Film Review: The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl

Masaaki Yuasa’s new animated feature often comes across like a freewheeling, frequently surreal mashup of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise.
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Rendered in plastically expressive (and often woozily disorienting) animation, The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl is a booze-fueled nighttime odyssey across a largely phantasmagorical Kyoto, proving to be sort of a peppier and more family-friendly version of the infamous Nighttown section from James Joyce’s Ulysses. The Night Is Short somehow manages to combine all the freeform romantic whimsy of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie with the existential preoccupations of Richard Linklater’s more hardnosed (not to mention philosophically grounded) Before Sunrise.

And yet the sensibility on display here is entirely its own thing. Adapting a novel by Tomihiko Morimi, director Masaaki Yuasa and writer Makoto Ueda elevate everyday elements of university student life—drinking contests, used-book fairs, campus festivals—into almost mythical occasions, injecting the proceedings with a sprightly sense of humor that can oscillate unpredictably between decidedly adult and unabashedly juvenile (hence the PG-13 rating).

The wedding reception that opens The Night Is Short inundates viewers with an overload of exposition and an expanding coterie of secondary characters in the process of introducing us (via alternating voiceovers) to the pair of seemingly mismatched students around whom the delirious vortex of the narrative will swirl: Lovelorn Senpai (voiced by Gen Hoshino) pines after the Girl with Black Hair (Kana Hazakawa), who in turn seems determined to march headlong into what she imagines post-collegiate adulthood must be, a movable feast of drunken binges.

Senpai’s self-professed campaign to insert himself into the Girl’s life through a series of supposedly “chance encounters” thus far has come to nil. The rest of the film will find him adopting one harebrained scheme after the other in order to gain the Girl’s attention. Meanwhile, the Girl vows to let the power of sheer coincidence guide her through the night’s adventures.

Yuasa and Ueda set a hectic pace from the start, piling increasingly outrageous incidents on top of one another like some precipitously tottering Jenga stack. At the same time, the filmmakers crosscut with dizzying abandon between the students’ respective storylines, which bob and weave throughout the movie in a variety of inventive ways, never truly intersecting until almost the end of the film. The Night Is Short is effectively the prehistory of a relationship.

The animation frequently layers in exhaustive amounts of visual information, at times duplicating objects like book spines and computer monitors nearly unto infinity, at others playing with the relationship between foreground and background events. The endlessly malleable nature of reality in The Night Is Short suggests a Fleischer Brothers cartoon—or a Dali painting. Together with the occasionally too-fleeting subtitles, this can make the film a dense and sometimes overwhelming experience, albeit one that doubtlessly will reward multiple viewings.

The Night Is Shortultimately reveals itself to be concerned with sketching out the irreducible tension between individuals’ propensity for solitude (and its more lachrymose twin, loneliness) and their sense of some underlying interconnectedness. The episode of the used-book fair nicely illustrates this, at the level of mere objects, by contrasting the hordes of off-limit volumes compiled by rapacious collectors with the “democratically” available books at the fair. When it comes to human beings, the saga of the seasonal cold epidemic comprising the final act of the film inculcates the same notion. And, just in case we’re not paying sufficient attention by this point, we even get a “flowchart” of the disease expanding exponentially as it spreads. The Night Is Short, in a word, boils down to an unabashed affirmation of E. M. Forster’s famous dictum: “Only connect!”