Time Waits For No One: Why The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is Essential Viewing
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
*Minor Spoilers - but not too many, hopefully enough to get you interested*
‘…I have an ideal to make movies that deal with values that are fundamental to humanity - like what it means for children to grow up, or what families are…’ Hosoda in an interview with NHK World Japan (Masataka, 2019)
This month I received my copy of BFI's Sight & Sounds’ Summer 2020 Anime special. A great volume which explores the cultural impact of Anime, the foreseeable future and the most significant films made in the one-hundred years of animation, it includes the works of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata a combined total of six times, Makoto Shinkai twice and Satoshi Kon a total of three times along with a great number of new recommendations to myself. I enjoyed the issue very much but upon reviewing, I was surprised when their Top 50 essential films only included one of Mamoru Hosodas’ productions. This was Summer Wars (2009)
Ranking at 40, the tier system being in chronological order, the publication described its inclusion ‘…made just before he started his own studio, Chizo, [Summer Wars] connects the two phases of his career…’ (Turner, 2020). It later goes onto discuss further how it’s a continuation on the ideas he explored in his franchise driven Digimon (2000) film, exploring the digital world and its presence in our lives. Meanwhile, running parallel to this, the film explores the immersion of a teenage boy into the girl he likes family, pretending to be her boyfriend. It has one of my favourite scenarios, extended family and one of the most realised worlds of his. It may be essential to his timeline as a filmmaker but this does not make it a favourite of mine, or the most essential of his films.
Then I began to question what was my favourite Hosoda film. And more importantly, why? The Girl Who leapt Through Time (2006) and Wolf Children (2012) were my first experiences with the filmmaker and have left their deepest tracks, encouraging me to re-watch them multiple times following the original double bill and always with great pleasure, and renewed curiosity. The former, I could say, is my favourite. So the obviously answer would be that; but if Summer Wars is the most critically essential film of his, why does The Girl Who Leapt Through Time feel so essential to me? Through this article, I want to breakdown the intimate details of Hosodas’ film and explore exactly why it is significant to me, even as a twenty-something.
‘Kyuta thinks he can stand on his own two feet already, but really he still needs someone to help him… I'll make up for what's missing inside his heart. That's the one thing this small-timer can still do!’ - Kumatetsu, Boy and the Beast
Family, friendships, growing up, fantasy and adventure are all explored in anime. It’s, also many of the themes explored in his work that makes Mamoru Hosoda so widely accessible, even to those who otherwise would not enjoy the popular form of animation. With so many great projects under his belt, it is clear to see why Hosoda is highly regarded internationally as well as in his native Japan, cited as being ‘humble in tone, high in concept, and an absolute rollercoaster in style and animation’ (Cubillas, 2019). From working with large franchises such as the aforementioned Digimon and One Piece (2005), to working on his own independent productions, tipped to be the next Miyazaki, even once being hired and later fired from Studio Ghibli, and going on to found his own studio, Hosoda has left a large mark on the industry.
Hosoda is known my many fans as the ‘Family Man’. This is due to all his films, be they blood-related or found, focus on the family dynamics or the role within the unit. If Summer Wars explores the large, extended family then Mirai (2018) explores the world through toddler’s eyes and their perception of family. The Boy and the Beast (2015) is about fatherhood and growing into a man and Wolf Children is the story of motherhood and allowing our children to follow their own paths. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is the teenage years, first love and discovering consequences.
His first feature removed from a franchise and an adaptation of Yasutaka Tsutsui’s 1967 novel of the same name, Hosodas' film is the fast-paced, funny and moving depiction of a care-free teenager, Makoto, who acquires the ability to go back in time following a near-fatal bike accident. A tomboy, who loves nothing more than playing baseball with her two guy friends, Chiaki and Kousuke, and avoiding the future, she takes this gift for what it is, using it on trivial matters to make her life easier - these hijinks include returning to a time before her sister ate the left over pudding. However, gradually she begins to learn the weight of her actions has carried for those around her and that ‘Time Waits for No One’. What follows is a frustrating but revealing account of a teenager given an ability that is bigger than her, an eye-opening experience and a finale that is both mysterious and powerful. In the end, it is clear that Hosodas’ character has a stronger ‘…sense of the importance of family ties and friendships… who overcomes a series of difficulties on the way to final vindication… offering audiences release from their daily worries and depicting without embarrassment the growth to greater maturity of the main hero.’ (Rysuke, 2016).
