Time travel movies might be a cliche but as Critic After Dark Noel Vera says, Mamoru Hosada's shojo The Girl Who Leapt Through Time simply charms with its realm of tragic inevitability.

Mamoru Hosada's Toki wo kakeru shojo (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, 2006) is easily the finest animated feature to come out in recent years (never mind Dreamworks' fitfully amusing if infantile Kung Fu Panda or Pixar's shamelessly Chaplinesque and overly sentimental Wall.E both released this year).

If anything, I'd call the film the best animated feature since Hayao Miyazaki's own anti-war epic Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl's Moving Castle, 2004) some two years previous (Diana Wynne Jones' novel wasn't so clearly anti-war - but this was just after the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the impact of its firebombing scenes in the context of the times [arguably it's the first great film on the war] is unforgettable).

It's not as if Hosada was in Miyazaki's league - far as I can see, he's been director of a One Piece feature and some Digimon episodes, and was key animator to both a Crying Freeman and Galaxy Express 999 sequel. But he's teamed with excellent collaborators: Gainax's character designer Yoshiyuki Sadomoto [Shin seiki Evangelion (Neon Genesis Evangelion, 1996)], [Ôritsu uchûgun Oneamisu no tsubasa (Wings of Honneamise, 1987)], art director Nizou Yamamoto [Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke, 1997); Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies, 1988)], all working on a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui (Paprika, 2006) written way back in 1967.

Actually, the film's relationship to its source material's more interesting than that: Tsutsui (a popular novelist and science fiction writer) has had his novel adapted many times, including two live-action features, a TV movie, and at least two mini-series; this is the first time the story has been turned into an anime feature, and it's not a direct translation, more like a sequel (the main character from Tsutsui's novel makes an appearance here as the protagonist Makoto Konno's (Riisa Naka) beautiful but mysterious aunt).

Have not seen any of its previous incarnations, but from what I understand, they are straightforward adaptations of Tsutsui's time-travel romance (set in a Japanese high school) with its bittersweet conclusion. Tokikake (as it's often fondly nicknamed) belongs roughly in the shojo (girl) fiction genre, in particular "realistic school life romantic comedies" with a twist of fantasy (time travel, to be exact) to spice things up (yep, Japanese anime has that many sub-sub-sub genres).

If we cast a bit wider, time travel fiction is a time-honored literary genre (everyone from Mark Twain to H.G. Wells to Robert Heinlein to Ray Bradbury has written on the subject); paradoxical fiction, or fiction where dilemmas are created through the journeying of a time-traveler, is at least as old as Heinlein's short story "By His Bootstraps" (1941), as recent as Richard Matheson's novel Bid Time Farewell (1975), James Cameron's Terminator movies and TV series (1984 to present day), and any number of Star Trek (from 1966 to the upcoming 2009 feature) and Doctor Who episodes.

(Steven Moffat's scripts for Dr. Who in particular are fond of twisting linear time lines into witty little knots; actually his entire output (to steal a quote Jean-Luc Godard) from Coupling (2000 - 2004) to Jekyll (2007) tends to tell stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end - but rarely in that order. His script for Blink (2007) brilliantly pieces together a convoluted plot (it begins with an innocent girl encountering the video image of the all-too-aware Doctor, ends with the thoroughly forewarned girl warning a barely comprehending Doctor) in such a way that full understanding occurs only at the end of the story (with plenty of tension - and not a little poignancy - generated along the way); his relatively simpler Girl in a Fireplace (2006) captures the piercing transience of time - it waits for no man, not even a Time Lord, and before even he realizes it, the irreplaceable moment's gone).

Seen from this context, one can appreciate how difficult it is to try tell a time-travel story with any conviction, much less introduce anything even remotely fresh to the genre. Hosada and scriptwriter Satoko Okudera, interpreting Tsutsui, to their credit don't even try; the girl without much ado stumbles (literally) onto the device and starts jumping back and forth, and the film's first half is a fleet-footed comedy about what a Japanese high school girl might do with time travel, given half the chance.

At one point a character says "I was glad an idiot" got it; "I was worried about someone using it for bad things," he explains. You can't help but agree - if the device had fallen into the hands of an evil man, we'd have had an overwrought shonen (boy) drama full of gigantic mecha bristling with energy weapons probably, and very little of the delicately wrought humor Hosada and his team brings to this effort.

Where Hosada and Okudera alter Tsutsui's material is in exploring in some way the consequences of one's actions through time travel; they manage to use repeated motifs and incidents to create dark, even tragic effects (the incident with the fire extinguisher could easily have involved a handgun; as it is, the young man's feelings are unsettlingly raw and intense, and understandably so; we are taking a brief foray into the subject of bullying in Japanese schools). With Makoto's central dilemma we leave mere manipulation of people's feelings and step (lightly, always lightly) into the realm of tragic inevitability (we all must die; it's a matter of when and how).

Hosada was slated to direct Hauru no ugoku shiro before Miyazaki took over, and it's no small irony that his film has the feel of much of Studio Ghibli's "school life" anime (I'm thinking of the delightful Umi ga Kikoeru (Ocean Waves, 1993); Mimi wo sumaseba (Whispers of the Heart, 1995), and master Isao Takahata's beautifully lyrical Omihide poro poro (Only Yesterday, 1991)).

Hosada doesn't have the graceful minimalism of Takahata (the time traveling, while a lightly used gimmick, is still a gimmick; Takahata's heroine travels through time as well, but doesn't use anything so clumsy - memory is her secret technique); this film, however, can rightly be compared to Studio Ghibli's works with little embarrassment - high praise, in my book.

As for the criticism that this could as easily have been made into a live action film - frankly, I'm tired of that old canard. Animation film directors choose to do their work in their chosen field and, in this particular case, I think Hosada does a superb job. Some effects - of Makoto running a length of street (her relentless panting, pumping limbs, fluttering cloth); of Makoto sitting at a beachside (distant pedestrians walking in one ear and out the next, it seems, in a foreshortened shot that makes one think of Gulliver in Lilliput); of Tokyo frozen in time (Hosada's camera moves about suspended objects in a way that eerily (it's the emotional impact that makes the effect unique) evokes depth and space) - would make any filmmaker from any medium sit up and take notice. A lovely, lovely film.

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You can also email Noel Vera at noelbotevera@hotmail.com
First published in Businessworld, 07.11.08.

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July 22, 2008