As the Night is Short, Let Us Ponder About Two Anime Adaptations On a Tatami Mat

Let us drink to Yuasa Masaaki’s new film, 夜は短し、歩け乙女 (Night is Short, Walk On Lady). Not for its gorgeous animation or Hanazawa Kana’s fantastic voice acting but for making me realize what I like and dislike about adaptations.

I don’t belong to any camp in adaptation theory, at least the usual camps I can think of. I don’t mind if an adaptation goes all loose and play with the source or if an adaptation is a 1:1 version somehow. All I want is to enjoy the adaptation as a standalone product that has explored the strengths and flaws of their particular medium. If it means going full in with anime original content or playing up the faithfulness meter, I’ll still go along with the ride.

If anything, choosing to do either extremely well might make me want to check out the source and see what is different.

Yuasa’s other Morimi novel adaptation, 四畳半神話大系 (Tatami Galaxy), was the first one I had ever felt that way. It was my first ever Yuasa and I watched it when I was about fifteen years old. I was an aspiring filmmaker and attended filmmaking and film studies classes religiously. There was a bit of snide in me then because I never thought Japanese animators could ever make anything as beautiful as, say, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. However, as embarrassing as it will sound, Miyazaki Hayao’s films won me over and I thought maybe that oldster could be as good as Tarkovsky. Little by little, I began dropping down my blatant racism against Japanese creators after I watched more films like Hosoda Mamoru’s 時をかける少女 (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) and later anime like K-ON!. Yuasa’s 四畳半 adaptation was one of the big ones that made me realize how condescending I was to Japanese creators and the possibly unlimited potential of anime.

The premise is fun and simple: A college guy goes through several time loops to get the girl of his dreams. He joins several clubs and even finds himself riding a hot air balloon like it’s a James Bond film. But he keeps failing in each loop. There must be something that is missing in his formulaic life. He repeats the loops to find the right formula and in the end finally fulfills his college dreams at the end. I watched this preparing to write college apps and thought this anime was way too relevant for me; it was impossible to not fall in love at first sight.

Its real draw for me was how deeply explored the themes about fate were. The whole idea of overcoming the time loops just fascinated me. Granted, I was way too into loop and time travel stories then — after all, my favorite media at that time were works like Muv-Luv Alternative and 時をかける少女’s film adaptation — but I always liked seeing people challenge time and fate themselves. It made me think about how the TV anime format worked with loop stories like how each episode could be its own loop. Like the Endless Eight arc in Haruhi S2 (which I actually liked) but done better.

I also thought it was cool to see a serious novel depicted through a somewhat flat cartoony style. The comical nature and grand scale of the plot worked so well with the aesthetic Yuasa and his staff went for. I also dug the rapid-fire talking, though that may be because I had just watched the 化物語’s (Bakemonogatari) anime adaptation and thought it was a neat trick.

I just dug everything the adaptation did and more. It was one of the first Japanese fiction I’ve ever consumed that made me realize maybe there’s something more to the culture than just cute girls. While films are great, Yuasa’s style of visual storytelling was so unique that it made me think how much potential there was in the anime medium. I just loved it all.

So I wanted more.

If I wanted to know more about why it enchanted me, I thought, what about reading the actual novel? I figured the adaptation must be doing some funky stuff to the source, so it could be fun to compare and see what’s the difference. I’ve done that a couple of times back in film class and thought it was fun. But back then, I didn’t know Japanese, so I had to rely on translations. I rummaged through Singapore’s various Kinokuniya stores to find an English translation of the novel, but I found nothing. I looked up the Wikipedia page for it and found out that nobody seemed interested in translating the novel. Now that I think about it, 四畳半神話大系 was the also first time I realized that not knowing Japanese was a huge bummer. I felt restricted in what I wanted to do. Today, we have several fan translations that are borderline awful and I would have admittedly read through them then out of desperation. But no translator was as interested as I was then and so, I gave up on the search and forgot about it.

Later on, I began watching more Yuasa works and got more familiar with the director. Wasn’t a huge fan of Kaiba but Mind Game was great.  I even backed his Kickstarter project, Kick-Heart, and it sure was a good purchase.

