Welcome to Episode 35 of APR! I wonder when episode 50 will arrive…
After a couple of double-headers we’re back with a three-series episode, and what a strong three series we have! Later we review two music series, including a popular returning composer from APR 23. First of all, though, I’m delighted to share with you an incredibly unique, landmark Japanese anime series:
The Tatami Galaxy (2010, S1, 11x23mins)
Comedy, Drama, Fantasy
“In short, frankly, to put it plainly, honestly, saying it without any reservation, at that moment… I fell head over heels for her.”
The story follows an unnamed male college student who, one night while eating at a ramen stand in the middle of nowhere, is greeted by a man who claims to be the god of matchmaking, who explains to the young man that Akashi (centre), the boy’s romantic interest, will be attached to either him or his ‘friend’ Ozu. What follows is the protagonist’s recollections of his previous two years of college life. Spanning parallel worlds, the character looks back on the multitude of different clubs he has joined, hoping for that “rose-coloured campus life” each time, until Ozu pulls him into morally corrupt plans that always end in the main character’s disappointment.
Basically Plot: A time-travelling, world traversing series looking back on the unnamed main character’s less-than-fruitful previous two years at college, his interest in engineering student Akashi, and his club adventures with the evil Ozu.
Right. Where to start with this series…
We’ve seen some complicated shows in our time: I think back to Occultic;Nine’s rapid speech and recently reviewed The Perfect Insider’s nearly unsolvable mystery as two examples. However, what occurs in The Tatami Galaxy is, by a mile and a way, the most complex series we’ve ever seen! There is a difference between complex and confusing, though, and thankfully this series is enjoyably complicated as opposed to being annoyingly confusing.
The story is almost impossible to explain in a plot that doesn’t spoil the things that you are expected to work out as the series develops. The Tatami Galaxy is a show that never explains itself. Instead it tells its story with such precision and understanding – and particularly good use of key phrases and scenes – that you quickly understand what is happening yourself, and it is really gratifying to be able to read between the lines like that! That being said, the weight of the mystery is such that I’m still not 100% confident that I understand the ending, however it would have been far out of keeping with the show if they made the ending easy!
Not only does The Tatami Galaxy have a time-bending, boundary-pushing story, but it has extravagant animation to match. While far from being the prettiest, most fluid or even high-quality drawing, the animation in The Tatami Galaxy carries an immense feeling of creativity. Every scene follows the narrating character’s rapid dialogue – more on that later – which creates an almost psychedelic feeling of literal thoughts being vomited onto the screen at an incredible pace. I don’t remember a single image that lasted on the screen for longer than four seconds, and often the scenes chopped at one-a-second – people melting, random images landing on screen like subliminal messaging and even a little bit of live-action make this series a headache-inducing rollercoaster – the equivalent of eating a 5-star, 8-course meal in your lunchbreak.
Of course, an extravagant series like this will not be without it putt-offs. Unlike some major series that vie for global appeal, The Tatami Galaxy is 100%, unashamedly Japanese. I should explain now that this series is a loose adaption of a novel originally created in 2004 and, as far as I can tell, has never been officially translated into English – an example of this story’s incompatibility. The story is inspired by the author’s own university experiences, and as such is a river of Japanese lifestyle and cultural references that would mean nothing to someone experiencing Japanese animation or culture for the first time. Also, I’ve seen some fast-paced stories before, but nothing comes close to the speed of thought in the Tatami Galaxy. The dialogue is like nothing I’ve seen before – I half-understand the Japanese language, and to me, the narration was just an unending string of noise. It is so ridiculously fast that it is a serious challenge to read the subtitles and capture the image on the screen without missing one or the other, and because changing it would destroy the Japanese feel of the series, I fear that The Tatami Galaxy will forever be a show just out of the reach of many western viewer’s grasp.
The Tatami Galaxy is a historically famous animation series. The series won the Japan Media Arts Festival’s 2010 Animation Award, an award handed out annually by Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs. This is historic because it was the first time a television series won the award usually handed out to films, the previous winners including The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Ghibli’s acclaimed Spirited Away! The Tatami Galaxy is an acclaimed story, and while it might not cross the sea with the grace and fluidity of other Japanese anime series, it can still be appreciated for its pure invention! This is certainly not a series for newcomers to the genre, but at the other end of the scale, I do not believe you can be a hardcore supporter of the genre if you haven’t seen a series like this.
