The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Time travel! Romance! Japan! If you love the films out of Studio Ghibli you’ll love The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, too.

ARC PHRASE

An arc word/phrase is also known as a ‘leitwort’, which literally means ‘lead word’. In order to be an arc phrase and not just a catch phrase the phrase must help define the tone of the entire work, or at least the plot arc.

‘Time Waits For No One’ is a fairly cliched English phrase, but perhaps a Japanese audience finds it a little more exotic, like we find Chinese characters exotic when we tattoo ourselves with them. This idiomatic expression is written across the black board, presumably after an English language lesson, and explains the basic message of this tale: Even if you had the ability to go back in time and change things, you wouldn’t be able to do anything about the basic nature of fate.

The first fire in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
The first fire
transferred fate in home economics in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
transferred fate in food technology class

The magic in a very early Twilight Zone episode called One For The Angels (in fact this is the second episode ever) is such that even if you yourself manage to avoid death, the fate must be transferred to someone else.

Proud of having outsmarted Mr. Death and now virtually assured of immortality, Lou is informed by Mr. Death that “other arrangements” must now be made, that someone else will have to take his place. Mr. Death chooses a little girl, one of Lou’s good friends who lives in the same building. When she is hit by a truck Lou immediately offers to go with Mr. Death but is told it is too late.

— Wikipedia

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a Japanese anime from 2006 directed by Mamoru Hosada, who is also known for my daughter’s favourite Wolf Children and the long but engrossing Summer Wars. This film based on the novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, which was originally published way back in 1967. It has been adapted many times.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time Japanese Book Cover

For example, there was another (non-anime) film adaptation of this novel made several years later in 2010, but reception wasn’t as good. (Yasutaka Tsutsui also wrote the book Paprika, another well-known anime adaptation.) After the novel The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was adapted into film, it was then adapted back into book form, this time as a graphic novel.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time novel
English version was released 2011.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time has elements of a portal fantasy.

What Is Portal Fantasy?

If the story takes place in a world other than our own, it is fantasy.

If the story starts in the real world but the characters enter a new one in the story, that is called a Portal Fantasy.

Classic fantasy takes a single main character from mundane world to fantasy world and back to the mundane. So, classic fantasy is also portal fantasy.

A passageway is normally used in a story only when two subworlds are extremely different. We see this most often in the fantasy genre when the character must pass from the mundane world to the fantastic.

The room into the science lab beside the classroom is treated as a kind of portal, with the camera lingering on the door, with a shadow forming a cross over the door. Inside there is a kind of witch’s lair. The mother has already mentioned a ‘witch’ in jest when saying goodbye to Makoto in the morning. She finds something magical on the floor. The colour scheme switches to blues as we accompany her through time, with images of mustangs running across plains and something like the inside of a computer.

This is also a coming-of-age story.

What Is A Coming-of-age Story?

A coming-of-age is film genre that focuses on psychological and moral growth of a protagonist who is growing from youth to adulthood. Personal growth is the most important characteristic in this genre; it relies on emotional responses and dialogue, rather than action.

After finding the time-leaping device Makoto visits her auntie witch who works at an art gallery. Auntie exists to explain the magic/science of time travel and it often happens to girls your age. This marks the motif of the time-leaping device as a metaphor for growing up and its confusion, as well as the almost universal desire to have do-overs after you’ve reflected on a mortifying scene in your teenage life and performed less well than you would’ve liked.

I would also argue that this story is an example of magical realism.

What Is Magical Realism?

Magical realist stories are basically set in the ordinary, everyday world we all share but there is a little bit of magic, unexplained to the audience. We just know that it’s there and accept it. In the case of this story, Makoto’s mother wishes her goodbye in the morning and makes a reference to her going to see her ‘Witch Auntie’. We don’t know exactly why this woman is a witch, but we accept that witches exist in this world.

If the mother had not mentioned the witch auntie I would be more confident in calling this magical realism, because ideally there should be some doubt in the reader’s mind about whether the fantastic elements are real or not. If they mother hadn’t been ‘in on it’ the visits to the witch auntie might well have taken place entirely in Makoto’s mind.

FEMALE RELATIONSHIPS

In the West it can be difficult to find good stories about girls who are friends, without being ‘frenemies’ or without fighting over a boy, or over who looks the prettiest. The abundance of mean girl tropes is frustrating because it’s simply not how female relationships work, and it paints girls out to be nothing but bitchy. To find some excellent stories about female relationships we can instead go to Japan, where we’ll find stories such as this one, with its more nuanced female character web.

