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“I… wanted to portray the night as dream-like. This is the story of a girl who joyfully takes at face value what she observes seeing
people drinking and their relationships, so I wanted to create a feeling of the girl growing into adulthood, in other words, a fantasy for grown-ups.”–Masaaki Yuasa
PLOT: At a wedding reception, a Senpai reveals his indirect plan to win the affection of a black-haired Girl whom he loves from afar. The Girl barely notices him, however, instead following her urge to travel into the Kyoto night to experience the world as a young adult, including heroic bouts of drinking, a trip to an open-air used book festival, and an impromptu role in a traveling musical. In the end, everyone the Girl encounters over the night contracts a cold and she spends the early morning attending to them all—including the Senpai.
Based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Tomihiko Morimi (which has been translated into English). Yuasa had previously adapted Morimi’s “The Tatami Galaxy” for Japanese television.
Night won the 2017 Japanese Academy Film Prize Award for “Animation of the Year.”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Whatever it is, it has to feature the indomitable titular “Girl.” The image of her astonished face as a crowd of onlookers, impressed by her unexpected boozing prowess, donate all of their cans of wine into her oversized goblet, is as good as any.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Sophist dance, “The Codger of Monte Cristo”
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Eschewing the youthful chaos of his Canonically Weird feature Mind Game, Masaaki Yuasa proves that he can inject strangeness into the least weird of fictional genres: the romantic comedy. Tightly focused both stylistically and thematically, even while the footloose plot wanders from drinking binges to inconvenient plagues, Night walks through a flowery, hallucinogenic city straight into your heart.
PLOT: A blind itinerant priest crosses paths with “the King of Dogs”, a vivacious and deformed creature with a talent for dancing; through the priest’s music and the dancer’s storytelling, they attempt to lay the lost souls of the Heike clan to rest.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: I have come to the conclusion that perhaps everything in Masaaki Yuasa’s œuvre should get canonized, particularly as we now have the elbow room to do so. (Night is Short, Walk on Girl was shortchanged due to numeric constraints.) Inu-oh brings an unlikely legend to bombastic life, fusing rock opera, ballet, pyrotechnics, spirits, curses, gender self-discovery, physical transformation; it’s a 21st-century story about a 14th-century performance troupe unearthing the secrets of an 12th-century war.
COMMENTS: It tickles me that Inu-Oh is Masaaki going “commercial.” This stems to a great extent, of course, from the fact that here in the United States, film norms are sickeningly normal: we are reigning kings of the lowest white bread denominator (so much so that it was controversial when Disney took a belated and modest stand against overtly bigoted legislation in its home state). Among the many themes explored in Inu-Oh, gender identity is near the fore, along with the nuances of parental acceptance of someone’s true self.
But let me stop that vein of thought for the moment. This is film for, and about, entertainment. It’s about musical revolution, and the delineation of the esteemed Noh tradition, which harkens back to the middle of last millennium. Inu-Oh follows Noh’s traditional story arc, lacing it with modern rock sensibilities. (Well, maybe not “modern” rock, but certainly strains of Buddy Holly through Jimmie Hendrix and Freddie Mercury.) The titular character is a born performer, despite—or because of—the fact he is a born monstrosity: an unnamed son of a proto-Noh performer, a boy of ambiguous shape, deformed face, and a long, strong arm. He embraces his outcast status, at one point referring to himself as “the Horrible Gourd” in honor of his misshapen mask. But as the son of a dance troupe leader, it comes as no surprise that Inu-Oh was born to jump and jive.
Tomona, the biwa priest, has a comparatively subtler trajectory. The son of a salvage diver, he is blinded at a young age when he and his father retrieved cursed regalia. Masaaki’s visual treatment of this unseeing musician is a treat, as total darkness gains rough outline of form with each sound Tomona hears. Being unable to see, the priest-musician (a biwa is never without his four-string shamisen and bachi) does not fear Inu-Oh, and is so able to help the mutant through his journey. Tomona’s personal journey is also about transformation as he evolves into an increasingly feminine entity, adopting the name Tomaori by the film’s end. The morphing of their name allows them to grow into their true form, but plays havoc with the spirit world, and with their ancestors—as one’s given, or accepted, name is what allows Tomona/Tomaori’s father to maintain contact from the afterlife.
