“I feel like I’ve always been searching for something. At the same time, my life has always been lacking something. And desperately acquiring that something yields only a moment of pleasure.”
-Tanaka, Odd Taxi, Episode 4
Flower language? In my Odd Taxi? It’s more likely than you think.
All of the characters in Odd Taxi save curmudgeonly protagonist Odokawa are introduced as part of the background before being brought into the foreground of the series. Tanaka’s first appearance occurs when Odokawa is speeding off to visit Shirakawa and Odokawa nearly runs him over. At the time, we don’t know who he is, only that he’s celebrating something on his brightly-lit cell phone screen before Odokawa barrels through the alley where he’s standing and causes him to throw his phone into the air. His screen shows a dodo bird.
In the next episode, which is entirely Tanaka-focused, we discover that he’s addicted to gacha games. The dodo on his screen was his figurative white whale in a game called Zoological Garden which was not-so-coincidentally introduced in the previous episode through a different character playing it. Odokawa’s actions accidentally cause Tanaka to briefly experience the glory of his fabled pull before wiping it completely from his phone’s memory.
Through Tanaka’s story, the fourth episode of Odd Taxi describes the pitfalls of gacha games in the best way I’ve seen in media to date. It’s incisive in its takedown of them through the self-deprecating and self-aware lens of Tanaka while also having a healthy dose of empathy. It sympathizes with Tanaka the person without condoning his actions, all while recognizing the predatory nature of the gambling that these types of games provide.
The most affecting scene is an internal monologue from Tanaka post-dodopocalypse. He muses on how he feels like he’s always been searching for something but even when he feels like he’s found it, the pleasure from acquiring it is always fleeting. In this moment, he picks up a red camellia flower that floats by in the water. It turns white in his hands and crumbles to dust.
In Japanese flower language, red camellia flowers can mean romantic love, but they were also used to symbolize a noble warrior’s death, or perishing with nobility and grace. For a moment, Tanaka fancies himself having found what he’s looking for. He can figuratively die having concluded his search. Yet, his search isn’t over and as soon as the emptiness creeps in, the flower turns white, representing waiting.
I’d argue that while Tanaka’s search hardly seems noble — the dodo won’t fill his emptiness and he knows this — it’s only the avenue through which he’s directed his search, not the search itself. A quest for meaning in one’s life is the ultimate quest for most people. Inherent in that red camellia’s nobility that Tanaka first picks up is the fact that Tanaka is searching at all.
Earlier in this post, I mentioned the idea of a “white whale” from Earnest Hemingway’s Moby Dick, a novel so well-known that the idea of a white whale is part of popular lexicon. While it seems ludicrous to ask what the difference is between a book touted as the greatest novel ever written and a fictional gacha game the answer is in the framing of both properties. The latter is out to fill that very human vacuum with momentary thrills that inevitably fade without a human connection (and line the company’s pockets in the process). This is what Tanaka misses in his elementary school quest for a specific eraser to one-up his classmate. In his pursuit of the thing, he lost sight of why he wanted the thing in the first place: to make connections with other people.