Tuesday, July 2, 2019

That rose-colored campus life


A movie of seemingly boundless energy and possibility, Night doesn't always live up to its own potential—nor always put its money where its mouth is, and there's a good twenty minutes in the middle where it's not doing either one—but that doesn't mean it's not one of the most essential animated films of the last year, or even the last decade.

2017 Japan/2018 USA
Directed by Masaaki Yuasa
Written by Makoto Ueda (based on the novel by Tomihiko Morimi)

Spoiler alert: moderate

In 2017, after an absence of some thirteen years following the regrettable underperformance of his deeply weird Mindgame, director Masaaki Yuasa returned to theatrical feature films at last, and not just once, but twice in rapid-fire succession.  The first to be released, if not the first to begin (for Lu Over the Wall took rather longer for his and Eunyoung Choi's newly-built production house, Science Saru, than either had reckoned), was The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl.  It's the kind of film that pretty much tells you how to watch it with its title—which is maybe why one of its few hiccups is when it drops the line into actual dialogue.  Anyway, the upshot is that, of the two films Yuasa oversaw in 2017, Night is easily the best; and also that nothing has dethroned Mindgame as his greatest feature effort, and probably his greatest effort period.  But this isn't necessarily a negative comparison, and Night is, anyway, exceptionally good, which is good, because man, it has been hyped.

It's been routinely awarded the praise "like nothing you've ever seen," which is quite possibly completely and objectively untrue, depending on who "you" are.  In most cases, I imagine the phrase simply indicates that the given critic isn't particularly plugged into anime (or assumes their audience isn't), which is fair enough.  Sometimes it's just brass hyperbole.  But regardless it's very incorrect, even when the connection is made, because Night serves as a spiritual sequel to The Tatami Galaxy, an acclaimed 2010 short-run anime series—and the emphasis is on the spirit.  For Galaxy was also directed by Yuasa; and it was also written for the screen by Makoto Ueda; and it was also based on a novel of college life by author Tomihiko Morimi; and it was also granted much of its unique and appealing aesthetic by the great illustrator Yuusuke Nakamura; and, finally, it was also populated by at least two characters who return directly in Night, under their previously-established names, plus several more character types who return, in a technically distinct fashion, but in such extremely similar forms that if you've seen both the show and the film you'll likely wind up spending at least a few minutes googling to determine whether Night's nameless "senior" (Gen Hoshino) is, in fact, Galaxy's own nameless "myself," a couple of years down the line and none the wiser for it, or maybe just another iteration of him, still trapped in his fractal multiverse prison.  (Yep: like all things Yuasa, it's an odd show.)  Even his pent-up libido is still represented by the exact same horny cowboy.  Good grief, this horny cowboy is still voiced by the exact same Nobuyuki Hirama!

It's also "like things you've seen" in less blatant ways (After Hours and sometimes Waking Life and, also, Every Anime, at least in the sense that it's about romantic overtures between ostensible adults that seem more like they involve thirteen year olds who tend to hyperventilate over the possibility of both rejection and acceptance—because Japan appears to be one extremely depressing place).  But, especially, it's like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which is no mean thing for a movie to be, since there actually aren't too many "things you've seen" that are genuinely "like Ferris Bueller's Day Off," and there are definitely none that are "like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, with the same kind of invulnerable, essentially magical protagonist, except now Ferris is a college girl, with a bottomless appetite for booze and experience, and Cameron is now the acquaintance who desperately wants to date her, and has spent the past year crypto-stalking her."  (Yeah, but I stand by the comparison.)

That brings us to the "otome," i.e. the girl of the title (Kana Hanazawa), and the "night" which begins with a boring wedding reception in Kyoto with a passel of lightweight friends, and which she leaves looking for more off-the-beaten-path drinking opportunities, ultimately confronting a multitude of denizens of the night as she moves from a drinking contest with a local demigod to save the soul of a collector of antique pornography, to a used book fair that has its own divine guardian, to a starring role in a guerilla theater production, which puts her alongside a crazed idealist who believes in true love and has refused to change his underwear until fate reunites him with his intended.  All along, the senior ("senpai") continues to contrive to cross paths with her, hoping that fate might reward him, too, for his diligence in trying to make her happy, or at least get her to notice what he's doing, which comes off way more sweetly and white-knightly in the movie than I assume it does in this synopsis.  Meanwhile, this eventful and incredibly productive night never seems to end, even as summer changes to fall to winter and a mighty flu courses through Kyoto.

Still, though more overtly wacky, it's like Ferris Bueller in that it's a passionate wish-fulfilling fantasia of youth—or, more accurately, the potential of youth—rendered just a little melancholy because it isn't pretending to be anything but a fantasy.  It's vignettish by design, packed with incident and resplendent with all the weird secret worlds it finds scattered across the length and breadth of Kyoto.  It speaks to what might be Yuasa's abiding fascination, or at least the theme that binds this to Tatami Galaxy along with its setting and design, and to Mindgame as well, despite having effectively no aesthetic markers in common: it's the insistence that our lives simply aren't big enough to contain everything we could be, should be, or would be, if only we had the chance.  Which is where that melancholy comes in.  Yet of all of Yuasa's works with which I'm familiar, I think Night has the happiest, least-complicated, and most completely-straightforward ending of all of them; and it's beautiful and meaningful in the way it reduces the complexity of its fragmented mega-night into the sheer simplicity of a morning.

