Jonathan Clements goes back to the future with Masaaki Taniguchi’s Time Traveller.
“The fans have an image in their head of what the Girl Who Leapt Through Time ought to be,” says director Masaaki Taniguchi. “So I have to respect what has gone on before. Of course, it is a different story. The core of the story will always be boy-meets-girl, framed somehow through a time leap, so that’s the essence. But I think in this version I’ve also captured the things that make the story interesting: the pain of remembering, and the universal beauty of things. I hope that resonates with all audiences, even though times change.”
There have been a dozen different versions of Kazuko’s story, from its original incarnation as a sixties sci-fi tale, through TV serials and movie versions, manga incarnations and republications of the novel with different illustrations. In the 2006 animated feature The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, directed by Mamoru Hosoda, Kazuko Yoshiyama was a free-spirited spinster, mourning the passing of a love that could never be. But even then, there was a sense that Kazuko’s forbidden love was reasserting itself in her mind – or at least a forgotten promise to a forgotten figure.
Masaaki Taniguchi’s live-action version is both a reboot and an end to the tale. In it, Kazuko Yoshiyama is reconceived as the kind of person that the original high-school do-gooder was likely to become: a single-minded bluestocking. She has kept her maiden name, but has an eighteen-year-old daughter, Akari (Riisa Naka), the product of a doomed liaison with a globetrotting photographer. Moreover, she has been diligently experimenting in the laboratory, and is on the verge of recreating the magical elixir that permits travels in time.
Kazuko’s scrapbook of her infant daughter bears the name “Akari Hasegawa”, implying either a broken marriage or that the Kazuko of 1988 truly expected to be Mrs Hasegawa before long – promises, or broken promises, still loom large in Kazuko’s mind. “I had to have someone for Kazuko who could give that sense of a smouldering flame of love,” says Taniguchi. “An inexperienced actress would never have been able to convey that, which is why I went for [Narumi] Yasuda.”
As Others See Us
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time has become such a fixture of Japanese teen fiction because it so artfully allegorises the threshold of adulthood. Very soon, the teens who experience each new variant of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time will find themselves blundering into the future they could never have imagined, and yearning, with just a touch of sadness, for their lost youth. Yasutaka Tsutsui’s original story, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, was first serialised in 1965. For the Kazuko of the 2010 movie to truly be the original Kazuko, she would need by now to be a retired old lady in her sixties. It is fairer to assume that if this is a sequel at all, it is a sequel to the 1972 TV series, or the 1983 movie starring Tomoyo Harada.
Original author Yasutaka Tsutsui, when asked to comment on the production, sent something more like a poem: “Half a century from the original work, A daughter wanders in the strange Showa era. Re-experiencing the love that was her mother’s, As the story turns into one of reincarnation.“
The Showa era is the reign of Emperor Hirohito, which ended with his death in 1989. That was also the year in which leading lady Riisa Naka was born – Japan now has a generation of actors who literally cannot remember the old days. They, like all other Japanese teenagers, have only known the Heisei Era – the reign of Hirohito’s son.
“Showa turns into Heisei,” muses actor Akiyoshi Nakao (Ryota), “and things change, but I don’t think the bonds between people change that much from age to age.” And that’s a fundamental message of every version of the story – even if when Kazuko’s memories are erased, she still remembers that she has made a promise to someone.
The gap in time is tellingly similar to the leap made by protagonists in Back to the Future and Peggy Sue Got Married, just far back enough in time to see the very different world from which a teenager’s parents sprang. Irresistibly, Tomoe Kanno’s script frames our own time as if it were a science fictional future imagined by the original protagonists, when Akari tries to prove where she has come from using only the contents of her schoolbag. It is a curiously materialist demonstration – The Terminator’s Kyle Reese travelled naked, and had no physical evidence; Back to the Future’s Marty McFly was loaded with funny facts about President Ronald Reagan’s era, but Akari is all about the consumer goods. Look: MP3 players! Look: portable phones! In a subtle gag for the Japanese audience, Ryota is unable to pronounce the name of the present-day Emperor Akihito’s reign, Heisei. Instead, as a denizen of the 1970s, he naturally assumes that the word he sees on a future coin should be pronounced Hirasei.
Nostalgia and Music
Director Taniguchi admits that he has drawn on his own experiences in the way he portrays the character of Ryota, not so much in his life in the school film club, but for the way his experiences with girls are inextricably related to songs remembered and movies seen.
As Akari, newly graduated from high school, puts away childish things, she almost imperceptibly hangs onto her History book – Time Traveller is a film very much invested in memory and remembering, from old news items to forgotten pop songs. “Haru datta ne” (It Was Spring), by Toshiro Yoshida, was a hit in the 1970s and has become such a part of the background in 2010 that children of Akari’s generation do not even think of it as “old”. It’s just there:
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Nostalgia also takes the form of the song “Kandagawa”, released in 1974 by the group Kaguya-hime. Covered many times by other artists, it also lent its name to a mini-fad in 1970s fashion, whereby a boy and girl in love would wear a red scarf, entwined around them both, as observed by Akari when she sees a “genuine Kandagawa” walk past outside the bathhouse. The original can be found here:
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For older Japanese viewers, the biggest blast of nostalgia plays under the opening credits, when the band Ikimonogakari sings a new version of an old song: “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time”, originally sung by Tomoyo Harada for the 1980s live-action movie. “I love that song,” admits Riisa Naka, “hearing a cover over the titles is a real connection to an earlier incarnation.”
