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
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
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,
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First published in Businessworld, 07.11.08.