Friday, January 20, 2012

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (aka: Toki o kakeru shôjo)


(2006) Directed by Mamoru Hosoda; Written by Satoko Okudera; Based on a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui; Starring: Riisa Naka, Takuya Ishida and Mitsutaka Itakura;
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Rating: **** ½

Sometimes, the best film finds are the ones you’re not expecting.  One of the great things about this month-long exploration of Japanese cinema has been discovering new favorites.   The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was initially released with little fanfare in its native Japan, but gradually gained an audience.  The angst-riddled teen relationships at this sci-fi/fantasy anime’s center seem superficial only on the surface, but underneath are layers waiting to be explored.  The film starts out as a lighthearted coming-of-age slice of life, and turns into a thoughtful exploration of choices and consequences. 


Springtime is rapidly coming to an end.  The sound of cicadas fills the air, signaling the arrival of summer.  Three high school friends, Makoto, Chiaki and Kousuke play ball on the baseball diamond, blissfully unaware that their lives are about to change forever.  Makoto Konno comments that she’s not particularly intelligent or stupid.  In her diminutive, self-effacing way, she considers herself just an average girl, but she’s the perfect template to experience the unusual.  The fantastic always seems more believable when experienced through the eyes of an “ordinary” individual. 


Makoto reads the aphorism “time waits for no one” scrawled across a classroom blackboard, foreshadowing her adventures to come.  The phrase also serves as a fair description of the film’s underlying theme, involving the limitations and perils of time travel.  After a disconcerting experience in an adjacent science lab, she rides on her bike to deliver peaches to her aunt Kazuko.  Her brakes suddenly fail while approaching a commuter train, but she emerges alive and completely unharmed from what should have been a fatal accident.  It slowly dawns on her that she has the ability to travel backward, to re-experience, and ultimately change the course of events. 


Traveling back in time to manipulate things can be fun, at first.  She initially enjoys her newly acquired advantage to change the past day’s events.  It feels good to get the pudding that her younger sister Miyuki originally took from her, or anticipate her friends’ every move on the baseball diamond.  She soon learns, however, that changing the incidents in her life doesn’t come without a price.  When Chiaki asks her to go out on a date, her moment of indecisiveness leads her to replay the point in time, changing the outcome – resulting in him asking another girl out.  With each subsequent leap back in time, the burden of knowing what’s going to happen before everyone else weighs heavily on her conscience.  As her little changes begin to turn into bigger problems, the stakes begin to rise.  Her poor choices might have life-or-death consequences.


Makoto relates her time-traveling adventures to Kazuko, who seems to have a sixth sense about this sort of thing.  Her aunt doesn’t judge or dismiss her stories, but serves as a moral compass.  She questions if Makoto is using her ability responsibly.  Are her motivations for altering events driven by purely selfish reasons?


One of the most pivotal scenes occurs when Makoto and her friends are literally at a crossroad.  The scene is replayed later, but with different results.  It reflects Makoto’s inward struggle, and symbolizes the choices that we all make.  For most of us, we don’t have the ability to go back and do something over again.  Depending on our choices, the repercussions will branch out in completely different ways.  Through Makoto, we get to examine some of the myriad permutations that can occur when one small, seemingly insignificant decision is made.  


If we could go back and do things differently, would it really be for the better, or are we simply deluding ourselves?  Probably everyone wishes he or she had a reset button to right some of our more egregious wrongs.  The problem resides in how we isolate that moment when things turned sour without changing something else.  Exploring this dilemma, and demonstrating the direct and indirect results is what this film does so well.   It almost slipped beneath my radar, and that would have been a shame.  The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a funny, bittersweet, and a surprisingly cerebral time travel story that will stick with you long after you’ve watched it.

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