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In a montage of drunken excess at the apartment of Gotetsu (Munetaka Aoki), the boys get maudlin and romantic at the thought of pop starlet Saori Minami, better known in the 21st century as the mother of actor Akinobu Shinoyama. Even the theme tune, played over the ending credits, is called “Nostalgia”. And yet, we are also reminded of how swiftly a “generational location” disappears – when Akari questions the schoolgirls of 1974 about their elders of 1972, they have already been largely forgotten.
The Girl Who Leapt
In the role of Akari, Riisa Naka could have easily been a figment of the imagination of a 1960s sf writer. She is nothing like the earnest bookworm heroine of the original story, a difference played to perfection when the frenetic, trendy Akari first encounters the stiff, conservatively elegant teenage Kazuko outside the school gates. As in the anime version (for which Naka voiced Kazuko’s niece Makoto), this new protagonist is sassy, self-aware and sarcastic, and seemingly surprised that she has made it through the exams. The publishers of the original story, who valorised Kazuko as a model student, would never have approved of such an attitude in her daughter. In a provocative moment, Akari even asserts her 21st-century credentials by claiming that she “doesn’t really watch movies”, although possibly she is only saying so to spare Ryota’s feelings when she realises that he is not destined to become a famous movie director.
“This time it’s not just my voice, but my whole self up there on the screen,” confesses Naka. “I was fretting constantly about whether I could carry a ‘brand’ like the Girl Who Leapt Through Time.” Akari peppers her speech with snatches of 21st century slang, leaving her 1972 associates baffled by the Japanese equivalents of “rtfm” and “lol”. When Akari realises that Ryota is a sci-fi nerd, she calls him an otaku, although the word will not gain its modern meaning until a decade in Ryota’s future.
Set beside her old-time companions, Akari’s 21st century body language is nervy and florid, with the simplest of gestures enlarged through clownish hand-waving. She has an odd affectation for soliloquy in public places, a habit learned from badly written television and irritatingly on the rise in real-world Japan. But while Akari might have feathered hair and flawless Shiseido skin, she still wears a school uniform, and cadges a lift from “Uncle” Goro (Masanobu Katsumura) in his minivan – Goro, in the original, was the unwelcome gooseberry in Kazuko’s love affair across time. Akari’s future isn’t a world of jetpacks and food in pills – but as many adaptors of the original Girl Who Leapt have rediscovered, the world of a Japanese school can be oddly timeless.
Filming the Past
Always: Sunset on Third Street (2005) needed extensive computer graphics to recreate Japan in the 1950s, Bubble Fiction (2007) kept to those pieces of modern Japan unchanged since the 1980s, but surprisingly little needs to be done to set-dress a Japanese suburb for 1974. This is a recreation of the past as the filmmakers would have liked it to be – a cosy time-slip of earth colours and retro automobiles, without flared trousers, Red Army terrorist attacks, or universal smoking. As any tourist will attest, there is little that distinguishes the Japanese noodle bars of 1974 and 2010, beyond the size of the TV in the corner. If there is any grating omission from its imagining of the past, it’s that a real sci-fi nerd in 1974 would surely have heard of a TV series called Time Traveller (1972), whose protagonist was a girl who leapt through time, called Kazuko Yoshiyama.
“There are still traces of the Showa era to be found,” says Akiyoshi Nakao (Ryota). “You can get a sense of it in the kind of diner where old grannies still hang out, or in the last of the public bathhouses. I can go to such places and feel that I’m back in 1974, to a time before I was even born.”
“I think it would be an enriching experience,” laughs Naka. “To live in a time where your cellphone doesn’t go off when you’re on vacation! Back in the time when our parents would call each other… on landlines! And they’d both call at the same time and get an engaged signal! So romantic!”
Ryota’s student apartment is festooned with contemporary movie posters, but not the all-important Silent Running (1974), to which his 8mm student sci-fi film project has certain similarities – but this is no error, Silent Running was unreleased in Japan until 1979. Like Douglas Trumbull’s ecological romance, Ryota’s unfinished Planet of Light has a strong, melancholy message: “Don’t let the last cherry blossom be a painting.” Then again, there is a certain irony that the filmmakers of The Time Traveller place so much emphasis on film itself. In a modern cinema trope that has recurred so often since Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life (1998) that it risks becoming a cliché in its own right, today’s directors idolise their younger selves, zooming in on school movie clubs and amateur filmmakers as if cinema is the only thing that ultimately matters. It might appeal to festival organisers and film historians, but such a narrow focus on memories and commemoration risks alienating an audience for whom there is more to life than films.
In the whirl of memories and erasings, and rememberings, and edits that closes the film, we are left with a single enduring image of Akari on the school path that leads both to and from the future. Her issues with her father are unresolved, her romance with the past is supposedly forgotten, her attitude towards the future unsure. But she is still smiling, in a mystical, quasi-religious conversion that recalls the underlying message of M. Night Shyamalan’s overlooked Lady in the Water (2006). As in Shyamalan’s film, and indeed, as in the anime Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), creative work is championed as a time capsule for the future, a magical way of curing the ailments of others, and changing the world, perhaps long after the original artist has gone. Akari and her mother are both wounded and healed by the actions of figures from other times – men who are either already dead or yet unborn. What better argument for learning from history, and preparing for the future?
“I think,” says Nakao, “this film is a perfect combination of analogue and digital. It shows how people connect with each other, and although times change, it’s still in an analogue way. People still bump heads, they really laugh, they really cry. Time doesn’t change that.”
Time Traveller is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.