The search for a second Tatami Galaxy
I’m always looking for shows that are similar to The Tatami Galaxy (Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei / 四畳半神話大系 ). Why is that? Maybe it’s because it’s one of the first shows that I’d seen, borderline life-changing, that is really worth watching even if you hate anime, just because of its clever writing and literary value. With that being said, I think that people who loved Tatami Galaxy would greatly enjoy Kuuchuu Buranko / 空中ブランコ (Welcome to Irabu’s Office). The two shows are very similar in style and structure, and they share common themes about psychology and the complications of adult life.
Kuuchuu Buranko is about a psychiatrist called Dr. Irabu who sees various patients with different mental problems who get sucked up into crazy misadventures with both comedic and serious elements, covering topics like a prominent professor’s obvious toupee, heart-breaking divorce, accidentally burning down your house, and having to start life all over again on Christmas Eve. Most of the characters are seriously lovable and realistic, and we get to see the same events from different perspectives. The story involves personal growth and empathy but is accompanied with many healthy doses of irony and self-criticism.
In this review, I will offer some high level thoughts on what really stood out to me. You might enjoy reading this even if you have no intention of watching this show at all.
Flying Trapezeman (Yamashita) – First Episode
In my opinion, this is a great “first episode.” It successfully lays down all the motifs, which we will see repeated throughout the show, on top of a good and isolated episode that is funny, meaningful, and insightful, but not excessively dramatic as to be a distraction from the show, which is only just starting.
The bickering and fast shots of the foreign workers, who are just “babbling” in non-Japanese languages is not only hilarious but also shows how Yamashita is being overwhelmed and uncomfortable both in his own homeland and his own personal territory (circus arts, which have been passed down throughout his family for generations).
Even though the foreigners make Yamashita uncomfortable, with Yamashita believing in paranoia that they are laughing at him, we see them also depicted in a gentle and warm way, like benevolent muscular giants, and they have a certain friendly attitude towards Yamashita which is especially revealed when it turns out that Ali — the Turk — was only trying to give Yamashita advice on how to improve his performance. Yamashita also gradually warms up to these foreigners and “donates” extra food to them without letting them see him.
The conclusion of the episode ends up being fairly straightforward — Yamashita watches his own performance on video (which can sometimes be a highly traumatic experience for people who aren’t ready) — and realizes in the end that he was the one who was mistaken all along, and his semi-delusional unreliable narration (which we’ve seen also in the animation itself) comes to an end. Yamashita had been isolating himself as a response to his painful childhood, where he had been constantly on the move and being mocked by his neighbors and fellow countrymen. A great, steady start for what will soon become an amazing show.
Public Servant (Taguchi) – Episode 2
This episode has so many morally gray characters and tremendous drama and comedy, going up and down like a roller coaster. What really stood out to me was its sympathetic characterization of the sinful woman who cheated on her husband and left him. Unlike modern Hollywood stories, which usually portray marital infidelity in terms of self-centered passion and the outright rejection of morality, Taguchi’s story instead has themes of bitterness, growth, repentance, and forgiveness.
Taguchi’s wife leaves him for reasons unknown to us but which will soon become clearer as the story progresses. In the aftermath of this tragedy, Taguchi clings to the past as a coping mechanism, collecting pictures and becoming obsessed. He still dreams about his old wife who promised to raise children with him and to enjoy their life together in a big house. In real life, Taguchi is a pushover and punching bag for many other women in his life. His workplace is strangely filled with women — even his own boss (perhaps unusual for Japanese society?), and he gives up his own interests for the sake of people around him who don’t appreciate it. Somehow, even his public responsibilities as a civil servant lead him to become a temporary cameraman for a girls’ high school swim performance. Maybe the writer is trying to show us Taguchi’s general obsession with women and his struggles as a recently-divorced man.
Outside of the world of Kuuchuu Buranko, men in general struggle with relationship problems when they give up on their own dreams, ambitions, and future hopes and instead obsess over the individual personalities and demands of the women they love. These women dreamed of going beyond themselves and sharing a common hope with their husbands, but instead those men stopped making progress in their lives and settled for simply pleasing their partners. This usually leads to unhappiness and the fracturing of relationships. And maybe this is the reason that Taguchi’s wife left him for someone who wealthier, happier, and hopes to build a better life with her.
