I'm heartened by the way the light novel phenomenon, and a few other trends in exported Japanese popular culture, have made it possible for material normally out of reach for English-speaking audiences to be translated and distributed. I liked how Bungo Stray Dogs made the likes of Osamu Dazai a household name, and got that many more people interested in actually reading his work. And I like how the animated projects created from Tomihiko Morimi's novels — Penguin Highway, The Eccentric Family, and Night Is Short itself — have helped open up a market for his work in English. The Night Is Short, now in English thanks to Yen Press, is as freewheeling and loopy as the movie made from it, and what's best is how the book is freewheeling and loopy in ways that books are best at.
We meet by accident
The story of the book — it's hard to call something this shambolic and wild "plotted", but plotted it is — is much the same as the film. A college-aged man spies a girl about his age at a wedding reception, is smitten at the sight of her, and follows her into and out of more trouble than anyone — not him, not us, and maybe not even the author either — can foresee. Along the way he encounters everything, and I mean everything: obsessive porn collectors, gods of used book fairs, renegade student drama clubs, and the worst, most contagious cold of the year.
The narrator's quest takes place over the course of four long episodes. In the movie, they were dovetailed together and made into one great ball of timey-wimey stuff; here, they're distinct, but there's so much overlap between them it's clear why Yuasa chose to smush them together. Characters and motifs reappear constantly — e.g., a daruma doll "the size of an apple", or the converted streetcar used by one secondary character as his home. It might as well all be happening at once.
Each episode corresponds roughly to one of the challenges I outlined at the end of the 'graf before last. In the first, when the narrator catches sight of the "black-haired maiden" that becomes the object of his obsessions, he blunders through a bunch of monkey business involving her going on a bender and getting mixed up with a secret society of smut hoarders. That first episode also sets up a key motif that resonates throughout the story. In each episode, he can only see everything in relation to her; everything he soldiers on through is about getting that much closer to her. But in her POV, everything she sees is about everything but him. And seen from the other side, as well: where he sees only obstacles and hindrances, she sees things that expand her appreciation of the world and her delight in it.
The second episode has the he-narrator trying to obtain a precious picture book once own by the she-narrator, the better to win her heart. To accomplish this, he has to do everything from endure humiliation at the hands of a bratty "god of used book fairs" to wolfing down esophagus-incinerating quantities of spicy broth. In part three, He gets swept up in the antics of a campus group that stages plays guerrilla-style, while She ends up as one of their understudies. And in the final installment, the one that ties everything together — including and especially the two of them — everyone except for the black-haired girl catches a cold, and she sets out to make all well. The male narrator, in his fever induced delirium, questions whether or not anything he's done has brought him closer to her, or her closer to him, and how difficult it is to just be one's self when you don't feel like there's anyone actually home.
The obstacles are the goal
The book's chief strategy is something relegated to a more passive approach in the film: it's told in first person, but switches freely between the POV of the narrator and the woman he's pursuing. That helps avoid one of the nitpicks I had with the film, that it felt at times less like a topsy-turvy romantic adventure and more like a stalker's self-justification. Here, the woman has more agency, more of a direct voice we can perceive, more of a say in her own goings-on. Her sunny optimism is not total naivete, either.
Books like this tend to provoke either delight or befuddlement. The befuddled ones tend to ask: What's it all really about? If I had to hazard an interpretation, it's an embodiment of the adage, life is what happens when you're making other plans. The obstacles are the journey. The he-narrator's lesson, and reward, is that everything he was looking for to bring to her as proof of him being "worthy", or "winning her over", he didn't need; he never lacked for anything that really mattered, like compassion and curiosity. I like that the book delivers all this by way of madcap farce, instead of something more purportedly serious; it's only later do we realize how the message was slipped under the door and into our hands.
But more than that, though, the book and the movie from it just work as a pure experience of uninhibited delirium. Morimi loves stories about the wild clutter of life, the way our days seem to be full of everything but what we choose to put there, and how it's too easy to ignore the wonder in favor of our own narrow agendas.
In my review of the film, I mentioned as a point of comparison the underappreciated Martin Scorsese film After Hours. That movie was about a hapless office drone who starts off on a date, and ends up trapped in one horrible misunderstanding after another over the course of a sleepless Manhattan night. It was far more bitter and cynical than Night Is Short, but the same wild energy is there, the same feeling of something perpetually slipping away from the hands of a simple man who can't do anything but try to grab, and grab, and grab, for things just out of reach. This time, they land in his hands once he stops grabbing.