IS THIS A FEMINIST STORY?

poster-11262

The film poster itself is a shot of a high school girl who seems to be dressed from the male gaze. By Western standards, the school skirt is far too short. I’ve yet to work out though if Japanese culture sexualises legs to the extent that Western culture does. Short skirts in Japanese schools — at least those that don’t rule otherwise — are very short, and I believe it comes from the fact that legs look longer if skirts are shorter. (An optical illusion as much as an expression of sexuality.) What I am quite sure of, though, is that this female main characters in Western animations are not designed with such short skirts unless that character is the designated hot mean girl.

There are a number of diehard tropes that come out of Japan. One of them is the sharing of the umbrella as a way of striking up a relationship with a stranger you meet on the street. Which is fine. It’s the classic ‘meet cute’ scene, and is common in the West as well.

a scene from Goro Miyazaki's From Up On Poppy Hill
a scene from Goro Miyazaki’s From Up On Poppy Hill

Another is the ‘riding bitch’ trope, in which we see a boy give a girl a ride home on his bicycle, him leading the way.

riding bitch trope

This trope is popular in Studio Ghibli animations also.

A father rides with his young daughters in My Neighbour Totoro
A father rides with his young daughters in My Neighbour Totoro
the riding bitch trope in Kiki's Delivery Service
the riding bitch trope in Kiki’s Delivery Service
From Up On Poppy Hill even uses the riding bitch trope as a promotional image
From Up On Poppy Hill even uses the riding bitch trope as a promotional image

Is there anything wrong with the riding bitch scene? When it happens over and over again it tells boys they must take the lead and girls that they must submit. The real problem is that we never see the gender reversed. That’s when you know it’s a problem.

There is a danger in ‘tomboy’ stories that they border on femme phobic. The empathetic female protagonist has short hair, a unisex name, likes to play baseball and hangs out with guys. She could easily become your classic ‘guy’s gal’, the kind who would say things like, “You know, I really just prefer guys over gals because gals are waaay too much drama.” (Internalised misogyny.) This film avoids that because Makoto doesn’t only have guy friends, she is also close to a girl, and she has a slightly dramatic but loving relationship with her sister, too.

Makoto with her girl friend
Makoto with her girl friend
The two sit together in class.
The two sit together in class.
By the end of the film Makoto has learned to articulate her feelings. Actually, I like that boy she tells her best girl friend, who in another reality hooks up with him. The friend is fine with it.
By the end of the film Makoto has learned to articulate her feelings. Actually, I like that boy she tells her best girl friend, who in another reality hooks up with him. The friend is fine with it.
Don't jump, sis!
Don’t jump, sis!
Makoto with her slightly younger sister
Makoto with her slightly younger sister

Another thing I like about this story is that the girls are allowed to eat. Makoto works up a ravenous appetite by extending her days time-leaping. She raids the fridge in the way most often attributed to teenage boys.

fridge the girl who leapt through time

THIS STORY AS AN INSIGHT INTO JAPANESE CULTURE

When Makoto falls asleep in class her teacher drops a book on her head. While unacceptable in the West, I have seen this sort of interaction happen in Japanese classrooms in this general era — male teachers in particular can sometimes slap students about the head and come down heavy with the ruler right next to someone’s hand. This sort of intimidation is no longer acceptable in many countries.

The ‘purin’ that Makoto’s little sister eats is a loanword from English ‘pudding’ but refers to a specific product. The purin is as much a part of Japanese childhood food culture as the Twinkie seems to be in America. It’s basically set custard that you eat cold out of the fridge in summer.

Purin

In the fridge you can also see cans of Asahi beer, almost certainly for the father’s consumption. They eat teppanyaki one night, which the more feminine younger sister has helped the mother to prepare. Japanese housewives spend a lot of time in the kitchen, as traditional Japanese meals require a lot of preparation time. (Similar to Indian food in that regard.)

Japanese high schools don’t employ cleaners. It’s up to the students to clean their own classrooms daily, and at the end of each term there is an entire afternoon spent on ‘Big Cleaning’, in which students scrub the corridors and toilet floors. It’s therefore quite normal that Makoto would be doing the errand of delivering the stack of books to the science lab, even though in my Western high school this room was full of dangerous chemicals and equipment, and therefore off-limits to all students unless a teacher was present.