Taguchi’s obsession turns into hatred, and he meets his ex-wife and tries to lash out at her, dreaming of a dramatic confrontation that will validate all of his suffering. However, he is surprised to find out that his wife is sympathetic to his suffering and is apologetic for her selfish behavior, still clinging onto her new happiness but with a bittersweet hope that her ex-husband can find his own happiness outside of her. Seeing her like this, Taguchi’s heart softens and he decides to forgive her. In the end, obsessive hatred over your ex-wife is still a form of obsession. It is still an example of the man who gives up his own self-improvement and self-investment to focus on the needs of an individual partner. It isn’t the story of a man who has learned from his mistakes. Kuuchuu Buranko doesn’t frankly justify marital infidelity (like Hollywood) nor accuse it as a one-sided evil (like Puritanism), but shows us the practical reality of what happens when men with personal weaknesses don’t invest in their relationships correctly.
I still fondly remember the end of this episode, words which will stay with me for a long time, when Taguchi finally decides to stop doing every random little chore for his unappreciative coworkers, saying — “I’m not going to do that. Not because I can’t, but because I don’t want to.” — words that are absolutely forbidden in the polite Tokyo workplace. With these words, Taguchi leaves as a new man and tries to forge a new life for himself. He has overcome the burdens of his previous suffering.
Romance Novelist (Hoshiyama) – Episode 3
I really loved the banter and debate between the old, uncouth novelist-veteran and the handsome sellout. Taking off their clothes and metaphorically wrestling with each other for egotistical supremacy, with the old man, almost naked and with his belly hair exposed, accusing Hoshiyama of being a fraud — because if Hoshiyama truly cared about romance novels, he’d be too busy having sex to keep up with the writing deadlines. Taking revenge, Hoshiyama concludes that he finally has a new idea for his book — it will be about an old, washed-up, no-good perverted geezer — none other than the old man himself. The battle between two stubborn, competitive men in the context of a shared craft doesn’t get any better than this.
Baseball Player (Bando) – Episode 4
I enjoyed the depiction of yips (struggling with something you already knew because of pressure) here and appreciated how Bando’s condition would subside when playing with little children. Bando is angry at the young man who competes with him as an up-and-coming star in the baseball world, but he still protects him, helping him out during drunken troubles. Sitting next to each other in the taxicab going home, Bando sees the young man mumbling drunkenly — the young man shows his own weaknesses and uncertainty, his admiration and pressure to continue his trajectory in his baseball career — and Bando’s heart softens. Bando realizes that he himself had been caught up with egotistical expectations and the pressure to perform consistently with his previous legacy, and he understands that the young newcomers have their own struggles and pains as well. Bando becomes more comfortable and acknowledges the “mortality” of his own career — he is getting old, and soon he will inevitably be replaced by youthful athletes with fresher and stronger muscles — and he accepts this fact, which ironically makes his yips disappear.
Neurology Doctor (Ikeyama) – Episode 5
This episode is the European existentialist’s dream and particularly reminds me of Albert Camus (knocking on the door of unhappiness) and Hermann Hesse (expressing your personality through irony and youthful play rather than intellectual suppression).
Dr. Ikeyama is overwhelmed by the pressure of his prestigious role in life and has suppressed his individuality completely, particularly his childlike prankster personality. Struggling as an adult, he has dramatic and detailed fantasies of ruining his life completely by performing outrageous pranks, but he worries about death (will the police kill me for doing this prank?) and the thoughts of his peers.
The quality of this episode is just insane, and it’s redundant for me to describe it to you in writing — it’s just an overall delightful tapestry of seriousness, irony, business, and pranks, that would have excited people like Harry Haller. Who can forget the glorious crescendo when the wig comes off in a radiant glow of baldness for all to see — with mezmerized students finally seeing the nakedness of their highly-esteemed professor?
In the end, Dr. Ikeyama integrates his childishness with his everyday life and tries to assimilate the two parts of himself together to become a coherent personality again. A fine approach for a healthy life as long as you’re careful. He realizes that his wife enjoys baseball too, and his own son has picked up the habit of making fun of the baldness of his own grandfather…
Phone-Addicted Teenager (Yuta) – Episode 6
A sad, realistic, and well-written depiction of the phone-addicted teenager who depends on his friends and has no confidence in his own merits and existence. It is interesting to see the fossilized technology of this episode — keypad cellphones and 2000s internet — which has aged well in this modern story. Yuta is addicted to his cellphone, but more importantly, he has no confidence in his own value as a human being, constantly seeking to impress his friends who have no appreciation for him. He is passively-aggressively “invited” but not “really invited” to a party with questionable logistics, wandering around the city in hopes of finding his fake friends. In the end, he abandons his old habits and deletes his cellphone contacts, starting completely from scratch. He always tried to please people who hated him and took for granted people who actually liked him — but now, he makes the first step and becomes real friends with Mayumi. The episode is a straight-up good and accurate depiction of the turmoils of teenage life, and the writer is to be commended for having pinpoint accuracy on this setting which is easily forgotten by adults.
