By Jonathan Clements.
“Senpai” adores the Dark-Haired Girl hopelessly. She has no idea. So he follows her around, for a whole year, hoping she will notice him. He tells you his story, but she also tells you hers, as they are slowly brought together in a magical city that once spent a thousand years as the centre of the world.
They, like everyone else in the former Japanese capital of Kyoto, are gate-crashers at a never-ending party, browsers in a bookshop where everything is connected, mere mortals wondering if there is any way they can avoid an inevitable tornado of surprised fish dropping out of the sky. I used to live in Kyoto; it is a bit like that.
Author Tomihiko Morimi is famously enamoured with Kyoto, but The Night is Short, Walk on Girl has to be the pinnacle of his adoration, a book-length love letter to the city, told through the reveries of a couple who are seemingly meant for each other. Before long, the Dark-Haired Girl is consorting with a magic-realist menagerie of characters who claim to be crow-demons, who might be fallen Zen monks, who are connected in some out-of-phase, Gaiman-esque way to a faery-realm that overlaps the human world. Meanwhile, someone has stolen our hero’s pants.
In terms of speech, there is little difference between the two characters. They are both diffident prisoners of social obligation, searching for some little, private moment of rebellion. This is either a subtle, romantic indicator that they are kindred spirits, or the mark of an author who can only write in one voice. Fortunately, both Morimi’s narrators are charming innocents, taking their first steps into an adult world that comes laden with wonderful promise. Is there really a secretive cabal of smut collectors in the Kyoto shadows? Could there be a God of Used Book Fairs? How do you placate the God of Colds?
In recent years, many a script doctor has sneered at the idea that a female character is “pretty but doesn’t know it” – what was once a short-hand for womanly confidence has become a much-derided cliché of dude-bro writing. But our nameless narrator begins the very first tale by recusing himself. He is not the protagonist. This is not his story. That, he claims, belongs to Her in all her glory, and he is merely a dumbstruck worshipper, enraptured by everything about her.
Your mileage may vary. Neither our original narrator nor the all-important Girl have names. She’s just the Girl, the thing he wants, which, in the words of Scritti Politti, means that it’s “a name for what you lose, when it was never yours.” To be fair, she doesn’t give him a name, either, but people-watching, the act of many a flaneur, might be all right in Victorian novels, but carries with it in the woke 21st century an element of stalking. Our hero might think it’s perfectly benign to follow his love interest around town, but that’s the first chapter of either a romance or the story of a serial killer.
He is a laconic, self-deprecating literary inheritor of Haruki Murakami, glumly sitting through a stranger’s wedding. He has a novelist’s yen for the romantic, observing newlyweds kissing, “unafraid of any gods”, and a modernist’s lack of interest in setting the scene – Morimi loves Kyoto with every fibre of his being, but his text largely expects the mere mention of place-names to fill in the pictures, as if everybody knows what Demachiyanagi looks like.
It’s not the fault of translator Emily Balistrieri that Morimi expects nouns alone to carry a sense of place in many Kyoto settings – something, at least, that Masaaki Yuasa’s anime version could impart more effectively for foreign viewers. It is an editorial decision, and probably a wise one, not to add explicatory detail to the original prose, but if any book required some consideration of the implied reader, it was surely this. I was a little taken aback at the lack of footnotes or even an epilogue, pointing to some of the allusions dropped in Morimi’s text, not merely to his own other works, but to historical and mythical characters. When a character grabs a Daruma from a shelf, the reader is expected to know what a Daruma is – I know otaku readers fancy themselves as cultural sophisticates, but please cut the general public some slack! When Rihaku, the wine-soaked king of Kyoto’s wainscot society, slurs the epigram that gives the book its title: “the night is short, walk on girl”, I wonder how many readers will have realised that his name is the Japanese pronunciation of Li Bai, the famous Chinese poet and drunkard?
Chitoseya, the restaurant that seems to straddle Kyoto’s contending cultures like a party that never ends, literally means the Restaurant of a Thousand Years, but you would need to be able to read Japanese to know that, and if you could read Japanese, you wouldn’t need this translation in the first place. I laughed out loud at a girl fronting a band belting out a song called “Piss Off, Benzaiten, you punk!” but I suspect I was probably on my own in a thousand-mile radius.
This is a book about the time your mate Dave got into a drinking competition with a man called Shakespeare in a pub by the Thames that seemed to be mainly populated by fairies. For a Japanese readership, it has all the resonances that we see modern fantasists aspiring to in the likes of Carnival Row or American Gods, but the Yen Press edition displays a remarkable confidence that the average reader overseas will not require any help understanding that. The result is a joyful book that nevertheless needs to be read, at very least, in tandem with the vibrant anime version to fill in the visuals, and probably with an encyclopaedia somewhere close at hand. Is there a God of Encyclopaedias?