22 Steps Breakdown

Anagnorisis, need, desire

Makoto Konno is the classic loveable heroine: clumsy and nondescript (like Bella Swan) who describes herself as average in ability. This is a story of an ordinary girl in an extraordinary situation. I mention above that she is a Japanese ‘tomboy’. Her body language is masculine. In Japan it’s frowned upon for girls to cross their legs while sitting on the couch. When laughing you cover your mouth. But Makoto’s body language is wide and expressive and when she laughs she throws her head back and her mouth becomes comically huge. If you listen to the original Japanese she speaks in a much more masculine manner than the English dub would lead us to believe, even referring to herself as ‘ore’, which is slang for the first person pronoun and generally used only by boys.

Even the name Makoto is more commonly given to boys in Japan (though it’s reasonably popular among girls, too).

Symbolic names work best in comedy and children’s literature.

真琴 is the kanji used for Makoto’s name in this story. When written like this it’s generally a given name for boys. The ‘koto’ refers to the traditional Japanese stringed instrument. ‘Ma’ means ‘truth’.

(The first name of the original 1967 novel was Kazuko is now an out-of-date sounding name, because it was very popular after WW2. In that era girls were given ‘peace’ names, and Kazuko is often written as ‘Peace Child’. It’s therefore reminiscent of grandmothers (and great grandmothers).

Makoto, phonetically, means ‘truth’, which makes this an allegorical name, or an ‘aptronym’ — Makoto must learn to be truthful rather than mucking people around, using time travel to play with their emotions.

Makoto is always leaving disaster in her wake, like setting fire to a pan in cooking class. She tells us via the storyteller narration that she has no real skill in anything and doesn’t even know if she’s going into arts or sciences in senior high school. This is a very important decision in her Japanese life in her third year of middle school because she’s about to enter the ‘study hard’ years. She jokes with her friends that she’ll be a media tycoon or maybe an oil baron.  ‘You need to take life more seriously,’ she is told.

This is a specifically Japanese psychological need for a main character –- in Hollywood you’re more likely to find a main character who needs to lighten up a bit, especially when it comes to teenage girls, who often have their glasses removed as part of their character arc.

Ghost (backstory)

The ghost is something that happened to a character in the past that explains their motivations and reactions. The ghost will be revealed at some point in the story, often quite late.

Since Makoto is depicted as the ‘every girl’ (with a tomboyish nature to make her more endearing) there is nothing really unique about her. A Japanese audience (especially girls, perhaps) will be able to imagine themselves in her position, in this generic Japanese suburb. Therefore, Makoto doesn’t have her own ghost.

The ghost instead belongs to the mysterious Chiaki, who has a secret — where did he come from? Chiaki even gets a ghostlike sequence when he disappears in the ‘statue’ scene, where he and Makoto walk through the frozen crowd. First his body disappears, then Makoto can hear his voice, then he fades away to nothing as if slipping into death.

Setting

the-girl-who-leapt-through-time-movie-poster-2006-1020481806

Place

This story is set in a middle-class Japanese suburb and high school — Shitamachi in Tokyo, which is closely connected to the area of Yamanote. (Shitamachi means Under City.)

This is more like the residences you’ll find in Shitamachi these days. (Google street view.)

Any standalone house in Tokyo is very expensive. This is an affluent family and although Makoto needs to watch her purin to make sure her little sister doesn’t nab it first, things like money and starvation are never an issue. This is a Wind in the Willows type of utopia, where the necessities of life just are. All that’s left is to worry about the social aspect. Even the news announcer is talking about a day which has been designated as a celebration of nice. Makoto runs to school saying ‘Good morning!’ to everyone.

Japanese high school students spend long hours in school and more than in Hollywood high school dramas, this high school feels homelike, with the characters trusted to relax inside the classroom, gazing through windows as if from their own living rooms.

The house where the main character lives is ‘cottage-like’ insofar as a Japanese suburban house can be described as such – there are vines growing attractively across the front.

This is the first we see of Makoto's house — peeking from behind a pole.
This is the first we see of Makoto’s house — peeking from behind a pole.
Even at night the house looks cosy and inviting.
Even at night the house looks cosy and inviting.
Makoto's house, worthy of a desktop image
Makoto’s house, worthy of a desktop image

This suburb is almost a kind of utopia — people are basically kind to each other and there is no real feeling of physical danger.

