The highest highs and the lowest lows of life often lead us down the path of memory. The destination? The single decision that set us on the road to our current reality. Sometimes, we are baffled by our own good fortune at forming incredible friendships, dwelling in a town or city where we thrive, or having a career that completely fulfills us. Other times, as in Tomihiko Morimi’s novel The Tatami Galaxy, we stew over the inexplicable bad luck that seems to drag us down endlessly like quicksand, and try to identify the moment when life took such an irredeemable turn. While those around us might offer up extreme optimism in the face of adversity as the answer, Morimi’s novel proposes a far more reasonable middle ground between that and drowning in self-pity.
The nameless narrator is a miserable student in his junior year at a university in Kyoto. In the first of four parts, he explains that he is an ex-member of the student film club “Ablutions,” and that his only friend is another student who ditched the club along with him: a guy named Ozu, who subsists on the misfortunes of others. Before finally leaving the club, the two spent two years making films no other member was even remotely amused by, except for one bluntly opinionated female underclassmen named Akashi, whom the narrator has a crush on. Yet, he is so socially inept and married to the idea that his life could never improve, that he refuses to make any definitive move towards her.
The narrator lives alone in a derelict building full of rooms that are each only as large as a square made up of four-and-a-half tatami mats. Ozu’s master, Higuchi—an odd man who only ever wears a navy-colored yukata, stubble, and has an eggplant-shaped head—occupies the room directly above. The narrator meets Ozu’s master the night before an attempted act of revenge against his enemies in the film club, the leader of which he considers to be pretentious and dishonorable. Ozu’s master claims to be a god in charge of romantic fates, and asks the narrator if he wants to change his. Though initially quick to brush off Higuchi’s claims, he later encounters a fortune-teller who tells him to seize his chance at a different life when it comes.
Throughout the novel, the narrator blames his choice of club activity for the regrettable state of his life. As a freshman, he decided between four clubs, hoping to create a “rose-colored campus life.” Instead, he ends up friendless but for a malevolent weirdo whom he constantly compares to a yōkai, a class of supernatural being in Japanese folklore, and who can’t go a single day without causing him trouble. Each of the four sections of the novel correspond to the narrator’s choice of student club, revealing how his life would and would not have changed had he chosen differently. The beauty of Galaxy is that not much of great significance does change between each version of the protagonist’s life until the final section. The characters mentioned thus far are, it turns out, all bound by fate, and show up in one another’s lives regardless of the club the narrator chooses. In each scenario, he laments his choice and is certain his salvation must have lain down a different path. But as the fortune teller he consults wisely warns, while seizing a new opportunity may do away with what is currently dissatisfying, there will always be some other form of disappointment to bear.
A number of life lessons are well-illustrated in this story, and the narrator’s plight is highly relatable, despite, or perhaps because of, his young age. Morimi really brings to light the limitations we put on ourselves, particularly when we are young, freshly independent, and our lives are supposedly ripe with more possibility than ever before. The pressure of potential can be crippling, and the 25 year-old protagonist of Galaxy does appear to be acting in opposition to his own, likely out of fear. He already believes his own sour disposition to be calcified and that any attempt to change himself is pointless. This of course begs the question: how can our lives change if we are unwilling to? A question the novel tackles well by exploring the concept of fate, or the unavoidable changes that force us to decide who we want to be from that moment on.
The same events crop up again and again, often shuffled in a different order, supporting the idea that certain things are meant to happen regardless of what we decide. Sometimes new information is revealed about a character or a situation encountered in a previous section, which gradually creates a more fully-formed picture of the world the characters live in. Unfortunately, rather than rewrite each familiar scene in a new way, revealing even more new perspectives and information as a result, Morimi repeats, verbatim, entire passages from Part One in each subsequent section of the novel, which grows tiresome. It does, however, effectively support the notion that there are some events that every version of ourselves is destined to experience, whatever choices we make.
The decision to leave the narrator without a name was wise as he is clearly a proxy (a term you will come across repeatedly in this book) for all of us. He discovers that it is never too late to live a better life, even if that life doesn’t look exactly the way you think it should. A combination of making the best of what is and keeping your eyes wide open for the next opportunity, however small, is Morimi’s simple, yet potent recipe for positive change. No matter your stage of life, it’s fool-proof.
The Tatami Galaxy
By Tomihiko Morimi
Translated from the Japanese by Emily Balistrieri
Published December 6, 2022
Gianni Washington has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from The University of Surrey. Her writing can be found in L'Esprit Literary Review, West Trade Review, Litromagazine.com, and in the horror anthology Brief Grislys, among other places. Her debut collection of short fiction, Flowers from the Void, is forthcoming from Clash Books (US) and Serpent's Tail (UK) in Spring 2024.