Andrew Osmond has been here before…
Some sci-fi plots are staples of anime. The boy who pilots a fighting robot; humans who evolve into cyborgs; cute space girls who fall for the biggest doofus in Japan. Compared to these, time-travel has never been a big anime genre, though it’s been used on many occasions. Gunbuster and RahXephon dealt with relativistic time dilation (stay young while your friends wither!). In Noein, kids are confronted by their adult selves from a cataclysmic future. The unreleased-in-Britain Zipang plonks a modern naval crew in the Pacific War. The Inu Yasha, Doraemon and Time Bokan characters use time-travel as casually as Doctor Who.
In the last decade, there’s been a marked rise in anime ‘loop’ stories, in which characters are locked in a little strip of time, changing a bit in each cycle, but doomed to reset… and reset… and reset. Film fans know it as Groundhog Day; Doctor Who addicts call it chronic hysteresis. In anime, it’s used in sublime and ridiculous ways. There’s Haruhi Suzumiya’s “Endless Eight,” for example, and twists in shows we can’t name without spoiling them. A Japanese-created loop is now playing in cinemas, with Tom Cruise starring in Edge of Tomorrow (trailer), based on the Japanese SF novel All You Need is Kill. Read more about the book here.
Edge of Tomorrow underlines one of the advantages of time-travel stories; they’re translatable. They’ve been mainstream in Hollywood since The Terminator and Back to the Future, and never really dried up since then. Witness the romcom About Time, the toon Peabody and Sherman and the upcoming Welcome to Yesterday. The upshot is that Steins;Gate and The Girl who Leapt Through Time share a genre which Westerners know, even people who’ve never seen anime in their lives.
The Girl who Leapt Through Time, for example, has a scene which invites direct comparison with Groundhog Day. In the latter film, Bill Murray’s antihero is trapped in an endlessly repeating twenty-four hours. He tries seducing a woman (Andie MacDowell), courting her over and again to correct every faux pas and get her into bed. He gets his face slapped umpteen times, but he never gets the girl (until he stops trying).
The charming Girl who Leapt, directed by Mamoru Hosoda and animated by the Madhouse studio, cleverly inverts this sequence. The protagonists are a teen boy and girl who have an easy, jocular friendship. One drowsy evening, the boy gives the girl a lift on his bicycle and, out of the blue, asks if they might date. The girl is horribly embarrassed. Because she’s a time-traveller, she resets the scene again and again, trying to steer the conversation away from the dreadful subject. But the boy keeps asking her out, and her trans-temporal meddling only spoils their friendship.
The girl time-traveller is 17 year-old Makoto Konno, an extrovert and energetic high-schooler. The long-legged teen was designed by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, creator of some of anime’s most famous poster-girls, including Evanglion’s Rei. Makoto’s closest friends are two male classmates, the scholarly, serious Kosuke and the maliciously mischievous Chiaki; try guessing who makes the move on her. The trio have regular baseball practice sessions on a sports pitch, to which the film often returns. Makoto can imagine, as only a youngster can, that it might all go on forever.
One day, though, Makoto is in the school lab when she disturbs an intruder, and finds a strange acorn-like object on the floor. When she takes a tumble, her arm strikes the “acorn” and she’s whisked into a vortex of laser lights, bubbling water and racing horses. The vision passes, but later that day, she’s riding her bike when she has a freak accident at a level-crossing. (The accident is like something from a slapstick comedy or Final Destination – one amateur video even set the scene to Benny Hill music!) Makoto’s life seems about to end… when, lo and behold, time reverses and she finds herself before the accident, intact and unharmed.
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Hysterical, Makoto confides in her aunt, an elegant young woman who works at a museum and is Makoto’s ‘big sister’ substitute. To Makoto’s consternation, her aunt tells her time-leaping is normal for adolescent girls! Makoto finds that if she makes a mighty leap, a “time leap,” then she can go back in time, though only a few hours or days. Her powers are limited – no leaping back to samurai Japan or Jurassic times for her. On the other hand, Makoto doesn’t have the rules and restrictions of other time-travellers. If she does something wrong, she can always double-back and fix it… or so it seems to the excited girl, giddy with power and (apparently) zero responsibility.
The rest of the film, of course, has Makoto finding out how wrong she is. We find out where that strange acorn came from, and Makoto learns painful, even tragic, lessons about fate, consequences and change. But by the end we see Makoto embracing these lessons with courage, looking to the future with confidence and hope. In the vivid climax, drawn by animator Ryochiro Sawa, the girl sprints against an indifferently travelling “camera,” pummelling her way heroically from one side of the frame to the other.