In Japan, men seem to be standing around doing nothing more than keeping an eye on things.
In Japan, men seem to be standing around doing nothing more than keeping an eye on things.

Among this suburban utopia though, commuter trains running through suburbia present a vague threatening presence; there is just an inadequate safety bar between pedestrians and instant death. Trains are the opponent in nature, the forest equivalent would be a hungry wolf, leaping from behind bushes.

In the vicinity of the train line in the shopping district is a town clock featuring creepy elves. Childhood images equal horror symbols in Japan as in the West, with our clowns, night-time playgrounds and ice-cream van music.

The river running through the suburb is where Makoto goes to practise her time-leaping, and is also a universal metaphor for the inevitable passage of time — the message in this story is that, try as you might, you’ll never really alter the inevitability of getting older, and you can never truly go back. This is demonstrated when Makoto tries to replay things, but finds they are never exactly the same second time around.

The crossroads where Makoto meets with her two friends (time and again) have a sign which says ‘koko kara’, meaning ‘from here’. I haven’t seen this road sign in Japan so I don’t know if it’s a real thing, or a motif designed specifically for this movie. The sign seems to be asking the question: Which road will you choose from here?

crossroads

Time

The story is set in the modern era – the flip phones give us a guide as to exactly when. (That said, flip phones seem to be making a bit of a comeback.) Housewives put dinner on the table. Fathers go to work. Children are given full autonomy to conduct their own school lives during the day. This is no doubt partly due to the fact this is based on a 1967 novel, in which mothers almost always stayed at home and suburbs were almost always safe.

It is July – the height of summer, and they are in the middle of a heat wave. We hear lots of cicadas, which for mainland Japanese mean heat. Our story starts on July 13. Time is important to the plot so we’re told the exact dates and times of events. Clocks are everywhere, in every form — on phones, announced on the TV, digital and analogue clocks.  The main characters are planning what they’ll do during their upcoming summer vacation – they discuss attending the fireworks festival together wearing yukata (summer kimono) or going to the beach.

Shortcoming & Need (Problem)

Makoto’s childhood is about to be left behind because she is preparing to enter senior high school, which in Japan is a really tough undertaking. Once Japanese students get into good universities they are permitted to slack off a bit, but those three years of senior high school definitely mark the end of childhood. (In the West I argue that the age of 12 marks the end of true childhood, at least in children’s stories.) This is symbolised by Makoto being required to choose either the arts or sciences track but having no idea. This is a big problem for her.

That said, high school — at least, the high school in this story — is a kind of utopia. High schools as depicted by Hollywood are so often cold, hard places, and always have the symbolic locker scene, and the running of the gauntlet down the hallway, planning routes to avoid bullies. Bleachers are scary places where bad things can happen. Locker rooms even more so. But this Japanese high school, which looks exactly like a fantasy-enhanced version of the Japanese high school I attended on exchange in the mid nineties, is utopian in nature.

japanese high school utopia

Utopias in Young Adult Literature

It’s significant that this film is based on a YA novel from the 1960s because we have since entered an age (and I include Japan in this) of the ‘snail under the leaf setting’, in which everything seems hunky dory, but scratch the surface and you’ll see the horror and the rot.

In Sweden, a critic has coined the notion of idyllophobia, a fear of presenting the world of childhood as idyllic. Children’s and juvenile literature becomes more and more violent, not necessarily in actual depictions of violence, but in the general attitude toward the essence of childhood. The narrative strategies which writers use, most often the autodiegetic unreliable young narrator, amplify the tone of the novels as uncertain, insecure and chaotic. In many novels, notably Cormier’s I Am The Cheese, we see a total disintegration of character, narrative and structure. YA novel as a narrative which goes beyond the point of no return to idyll also transgresses all conventions which are normally ascribed to children’s fiction.

— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

So Makoto needs to make some big decisions in her life about her future but she is no good academically and has no idea what she wants to do. Most kids her age would at least know whether they are of a science or literature bent, but Makoto needs more time to grow up before facing these decisions. One way around that, of course, is to play around with time. Her days are about to become much longer and jam-packed, because she’ll be reliving the same day over and over until she gets it right, in a Japanese version of Groundhog Day.