ANIME RANKING: #15 – A series that sets the benchmark for creativity and originality, The Tatami Galaxy is fully deserved of a bold title in our Top 20, placing itself alongside titles such as Steins;Gate and Cowboy Bebop! While it doesn’t necessarily translate well, there’s no denying the sheer brilliance of the idea, and the medium-pushing style of storytelling and animation. If I was to make a list of ten anime to watch before you die, I’m sure this would be on there!
If you liked this you’ll love: N/A – How to follow-up the epitome of unique: the short answer is it’s impossible. All the series we’ve reviewed, and I honestly cannot find a single show that would be a good fit. Fans of really creative, medium-pushing shows may like the fantasy series Re:Zero, while fans of the spinning story with fantastical elements and characters will find similar themes in Durarara, but I am not comfortable recommending anything to match what happens in The Tatami Galaxy!
Sound! Euphonium (2015, S1, 13x24mins)
Teen, Drama, Music
“Music speaks to people’s hearts, all throughout the world. I believe it’s a powerful language.”
The story follows Kumiko Oumae (front) and her friends, all starting their first year at Kitauji High School. Kumiko, having played the Euphonium in big band competitions for as long as she can remember, joins the concert band club with her friends, but despite its past success she, along with her friends, find the club in bad shape. The current members are disinterested, and promising musicians have left. Then, the young and fresh music teacher Noboru Taki takes over, and sets his sights on turning the lost group into tournament winners. However, his stern teaching and high standards leave a lot of students disillusioned, and there are plenty of falling outs within the club as they try to become the best concert band they can be.
Basically Plot: Following the adventures of Kumiko and her friends as they join the high-school’s flailing concert band.
I enjoyed this series. It’s a story centred around music, but in reality, it’s a classic high-school slice-of-life series. The difference here, though, is that instead of it being a group of guys and a group of girls it’s almost exclusively females – something it didn’t have to be, as there’s plenty of male characters in the band – and that is the first of many clichés that Sound Euphonium manages to avoid. While there is a love interest in the story, it is so far in the background that it is easily forgotten; instead the primary focus in that department is the burgeoning, verging on romantic relationship between Kumiko and the enigmatic Reina (back and right in the image above), someone once misunderstood by the lead but who slowly develops into something of an idol to the lead character.
The thing that impressed me the most about this series was its humanity, a trait defined by its characters. Traditionally anime series will have clearly defining traits – emotional or visual – to help define its characters, be it a vivid hair colour or a character who spends most of their time at a 90-degree angle. However, Sound Euphonium’s characters are all incredibly normal! There’s no risqué outfits (in fact they all wear the same thing almost all the time) or overly dramatic people shouting constantly, it was just simple emotions and slight changes in facial features and hairstyles that separated them, the type of things that define people in everyday life. There’s not many shows – high-school series Orange is the only one that springs to mind – that can challenge the level of normality and naturality achieved in this series, and that’s down to a multitude of features. Not only are the characters cleverly designed but also voiced expertly, while the animation also must rank as some of the best I’ve seen, with incredible fluidity and beautiful colours bringing scenes to life while maintaining that natural feeling.
Honestly, Sound Euphonium isn’t really a story that appeals to me. I watched it after hearing positive things about SE2, which aired at the end of last year. Despite this, I found myself won over by this beautifully produced series! Sound Euphonium delivers an emotional series without any sparks, a simple yet heart-warming story that has some moments of drama but more than anything is just a beautiful thing to watch, with animation and voice acting that can rival any other show out there. Music does not necessarily play a huge part in this series, but if you’re a fan of female-led shows and slice-of-life series, then I urge you to watch this!
ANIME RANKING: #20 – A beautiful series that is as natural as it is dramatic, Sound Euphonium deserves its place among the elite in the Top 20, replacing fellow high-school series Orange!
If you like’d this you’ll love: Your Lie in April – Unlike The Tatami Galaxy, this recommendation was as simple as you could wish for. YLiA is another classical music series set in high-school, with a similar importance placed upon creating drama with natural characters. YLiA does have a stronger love-inclination than Sound Euphonium, and the blockbuster nature of the series leads to more dramatic, spectacular moments than in SE, but the message is the same: finding yourself, and the people close to you, through the sacrifice of creating music.
Kids on the Slope (2012, S1, 12x22mins)
Romance, Music, Slice-of-Life
“Hi there, rich boy. From now on, your name is “Bon.” Let’s you and me be chums, eh?”
