Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Tatami Galaxy

The Tatami Galaxy

The following is the plot-line from episode 1 of the cult classic “The Tatami Galaxy”, a sweeping 12 episode saga of an unnamed protagonist as he desperately searches for the ideal college life, but regrets his decisions at the end of each episode. The next episode gives him a fresh start and he begins anew. Although there are unofficial translations of the Japanese novel, this is my take on the first episode of its televised adaptation, with a few flourishes of my own. I hope you enjoy it.

The Master

The Shimogamo Shrine houses the matchmaking gods of yore. People from across Japan flock to this holy site, nestled between the Kamo and Takano rivers to make offerings and to receive a divine blessing. But few people know about the mysterious noodle cart that sets up shop near the shrine; serving up the delectable Neko Ramen. I sit on the lowly-seated wooden plank and slurp away at the delicious noodle broth rumored to be made from actual cats (for what is Neko Ramen without actual neko?) when the slurping of the patron seated next to me crosses the threshold for healthy gastronomic appreciation. I pivot to my right just in time to see the last bits of the noodle enter his cavernous mouth. Without skipping a beat, he looks at me through his half-closed eyes.
“You too are a resident of the Shimogamo Boarding House are you not?”
I am indeed a resident of that same boarding house: the nearly dilapidated structure located behind the Eizan Demachiyanagi station; whose ruddy innards are so ravaged by time that you would be excused for thinking that you stepped into a moldy hoarder’s dream home. And in that place, I recall seeing this curious man, in his pale (moldy?) green kimono, holding an audio disc to his ear and conducting Beethoven’s Ninth in complete silence with a cedar stick. Or the sight of his purple-spotted bandana fluttering as he lay stretched out on the terrace with sparrows resting on his gourd-shaped chin. Or the si--
“I am a god of the Shimogamo Shrine. I know everything there is to know about you. I have known you since you were in diapers, since the time you fell in love with S___ in high school, known the first time you confused infatuation for love. I know that you have stumbled through two years in college, loveless…”
This can’t be happening.
“...unable to open up to a soul, and as such seeking to interfere in the matters of the heart of those around you. Why do you live in such a timid state?”

Immediately, Ozu’s dark figure floated into my mind’s eye; his smile like the pearly whites of man-eating sharks. As if he read my mind, the (purported) Godman replied “I know your soul has been tainted by Ozu, but surely you have some role to play here?”
The wind rustled through the tall hackberry trees and I hear the sounds of a bell ringing gently and a cat mewing somewhere. The (alleged) God carries on, “I have to travel to Izumo and finalize the list that I prepare; the list of men and women that are destined to be together. Do you follow me?”
Not in the least.
“Does the name Akashi ring a bell?”
“As the god of matchmaking, I must settle on the name of the man I intend to set her up with.”
“Meaning,” he says with an impish smile plastered across his face, “it’s either you or Ozu.”
The winds howl as I’ve never heard before.


The first week at K___University was like a fevered dream. At the quadrangle, amidst the Brutalist-styled halls of learning, rows of students had their hands thrust out- a sea of brown and pale white- handing out flyers for clubs on campus. The whole point of joining a club was simple: it allowed you a chance to meet interesting people, share philosophies, make friends for life and if you were lucky, find a beautiful soulmate with hair black as ravens on a moor. I’m not exactly a genius when it comes to tennis, but I couldn’t resist the lure of the courts and so I joined the Tennis Circle. Predictably, I couldn’t return a serve and a volley was out of the question. It took me so long to find my voice, that when I did eventually find it, I was no longer in the Circle’s social circle. It was at this time that I met another freshman, Ozu. My first contact was also the worst possible contact. He was a short man with black, coiffured hair and with a smile that reminded me of a tiger shark swimming in placid waters.  I looked up at him and mused if he was an agent of the Lord of Darkness.