Many high school aged protagonists are outsiders. I don’t get the feeling that Makoto is an outsider at the beginning of the story. Rather, her magical experiences turn her into a kind of outsider as the events progress.

Here Makoto is framed with her 'head in the clouds'. She is apart from the crowd, cast in shadow.
Here Makoto is framed with her ‘head in the clouds’. She is apart from the crowd, cast in shadow.

Inciting Incident

At the beginning of a coming-of-age story, childhood has already been left behind, and the hero has concluded that the world is not a safe or blissful place. An event that occurred prior to the beginning of the story, or the hero’s overall situation, has made the hero feel lost or stuck in a world over which she has little or no control. 

After the hero’s introduction in the setup of the story, she is presented with an Opportunity that will either make life even worse, or will hold the promise of some escape from his pain. In response, these heroes’ outer motivations are declared, and their pursuit of those goals begins.

The Opportunity Makoto gets is the magical ability to leap through time and have do-overs. This is made possible by the discovery of the time-leaping device, and with practice she learns how to make use of it.

In the original novel, the protagonist is cleaning the science lab and is overcome with the overwhelming scent of lavender. She wakes up three days later, therefore spending significant time in the portal. In the film, too, the screenwriters make sure to linger on the science lab. First we have the door. (The portal is literally a door in this story.) The shadow moves to form a cross on the door knob, as if daring Makoto to enter. The lab is chock full of equipment which gleams in the shaft of light coming through a window — this is a beautiful depiction of a science lab and invites the eye to linger. It’s more like a witch’s lair than a school equipment room.

the portal science lab
This bulbous test tube almost looks like a crystal ball.
This bulbous test tube almost looks like a crystal ball.

Desire

At the beginning of the story Makoto only desires to be left alone in her childlike state, playing baseball with her friends after school, planning fun things to do over the summer holidays, singing karaoke.

playing baseball girl

There is no oft-mentioned ‘Call to Adventure’. I don’t think many modern stories operate on that basis. It’s only ever young men pumped up on testosterone who have had the desire to go out and save the world of their own volitio n, and those stories now seem old-fashioned.

Ally/Allies

main characters
Three Amigos

Chiaki has reddish hair to mark him out as distinct from Kousuke, in a classic red-devil, blue-devil trope. The coloured hair also makes Chiaki seem more alluring and mysterious. Kousuke, in his sexy glasses, is the brains while Chiaki is more brawn, but is later revealed to have a sensitive, artistic side when it is revealed he came back in time to see a painting.

Auntie Witch – This character understands what time leaps are, and in the narrative she functions as the character who explains to the viewers how the science works in this story.  In fact, to a modern audience, this form of exposition feels like a bit of a hack once you’ve given it a bit of thought. But it’s far from unusual in film.Michael Caine functions this way in Interstellar and various other films by that filmmaker.

Michael Caine Interstellar

In the film it is not explained how Makoto even knows the Auntie Witch. This is where it helps to have some background on this classic Japanese story — the Auntie Witch is meant to be the protagonist of the original 1967 novel (though she does look a little young… She should be the age of a grandmother by 2006.)

Opponent

If this were a Hollywood production I’ve no doubt the group of airhead junior girls — the volunteer club — would have been depicted as clearcut love rivals in the mean girls tradition. The Japanese dynamics are a lot more nuanced and, in my opinion, more realistic. The girls in this story are not outright rivals — they are interested in the same boys (for varying reasons) but they cheer each other on and take their share of ‘love hits’. Theirs is a spirit of sharing and caring for each other. In this story, Makoto finally declares her interest in Chiaki and her love rival backs off before her crush even begins. All of this is far more interesting than your usual mean girls crap.

But the writers of the Pixar film Inside Out, a hugely successful story, say that the most relatable villain is yourself, or nature:

I came on Inside Out, Pete [Docter] was not leaning towards any villains. I think at one point there was the idea floated that those Forgetters are villainous in trying to grab the core memories so Riley would forget them. But it just never really caught Pete’s imagination and it really wasn’t what he wanted to focus on. And as a storyteller, I love that more complex idea. And so Pete Sohn [the director of The Good Dinosaur] decided very early that you’ll have characters that Arlo will come into conflict with and challenge him for sure. The villain is, if there is one, you want it to be nature. The movement of nature and the idea that nature is something to be respected—that was the antagonist of this movie.