While the first half of Inu-Oh is “merely” steeped in music, song, and dance, the second half is one long string of hand-clapping, foot-stomping musical numbers showcasing the monumental talents Tomona and Inu-Oh share as natural performers. They give the forgotten fate of the Heike spirits full-throated treatment, with Inu-Oh performing transgressively non-traditional storytelling through song and dance, while Tomona positively shreds it on their shamisen. Contemporary shogunate politics play a role in the story as well, as does the concurrent, tragic tale of Inu-Oh’s fame-obsessed father. Masaaki Yuasa never settles for half measures, and every theme—friendship, salvation, transformation, politics, and music—ties together in an animated vortex of vivacity and sonic rollercoaster of rocking melody.
PLOT: Six short animated films from different directors associated with Japan’s Studio 4ºC.
COMMENTS: There’s no better way to enjoy the Christmas/Saint Stephen’s/Saint John’s/Holy Innocent’s holiday run than to nestle back with coffee and cartoons, so I kicked up my heels and dove deep into a very fine collection of anime wonderments (as well as a mixed metaphor). Each entry in this 2007 anthology gets its own paragraph.
“Shanghai Dragon” – dir. by Shoji Kawamori
Somehow the fate of humanity rests in the snot-covered hands of 5-year-old Gonglong when a mysterious, magical piece of chalk is crash-delivered to his schoolyard. “Shanghai Dragon” playfully riffs on the Terminator premise, showcasing the likely whimsicality if mankind’s savior were a very, very young boy. Kawamori’s short is, in a way, straight-up action anime, including a cybernetically enhanced, cigar-smoking badass; killer robots; hundreds of explosions; and a giant AI-controlled dog robot. But it’s also one of the cutest cartoons I have ever seen.
“Deathtic 4” – dir. Shinji Kimura
Four young school friends plot to save a (live) frog that was somehow transported to their (zombie) planet by the hazardous Uzu-Uzu weather event. While “Shanghai Dragon” was cute, “Deathtic 4” (presumably the planet’s name) is one of the ickier cartoons I’ve seen—but it still immolated me in a fire-wall of charm. The quartet inhabits a sicklier variant of Tim Burton‘s “Halloween Town“, and are all losers (despite three of them claiming “super powers”). The Zombie Police discover the living froggy, they sound the alarm–via a detachable siren nose that turns out to be one of those “moooo” canisters. The lads then flee toward the MASSIVE cyclone, Uzu-Uzu, with a plan ripped from a Garbage Pail Kids’ E.T.
“Doorbell” – dir. by Yuji Fukuyama
Fukuyama’s short is by far and away the most cryptic of the bunch, but that isn’t what made it my least favorite—or maybe it is. My suspicion is the director is attempting a philosophical exercise concerning infinite realities, all variants centered around one focal point: in “Doorbell”s case, that of a young man whose versions of himself keep splitting off and cutting him off from future paths. Neat, and pleasantly understated—and as such, feels a little out of place here.
“Limit Cycle” – dir. by Hideki Futamura
Playing like a cyber-theological TED talk, Futamura’s short lacks narrative and characters, but is the most fascinating entry. Its layered visuals, which combine classic animation, computer animation along with symbolic numbers, images, and math, are lush and hypnotic—prompting me to sorely regret my lack of fluency in Japanese, as my eyes had to stay anchored to the persistent subtitles to have any grasp of what was going on. Beautiful to behold while raising many profound philosophical points.
“Happy Machine” – dir. by Masaaki Yuasa
Humanistic allegory meets wacky animation in this short. The story begins with a happy infant (whimsical mobile above his bed, toys lining shelves, loving mother approaching to feed him) whose reality is sucked away, forcing him on a strange journey through a wasteland. Animation itself is deconstructed as its artifice collapses along with the infant’s home—and that’s just one of the dozen or so dissections of life, etc., that Yuasa performs with his singular ‘tooning style.
“Baby Blue” – dir. by Shinichiro Watanabe
Boy is going to be moving away from his school–and his girl-crush–and so suggests that he and she cut class and head out. To anywhere. Those seeking a melancholic musing on maturation may find this quite satisfying. While it lacks the temporal/scientific/divine themes of its fellow entries, I wasn’t unhappy about its inclusion, particularly the scene where the boy busts out a grenade (acquired, against the odds, in a wholly believable manner) to fend off a gaggle of ’50s throwback goons.
(This movie was nominated for review by “Wormhead,” who described it as “pretty weird. It’s a series of mind-blowing anime shorts, specially the short ‘Happy Machine.'” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
By now, I should be able to slow down to mere double features to match last year’s tally; but that would mean slowing down.
7/18: Knives and Skin
I’ve been mulling over what to say about this movie for close to twenty-four hours and I’ve still got nothing. My fear is, I suppose, that if I started going on about the various misteps, I might not stop, and that would send an inaccurate message about Jennifer Reeder’s earnest, feminist, melodramatic feature debut. Various crummy home lives are explored as we observe a small cross-section of No Name, USA, in this movie about people making decisions of varying degrees of emotional stupidity during the aftermath of a student’s disappearance and death.