“You think such cruel things. Believe it or not, I’m your best friend.”
Ozu and I sit on the banks of the Delta, downstream of the Shimogamo Shrine watching the good folk lighting sparklers on the opposite bank, welcoming the advent of summer. Couples share an intimate moment in the relative darkness and the yellow glow of the sparklers and the white of the moonlight. Oh, how we have a surprise for them!
Ozu looks through his spyglass and remarks “Oh! I see Akashi!” The first thing I want to ascertain is if she came unaccompanied. I grab the spyglass and look in the general direction that Ozu pointed me in. Akashi, her jet-black hair let down, is in a simple white-collared shirt and blue dress, a watch adorning her left wrist, her left hand holding a bottle of what I imagine is wine and a paper cup in her right.
“She’s in the engineering department. Probably whipping something up for the Birdman Circle.”
My will started to waver. Ozu (Prince of the Irredeemable) seemed to catch whiff of my hesitance and insisted that we, the Black Cupids, dare not deviate from the plan of ruining these young lovers’ night out.
So I stood up, and loudly proclaimed that the Black Cupids had come to instill sense into those blinded by frivolous dreams of amour. Akashi mouthed something at me, although I couldn’t be sure if she could recognize me at all from this distance. Without further ado, we set off the bottle rockets from across the shore at the young lovers (and Akashi) and watched as they scattered like dust in the wind; the young women shrieking shrilly. Several livid young men, cross the shallow river and give us chase. As I bolt up the Delta, cartwheeling between the trees, I think of the words that Akashi has mouthed at me.

You fool.

My lungs are on fire and I am wheezing heavily by the time I throw off my pursuers. Ozu is nowhere to be seen. I am in Kiyomachi, panting and trying to catch my breath. A grandmotherly figure is seated under the overhang of someone’s house and she emits a terrifying aura. Like a moth drawn to the flame, I approach her. She looks up at me and asks me what it was that I wanted to know. A fortune-teller eh? I muse.    
 She looks at me, nay, into the darkness of my heart and tells me that I am impatient; I am a man who yearns for his talents to be recognized and paraded to the world.
“I see an opportunity; an opportunity that dangles before your eyes. You must take a hold of it before it’s too late” she intones somberly.
“Else, you will walk the earth forever, unchanged, remaining as you are now.” She holds out her hand.
And so, as I roam Kiyomachi with these ominous words on my mind and my wallet a 1000 yen lighter, I bump into the Archduke of Misery himself who had a very beautiful and very drunken beauty on his arms.
At the restaurant, Ozu and I discuss the beautiful woman who’d just kissed him goodbye. She was his dentist’s assistant; a woman who knew teeth better than anyone. What she saw in Ozu besides his razor sharp chompers, I’ll never know.
“You should ask out Akashi, you know” says Ozu, tossing out the mushrooms from his bowl. “She might say yes.”
I was flustered from the beer. “I’d rather have a raven-haired beauty who’d make tongues lag.”
“Right. That’s what I said.”
“Then you won’t mind if I ask Akashi out? She might say yes!”
“There’s no way she would like someone as corrupt as you!”
“If you can’t take this opportunity, there’s no reason I shouldn’t.”
“I hate you. I’ve wasted my only college life thanks to you.”
“You say such cruel things! I’m sure you’re just as responsible for your share of things. You’ll end up walking this path no matter what. I just decided to join you.”
“Why do you haunt me so, Ozu?”
“We’re tied by the red string of Fate.”
I put my head on the table and nearly weep. When I open my eyes, I see that Ozu had disappeared (as demons are prone to do) and that Akashi was sitting at his place, shoving a large bowl of chicken and rice into her mouth.
“It’s on the Birdman Circle’s tab, senpai (senior)” she said. “You picked a grand time to gatecrash the party.”
I thank her and ran out the back. She stops me and asks me to hold good to my promise. In my drunken state, I could only mumble something incoherently and stumble out into the cold night.