Kids on the Slope follows high-school student Kaoru Nishimi (middle). A high-achieving honour student, Kaoru is the knowledgeable son of a prosperous family, but due to his father’s work he has frequently had to move schools, the latest being in Kyushu. Due to the pressure of his family and his nomadic lifestyle he tends to keep out of the way of people, spending his time alone studying or playing classical piano. However, by chance Kaoru bumps into Sentaro Kawabuchi (front), a notorious problem student who barely turns up to class and is frequently involved in scraps. Sentaro decides to make Kaoru his friend and, after a rough start, the two of them begin to bond over music, particularly Sentaro’s love of jazz. As the two of them become closer, Kaoru quickly falls in love with fellow classmate Ritsuko (back), Sentaro’s childhood friend who frequently hangs out with the two of them.
Basically Plot: A coming-of-age story following classical-music playing introvert Kaoru, whose unwanted, loud-mouthed friend Sentaro drags him into the world of jazz, while Kaoru tries to live with his feelings for Sentaro’s childhood friend Ritsuko.
This was a nice series. There are stereotypical parts to the story – which we’ll come onto later – but the first thing that strikes you about this is how unique it feels. I was drawn to Kids on the Slope because it was a series with the director/composer double act of Watanabe & Kanno, a team that we did a whole APR about a while back (episode 23). These two create beautiful pieces, and this is no different.
The animation style is quite something. I was surprised when I found out that this was made as recently as 2012, because the drawings are so soft – frequent use of airbrush shading as opposed to the more common, sharper shade effects – and the animation is noticeably slow. Honestly, it reminded me less of 2010 Japanimaiton and more of the famous 1980’s western Christmas animated film The Snowman! It’s a very humble and understated style of animation that goes together with the story.
For a show in which fast and wild Jazz takes most of centre stage, Kids on the Slope has a surprisingly quiet and nuanced storyline. While it feels like a bromance at the start, the series quickly slides into a full-on romance storyline that can feel slightly Hollywood at times (there are two separate ‘leaving on the train forever’ scenes, for example) but is brought to earth by natural characters. There’s plenty of anime romances based around school kids, but this felt like a more mature story than most. My only serious issue was the almost laughable love-triangle that formed. They did fix it in the end, but at one point the story literally read ‘A likes B, but B likes C, who’s got a thing for D, but they like E.’ Kids on the Slope was one same-sex crush away from a perfect circle!
The amount of story covered in this relatively small, simple 12-episode series is monumental, and that’s without counting the ‘eight years later’ conclusion! The storyline moves at a reckless pace where these two complete strangers and opposites are, within less than a full episode, acting as if they’ve known each other all their lives. Issues are brought up and solved in almost sit-com style, and while this would usually be a problem for a serious series, KotS gets away with it mostly. There was a part of me that wished, like with so many other series, the story was given more episodes, but given how it was all rushed in the end it didn’t feel like I had missed out on anything.
Overall, this is an enjoyable series that isn’t what you would necessarily expect. People expecting a music-led story about friendship will be left disappointed, but Kids on the Slope is a very solid high-school, coming-of-age romance with a Hollywood-esque storyline and interesting enough characters. The animation is beautifully old-fashioned, beautifully western, even, while the Watanabe/Kanno touch comes through particularly strongly in the jazz moments. A good story for fans of more mature, slightly glorified romances.
ANIME RANKING: #27 – A very strong ranking for this series, placing it ahead of Wagnaria and fellow coming-of-age romance Paradise Kiss, and only just behind rom-com king Nisekoi.
If you liked this you’ll love: Anohana – Well this is awkward. The perils of reviewing two musical series at the same time is that the recommendations might match, and in reality Your Lie in April is probably more suited to this series than Sound Euphonium! However, for the sake of individuality I’m recommending Anohana here. While the focus of the story differs, both these 1-cour series centre around love and friendship, and while Anohana does have a fantastical element I would argue that KotS has the same, just less pronounced. Anohana is an incredible coming-of-age story with beautiful animation that I’m sure you’ll love.
I’m not a fan of the baggage and reputation and follows certain names in creative industries. That’s what has, for the most part, put me off reviewing western cinema and turned me to anime, where I don’t know anyone involved, nothing except the story. However, I am a huge fan of the work done by Watanabe and Yoko Kanno! they are probably the first particular names I’ve started to look out for, and might search for any other works by the creative duo!
Make sure you follow The Culture Cove to see the best anime reviews before anybody else! Look out for episode 36 of Anime Pocket Reviews, featuring one of this year’s most popular romance series, Tsukigakirei!