Yesterday, the Japan Foundation of Los Angeles hosted a lovely event, a free screening (with a box lunch!) of Mamoru Hosoda’s sweet and captivating anime, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), the latest adaptation of the 1965 serialized novel by SF author Yasutaka Tsutsui (Paprika).
Hosoda is a Ghibli veteran (he was originally slated to direct Howl’s Moving Castle), and the film boasts a polished, vibrant aesthetic–a sunny rendition of contemporary Tokyo teeming with background detail–populated with well-rounded characters. Makoto is a perpetually late, tomboyish (as befits her masculine name) high school student who doesn’t excel at anything in particular, but enjoys hanging out with two school friends, Chiaki and Kousuke. One day, she discovers an extraordinary ability to leap backwards in time, a talent she uses to erase accidents or awkward social situations for herself–the ultimate avoidance act–until she realizes her sidesteps invariably cause others to suffer in her place.
What follows is an increasingly complex time-travel plot as Makoto discovers a metaphysical system governing her time leaps, and struggles with the implications of enacting them in ways that will affect her friendships and the lives of those around her. While Hosoda draws a lot of rich humor and observant drama from the setup–his depiction of the random, combustible way teenagers physically move and interact is especially observant–the plotting may actually be too clever by half, resulting in a breathless, looping final act whose logic frankly lost me. I’m tempted to cry foul for at least one major plot hole, but its solution seems so easily explainable that it might’ve simply been an error in translation.
Regardless, there’s a lot to enjoy here: an exhilarating command of pacing, from quiet scenes of contemporary tranquility in sun-dappled parks or late afternoon schoolrooms, to screwball time-leap montages (Tsutsui cites the Marx Brothers among his influences), to classic suspense chase sequences. Apart from occasional time travel scenes (stylized with abstracted CGI), the film is grounded in an everyday realism closer to Whisper of the Heart (1995) than, say, Miyazaki’s more fanciful work, and the emotions are vivid, universal, and culminate in a compelling, bittersweet denouement.
It’s exciting to see a Japanese animated feature that further cements the genre’s dramatic tradition apart from its staples of violence and sensationalism that so often define it, and Makoto’s developmental journey is ennobled by her ethical journey. As plot-heavy as the film becomes, its message is ultimately about the insufficiency of endlessly reformulating or becoming lost in time. As the film repeatedly points out, “time waits for no one,” suggesting that a rewarding life is often less about avoiding mistakes than seizing new opportunities–a far and welcome cry from the usual fanboy escapism.