Yakuza (Seiji) – Episode 7
I greatly valued this episode for its accurate depictions of egotistical masculine struggle and the contrasts between exterior and interior, toughness and softness, male and female.
Seiji is a crazy, tough, masculine, high-ego yakuza, but he has an obssessive and all-consuming fear of sharp edges that ruins his image, making him look totally uncool. Seeing the contrast between his macho exterior and his fearful interior makes for an amusing and enjoyable watch.
Seiji’s wife appreciates his macho side, but seems a bit confused at times because she doesn’t fully understand the image-economy of public masculinity. Seiji’s wife operates on a sort of parallel universe and doesn’t pretend to understand what men are thinking, which is why she arbitrarily and free-spiritedly places a deposit for a new property on a rival gang’s territory, leading to violent drama that she doesn’t fully comprehend.
When Seiji realizes that his own detestable rival actually has his own secret weak spot — an all-consuming obssession with holding onto his favorite knife (interestingly, something that has sharp edges which should trigger Seiji’s fear) — Seiji softens up. Perhaps he feels liberated from the burdens of face-saving and public image when he realizes that his enemies are also struggling with their own weaknesses, and he begins to develop empathy for a rival whom he hated. Could it be that the most important “sharp edge” were the needles that were poking out of Seiji’s on hardened heart? Seiji relaxes and begins to overcome his fears and starts to become a more empathetic person. In one of my favorite heartwarming scenes from this show, Seiji’s wife stares right into Seiji’s face, her eyes full of gentle affection, not saying much, but simply observing that Seiji has changed just a little bit … for the better.
Journalist (Iwamura) – Episode 8
This episode is absolutely hilarious and personally resonates with me, as someone who is constantly worrying and trying to maintain control over different parts of life that can’t possibly be controlled. We see the great struggles of a journalist who loves his vocation but is crippled by his obsessive worry and the fear of having to save the universe. His obssessions and fears are both relatable and sad — he worries, for example, that his house will burn down because of unsecured electrical outlets.
Iwamura, despite his struggles at work, cares deeply about his craft. Iwamura is fired in a humiliating confrontation, and he is later forced to work for a small-minded editor for a second-rate magazine shop. Despite his humble position and willingness to obey others to preserve his dream, he steadfastly refuses to compromise on his code of ethics. When the small-minded editor tells him that he doesn’t care about social consequences of publishing fake news, Iwamura stands up fiercely and looks like a giant, and he stares down the editor who squeals like a mouse and covers his face with his arms so as to avoid being hit. In this small confrontation, and in less than 30 seconds, we see the inner strength of Iwamura’s moral convictions contrasted against the weakness of the small-minded editor’s commercial ambitions.
Following the flow of his life, acting true to his obssessive fears, and preserving his own morals, Iwamura eventually stumbles on a great story and becomes a successful journalist once again. He never overcomes his mental obsessions; instead he learns to cope with them and integrate them into his lifestyle. This, too, we are told, is a successful way of living.
Actor (Hiromi) – Episode 9
What I really loved is Hiromi and his relationship with his female agent. Silently, acting almost like a mother to him, she had been advocating and struggling for Hiromi’s sake, only for Hiromi to stagnate in complacency and self-assuredness without any appreciation for the labor that had been happening in the background. When Hiromi’s agent reveals to him the bad news — that their careers in showbiz are soon to be extinguished — she starts crying and reveals the love that she had for him. Hiromi’s response — to withdraw into his old, stagnant, usual pattern of smiling — reveals his inability to cope with the hardships of the real world, leaving her disappointed.
Ultimately, Hiromi does succeed at breaking out of his old routine and learns how to use his past success in a new way, giving up his excessive clinging to a past that has long since disappeared, transforming it into a new act and giving life to his dying career.
Businessman and Patriot (Tanabe) – Episode 10
If you’re reading this and haven’t watched it, I will advise you that this episode is particularly affected by spoilers and is also one of my favorites in the entire show, so please go ahead and watch it.
This episode is absolutely up there with one of my favorite episodes in any anime, period. The story and visuals are just very well-executed, and it focuses on themes of growth, tradition, and patriotism that are almost never discussed in modern Japanese animation.
Tanabe is a successful businessman and accomplished journalist who has fear of death, frightening flashbacks of the past, and has a confrontational attitude against modern society. Unlike other patients in the show, he doesn’t turn into a semi-delusional cartoon animal because his own self-image is already characterized by delusion. He is actually an old man who is fearful of the future and hasn’t accepted his death. In his mind, he is still a young man with great dreams of building a new future, but he hasn’t yet realized that his time has already passed — that he has no more time left for dreaming.
