It's a really weird anime by a director who apparently specialises in freakiness. His name's Masaaki Yuasa. It was also the first TV show to win the Japan Media Arts Festival Grand Prize (Animation Division), with the jury calling it a "richly expressive work that turns the limitations of TV on its head".
I need to watch more Masaaki Yuasa anime, although unfortunately I can't find much of it on English-language DVD. Kaiba I've had on my radar for some time, but Kemonozume and Mind Game I'm now looking out for too. I even see that he directed 2014's Ping Pong, which I've been meaning to watch for about a year but hadn't yet got around to since it's just another sports anime. Clearly I'll have to rectify that, although I'm not expecting that to be another mind screw.
Anyway, back to The Tatami Galaxy. It's based on a novel. No, not a light novel series. A proper, serious, honest-to-goodness novel. Ep.1 gives us:
1. A funky, impressionistic art style that's always an eye-opener. Wow. Tomoko chose this show to watch next just from seeing a brief clip on YouTube.
2. A nameless protagonist and narrator (called "Watashi" in the credits, which means "me") who talks like a bullet train. You're being clobbered with a wall of text, but in spoken form. You might hear as many words in this episode as in some entire shows... but actually I quite like this. It's nice to see adaptations preserving distinctive features of the original work even when this leads them down odd-looking paths. I presume Watashi's also like this in the novel.
3. A novelistic narrative in which the self-destructive anti-hero Watashi and his evil best friend, Ozu, have wasted their two years of college life on a quest to interfere with other people's romances. I didn't enjoy the episode. It looked amazing, but I disliked Watashi and so far I didn't have much interest in the show.
Ep.2 then blew my mind by being set in a parallel universe. No warning. No foreshadowing, unless of course you've just rewatched ep.1 after finishing the whole series, in which case you wouldn't believe how much this show loops around on itself. Watashi and Ozu have now wasted those two years of college life in a completely different way. Equally pointless, mind you. They're still idiots, but here their idiocy is so spectacular and explosive that it's actually funny. (They've joined a film-making club. They don't like its narcissistic president.) This is effectively a rewrite of ep.1, but with everything changed and a hint or two that Watashi might be dimly aware that he's already lived through these events. (He asks the wizened fortune teller if they've had this conversation before. "Have you put up your prices?")
Suddenly I was very, very interested. Tomoko didn't have a clue what was going on, mind you. I didn't either, but it's not hard to assemble clues. Watashi (ep.1) is a dick who made bad choices in search of a "rose-coloured campus life". In subsequent episodes, he does things differently. We don't know why he's getting all these second chances, but we can see what it's doing to him. He stops trying to hurt others. After a while, he even becomes nice, for instance doing volunteer work to entertain children. It's not an unbroken forward progression, but you can still see him evolving. "I don't want to lead a meaningless life enjoying the unhappiness of others!"
Maybe one day he'll stop being self-destructive? That would be nice. Might he even stop being an idiot? Well, we're not holding our breath on that one. Oh, and we're seeing everything through Watashi's eyes, so our worldview might be biased or wrong.
The show shakes things up. When you think it's found a formula, it changes things around with a harem dilemma. Well, ish. That's how Watashi sees it, anyway. One of the participants is a love doll.
The last couple of episodes then do something else I hadn't expected at all. Again.
The show's reality is rubbery. Yes, over and above the premise. You're inclined to believe supernatural claims, while the animation is capable of taking some non-literal choices for thematic effect. See the bees in ep.4. Some of those choices are inspired, though, as in for instance Watashi's sex drive being realised as a manic imaginary version of the cowboy from Toy Story. (They call him Johnny rather than Woody, though. Shame. I guess they didn't want to get sued.) There's also a trilogy of DVD-only mini-episodes that are weird even compared with the rest of the show, involving submarines.
Oh, and Ozu the pointy-fanged yokai looks cute. He does!
It's fascinating. I haven't even begun thinking it through properly, though. What were the writers trying to say with this story? What themes was he exploring? Some of it's clear, I think, but it's often "what the hell?" weird and you'd need some serious pondering to come up with an interpretation and/or an author's intention. I wouldn't recommend this for a casual audience. They'd give up. However if you're looking for something different... yeah. This is your baby.
"Then I was a brand-spanking new freshman university student and countless doors to the mystical treasure that is known as that 'rose-colored campus life' lay open before me. I was half-swooned with glee. And the one I chose was...!"