The Tatami Time Machine Blues

By Tomihiko Morimi and Yusuke Nakamura, based on the play “Summer Time Machine Blues” by Makoto Ueda. Released in Japan as “Yojōhan Time Machine Blues” by Kadokawa. Released in North America by HarperVia. Translated by Emily Balistrieri.

I had mixed feelings about The Tatami Galaxy as a novel, as I appreciated the story, the writing, and the other characters, but the nameless protagonist drove me nuts. We honestly spent far too much time inside his head, to the detriment of my enjoyment. If only, I probably did not think at the time but should have, there could be a book with the same cast but where events happen so fast and require so much action that the protagonist does not have all that much time to be a pretentious ass? I was probably yearning for a book just like this one. Taking a pre-existing play written by frequent collaborator Makoto Ueda before The Tatami Galaxy was written (it has a famous live-action film of its own) and putting the Tatami Galaxy characters in it is a fantastic idea, mostly as it turns this into a comedic farce. And boy do these characters work well in that genre.

This is not a sequel to the original, but more an “alternate story”. The setup is the same. The narrator lives in a dilapidated apartment complex, he has his terrible best friend, his cool beauty crush, and the annoying guy who’s been a college student for at least ten years now. The plot starts when the remote for the complex’s one air conditioner, in the narrator’s room, is broken and it’s the hottest time of the year. This is a problem, as they’re busy doing things like making Akashi’s movie about a time traveler going to the Shinsengumi period and turning them all into slackers. Then a *real* time machine shows up, and they get the bright idea to go back in time and grab the air conditioner remote before it gets broken. But… doesn’t this create a time paradox?

The discussion of time paradoxes and closed time loops is interesting, but honestly it’s just an excuse for madcap antics and the narrator freaking out at said madcap antics. The narrator has the same problem he had in Tatami Galaxy – he wants to ask Akashi out but is too much of a coward – but aside from one section in the middle he is not allowed to dwell on this, and honestly his problem ends up being solved by the time loop and Akashi, who (as in the first book) has the patience of a saint. There’s also a time traveler from the future, whose identity is so obvious that even spoiling it here would feel lame, but who allows the plot to happen. And there’s Ozu being terrible, and Higuchi being annoying, and Hanuki being a free spirit, etc. This doesn’t have the grand feel of the last quarter of Tatami Galaxy, but it’s not aiming for that. And honestly, it may be the true canon. The narrator and Akashi come up with the plot for The Tatami Galaxy towards the end, and even name it. So perhaps that’s the fiction and this is the reality.

If you enjoyed the first book, or the anime, this is a must read, and go watch the anime too. Honestly, maybe Morimi should use pre-existing plots more often.

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?