The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl
This review has taken a long time. I left it, I left it some more, I left it longer and yet I still can’t wrap my head around the damn thing. The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is my first exposure to director Masaaki Yuasa and I was not prepared. The Night Is Short is a very strange work that bent my mind so out of shape I still can’t decide whether it’s genius or madness, I like it or not or formulate any opinion that doesn’t melt like butter on a crumpet, let alone say whether I can recommend it.
The Night Is Short can reasonably be described as a film of four distinct acts, to the point where I’m tempted to say it could have been a four-episode TV series, though I think it would be worse for it. Each act takes place a little later in one very long night, contrary to the title. We’ll visit each in turn but I’ll say now that the way the acts flow into each other seems very natural despite how different they are and there are more links between each one that seems obvious on first reflection, with running motifs and bits of set-up sprinkled throughout.
The first act explains a lot of what to come. Why? Because it is about getting utterly and completely drunk. The Night is Short opens during a wedding reception with a brief introduction to our dual protagonists. On the one hand there is ‘The Girl With Black Hair’, hereafter referred to simply as ‘The Girl’, a totally oblivious lass who drives the plot primarily by striding through the film, blind to all around her, on a drunken rampage, serendipity is on her side as she strolls through the insanity as though it were just another day in the office. She has a knack for causing chaos, especially in the second act, completely by accident, but her good nature (and the fact that probably everyone is as blind drunk as she is) makes everybody welcome her in to drive the plot forward.
Our other protagonist is a sticking point for me. We meet ‘Senpai’ sat at a much more demure table at the wedding reception. Senpai is sad. Senpai is sad because he is madly in love with The Girl but lacks the nerve to tell her. As such, Senpai has formulated a plan. Senpai’s plan is to appear in front of The Girl as often as possible and every time she exclaims “What a coincidence!” correct her to “Wrong! It is fate!” The film believes this to be endearing. I believe it to be creepy, if not outright stalking. I don’t like Senpai, but I have to admit to admiring his tenacity given what he goes through in The Night Is Short. Plus, as probably the only sane/sober character in the film he is also the most relatable. If this sounds like a deal-breaker for you it probably is.
To give you a sample of the secondary cast, let’s look at the two sat with Senpai at the reception. First is ‘The School Festival Executive Head’, hereafter referred to as ‘Executive’, who seems pretty normal until we’re told that his hobby as a beautiful man is to cross-dress and troll guys by flirting with them. Second is, I kid you not, Don Underwear. Don Underwear is called such because at last year’s school festival he was sat on a bench and a beautiful girl was sat on the bench opposite him when apples fell from the sky and simultaneously struck them both on the head. This, of course, means the two are destined for each other, but Don Underwear never learned her name and so has sworn not to change his eponymous underwear until he finds her.
The film quickly shows its ambitions as winding, philosophical monologues begin amidst circuitous conversations. It’s at this point, by which I mean about fifteen or twenty minutes in, that my brain started to wonder, “Is this genius or madness before me?”. I’ll avoid specifics for the most part, but I feel that I’ve only offered madness so far so permit me to share with you a moment of genius. The Night Is Short’s first act contains one of my favourite visual metaphors ever. After collecting a couple of curious middle-aged drunkards and crashing a retirement party (or maybe a wake, I wasn’t sure) the assembled cast have a discussion on time. To accentuate this The Girl looks at her watch, ticking around its face at a snail’s pace. Then the middle-aged drunkards check theirs, ticking along at quite a lick. Finally, we see the pensioners check theirs which race around like Olympic cyclists chasing a world record in a velodrome.
Whilst that may be the film’s finest moment, act one is not my favourite act – that would be act three. Act three centres around an truly incredible premise. The fascist tyrant in charge of the school festival, none other than the charming, casually transvestite Executive from before, is struggling to put down a rebellion. What manner of rebellion? Guerilla musical theatre. Stagehands rush onto the screen, erect a scaffold tower atop which a musical number is performed, disassemble the tower and flee just as the masked enforcers of the Executive arrive to literally throw them in prison. This conceit is so insane and it’s execution played so straight that I can’t help but love it.
Also worth a mention is the animation style. The Night Is Short uses a very fluid, relatively low line count animation style, a hallmark of Masaaki Yuasa. This style looks odd in stills, primarily because it is used to great effect in motion. Characters often move in an exaggerated fashion, their models frequently distorting to emphasise motion or emotion. This is used to especially great effect in act two where, during a black market book auction Senpai competes to eat the greatest amount of incredibly spicy food to win an out of print children’s book once owned by The Girl (again, not kidding). The food items, to emphasise the difficulty of the task, are larger than the competitor’s heads, forcing them to distort in unpleasant ways to wrap their jaws around the lava-esque bites with chopsticks as long as their forearms. Modern anime is often overly focused on looking good in every still frame to the detriment of the animation, to see a work go so far in the opposite direction is both exciting and refreshing.
Are there any conclusions to be drawn? From the tone of what I’ve written I think I like The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl but my gut still twists in aversion to the creepy subtext of Senpai’s character. I also feel like I’m missing a chunk of context, maybe by having not seen The Tatami Galaxy, which takes place in the same universe, maybe by not being Japanese, maybe by just not quite getting it. Nevertheless, there was a lot I liked, if not loved, here. So if you want something different and are feeling adventurous, definitely consider seeing The Night Is Short because like it or not it is unquestionably interesting.