While attending a baseball game, Tanabe goes over his past memories and starts to integrate them back into himself. Rather than fighting against the past, he focuses on mindful appreciation and remembrance, and he discusses the flow of history and the changing of times. As a young man, he build up the ruins of post-war Tokyo with his own hands, rising through the ranks as a patron of his community until he became a great business leader.
He thinks about how Tokyo, his beloved city, has changed so much over the years, and he remembers his old dreams, playing baseball with his dear friends, and contrasts them with the new and modern life that is right in front of him — something that isn’t necessarily good or evil, but just modern and different. He realizes that the world has changed, and actually, he himself was a participant and active contributor to this change, not a passive spectactor. He comes gradually to accept his inevitable retirement and lowers his confrontational attitude, deciding to teach the lessons of his life to his younger fellow-countrymen.
What I really appreciated about this episode is the feeling of history and its changes, which is accurately depicted, as well as the implicit love that you can see between Tanabe and the city that he helped to build. For many of us young people who are still struggling to find our roots in this world in the pursuit of meaningful dreams, it is something very new and admirable to see a story written from the perspective of an accomplished citizen and patriot who has really given himself over to build a community — a model personage worth imitating by any young person trying to live a good life.
Doctor and Father (Tsuda) – Final Episode
Unlike other people in the story, Dr. Tsuda doesn’t have a mental illness. He is just a vulnerable person struggling with his weaknesses and responsibilities in the chaos of modern life. Presumably, Dr. Tsuda stands in for us, the audience, normal but sinful people who struggle with our own lives and fail to see the signs of our errors around us, always blaming others and making excuses for ourselves.
Dr. Tsuda is the father of Yuta, the cellphone-addicted teenager in the previous episodes, but he is also a medical doctor who is overwhelmed and busy at work. Or so it seems. Actually, he uses his work as an excuse to avoid the burdens of parenthood and home life. He is a weak father and a weak husband, neglecting his son and blaming him for lack of virtue (but from whom did the son learn virtue?) and attacking his wife, who is helpless and overwhelmed, for not managing household affairs. Dr. Tsuda actually takes care of some of his patients better than his own son, a form of escapism that people often do to assuage their own guilt; they can’t help on what’s most important, so therefore they help those who are immediately in front of them. The particularities of this episode may be an actual wake-up call to modern urban Japanese fathers, who are notorious for emotionally neglecting their children and prioritizing workplace accomplishments over meaningful parenthood.
Dr. Tsuda starts to have a mental breakdown as he struggles with his feelings of resentment, the feeling that he deserved to have a good home, a good wife, and good son without putting in any emotional effort. In particular, he blames his own son despite his own shortcomings and seeks empathy for himself only. However, in this case, Dr. Irabu, the side-character prankster-doctor of this show, directly stages an intervention, taking a more active role compared to previous episodes. Irabu shows Tsuda to have empathy for his wife and his son, explaining that although absentee fathers can always escape into the workplace, young children have no hope if they can’t even escape into their own homes which were meant to protect them. More generally, Irabu tries to teach the viewer to have empathy and to take notice of every single person, however ugly, that we encounter in this life, not blaming them or resenting them or hating them, but seeing them as fellow-strugglers in the colosseum of life.
Dr. Tsuda finally takes the first step to change his life, taking time away from his busy schedule to host a Christmas party for his son Yuta. Always the serious, strict, absentee father, he sends a picture of himself wearing a funny Christmas hat to show his sincerity.
With the show finally concluding with this episode, we receive a badly-needed message for modern parents who need to invest more time in their children, who are struggling greatly in this difficult generation, as well as a general call-to-action to for the average viewer, who presumably doesn’t have many mental illnesses, to fix his own life and to stop blaming others.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed watching Kuuchuu Buranko and give it a 10/10 rating simply because it’s so underrated, but probably more like a 9/10 if I have to be realistic.
I absolutely loved the polarizing art style, which overlapped the faces of real actors over anime style. Almost every single episode covered a topic that I was personally interested in, except for perhaps the one about romance novels. The combination of comedy and drama was excellent — a great setup for a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously, making fun of itself, while suddenly surprising you with some great points. The show certainly meets my qualification for “mildly life-changing” in the sense that there are certain scenes and quotations that I still strongly remember despite it being more than a year since I first saw the show. I highly recommend that you watch this show and that, you, too, learn to overcome your weaknesses and integrate them into a healthy and happy life.
A small update from me
Hey everybody, I’m still alive and still watching anime, so I decided to start posting reviews again and share some of the nonsense that I’ve learned after enjoying these cartoons for years. I probably won’t be doing armchair philosophy on this blog anymore unless people really enjoy it.