‘Night is Short, Walk on Girl’ is lush, dark college fantasy

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

What does a college student do on weekends?

For the title character in the animated feature “Night Is Short, Walk on Girl,” the answer is “go as fate directs.” The film follows the protagonist, known as the Girl with Black Hair, and a small gang of wacky supporting characters on a breathless trek through Kyoto’s nightlife. Director Masaaki Yuasa transforms Kyoto into a lush fantasy landscape brimming with adventure. Like the Land of Oz –– except now Dorothy can drink.

And drink she does –– in the first arc at least. The Girl with Black Hair’s goal is clear early on: to taste adult life.

Naturally, the night begins with a bender. Alcohol is wrapped in flapper-era glitz as the protagonist downs shot after cocktail of beautiful booze. The more she drinks, the more charismatic she becomes. Soon she is leading a veritably wasted parade in Pontocho, a neighborhood of Kyoto, seeking out a mysterious villain and a legendary liquor.

The art is vibrant and elastic. Yuasa sacrifices realism for unadulterated fun. Characters are fluid, their outlines unencumbered by the rules of the physical world. That said, the film is less experimental than the director’s other work. Yuasa relegates changes in animation style mostly to flashback and dream sequences, giving the film a more consistent feel. Consequently “Night Is Short, Walk on Girl” serves as the perfect gateway to Yuasa’s wilder works.

As in Yuasa’s past works, men are by and large the punchline. Side characters include a man who skips his daughter’s wedding to pawn off erotic antiques and another who has not changed his underwear for six months. The former gets knocked out by the Girl with Black Hair several times, and the latter discovers he’s been catfished by a close friend.

But the male lead, whose relentless –– and rather stalkerish –– pursuit of the protagonist puts the “romantic” in “romantic comedy,” is the most pathetic of all. The character design is one of many in the film lifted directly from Yuasa’s TV show “The Tatami Galaxy.” The director himself notes the two works are “parallel worlds.”

In the TV show, the character was an electrical engineering student desperately grasping for the “rose-colored campus life” and “black-haired maiden” he was promised — a character some Bears are sure to recognize. In the film, he is referred to only as “Senpai,” and he positions himself strategically throughout the night to cross paths with the Girl with Black Hair as much as possible. Each attempt, though, ends in slapstick tragedy, as Senpai loses his underwear and ultimately falls viciously ill.

Whereas “The Tatami Galaxy” was full of cynicism about college, “Night Is Short” is nothing but optimistic. The meddling of prankster gods provided the driving force for the former. The film is instead powered by the protagonist’s unbridled enthusiasm.

And whereas acerbic wit was used in “The Tatami Galaxy” to reflect the protagonist’s bitterness, here humor expresses wonderment at the boundless possibilities of life. The dialogue is nimble and brainy, delivering wordplay and literary humor at breakneck pace. Some of the jokes come off indulgent, especially an overlong bit about literary heritage, but mostly it’s all good fun.

The film is supported by a standout soundtrack from Michiru Oshima, who accompanies each setting change with fitting genre music. A scene in a surveillance room is backed by thumping synths. The film features a musical arc about guerilla theater that is a great tribute to school musicals. But Oshima’s music shines during the protagonist’s monologues. Her romantic score invokes golden-age Disney — Oshima cooks up a modern-day “Fantasia.”

As a new semester begins, returning students are preparing yet again for the grueling work ahead. It’s hard, if not outright impossible, not to feel jaded after repeatedly facing the pressure of UC Berkeley. At its best, “Night Is Short, Walk on Girl” reminds students of Berkeley’s own twinkling nightlife, one that too often goes unexplored. It’s a heartwarming story for the ages — movie magic at its best.

College is short. The film seems to say, “Walk on, Bears!”

Contact Seiji Sakiyama at [email protected].