Andrew Osmond reviews the book that leapt through time
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, released on Blu-ray this month, is one of two recent Japanese films about schoolgirl time-travellers. The anime version was created by the Madhouse studio and directed by Mamoru Hosoda, who’s since gone on to Summer Wars. Then there’s a live-action film, with the slightly longer title of Time Traveller: The Girl who Leapt through Time, directed by Masaaki Taniguchi. Both films share the same lead actress, Riisa Naka, although she’s plainly not playing quite the same character in each. So what’s the link?
The answer is that they’re two separate sequels (and updates) to a famous Japanese story, which confusingly is also called The Girl who Leapt Through Time, adapted umpteen times for film and television in Japan. The story originated very modestly, published in a couple of magazines for schoolkids in the 1960s. It was an early piece by the author Yasutaka Tsutsui, who now has a considerable literary reputation. As it happens, Hosoda’s anime update of Girl who Leapt… was made by Madhouse around the same time that the studio was also adapting a different Tsutsui story – Paprika, directed by Satoshi Kon, in which Tsutsui himself voices a virtual barman.
His Girl who Leapt… story is now translated into English, and available in paperback from Alma Books. It’s very short, easy to read, but with lots of different ideas, especially in its final sections. The girl in the story is fifteen year-old Kazuko, who’s nearing the end of Junior High, and has two male friends (just friend-friends), Goro and the daydreaming Kazuo. One day, Kazuko is cleaning the school science lab when she sees a shadowy stranger, who hastily exits. The girl finds a spilled chemical concoction, and the aroma of lavender, which briefly knocks her out. When her concerned friends revive her, everything seems normal… but weirdness is about to commence.
A few days later, Kazuko and Goro are hurrying to school when a truck runs out of control and bears down on them lethally. Then Kazuko suddenly finds herself in bed, having seemingly dreamed the whole thing. She gets to school (no mishaps) and settles into class… to find she’s doing the same lesson as yesterday, only yesterday is happening today! Kazuko has somehow slipped in time, getting more and more freaked out as events play out as she remembers. Of course, she has no problem avoiding the truck. (Another author would have arranged a more spectacular, less avoidable catastrophe; an asteroid collision, or the splatty disasters of the Final Destination films.) But Kazuko must find out what’s happening to her…
A Whiff of Proust?
Despite Tsutsui’s gentle prose, one of the most striking things in the story is Kazuko’s extreme disorientation, as reality seemingly turns into a dream – or, worse, a dream “reality” from which she can’t wake. Satoshi Kon fans will know this idea from Perfect Blue; Kon in turn was a fan of Tsutsui. On the other hand, a brief earthquake scene reminds us that most quakes are minor irritants in Japan, this year’s disaster notwithstanding. The story also has a possible homage to Marcel Proust in the notion of time-travel being linked to a nostalgic odour, like Tsutsui’s lavender or Proust’s memory-inducing madeleine cakes, also referenced in the anime Serial Experiments Lain.
Later in Tsutsui’s story, Kazuko consults her science teacher, who’s luckily open to the idea of Fortean phenomena which science has yet to explain (but will). Finally – spoiler alert – Kazuko meets the original intruder in the science lab, who turns out to be from the future. The last part of the story describes what the future is like, with Tsutsui floating notions such as people going through education until middle-age, just to keep up with the future’s super-science. Tsutsui also suggests that future Japanese people will seem shockingly blunt and direct in their attitudes to a present-day teen, a comment on how Japanese society was already changing in the 1960s.
Kazuko is presented as a bright, inquisitive girl, good at taking authority over her classmates (at the beginning of the story, Goro complains she bosses him around). At the same time, she’s given to following the directions of other people, even when the consequences are very painful for her. The other time traveller describes her as a “such a peaceful girl,” which would sound strange for a protagonist in a Western children’s story.
In Hosoda’s anime version, the girl is far more mouthy and outgoing… but then she’s a different generation from Kazuko, as the anime script points out. In this sequel, the heroine is the original Kazuko’s niece, with Kazuko herself turning up as an elegant, wise and subtly mischievous spinster, working in a museum and affectionately called “Aunt Witch” by the heroine. Many of the events in the original story are reworked – for example, the fatal accident now involves a train instead of a truck. The “new” girl, though, reacts to them very differently from her predecessor, making the film a comment on how our own expectations have changed.
The live-action film, Time Traveller: The Girl who Leapt Through Time, also updates the heroine. This time, it’s Kazuko’s daughter, brash and sassy like her anime cousin (though the films are best thought of as happening in alternate universes). The live-action plot extends Tsutsui’s tale, with characters including an adult version of Kazuko’s friend Goro. Like the anime, though, the story is as much a comment on how times have changed since the first Girl who Leapt. The present-day girl slips to a past decade (the 1970s) to learn how her parents’ generation lived and give them a taste of the future, reversing Tsutsui’s idea. (In both Tsutsui’s story and Hosoda’s anime, the girl's time-travel only spans a few days, though a 1972 TV version of the story added a subplot about World War II.)
The Alma paperback of The Girl who Leapt also bundles in a different story, called “The Stuff that Nightmares are Made Of.” It’s a mystery, in which another schoolgirl tries to understand why she’s scared of a harmless mask, and is introduced to the principles of psychology and repressed trauma, decoding her little brother’s toilet terrors along the way. There’s also a scary moment on a high tower that might have been inspired by a Hollywood treatment of psychological trauma, Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Tsutsui would return to the subject of repressed trauma in his Paprika novel (also translated by Alma books), although it gets a bit lost in the Paprika anime between the bells-and-whistles fantasy sequences. Western readers, though, may be more struck by the Japanese attitudes to parenting portrayed in Tsutsui’s story. Not only does a “tiger” mother chide her infant son for being a sissy, playing with girls and not standing up to bullies, but she even threatens to snip off his “weenie”! Paging Doctor Freud…
For more books by Yasutaka Tsutsui, check out the Alma Books website. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and The Time Traveller are both available in the UK from Manga Entertainment.