Although often criticised for his lack of world-building, it is this which Summer Wars is often praised for. This may be the case, possibly his most ‘explained’ film of them all; I also can see the benefits of reduced world-building. I tend to see it from a different viewpoint; that by providing a minimal information on the mechanisms of the world, it leaves more to the viewer’s interpretation of a universe. Although frustrating in some contexts, in the context of Hosoda’s films, it can be argued whether these films exist within the same universe or parallel as in the case for The Boy and the Beast and Wolf Children. The former takes place in two worlds - that of the human world and the one of the beast with the final showdown melding the worlds together. The latter it wholly set in the human world, without ever exploring further the concept of the wolf people that seem to exist. This could lead to the theory that these worlds could have met in some capacity. But by the lack of explanation, the audience must suspend their disbelief and speculate further the state of the world. This can be said of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. That leaves much to interpretation whilst never exploring the future that is hinted to us and also provided the ‘Leaping’ ability and the, later seen, time-freezing abilities. But this could be restrictive and confusing if we are viewing this from Makoto’s perspective, in the films context. It has never been established that she is observant or unusually intelligent, so perhaps the information is leaked to us as much as it is to her due to the fact that Hosoda wants the mystery.
‘But, Makoto... you're not like me, right? If someone were late to meet you... wouldn't you run out to meet him?’- Kazuko, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a Coming-of Age, Sci-fi, Romance. But those themes don’t describe the film as accurately. The time-travel within the film is with little back-story, as discussed above. This element enters the realm of magical realism, a hint of magic in our otherwise ordinary world, which can be furthered by the comment made by Makoto’s aunt, art-restorer Kazuko, upon learning of her niece’s new ability, “It's not that rare. Many girls do it at your age.” Not only does it suggest that she has been through it herself, but that ‘Leaping’ is a rite of passage for all young women. Therefore, this world has always had a link to the future in which humans have discovered time-travel, and it is these future beings that have tainted the past through their visits, leaving remnants that we can use. Complex as it is, it could even be argued that her aunt is of the future, but this is speculation.
‘Leaping’ and therefore the Sci-fi elements have been woven into the coming-of-age element of the film. Progressive in its depiction of a tomboy girl with no interest in anything other than her friends and wasting time, this tale uses the familiar high school trope of Japanese anime but holds back on its romanticism, painting a more realistic depiction of teenage life. It is not about the character coming into their own skin, as much as growing-up out of the self-centred way of viewing the world. As with many of Hosodas films, he explores this ‘…within the Japanese concept of seishun, the springtime of youth…The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars deal with nascent pubescent feelings of desire, attraction, love. These aren't, simply, coming-of-age tales, but ones in which Hosoda uses the liminal upheaval of youth as narrative impetus.’ (Carew, N.D).
This leads me onto the final genre this film falls into. Growing up can mean falling in love, and although not an outright romance for much of the film, its focus purposefully being on her lack of awareness for the people around her, the film approaches what is possibly one of my favourite anime romances on screen. Chaste and restrained, it contains all the yearning and mystery that a teenager would desire from their romantic viewing, whilst also being pretty realistic about its dynamics between the characters discovering their budding feelings. Established that Makoto is a tomboy, she does not see relationship with Chiaki as anything more than friendship; the romance comes about later and is only hinted at by their playful banter and follows after their friend Kousuke is asked out by a girl from their school. It is only though Makoto’s desire for a simple life that she ‘Leaps’ to avoid the confession of romance. However, by avoiding the scenario all together, we discover her feelings for Chiaki once he starts dating a female friend of hers. The childish jealousy also reveals that she is only beginning to understand her true feelings.
‘I have lived knowing nothing of the forest so there is nothing I can teach you. Go into the wild. Know the world....’ - Hana, Wolf Children
It’s theme of family and the teen narrative focus suggest Summer Wars similarities to The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. However, it is the differences in themes that drew me to the latter. These initial themes only touch the surface as Hosoda said himself in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, ‘It's often said to me that my films are family-themed, but for me family is more of a motif. The theme I'm concerned with is the… development and changes within people. …it's easier to portray the universal occurrences in families through that medium to all kinds of people’ (Blair, 2016). If family has become his motif, which is visible from his filmography, then the deeper themes he explores within his first solo project would be, obviously, ‘Time’ and more specifically it waiting for no one (as the movie states the old proverb). The other significant themes would be ‘consequence’ and the path to adulthood.
