bebop: I neither worship it as the feather of truth that the hearts of other anime must be weighed against, nor do I revile it as some kind of impure anime too tainted by Western influences to qualify as “true anime”. I exaggerate, of course, but I’ve never really felt like I ought to throw my weight behind the “why can’t we have more anime like Cowboy Bebop?” position. I’m not even sure that the opposite position exists, as Cowboy Bebop seems to be so universally beloved of nearly everyone that assessing it as anything less than a superlative example of the fine art of Japanese animation takes on the air of trying to explain to the Pope that maybe these “indulgence” things aren’t the best idea.

Part of the problem is, of course, is that Cowboy Bebop is actually an extremely polished, highly enjoyable series. The cast is likable, the animation is fluid, most every episode is well-structured, and Shinichiro Watanabe pulls it all off without batting an eye. I had forgotten, in the Eight Year Exodus, that many of the episodes are just sheer, gleeful fun: the comic episodes were always my favorites, especially “Stray Dog Strut” and “Mushroom Samba”, and I noticed this time around that Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV is far more horribly underused than I remembered, taking a back seat to nearly everything (this is a travesty and I demand the spinoff). Even episodes such as “Speak Like a Child” and “Hard Luck Woman” that blend comedy with more dramatic events work well for me, although that might just be the peculiarities of the themes they deal with.

The more dramatic episodes and moments, though, are the ones that stymie me the most. The episodes that deal specifically with Spike’s backstory and ultimate BANG tend to leave me constantly checking the time remaining on the episode and wanting to send a letter back in time to the staff that reads “Yes, I get what you’re doing here thematically. Get on with it.” Possibly the worst offender is actually “Ganymede Elegy”; the second half of the episode felt as though the series were doing everything short of holding up a cue card that reads “BE SAD AND EMOTIONALLY MOVED HERE” to get the viewer to feel emotion, veering dangerously close to blunt force trauma with Tragic Narrative with Thematic Resonance. It’s moments like this—where characters are impelled along their paths by the mechanized workings of Theme—where any subtlety that may or may not be present is lost or disregarded through the blatantly mechanical operations of the plot’s thematic ends.

These episodes tend to feel emotionally flattened and dead to me. The mode fits well with the major themes of the work: the characters are living a half-existence, suppressing their emotions as they’re thrust forward on the linear rails of fate dictated by the events in their pasts. It’s also styled with the classic Hemingwayean hardboiled style, quite common in noir fiction and film: depict the actions of the characters truly enough, and the audience will perceive and feel the emotions underneath.

Something about the flat deadness of the hardboiled style tends to turn me off it, though: in Cowboy Bebop, I can perceive the emotions under the surface, I can understand from whence they come, and I can feel sympathy for the characters, but, with a few exceptions, I can’t seem to bring myself to really care a great deal about all of this. I don’t feel wrenched, or even a vague sorrow, but as though I am merely abstractly noting that a person feels a certain way. The exceptions—Faye watching the Betamax tape from her youth, Ed leaving the Bebop after her prodigal father—may be due to similarities from my own experiences or even just thematic familiarity from previous stories I have read and watched.

Still, at the end of the day, any real issues I have with Cowboy Bebop are largely dependent on my own personal idiosyncrasies, symptomatic not of issues within the series itself but of individual aesthetics. I have scarcely a complaint with how the series tends to let the cast pinball around within the confines of an episode; the rest seems simply a mismatching of formal aesthetics. Everything is handled exactly the way Watanabe wants it to be handled, and it snaps together nicely, but the way Watanabe handles things and the way I make personal connections to stories just don’t jibe well, and it’s disingenuous to shift responsibility to the series because of that.

Nevertheless, it seems to be the dividing line between my reserved but high opinion of the series and the adulation and idolization that I sometimes see for the series. I can easily understand why someone might feel so fervently about the series to make it their favorite series, or even a benchmark series for quality anime, but I cannot feel it for myself. It is a conscious, knowing appreciation, and not a gut-level appreciation, and that, I fear, makes all the difference.

As a sort of last-minute parting shot, it’s also possible I find myself identifying more with the characters who accept the burden of their past and face the future, rather than those who are more a prisoner of their pasts. I also note, with some amusement, that the two major characters who resolve to face the future—Faye and Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV alias Françoise—are female, while Jet seems to remain in present-day stasis and Spike, well, BANGs. I can’t tell if this is an angle worth serious thematic exploration, or even if I’m qualified to tackle it, but it struck me as interesting.


I cannot understand those that take anime seriously, but I can love them, and I do. Out of my love I warn them to keep clear of this blog.

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August 2010