It was only five years later when I resumed my 四畳半 novel search. I was in a generic shopping mall in Sapporo, Hokkaido with my third sister and her friends where I would encounter the very first Japanese books I will buy: 猫とわたしの七日間 (Neko to Watashi to Nanonakan), クビツリハイスクール 戯言遣いの弟子 (Zaregoto Volume 3), 有頂天家族 (Uchouten Kazoku/The Ecstatic Family), 夜は短し、歩け乙女 (Night is Short), and of course 四畳半神話大系. I was more informed about Japanese fiction and learned about the possible limits of the anime medium; I was also learning a bit of Japanese through visual novels and thought it will be a matter of time before I read these books.

That “matter of time” would be three years later because I was (and still am) a Ultimate High School Procrastinator. My excuse was I wanted to get decent at Japanese first. For the curious, I read 夜は短し first before 四畳半 because it was shorter and I had lesser familiarity with the former.

So as you can tell, a lot of time had passed. I’ve grown out of my delirious love for films and gotten into a phase of deep interest in novels and writing. Films and anime were still my thing, but Japanese writing was a brave new world for me — it still is actually. Regardless, I still have fond memories of the Yuasa adaptation of 四畳半 and wanted to see how much he had changed up.

The first surprise for me did not have anything to do with Yuasa, but it is important for fans of the work to know. For a long time, I had no idea that the official English translation of the title was not the most faithful thing ever. English Wikipedia offers a rough but clear literal translation: “4½ Tatami Mythological Chronicles”. Doesn’t roll off the tongue like Tatami Galaxy but it serves its purpose well: the official title has no references to myth, which is strange because there are various references to Shinto deities and mythology throughout the book and the anime adaptation.

It feels like something left out by utter accident by whoever translated it. God knows how “galaxy” appeared in the title. Luckily for them, the final arc of the anime and the book involves — for lack of a better term — tatami metaphysics. The protagonist is trapped in his 4½-matted room and whenever he opens the door, he finds himself in another similar looking room. An eternal loop of the same rooms. And you could say the ending was like a “big bang” or something, so the title kinda works. Ish.

While talking about title mistranslations sounds like a minor complaint and has little to do with adaptations, it sets a tone for how I view adaptations like 四畳半. The whole idea of leaving out major stuff, changing some things up, and somehow working in the end is how I would have described the adaptation of 四畳半.

For one, the adaptation is at odds with the source’s core message. Unlike the whole “let’s challenge fate and get the girl of your dreams” narrative the anime adaptation was going for, the book has a simpler and calmer message: “Fate will lead you to the good stuff.”

Because the protagonist always gets the girl in each loop.

There are only four loops in the book compared to the ten or so loops in the anime. The structure of the book allows constant repetition with clear deviations from the formula based on the copy and paste paragraphs in the book. It follows a strict template until the final chapter — the protagonist joining a club out of several others, he meets the heroine and Ozu who is a trickster of sorts, wacky hijinks happen when he tries to gain the courage to confess to her, Ozu messes shit up by the Demachi-Bashi Bridge (出町橋), the protagonist ends up in a relationship with the heroine, and Ozu tells the protagonist he’s never going away because he loves the guy — so there is always a heavy sense of repetition resonating in the book. No matter what route the protagonist chooses, the same results will inevitably occur even if it’s a different misadventure altogether. It sounds strange and that’s why Morimi has the protagonist pondering aloud about what if he picked a different club. Would he have ended up with the girl of his dreams? For him, it is impossible to know. However, for us, we know that’s part of fate because we have the foresight from just reading the book.

I see 四畳半 as a puzzle where the reader gets the jigsaw pieces and piece them together by themselves. Before the final loop, the reader would have realized that this is a formula to follow and it’s fate doing the work for the protagonist. In the final loop, we share the knowledge of this iteration of the protagonist because he realizes that each tatami room he comes across in this “tatami galaxy” is a past version of him. The “tatami galaxy” is actually the various timelines he could have taken. From the objects in the room, he surmises the life of each version and finds a pattern. Therefore, if his logic is right, this loop of loops should follow the same formula. And it does — and it affects every loop because the dust mites that scare the jeepers out of the heroine and provoke the inevitable discussion about love in the end of each loop come from this loop.

Compare that to the anime where each tatami room is a failed version of him. The protagonist learns from the culmination of failed mistakes and tries to transcend his various selves to finally go to the “true route” like a visual novel.

Thus, it is not an exaggeration to say the anime adaptation and the book are opposites of each other.

