I feel safe in calling Masaaki Yuasa’s Night Is Short, Walk On Girl the most delightful and exuberant movie-going experience I have had all year. This animated Japanese romantic comedy covers an impossibly eventful night in the life of a university student and the scrambling, zealous men around her who are desperately searching for love and human connection. Though the protagonist, The Girl with Black Hair, remarks that “it was a night that felt like a year,” the film flies by as it moves rapidly from moment to moment, defining every scene with memorable jokes and lively, psychedelic visuals that ultimately reaffirms the goodness of its characters’ hearts.
Set at Kyoto University, Night Is Short is comprised of roughly four different subplots connected through the ongoing pursuit of The Girl with Black Hair by Senpai, an older student obsessed with her to the point he stalks her wherever she goes in order to manufacture repeated “chance” encounters in the hope she will believe their meetings are fate and fall in love with him. Yuasa shows this concept to be as pathetic as it sounds. Senpai is repeatedly thwarted, humiliated, and injured in his chase–losing his underwear and being set on fire–like the romantic equivalent of Wile E. Coyote.
While the film often operates on a dream logic basis, it rarely feels hazy. Instead, the editing and dialogue are rapidly cut, and the animation appears to be as influenced by the Western Warner Bros. style as standard Japanese anime visuals, with characters bodies bending out of proportion in service of a good joke.
Through the course of the film’s various vignettes, the girl drinks an old man under the table in order to pay off the debt of an erotic art print collector she meets in a bar, attends a used book fair where Senpai attempts to track down a rare children’s book she once owned, participates in a guerrilla musical theater production to help another man find a missed connection, and travels through a windstorm to comfort her friends when everybody suddenly comes down with a mysterious cold.
The film’s vibrant cast of characters are mostly men with various romantic hangups and misguided beliefs about love. There’s the erotic art collector who drinks away his troubles in a bar and places his sexual projections on his art prints, but also gropes the girl when she comforts him (he is swiftly knocked out). There’s a student who tells the girl she shouldn’t marry someone she “falls for” as falling in love makes you behave irrationally, and you shouldn’t make a decision as important as marriage irrationally. He almost immediately after begins crying about how no girl ever falls for him.
And then there is Don Underwear, a young man who fell in love with a girl he was sitting near when barrels of apples spilled over and hit them both on the head. Since then, he has not changed the pair of underwear he was wearing that day and writes a play called “The Codger of Monte Cristo” which he performs in defiance of the local college student events coordinator in hopes of finding the girl he met that day. He admits, however, that it is not the girl he fell in love with, but the particular moment of being hit on the head to which he attaches undue significance. Then there is Senpai, who in a gorgeously animated dream sequence that flows like the most surreal moments of Miyazaki mixed with the acid trip of Yellow Submarine, battles with the internal demons that keep him forever chasing the girl but prevent him from actually connecting with her as a person.
The behavior of all of these men in real life would be worthy of pity at best and legal intervention at worst, but Yuasa’s film is filled with an immense empathy for these characters, recognizing their loneliness and giving them the space to grow and find peace. The film is at once condemning their behavior, but understanding the naivety and inner-conflict that creates such boorishness.
Grounding this gendered dynamic is The Girl with Black Hair, a character of kindness and curiosity who travels through the night as the men weave in and out of her path. She is a hard drinker who can down liquor by the bucket load, a lover of literature, and a deeply caring person who enjoys helping out the troubled community around her. Amid the chaos of everyone else, she remains calm in the middle of the storm (at first figuratively, and in the final sequences literally) giving the audience a figure of peace and self-determination who repudiates the projections these men place on her.
Rapid-fire dialogue, surrealist imagery, and vibrant colorful images that flow and morph in and out of each other make Night Is Short, Walk On Girl a transcendent experience. Although Yuasa’s work is a deep cut for most Western viewers (he’s best known for his 2004 feature Mind Game), his work announces him as one of the finest animators in Japan today.