The Tatami Galaxy

By Tomihiko Morimi and Yusuke Nakamura. Released in Japan as “Yojōhan Shinwa Taikei” by Ohta Shuppan. Released in North America by HarperVia. Translated by Emily Balistrieri.

I was not having a good weekend when I read this book, and was perhaps a bit grumpy going in. Morimi has always been very hit-and-miss for me, and the sliding scale has depended on how much of his books are narrated by a pretentious but also pathetic college student, so I was not expecting much. The book gradually won me over, though, because it’s also filled with the things I do like about Morimi, especially his tendency to make places into characters. As with many of his other books, there are many refer4ences to (I assume) real-life streets and neighborhoods that the characters walk up and down, but it also extends to the four-and-a-half Tatami room that the main character lives in. The first 2/3 of this book could read like a normal novel with an odd time travel bent to it, but the fourth chapter goes all in on being uncanny, and explores the dangers of staying too far inside your own head. In addition, all the characters except the lead are great.

The book is narrated by an unnamed college student, who looks exactly like all college students do in books like this. He’s in his third year of college and drifting, with his only “friend” being Ozu, who feels more like a partner in crime than anything else, and is described by the narrator as looking like an oni. (The anime, which I haven’t seen, apparently takes this and runs with it.) He used to be in a film club, but got thrown out for basically being too much of a dick. There’s also a girl, Akashi, who he met at a bookstore and who seems to get along with him. Despite this, he has no girlfriend and his life is going nowhere. Then he meets a self-proclaimed God and a fortune-telling old woman, who between the two of them seem to send him on a series of what-ifs that show that choices may not matter as much as we think.

This got a VERY popular and influential anime, which I haven’t seen, so I definitely wanted to give it a shot. I ended up liking it more than not liking it. The protagonist is irritating, but of course that’s by design, and we’re not meant to like him that much at first. Ozu is the sort of wonderful character that you never, ever want to meet in real life, and Akashi, frankly, has the patience of a saint. The book has four chapters, each of which start with him deciding to join a different “club” in school, and those changes are reflected in what happens, though he seems to end up at the same resolution no matter what. After the final chapter, which is also probably the best chapter, I am hoping that he has managed to find some perspective, though Akashi can probably help him out. I also hope Ozu knows that he is being sent on a trip with a bunch of identical-to-the-serial-number 1000-yen bills.

If you’re a fan of the author, this is of course a must read. If you aren’t, try to power through it anyway, as it works best when you let the prose and locale wash over you. Also, is the dental hygienist in this the same one as in Penguin Highway?

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