It wouldn't get far if it weren't fun, though, and that's the easy part, given the anything-in-the-whole-world-goes attitude it takes toward its many interlocking adventures.  Tellingly, one of the very first things it does is have another character respond to the senpai's overwrought voiceover narration, to which the senpai angrily demands he stop reading his mind.  Try to find a baseline reality here, and you just won't.  The formless dreaminess of it all is underlined by an aesthetic that reads as far to the left of what you think of when you think of "anime," cartoonier than just about anything since the 1920s and '30s, from which it takes its cues in terms of how expressive and fluid it's willing to treat its characters.  Take for example a scene wherein the otome picks up a dance step from a bunch of drunken old philosophers who've more-or-less named her their queen; here, she becomes a zany Fleischer cartoon for half a reel, except one executed at a vastly more rarefied technical level, her arms swinging smoothly into and out of the plane of her body.  It has so much more to do with her enthusiasm for this new experience than it does any piddly crap like "the rules of perspective."

So, what we have in Night are stark white archetypes of the Nakamura style, as faithfully replicated by credited designer Nobutaka Ito.  Kind of akin to Patrick Nagel but, like, less so, Nakamura's made a name for himself with streamlined characters (particularly women) against pop art backdrops, which is another way that Night is, in the end, significantly "like" many preexisting things.  And so our characters, especially our heroes, tend to be designed with the least amount of detail possible whilst still retaining physical and psychological distinctiveness.  Paradoxically enough, this allows them to retain their emotional presence even as Yuasa and his animators subject them to stresses that go well beyond super-deformation and into the realm of the insanely subjective, from the full body gulps that distend the otome's frame to a supernaturally-spicy ramen-eating contest the senpai must win in order to acquire his beloved's favorite childhood book, and which reduces him to a red lump with glasses, hair, and lips three times the size of his body.  (It's not too surprising to learn Yuasa started his career on Shin-chan, and shall shortly be returning to that world's particular brand of silliness.)

It's all a kind of maximalist minimalism, if that makes sense, yet one that sometimes gives way to the most minimal of minimalism in flashbacks, which announce themselves (this too coming from Tatami Galaxy, though it's evolved a great deal) with giant swathes of borderless color, interrupted by cutouts representing our heroes.  The big difference between Night and Tatami Galaxy, then, is that Night is absolutely feature animation, and though Galaxy is no slouch—it uses design and color at least as rigorously as Night does—it's no competition whatsoever when it comes to Night's quality of line, or to Night's quantity of fluid movement.  And so while Galaxy arguably is more successful at what it aims to do, Night often feels like it's more successful.

The adventures themselves can be incredible fun too, though this is where we start criticizing the thing: it's pretty frontloaded in terms of its most interesting stuff, and starts to bog down a little in its second or possibly eighth act.  In any event, the guerilla theater play is the obvious offender, running long without being too especially amusing, requiring a surprisingly intimate familiarity with Galaxy to even get the jokes, and depending otherwise upon a musical number of no particular inherent quality.  It eventually does redeem itself, right at the end, with an incredible twist that reveals that Night's many plots have actually been way more elegantly-woven than we suspected—only to take the coward's way out almost immediately after dropping this bombshell, at which point Night runs full-speed away from one of its most gonzo expressions of the multiplication of identity, not to mention flexibility in the face of implacable destiny.  Worse, to get out of all the intriguing implications of this situation, it decides that a plotless tertiary character who was introduced two minutes prior, and has had approximately three baldly functional lines, has now become an active participant in the drama.  This has some value: after all, the film's about how stories ripple endlessly across a web of interconnected humanity; it's "about" this, in that it literally has two lectures dramatizing this, one by the god of used books, one by the otome herself.

But—being serious—this bit walks right up to the line of actually transgressing, decides to be boring instead, and that fucking sucks.  It knocks the wind right out of Night's sails—which is a terrible thing, insofar as so much of Night's pleasure has been powered by its headlong momentum.  It doesn't help that afterwards the film deliberately switches gears to wind things down, as this "night's" winter approaches and things get a lot more contemplative—whereupon our otome gets pushed from the film's unambiguous lead to what amounts to a co-lead, at best—and where Yuasa and Uesa undertake a repression-driven freakout for our senpai that, frankly, is really quite a lot "like" many things you've seen before, especially in anime, including anime by Yuasa.

It is, still, good—it never stops being an enthralling piece of animation, except maybe for individual shots during the guerilla theater scene—and it definitely sticks its landing; I said that already.  But it's where a masterpiece-in-the-making starts to while away its minutes just a little, and you definitely feel the drop in energy and in ambition.  Yet, for everything that it does so right, I probably love it more than it even deserves, perhaps even more than the score I'm going to give it suggests.  It's a beautiful reminder that life isn't long, but it can take you anywhere, sometimes even where you need to be.

Score: 9/10

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