For a Morimi fan who loves the books too much, the anime adaptation of 四畳半 is heresy to them. Morimi’s works have a consistent theme — fate will help you find the connections you need — so it is impermissible to contradict the whole message.

But for me, I always thought the anime adaptation, different as it may be, worked somehow like the weird English title. It was fun and interesting enough for me and I imagine I would still like it after the fact. I’ve always liked Yuasa and its themes, easily a stark contrast from the books, still feel relevant to me anyway. The adaptation actually reminds me of what Stanley Kubrick did to Stephen King’s The Shining and how vastly different the adaptation was. Instead of being a contemplation on redemption, Kubrick basically made one of the earliest predecessors to slasher films and only King fans loved the book more than the film. Kubrick implemented his vision — not King’s — and Yuasa did the same thing with Morimi’s book too. While I admit I prefer the book more, I like both anime and book as separate, standalone works. Both philosophies about fate are just fun to think about.

So when the anime film adaptation of 夜は短し、歩け乙女 was announced as a Yuasa film, I was considerably more stoked than any of the Morimi fans I knew personally. In the case of 夜は短し, I thought the book was perfect and did not need any deviations from adaptations. Yuasa only had 90 minutes to fool around anyway. If he wanted to do anime original content like what he did with 四畳半, he would have to do it right from the beginning. Either way would work, but I would like it more as an actual adaptation.

And 夜は短し is my personal favorite Morimi anyway. 四畳半 is way better as a story, but 夜は短し has the cutest heroine I have ever read in my life. The nameless black-haired lady (黒髪の乙女) pretty much stole my heart when I read her walking around the culture festival with a goddamn carp on her back. I want to see that in animation mostly because I am a moebuta.

Besides that, there’s also something about the book that charmed me more than 四畳半: the premise is senpai guy is head over heels over this kouhai girl. He keeps thinking about how he wants to approach the girl, but he ends up stalking her and trying to figure out a chance to get a heartfelt conversation about it. 夜は短し can be seen as a prototype to 四畳半 as each chapter (or night) follows a formula too: guy finds girl walking to somewhere, guy stalks girl, girl just does silly cute things, guy gets entangled in competitions or life-threatening situations, girl wins somehow, and guy ends up not getting the chance to even talk to her. Each scene is narrated by either the guy or the girl and their narration almost links to each other like they are in a conversation. They are in tandem with one another; they just don’t feel it because they are blinded by the threads of fate.

Even though they are meant for each other and have the same tempo in life, the two protagonists feel alienated by the world around them and how chaotic it all feels. The world doesn’t make sense to them and each event seems to come out from nowhere. However, there is a rule of causation: each event is caused by the previous event which is caused by another previous event and so on. At the end of each night, the wiser of the cast perceives the angst in the heroine and tells her that as the night is short, she should keep on walking; that way, she would develop more connections and thus create more events in the long run — hence the meaning of the title. Everybody and everything helps each other in one way or another. Hence, the repetition and the formulaic chapters. They give a sense of how things are connected and build up in such a way that will ultimately reward the protagonists at the end of the book.

If 四畳半 the novel was about how fate will lead you to a good ending regardless of what decisions you take, 夜は短し is about how the goodness in a society will lead you to the ending of your dreams. It’s a naive dream that’s totally not true, but Morimi’s fiction is entertainment written with a pure conscience. I just can’t help not liking it.

So I was surprised that the adaptation was … not good. I mean, I expected some deviation from the source because adaptations have to do that anyway. However, the 90 minute feature length film format made the events and the philosophizing all a blur.

The biggest change is that all the events — four nights worth of it — now take place in one night. For the people who have read the books, it felt like one long night with too many events compressed to have proper breathing space. For the people who enjoyed watching it without having read the book, it seemed to be one short night filled with a lot of wacky content.

That big difference sets the lines of what makes the enjoyability of book and anime distinct from each other. If I have to describe the book in one word, it is “elegant”. Even with its peculiar digressions on living life and alcohol, the book strives from how it finds a way to elegantly tie the scenes together in four lovely nights. Its episodic structure relies on repetition in a similar fashion to 四畳半; it gives meaning with repeated events and motifs. The film, on the other hand, feels chaotic because it seams everything into one continuous stream of plot. 90 minutes of just scene after scene without any sort of explanations feel too heavy for my taste.

