Martin Scorsese once made a film named After Hours, about a hapless young man sucked into a seemingly endless, shambolic night of misunderstandings and chaos after a date he's on goes horribly wrong. Masaaki Yuasa's The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, from Tomihiko Morimi (The Tatami Galaxy, The Eccentric Family)'s novel of the same name, is about another seemingly endless, shambolic night in the life of a guy and a girl, one that begins on the simplest of notes and ends by circumnavigating entire universes of possibility.
Journey to the end of the night
It all starts quietly enough. Senpai — a young man with owlish glasses and a touseled head of black hair — is at a reception. Over there, at another table, is The Girl With Black Hair, the young woman he's had a crush on all semester. It's got to be a sign of the unfairness of things that he's not sitting there with her. Or maybe it's a sign of how unextraordinary he is, of how he lacks anything that might endear her to him. What he needs is a plan.
His plan, or lack of one, is inadvertently kicked into high gear when the Girl departs in the company of a whole train of newfound friends to go on a pub crawl. This is barely the first twenty minutes of the movie, and yet it takes her through everything from a debate team reunion to a bootleg-liquor drinking contest for the sake of relieving the debts of a pornography collector who can't pay up because one of her drunk friends puked on his stash. She's the brave one, willing to stick her neck out for any poor soul who needs it; Senpai spends most of this part of the film haplessly trying to catch up with her despite his pants having been swiped. It's not hard to see why he's moon-eyed for her; nothing, from groping weirdoes to limbo-dancing drunks, gets in her way.
One thing follows another, and another, and another — and out of the ensuing carpet-bombing of incident and happenstance, Senpai assembles something sort of like a plan. According to the extensive dossier assembled about the Girl courtesy of one of Senpai's cohorts, the Girl has longed to find a certain storybook she had as a child. The same book — not just another copy of it, but the exact same one — has passed into the hands of a rapacious collector, and to win it from him, Senpai has to endure an eating contest featuring food so volcanically spicy it makes all the participants' lips swell to the size of flotation devices. And he has to have an ice cream cone jammed into his crotch not once but twice. And ...
And on top of everything else, Senpai becomes embroiled in another crazy plot — this one involving a guerilla theater troupe that's been popping up around town, staging musical numbers designed to embarrass a school student councilman and his intolerant, controlling ways. It's all part of a plot by one of Senpai's buddies to seek out and be reunited with the girl he fell in love with in a happy accident, but now the Girl With Black Hair has been cast in the role of his reunited ladylove, and Senpai will be darned if he's going to let even a stage kiss between her and his friend get in the way of his mission.
If reading about all this sounds random and anarchic, it's twice as much of an assault on the senses to watch it, even for seasoned lovers-of-the-bizarre — like, say, anime fans. But while the first half or so of the movie is about the accumulation of all these seemingly unrelated details, the second half finds interrelations between all of them — not things that are so much about plot (X happened because of Y) but meaning (X and Y are more alike than it might seem). Yuasa's earlier film, the pathbreaking 2004 feature Mind Game, worked in something the same way: its opening segment was a random remix of key moments in the film, all of which were revisited and given proper context in time and by way of how they touched each other. By the end of Night, every identifiable bit of the chaos we've been swirling in, from the tornado that stole the porn collector's carp to the apples that fell on the heads of Senpai's friend and his prospective sweetheart all click into place. (Who she turns out to be generates one of the biggest laughs of the whole film ... and that's not even the climax of that particular gag.)
This is the third time novelist Morimi has had his work adapted as animation, to the point where adapting any of his other work as live-action almost seems like bad faith. This is also the second time Yuasa has been the one dipping into his well to do it. The previous outing was The Tatami Galaxy, a show of such wild, unending invention that I'm hard-pressed to think of any animated production in the last few years that comes close to it. Fans of Galaxy will immediately recognize Night as its spiritual cousin: it uses many of the same characters, and even many specific situations and visual tropes (e.g., Senpai's libido as a rootin'-tootin' cartoon cowboy). But it's not an attempt to compress Galaxy into a feature film; it's an entirely distinct story with its own goals.
Galaxy and Night share a common visual language of animated magical realism. Many of Yuasa's productions use deliberately simplified artwork — large swaths of color, few details — and save the animator's budget for moments of exceptional fluidity (Ping Pong) or inventive transformation. When the Girl chugs a drink, we see the alcohol sloshing down through a cross-section of her body, as per an old antacid commercial; when it hits her stomach, it turns into a cluster of butterflies.
On the other hand, Night does share a feature with Galaxy that in retrospect bothers me all the more: both stories are essentially about a male stalker, whose purported guilelessness and innocuousness makes his behavior all the more insidious. That said, Senpai earns some redemption by coming to see the Girl less as a conquest and more as a person, but it still bugs me in 2018 to see a movie conclude on that note instead of beginning with it and moving forward from it. In my first draft of this piece, I wrote how a project like this serves as an example of Japan being both aesthetically progressive and culturally reactionary, but then I realized this behavior isn't limited to Japan; it's just that for me the contrast between the two seems all the pronounced there.
I have been carrying a torch for Yuasa ever since I saw Mind Game, and made a point of seeking out anything that had his name on it. So far I haven't been disappointed. I mentioned Galaxy; his TV series Kaiba seems to draw on the same vein of childlike surrealism that shows like Adventure Time (whom Yuasa guest-directed on) and Steven Universe also quaff from. With Ping Pong, he transformed the heroes of Taiyō Matsumoto's sports manga into rubber-bodied superheroes inhabiting a world as plastic and mutable as they were. He also gave us Devilman Crybaby, a good example of how an idiosyncratic "name" director can be hired to revisit a classic (read: monetizable) property and imbue it with their own essence. And with Night, he unscrews the top of his head and lets a whole little universe fall out into our laps.