In an interview with Film School Rejects (Wardlow, 2018), Hosoda discusses the use of binary opposites in his films, a choice made by many storytellers, as a way to highlight the significance of the theme. So if we have ‘Time waits for no one’, its opposite within the context would be that Makoto wastes it more than she needs to, or at least avoiding it. She’s also a character in which time is a constant struggle and that perfectly personifies the theme; always late to school, absent to family meals, rushing about on her bike but never thinking very far into the future.
There is a further conflicting theme that supports that of ‘time’. If it waits for no one, there is a balance that must be met in enjoying the present. When Chiaki longs to see the painting that Kazuko is currently restoring, it’s a cry for preservation of a beautiful. Makoto does not see past the end of her nose like most teenagers, but whilst she should be looking towards her future, towards the horizon, she should also be appreciating the now. The ‘Leaping’ she does back in time, is a significant theme for any young woman, a metaphor of her going after what she wants, taking the ‘leap of faith’. However, with Makoto inability to see the world around her, it is through the consequences of actions, her leaping blindly forces her to see the wider world and the people in it when it begins to affect their happiness.
So ‘consequence’ comes into play. As a naïve teenager, it is now that she must take responsibility for her actions and her imperfections, which until now she has laughed off. As she says so herself; "When I'm not lucky, I'm really not, but I usually am, so it balances out." This happy-go-lucky outlook on life at the start of the film is rapidly tested when she gains her ‘leaping’ ability. It becomes a ‘be careful what you wish for’ scenario. So perhaps a further theme could be that of luck, and not testing that luck. And as a foolish teenager, by testing the boundaries of her good fortune, it has led to too much of a good thing. Therefore that luck has turned sour; much is the way with a tale like this. More familiar, more recognisable is that of an arrogant teenager to the audience. We were all one once ourselves, were we not?
‘Are you saying you’ve lost yourself?’- Mirai
One of my favourite things about Hosoda is his distinct style; his long-limbed character designs, his lack of sexualisation, beautiful skies and simplicity. Moving away from franchises meant that this style could be honed and perfected over the years, and there is no doubt that the quality has improved both with technology and his skills and distinctive voice. However, it is in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and it’s slight roughness, that he is able to really establish visual motifs and his language as a director.
With his beautiful animation, a recurring motif Hosoda uses as significant indicators of time - besides clocks and numbers that appear in scenes and on characters to calculate her number of ‘leaps’ - is the setting sun and divided paths for her to follow. The horizon represents just what it does, looking beyond it to the future. He uses many wide shots with the scope of the city behind Makoto to capture the girl being part of a bigger picture, of interconnecting lives whilst the sun-setting at the end of a day captures the passing of time. When the sun-sets, it’s another day over and so another day closer to her future.
Some of the most significant scenes are coloured in these warm, orange twilight scenes. Twilight is a significant visual, as used in Your Name (Shinkai, 2016) as well; it is a time where the divide between universes is at its thinnest. It should be noteworthy that many of these scenes she shares with Chiaki who is revealed to be not quite as he seems later on in the film. Furthermore, the use of these warm colours in comparison to the rest of this film which focuses on bright blues of the sky he’ll always pan up to, realistic palettes for urban scenes and lush greens captures the romance of their interactions. The fiery orange, which also matches Chiako's hair, is passionate, warm with hues of purple which can connote budding sexuality.
The divided paths, as mentioned earlier, are prominent in one stand-out scene in the film where Makoto is desperate to reverse Chiaki’s proposal. A scene I have briefly discussed, it is worth mentioning again as every time she ‘Leaps’ from the moment, returns her to same moment in which they bid farewell to Kousuke, and she and Chiaki set off in the same direction, he giving her lift on his bike (a very romantic trope). In time she learns that the path is written for her, and discovers that the only way avoid this is by taking the alternative path in front of her. But if she does not take it someone else will tread there ill-fittingly. Her denial highlights the urgency this film later has, when her neglect of this concept places her in mortal danger.
Many of Makoto and Chiaki’s scenes before this moment, sees them distant, or just passing by one another. As discussed above, Hosoda’s style is basic in comparison to his contemporaries, choosing to minimalise his character designs and environments. But something I noticed on my latest re-watch is how much the director uses this and how effective it is. We often don’t get close ups on Chiaki’s face, capturing the world-view of Makoto and her obliviousness to him; as the audience, we don’t get to see his expressions and are lead to believe at the start that he’s simply the loud-mouth friend. So the scene on the bike, his face still covered by his hair, he remains somewhat of a mystery yet has been let into his character more in that moment than we have been throughout.