But why do these women (and they are predominately women) insist on conducting their lives in such a way? From all the narrative facts revealed, they each have far more agency than they care to take advantage of. There’s a quasi-rape scene of a young woman set up to dismay the audience, but there’s also a quasi-rape scene of a young man that is just dropped by the wayside. I’ve noticed acutely since this Festival began that there’s far too large a market for emotional movies about emotional idiots. I wanted to care about these people, and I managed to do so briefly for some of them, but when they keep shooting themselves in the foot over and over, I can only invest so much sympathy. (And frankly it didn’t help that the filmmaker dissected, a-capella’d, and dirge-ified Modern English’s new wave classic “I Melt With You.”) If anyone wants to tell me in the comments what’s up with this movie, I would be very happy to talk with you.
7/19: It Comes
And boy did it. And in so coming, my faith in J-Horror was restored. Obviously this is mainstream fare—I wasn’t jumping out of my seat or suffering nightmares afterwards—but it had an unsettling edge to it, characters who evolved, and a really gangbusters finale involving exorcists from all known religions, cracking timbers, and blood-soaked caterpillars. Director Tetsuya Nakashima made what will be looked upon fondly as one of my favorite Christmas movies (yep, things come to head on 12/25), as well as one of my favorite dream sequences, where we can see the rice-omelette visions of a cheerfully sleeping two-year-old girl. I’ll admit it was a bit long-winded, but that allowed for a rare, full dissection of all the characters’ motivations—and while I didn’t find them entirelyContinue reading 2019 FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL: OMNIBUS FIELD REPORT #2→
PLOT: A shy, lovestruck senior follows a peppy junior (“the Girl with Black Hair”) from afar over an almost endless surreal night that includes philosophical drinking contests, an encounter with the God of Used Books, a peripatetic musical theater, and a cold epidemic.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: At this writing, there are only five slots remaining on the List. If not for that shortage, Walk on Girl might have a shot. Fortunately, we already have a slightly more famous, slightly better movie to represent Masaaki Yuasa on the List—but if he keeps making anime this weird, we may have to reconsider that hard 366 cap.
COMMENTS: A cross-dresser, a man who has vowed not to change his underwear, and a love-besotted student walk into a bar… Well, actually it’s a wedding reception, not a bar, and Night Is Short, Walk on Girl is not a joke, although it is a comedy. Nevertheless, that is the opening setup for a yarn that will quickly unfurl into a surrealistic nocturnal journey. The object of the student’s affections is the Girl, who starts with her own romance-free agenda: she wants to experience adulthood, and figures the best way to do this is through a night of heavy drinking. As she meets perverts, sophists and fellow drinkers, the evening develops into a quest for a mysterious liquor known as Imitation Denki Bran, climaxing in a drinking contest against an elderly pessimist. Meanwhile, her admirer has his underwear stolen and discovers his friend leads a secret team of electronically-omniscient high school hackers. And all that’s just in the first 20-30 minutes; the not-so-short night has many more wonders to unfurl, including another competition (this time involving lava-eating), musical numbers from “The Codger of Monte Cristo” (with meta-lyrics referring to both the main plot and subplots), and a flying fever dream finale.
The look of the film is bright and clean, with a mild retro feel: space age graphics and clean modernism, with bold use of color and geometric motifs—especially flower petals, which go drifting through the canvases like blossoms falling off invisible psychedelic cherry trees. There are plenty of abstract sequences, split screens, hallucinations, and other animated digressions, but the transition between styles flows smoothly, not chaotically as in Yuasa’s previous Mind Game. The story glides along from incident to incident in a similarly fluid fashion. Episodes are packed inside four major chapters: bar hopping, the used book fair, the play, and the cold that lays the entire neighborhood low. It’s a pleasant structure to organize the anything-can-happen action and keep us from getting totally lost in the film’s hubbub.
Night Is Short, Walk on Girl is weird, but light. The title character’s girlish optimism sets a sprightly, happy tone. While her pursuer’s actions sometimes verge on the stalkerish, we never doubt the purity of his affection, and we naturally root for the two to get together. Girl‘s dream logic is totally blissed-out; someone must have spiked the imitation brandy with mescaline. It’s a night well spent; you may even wish it was longer.
Night Is Short, Walk on Girl played theaters in a limited engagement over the past summer. It’s scheduled to appear on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD in January 2019.