This affects the other subtle charm points in the source work. Many interesting digressions were cut — in particular, the old men talking about eternal recurrence and death in the first chapter or the night town scene — and some motifs like people sharing books in used book markets like schools of fishes in a pond were referenced but not explored. I assume this is mostly because of length constraints but also because of the one night deal the film is going for. Memorable side characters from the book in the anime film did not have time to take shape and they were thrown about in the adaptation as well. And because of how compressed these events are, the female protagonist steals the limelight of the show — both protagonists have an even share in the book — so the film ends up being a story about her and not a romance story between two of them. The anime original content comes out at the last third of the film and brings out more supernatural tangents than the book intended. So as someone who read the book, I found the plotting really confusing to follow.

I’m sure people who have never read the source will disagree with me on these points I take issue at. They can point out that adaptations can be standalone (which I agree) and it’s still fun anyway (there’s no denying that since I had a lot of fun watching it with people). And they are certainly in the right to call me a killjoy (and I undoubtedly am one).

But I just found the film lacking, even if I ignored the plotting differences, as a film. I still believe the adaptations need to be standalone after all. I loved the animation, the cute expressions the animators put in, and HanaKana’s voice acting. I just didn’t like how the film made no sense.

 

In a stream I watched with some peeps, a user named Animation Golem succinctly put my feelings into words: “It felt like watching an OVA adaptation to a series that never existed.” Understanding the plot of the film requires you to have read the source. You can probably get the basic plot of the work and themes based on the film, but there are huge gaps of information that just feel like they should have been filled in the first place.

Maybe people like not understanding everything they have seen of the film. In a way, that’s how I felt with Satoshi Kon’s film adaptation of Paprika and I loved that film. With 夜は短し however, it is just too chaotic for me to comprehend. There was no emotional highs till the very end and I wasn’t able to connect to the characters at all. I just think the female protagonist is cute and that’s it.

There were some cute references to 四畳半 though that I appreciated. For one, the narrator and Ozu reappear as cameos. However, Ozu is re-casted as the Shinto deity who overlooks the town of used books. That is a neat reinterpretation since the book goes for the supernatural Shinto-deities-are-real approach.

And the best part of the film is the anime original ending where the cowboy character thing from the adaptation of 四畳半 returns to haunt the two protagonists. It is a wild animation frenzy that is worth a watch whenever it’s uploaded onto Sakugabooru.

But even there, I was still left cold.

I felt like an outlier when people say they prefer the adaptation of 四畳半 more than 夜は短し’s in terms of plot and story. I found the former to work with the advantages of the medium than the latter, which just felt constricted by what it could do.

So I thought long and hard about it. When I look at the strange adaptation decisions Yuasa and his staff took in 夜は短し, I just get the feeling they gave up adapting the work faithfully halfway through the film before going bonkers with anime original content. Unlike the miraculous adaptation decisions that led to solidifying the themes of 四畳半’s anime, 短し is all over the place and manages only to briefly talk about its themes in a long infodump. And because of how the film made it one night, the lack of structure that comes from episodic storytelling naturally disappears. The film ends up having no sense of pacing or cohesive flow.

I just hate films that feel chaotic and nonsensical to me and that’s probably why I dislike the adaptation of 夜は短し a lot. I want films with a strong plot, regardless of how incomprehensible the plot may be. Films don’t have the leeway like long-form works like novels and TV anime; they need to be on point all the time and can’t allow huge pacing problems to exist or they will just feel meaningless and chaotic.

Which goes against even the film’s themes.

In the world of Morimi, everyone lends a helping hand to each other to make their dreams come true. Fateful meetings, even the ones that feel somewhat forced, will happen regardless of input. Your actions are already threaded by fate and will lead you somewhere. Often to somewhere you desire to be. We are never alone because we are always connected somewhere and somehow.

This film gave me a helping hand in understanding a little bit about myself and my weird taste. I want something with a strong plotting in a film regardless of adaptation faithfulness. That’s something I didn’t know about myself before and it explains why I am somewhat cold toward faithful or standalone-only camps. All I care is whether the work makes ample sense to me.

So let us drink to adaptations, both good and bad, because they teach us what we like and dislike more than anything I can think of. No matter how we agree or disagree on what is a good adaptation, it is an enlightening discussion.

As the night is short, mademoiselle, let’s keep on walking.


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