 I return home to my four tatami (mat) apartment at the boarding house and find a box of Castella cake at my doorstep. Ozu’s handiwork without a doubt. He probably has come to visit the mysterious Master whom he reveres as a philosophical genius (I later realize that the Master is nnone other than the God of Shimogamo). I open the box and take a slice of cake and bite into it. And for no rhyme or reason, the outlines of Akashi’s slender body drift into my mind.
I met Akashi, an engineer, who’s a year younger, at the Shimogamo Book Fair hosted at the park. Large wooden cupboards with books on topics ranging from Japanese cuisine to Zambian witchcraft were laid out in the afternoon sun. She was sitting on a cheap plywood chair in the middle of a patch of freshly mowed grass, reading a formidable tome#, while the eyes in the back of her head were monitoring the patrons for shoplifters. Akashi was a no-nonsense young woman, who despised small talk more than anything else; rumor has it that pickup artists having years of demonstrable experience hitting on women with silly jokes and quips about the weather all had to go back to the drawing board, tearing their hair out in frustration. Although I don’t ever recall speaking to her on campus, we did share a quiet moment in the park after the book fair. As we were drinking our sodas in silence, a black moth had landed on Akashi’s person and she had dropped her bottle and spluttered uncontrollably. She looked at my bemused expression, offered a hasty apology and to change the subject (from the horribly embarrassing display she’d shown), she showed me her collection of 5 tiny Mochiguman plushies on her keychain, one of which was missing. Being the gentleman that I am, I offered to scour the ends of the earth to find the missing Mochiguman, but instead she jovially asked me to promise to take her to the Neko Ramen stall someday.    
I gaze up at the Mochiguman that’s tied by a string to the light bulb over my head. I reach out and squeeze it gently and I wonder if I deserved a life of happiness with Akashi after Ozu and I had destroyed the love lives of so many others. But then the very thought of Akashi being seduced by a demon like Ozu was just too much for me to bear. For the sake of the pure-hearted Akashi, I would yield to my baser nature and beat Ozu. Five minutes later, after angrily scarfing down half the Castella, I knock at the door of the Godman. He answers the door and I tell him impatiently that he cannot let Ozu have her. He closes the door abruptly, seems to answer somebody inside and then tells me to meet him at an address in the Nakagyo Ward at sometime past 10 pm. I look up the date and place of the rendezvous and it strikes me that it’s the Gozan.

The Hands of Time

Izumo be damned, the Godman had finally decided that he would set me and Akashi up at the Gozan viewing; the spectacular conclusion to the Oban Festival where bonfires lit in the mountains could be seen from miles away. Through the parted crowds comes Akashi. We walk towards each other and when we meet my mouth turns to cotton. I thank her for footing the bill the other day. She says it’s nothing; the Birdman Circle never even noticed the extra food and drinks that Ozu ordered (and never intended to pay for). And just like that I bow, wish her a good evening and walk on. This is progress, I tell myself, surely this is a “one small step, one giant leap” sort of moment. But I can’t help the feeling that I let an opportunity slip through my fingers. An opportunity...

The commotion around me brings me out of my reverie. I see a figure standing at the edge of the bridge, threatening to jump into the river. It’s Ozu of all people. People around him are screaming his name and baying for blood.
“What kind of mischief have you done this time, senpai?” cries out Akashi.
“Ozu!” I hear myself crying. “Get down, for God sakes!”
“I can see that you managed to botch the chance that Master set up for you! You’re really useless, you know that?”
“Y..You mean he’s the Master?”
Ozu teeters at the edge; the river is swollen and if he slips, he could really die. Much as I am conflicted about my feelings for Ozu, this is too much. I elbow my way through the crowd of his detractors and try to get him down.
“You’re friends with him?” yells the drunk president of the Film Circle. “You ought to join him!”
At this implication, the crowd hoists me over the railing of the bridge and I plunge.
As I’m falling, in that infinitesimally small period of time, as they say your life passes in front of your eyes, the only thing I think of is how much I regret having joined the Tennis Circle. Then I would have never met Ozu. Then perhaps I might have had a way to find the perfect college life. The perfect woman. It’s all over now.

I hear the clock tower chime midnight in the distance and as the new day begins, mine ends.

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