Makoto’s running illustrates the moral of “Time waits for no one,” written in English on a blackboard, as she embraces the future with courage and hope; a future expressed in unformed cloudscapes bubbling up in perfect blue anime skies. However, the director is canny, sometimes slowing the school scenes down to romanticised reveries and returning again and again to Makoto’s baseball practices with her friends, letting us share her illusion that such things never change. Like much anime, The Girl who Leapt Through Time treats high school as Lewis Carroll treated childhood: “Ever drifting down the stream/ Lingering in the golden gleam.”
For older viewers, the whole story is nostalgic. It’s an update/sequel to a 1960s story, written by Yasutaka Tsutsui, whose later Paprika was adapted by Satoshi Kon. You can read more on the original here.
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The TV series Steins;Gate is also an adaptation, but from a very different medium. It’s based on a Japanese “visual novel” game for PCs and consoles; an American PC version is available from JAST USA. Visual novels are something like the digital equivalent of the old Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks, where the reader/player works through a multi-choice storyline, but can always start again and try a different route. Like a time-traveller, in fact.
Like Girl who Leapt Through Time, Steins;Gate pointedly doesn’t take epic journeys through history. Instead the show is confined to modern Tokyo (though on more than one timeline), and begins as a geek sit-com with a strong mystery thread. A paranoid “mad scientist” youth called Okabe stumbles on a way to send phone messages into the past, while encountering a string of weird events in his neighborhood. He also picks up a growing number of acquaintances, including a very odd girl who talks mostly through texts, and an online contact who claims to be from the (or at least a) future. Time-travel isn’t just round the next corner; rather, the next corner has uprooted itself and is visiting the present.
Instead of Groundhog Day, Steins;Gate’s early episodes are reminiscent of some of Connie Willis’s lighter print fiction (To Say Nothing of the Dog, for example). Bits of screwball and romantic comedy coalesce irreverently around intriguing questions and theories that someone’s bothered to think out very carefully. Although Okabe’s older than Makoto, he has an ebullience all his own. In fact, he’s a hugely likable semi-nutcase, given to flowery megalomaniac declarations. J. Michael Tatum is praiseworthy delivering then; he dubs Okabe in FUNimation’s English version.
Some differences between Steins;Gate and Girl who Leapt reflect their target audience.s Hosoda’s film was aimed at general viewers, including youngsters, while Steins;Gate goes for the late-night anime TV demographic. Although most of Steins’ characters are still in their teens (several are uni students), they have some amount of independence, gathering in Okabe’s makeshift laboratory rather than a classroom. Some jokes made by Daru, Okabe’s corpulent hacker colleague (and out-and-prod otaku) are pretty coarse, though they fall away in later episodes.
Both Steins;Gate and Girl are punctuated by ice-water shocks, which change their tone from light comedy into something far more intense. In Steins;Gate, the big shock comes exactly halfway through the show, at the end of the first volume, after which the show’s structure is revealed. As we said previously, the show’s trick is to lead us to the middle of a maze by an easy path, then challenge us to get out again by a far bloodier, harder route – Steins’ second half morphs into a thriller like Source Code. The shock in Steins;Gate is no worse than Girl’s; the difference is Steins;Gate maintains that intensity after, till Okabe, self-styled ‘mad scientist,’ is on the brink of madness, taking increasingly frantic measures as his reality melts.
The other obvious difference between Girl who Leapt and Steins;Gate is their format; a twenty-four part serial (plus OAV coda) is different from a movie. Steins;Gate takes full advantage of its mystery serial element. As in a detective show, the viewer has plenty of time to speculate how that character or event will lock into the plot. The drawback, of course, is the story takes more concentration, especially if you’re not one for marathoning shows. Happily, the storyline of Steins;Gate is much more lucid than many serial anime.
Some fans have subjected the show to flow-chart post-mortems, arguing there are cheats and flubs in its logic – though you could fannishly argue back that it’s just being true to the time-travel genre! Far more importantly, the show plots a powerful emotional course, with Okabe and his friends being tested, sometimes tortured, but yet ennobled in the best traditions of popular drama. As in Girl, the anime’s paradoxes are always used to drive the characters, and never overshadow them. Steins;Gate certainly puts the fumbling incoherencies of recent Doctor Who to shame (and we mean you, Steven Moffat, and your ‘timey-wimey’ schtick).
If you’re new to both Girl who Leapt and Steins;Gate, we’d recommend easing your way in with the former; though if you’re well-versed in time-travel movies and fiction, there’s nothing to stop you jumping straight in to Steins;Gate. And on the subject of print fiction, let’s start a Steins;Gate rumour… We can’t help noting that a recent time-travel blockbuster novel – Stephen King’s let’s-save-Kennedy yarn 11/22/63 – has some crucially similar payoffs to the anime. Is Misery’s author an otaku on the sly? We demand to know.
Steins; Gate is available now on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.