Night Is Short, Walk on Girl (Japan, 2017) [JAPAN CUTS 2018]

The endless fascination that anime, and media more broadly, has with the experience of girlhood knows no bounds. From the magical girls of Puella Magi Madoka Magica or Cardcaptor Sakura to the far more empowered heroines of Hayao Miyazaki’s works, the figure of the anime girl continues to engage audiences both in Japan and further afield. This fascination with the girl is a central element of this film as the audience follows Kuro Kami no Otome (Kana Hanazawa), literally, the girl with the black hair, as she enjoys a drunken night out after a friend’s wedding. Hot on her heels is the slightly older but highly infatuated Senpai (Gen Hoshino). Although determined to win her affections by any means possible, he is too shy to openly declare his love.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by award-winning writer Tomihiko Morimi, whose sometimes surreal, often kitschy, but highly innovative stories have become popular items for adaptation. Uchoten Kazoku became an animated TV show in 2013, and Penguin Highway directed by Hiroyasu Ishida, is due out next year. The Tatami Galaxy was adapted for the TV screen to great acclaim in 2010 and the same director, Masaaki Yuasa, now brings Night Is Short, Walk On Girl to the screen. Yuasa, a prolific director and writer, brings his own highly inter-textual and fast moving style to this adaptation. The film has multiple animation styles that all seamlessly blend to make a riot of colour, sound and movement. Main leads, the prolific voice actress Hanazawa and pop star Hoshino perform well as star-crossed lovers Otome and Senpai and are admirably supported by such anime stalwarts as Hiroshi Kamiya, Kazuhiro Yamaji, and Yuko Kaida.

Night Is Short, Walk On Girl does not seek to tackle any huge world issues, instead chronicling the adventures that a seemingly endless night out seems to offer those who are willing to take risks and seek out new experiences. We have an anarchic and multi-part college play that has been orchestrated by Pantsu Sobancho (Ryuji Akiyama), a man who is refusing to change his underwear until he is reunited with the woman he has only seen once but maintains is his ideal love. There is an elderly sophist of society who finds a new lease of life in watching Otome drink vast quantities of wine and beer, then perform their once famous and rather odd dance. The film is littered with strange but charming characters and objects: Senpai enters an eating competition where the contestants have to consume super hot nabe; Underpants controls his play from a endlessly moving kotatsu; Rihaku (Mugihito), the misguided ‘villain’ (although in this film no one is truly bad) lives on a giant house boat that travels to wherever he needs to buy his various items of desire (in this case, a set of erotic woodblock prints). Strangers, the film would have us believe, are only friends you have not met yet, and as Otome tells Rihaku at the end, we are all interconnected and no one can truly cut themselves off from other people (this is illustrated by a terrible cold virus that by, the end of the film, has stricken all the main characters).

Initially, I was entranced by this film: the animation is wonderful, the story is engaging and, if you don’t think too deeply about it, happy and fun. The women in the film are spirited, brave, and desiring of fun above all things. The bride happily downs the beer offered to her whilst her red-faced groom quickly collapses in a drunken heap and has to be literally dragged around by his new wife. Otome easily beats Rihaku in a drinking competition as her endless positivity and happiness appears to turn the alcohol into sparking flowers that have no affect on her. On the other hand, her elderly male competitor ends up crying on the floor in lonely misery. Her watch, as we learn, runs far slower than everyone else’s since her ability to live life to the full gives her more time than others – a nice message to everyone.

However, thinking more about the film and its characters reveals some unpleasant elements. Senpai is aided in his pursuit of Otome by the highly dubious Bedroom Investigation Committee, which is led by the highly troubled cross-dressing committee manager. They utilize video surveillance to follow Otome (and all other people on the campus) and find out about the childhood book that she lost but still dreams about, which instigates Senpai’s new but related quest to find the book as a means to seduce her. This misuse of her personal data to further the male desires is never questioned or criticized; rather, his endless stalking and attempts to manipulate the situation to gain access to her is presented as romantic. Mr. Todo (Kazuhiro Yamaji), the feckless father of the bride, is a sleaze who hangs around bars trying to sell pornographic woodcuts whilst groping female drinkers. Whilst Otome may punch him in the face as a response (this film at no point defines women as passive), all concerned quickly excuses his behavior as just an illustration of his lovable rogue nature. I am reminded by the debates on Japanese female idol, where scholars have noted the female idol has increasingly become a figure that operates to heal, help and pacify a male audience in a society that, as journalist Minori Kitahara notes in Kyoko Miyake’s documentary Tokyo Idols (2017), “will stop at nothing to protect male fantasies and provide comfort for men”. Otome is all too often reduced to an object or a symbol rather than a multi dimensional character – she is used to rejuvenate and inspire others rather than develop her own wants or desires. Senpai seeks to understand her so he can better seduce her and the end of the film is about Otome realising that her task in the night is to make him (not herself) less lonely and unhappy – not necessarily an empowering pathway.

Regardless of these issues, most people will find Night Is Short, Walk On Girl to be an enjoyable romp that ends on a positive and happy note. After the radical activity and excitement of this endless night, the film winds down in a quiet cafe where Otome and Senpai finally have a date. True love, it seems, will always find a way.

Night Is Short, Walk on Girl is showing on July 21 at JAPAN CUTS.