By separating us from Chiaki, and having us become that intimate with him during that scene creates a mystery for his character. Hosoda’s design of the red hair and relaxed school uniform could suggest two things, however; that he has a fiery attitude or he is a more significant character. He appears on the UK cover of the DVD and is still so distant that one probably would not take much notice of him. Although he has an attitude, the latter statement is true. So upon re-watching one can pay attention to him and his significance throughout the plot, something I think Hosoda wants you to miss the first time around.
‘He told me to keep smiling through tough or painful times, even if I had to force myself to do it…’ - Hana, Wolf Children
Hosoda is possibly one of the leading figures in the anime industry besides Miyazaki, Naoko Yamada and Shinkai, that is showing a progressive depiction of women in Japanese animation. From the lack of sexualising his female characters, placing them as working women going after what they want or bull-headed teenagers, it is good to see a representation of women that accurate and should pave the way for future productions to do the same. As Hosoda said himself in an interview during the press tour for Mirai, that he wanted to capture ‘…how society is changing in how we tend to see the roles of gender. I think we tend to keep [charming] parts of our traditional views, but then we’re also changing, so that’s what I wanted to depict. I don’t think it’s just in Japan that society is changing; I think worldwide, we’re all trying to figure out what family is, what gender is, and what our place is in society’ (Grobar, 2018).
This is why Makoto is probably one of my favourite anime protagonists (despite the excessive crying-watch it and you’ll understand). I think she is probably the most relatable. I have discussed the realistic perception of a teenager, and I think what she learns to value is a struggle that even an adult faces from time to time. That of responsibility and consequence weighs heavy on the adult, and her actions come with something to regret. But through it she finds her first love and the promise of an exciting future. I think her personality can be perceived as ignorance, but what she goes on to do is quite impressive, and ‘throughout the film, the main character Makoto acts and thinks positively and without hesitation, and demonstrates great bravery. The film depicts the passion and energy of youth, and presents young people as the embodiment of purity and honesty.’ (Ryusuke, 2016). It is this I admire most about her, and why I think Hosoda paints a wonderfully flawed protagonist. She makes many mistakes along the way by not opening her eyes, and this is something incredibly relatable to me now.
During the final scenes of the film - set against the sunset backdrop with sweeping score and moving image as Chiaki whispers in her ear – what we feel is the weight of her world on her shoulders and one of the most romantic scenes in Anime. And although this is my favourite scene, incorporating romance into the fantastical elements, the following conclusion as we see all the side characters leading their lives as they should be and a more content Makoto welcoming Kousukes’ new girlfriend to their after school baseball games, is equally as satisfying and moving. She has the promise of tomorrow before her. And now she’s appreciating life, looking up at the wide blue sky as though seeing it for the first time. The little moments, the human moments between family – her mother and her cheeky sister – and her friends and their teasing strike deep. As is Hosoda’s intention, acknowledging that ‘[we]… easily ignore what the most important or cherished things are in their day-to-day lives. By incorporating science fiction and fantasy elements, audiences are more likely to discover what they don’t notice normally.’ (Hosoda, 2018) By telling these stories on an epic scale, he is able to get through to the human inside all of us, those things that connect us all.
‘Never turn your back on family, even when they hurt you. Never let life get the better of you. And if you remember nothing else, remember to find time to eat together as a family. Even when times are rough; especially when times are rough. There's no lack of painful things in this world, but hunger and loneliness must surely be two of the worst. Thanks to you, my precious family, I didn't know a moment of either of those the last ninety years.’ - Sakia, Summer Wars
So what was I saying with this essay? I was gushing of course and exploring a film close to my heart. More so, I wanted to discuss a film that is just as significant to Hosoda’s filmography as Summer Wars is. The digital world is something, since that films release, which he has not revisited as much. But family, fantasy and time-travel have all played significant roles in some capacity in his films and this began with The Girl Who Leapt through Time. It’s the film he tested the waters in and where he came to prominence in the West. This is not about whether Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is better than the other. For me reading Sight & Sounds’ list intrigued me to think that the former could represent his body of work when the latter’s swept me into its world in a way the other could not. After re-watching both, I can confirm that his first film still left my heart pounding, my soul aching - Makoto still frustrated me. I spotted more from my last watch and yet still clung to the edge of my seat, terrified of the outcomes. It sucked me in and hasn’t let go since that viewing. So this essay is saying that I love The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and it will always remain my favourite Hosoda film. Because it’s reminded me to see the world a little clearer and to take life in my stride.
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