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Animation, Japanese Cinema

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Japan 2006)

Makoto at home (eating a 'pudding').

Makoto at home (eating a 'pudding').

I first saw this film advertised as a DVD release in Sight & Sound, the main highbrow film magazine in the UK. It’s unusual to see an anime advertised in this way (although DVD distributors have got more savvy recently). My first thoughts were that the film must have a reputation on a par with the Studio Ghibli output and I rented it on this basis. I now realise that this is a well-known property in Japan and you can read the history on Wikipedia, which also carries some useful links. Beware, however, if you do go to Wikipedia that there is a full synopsis/spoiler that could ruin your enjoyment – I found the film’s narrative development to be quite surprising and I’m certainly glad I didn’t know what would happen.

The ‘property’ was originally created by the veteran Japanese science fiction writer Tsutsui Yasutaka in 1967 and it is interesting that he should choose a teenage girl has his protagonist. A manga ‘prelude’ based on the original, but updated, was published in Kadokawa Shoten’s Shōnen Ace magazine and then bound into a novel in May-June 2006 and the anime released in July of that year. The anime version proved to be a sleeper hit in Japan and has finally surfaced in the UK and US on DVD after occasional (and generally well-received) festival screenings.

The appearance of this story in a shōnen manga series strikes me as odd because shōnen implies a readership of adolescent boys – the equivalent for girls is shōjo manga. This probably just shows that I have an awful lot to learn about manga!

Makoto is the tomboyish 17 year-old at a Tokyo high school (the narrow streets and river walk suggest the ‘old town’ part of the city, but it looks like a spacious school with large grounds). She has a younger sister and two male friends at school with whom she plays baseball after classes. She also has an aunt – a youngish woman of indeterminate age who works as a picture restorer for art galleries. Makoto calls her ‘Aunt Witch’ and this appears to be appropriate when she is unfazed by Makoto’s revelation of her ability to time-leap.

In many ways, this anime strikes me as the perfect teen movie. I found it at once beautiful to look at and intriguing, but I confess also at first quite difficult to follow. Partly this was because of the jumping backwards and revisiting scenes that takes place in most time-slip stories, but also because I do find teen fiction difficult as I simply can’t intuit the language and the nuances of teen communication. (I was watching the Japanese version with English subs.) When I realised the full import of what was happening, I found the narrative to be engrossing and deceptively multi-layered. I’m sure that I didn’t get all of it and there were the usual mysteries. As some of the anime fan-bloggers have admitted there could be a few more ‘answers’ – but holding back some information makes for a more effective cult narrative.

It is partly science fiction, largely a teen movie/high school film, a ‘coming-of-age’ story (without a sexual relationship) and a sensitive romance element which I found affecting. Surely this must be a shōnen with a sizeable shōjo audience?

I was most taken by the drawn backgrounds (see still above) which are beautifully realised and reminded me of Miyazaki’s work. The action was sometimes very slow (I wondered if my DVD player had paused) and this allowed the eye to wander around the very detailed mise en scène (e.g in Auntie Witch’s apartment with its books and woodblock prints). By contrast, I found the characters to be all drawn as tall and thin with barely any body shape. The combination of richly detailed background and stylised characters gives the film a quite distinctive look. The music too, was at times similar to that in Miyazaki’s films. There are some songs as well, but I feel inadequate in analysing the use of music in anime. The narrative of course speeds up for the action sequences which I found original and effective. Having the hero literally run and leap in order to travel in time worked well in terms of the story.

There is an excellent review on AnimeNewsNetwork.com from which I learned that the Miyazaki references are understandable since the film was made by a Studio Ghibli refugee, Hosoda Mamoru, with other collaborators who also have Studio Ghibli experience. ‘Line artist’ Sadamoto Yoshiyuki is also very experienced. The Anime News Network Review emphasises the attractiveness of the central characters as more than simply generic characters, quoting the almost Buster Keaton-like antics of Makoto who begins her time travelling in order to put right some of her ‘accidents’. This review finds the final third of the narrative less successful – this was the part that gripped me most. Perhaps this is the distinction between those audiences with genre knowledge and outsiders like me?

I would heartily recommend this film and it would give students based outside Japan, not only an interesting narrative/genre case study, but also an insight into aspects of Japanese culture that still remain mysterious in the West. (The main one being the representation, as the Anime News Network review suggests, of the “wistful buoyancy that only the Japanese seem to be able to associate with high school”, when in reality, the Japanese education system seems to put so much stress on results for seemingly middle-class students like Makoto.)

Watch the opening here (I’d urge you to buy it, but if you can’t there are more YouTube clips available):

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