— Interview with Pixar writer

Who is the villain in a Japanese high school story, in which the bullies versus the good kids tends to be less stark? Could it be that the villain in this story is time itself, or the nature of the magic inside the time-leaping device?

Mystery

In this film the romantic mystery is presented quite late. Until we overhear some speculation between students we have no idea that Chiaki is new to the school and that no one has any idea where he came from.

The magical part of the mystery is: What is this little device Makoto found in the science lab, how does it work and what can it do? We watch her figure it out.

Changed desire and motive

When the story began Makoto just wanted to remain childlike, but after almost being (almost?) killed by the train Makoto realises something weird is happening. She wants to find out what.

First revelation and decision

Her aunt who works at the art gallery clears everything up for her. Makoto can put this tool to good use and help her to arrange her life in such a way that she is ready to move on.

Plan

Makoto will use this time-leaping skill firstly for inconsequential things, like getting more time in the karaoke booth and avoiding embarrassing situations socially at school, and redoing maths quizzes. The Witch Auntie is glad that she’s only using her ability for inconsequential things, but asks Makoto — and therefore also asks the viewer — if the outcome of changing time is really as inconsequential as it seems.

Gazing out onto the river she realizes she can do anything with this trick. The setting of the river is a metaphorical juxtaposition — in fact, you can’t stop the flow of time. At least, you can’t stop things happening to people, even if the victim is not you.

If you keep track of the timeline, or even just the set pieces, you will realize that Makoto discovered her powers, got asked out by Chiaki, and had her heartfelt goodbye at the exact same spot at the river, at the exact same sunset. In fact, the entire movie never progressed beyond that last sunset until that last goodbye, which is when everyone finally moves on and the Airplane of Love beautifully tops off the ingenious Three Parts of the Story created by Makoto’s choices at this single junction in time.

TV Tropes

symbolic river

Opponent’s plan and main counterattack

The opponent is the magic itself, which does not always do what Makoto hopes it will.

When Makoto saves herself in cooking class, another boy gets into trouble instead, and this leads to a whole lot of bullying. Makoto can deflect disaster from herself, but it seems someone still needs to be sacrificed, according to the laws of this magic.

Drive

Makoto is determined to make the time-leaping work. Sometimes it means trying time-leaps again and again to get a situation right, and sometimes it means leaping back much further than she has energy for. This is basically a version of the very Japanese trait of trying again and again until you get it perfect (a la The Karate Kid).

Attack by ally

auntie witch knowing look

Auntie Witch continuously asks Makoto questions which lead to Makoto’s character arc. She’s talking to Auntie Witch, and tells her everything in her life has been fixed. Auntie, in her greater wisdom, asks if someone else may be suffering due to her good fortune.

After these trifling time leaps turn into something more serious — Chiaki’s declaration of love —  Makoto talks to her witch auntie about her love life. The auntie advises her to be honest with Chiaki rather than ignore that he ever told her how he feels about her.

visiting auntie witch

Later in the film auntie witch advises Makoto to go out with Kousuke, since he’s always the one helping her out. Auntie Witch points out that Makoto has ‘been playing all sorts of mind games with people.’

Auntie says, “I wonder who was able to create such a beautiful painting when it must have seemed like the world was coming to an end.”

I can’t be bothered putting them all in order, but each time Makoto has a revelation, it happens in Auntie Witch’s office, or as a direct result of her sage advice.

Apparent defeat

The crossroads/riding bitch scenes replayed over and over teach Makoto that she can’t change Chiaki’s feelings for her. She leaps back through time in order to give herself time to think of a good response and get out of the awkward romantic situation. To her disappointment it’s not as straightforward as she’d thought because the conversation is slightly different each run through. In the end, she leaps back to the crossroads and refuses to be dubbed home at all.

Things are going wrong now – Chiaki is blamed for the fire in food technology class and Makoto knows Chiaki likes her now, though Chiaki has no recollection of having told her he likes her (because he hasn’t). He wonders what’s up with her avoiding his gaze.

Now she avoids him entirely. (Montage sequence)

Chiaki looks for Makoto in vain and concludes he’s pissed her off.

Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive

Makoto decides to use her time leaping for good.

Second revelation and decision

Magical revelation: She works out her time leaps are limited in number. That’s what the number on her flesh means.

Plans Never Go To Plan

The important thing about plans made by main characters in stories: The plan never works out the way they expected.

Audience revelation

Chiaki reveals that he came from the future.

There is a series of montage stills with muted colours and lots of muted red, including a red balloon in the sky.

He explains that he had a device that let him time leap but he lost it. He eventually found it in the science lab but it was all used up.

He came back because there was a painting he desperately wanted to see “White Plum Two Camellias’. In his time the painting has already been destroyed. This is the only place he can find it.

Now he’s unable to go back to his future time. He used up all his time leaps stealing the bike Kousuke was supposed to ride.

Kousuke and the girl did die once at the train crossing. He had to come back because Makoto was sobbing and blaming herself for it.

Chiaki has decided to stay here because being with Kousuke and Makoto has been so much fun. He rode a bike for the first time, discovered how enormous the sky was, and has never seen a place with so many people.

Makoto asks about the painting and its connection to the future. As they walk through the statue crowd, Chiaki explains that the painting is getting restored and he’ll be able to see it soon. She wants to take him to see it, with Kousuke.

But he’s not meant to tell anyone in the past about time leaps.

Third revelation and decision

Magical revelation: Makoto ponders this one at home then realizes one of her leaps has come back (from the number on her arm.)

She’s now convinced if she goes back far enough, Chiaki can get a leap back too. (I don’t quite understand this logic.)

We see a montage of times the three of them have spent together, with a staticky filter in muted colours. There’s a Japanese love song playing.

She’s back in the science lab with the notebooks and refinds the time leaping device. This time she doesn’t use up the device. This time she tells Yuri she really likes Chiaki a lot. Yuri is disappointed but says she thought so. She advises Chiaki to go see Chiaki and tells her, ‘Time waits for no one.’ This time she invites the volunteer club to play ball with them, so Kousuke can organically get to know the girl.

Plan to stop anyone from getting killed on her bike: She says he can’t borrow her bike unless he pays her five thousand yen. There is a scene where we see her running flat out. A lot of films show this scene when the main character has had a revelation. It’s meant to show that they’re resolving to do something, forming a plan, and that this plan is going to take a lot of effort to achieve.

Romantic revelation: She realises she likes Chiaki as more than a friend and if she doesn’t tell him, she’ll lose him.

“Why couldn’t I take what he said more seriously? He wanted to have a difficult conversation and I couldn’t handle it.” She goes to the roof and cries (a classic Moses scene) because big revelations in films often take place somewhere high.

Gate, gauntlet, visit to death

Makoto’s time leaps need to get really dangerous as she jumps from higher places in order to leap further back in time to change ever having used up the leaps in Chiaki’s device.

But the real visit to death is the near death experience of Kousuke and Yuri as Kousuke takes Yuri on his bike to get an X-ray after one of the horsing-around kids lands on her (instead of on Makoto, as happened earlier.)

Her number has changed to zero. She realizes she’s used up all her leaps. But just then he zooms past. She drops the phone. “I need to borrow your bike a bit longer!”

Now the situation is dire – she can’t catch the two of them. She falls over trying, and is covered in scratches and bruises. Kousuke and his new gf are thrown into the path of the train.

We see the image from the very beginning of the film, with the red numbers on black. (Symbolic colours — red = blood, black = death.)

Makoto yells ‘stop!’ and everything does freeze. The only two people who haven’t frozen are Makoto and Chiaki, who has her bike with its broken brake. It turns out Chiaki can time leap too.

Battle

I’ve noticed that although films always have a big struggle scene, the big struggle is often a transferred one. I mean, the big struggle Makoto faces is an inner psychological big struggle. But the literal fight the audience sees played out on the screen in front of us is actually the fight between the boy who ended up setting fire to his pan in food technology after Makoto changed her own fate, and the boys who have decided to taunt him because of it, taunting him with the fire hose. Finally this boy retaliates — goes off the edge — and in the first round of reality the bullied boy, Takase, who has a bowl of noodles on his head, throws the fire extinguisher at Makoto. Chiaki steps in front of her to save her. Makoto leaps back through time so the situation plays out differently, and Takase ends up throwing the extinguisher at Yuri, injuring her shoulder instead.

Anagnorisis

Makoto feels very bad that by changing fate she has lead to the injury of her best friend. Not only that, Chiaki is now going out with her best friend instead of her. She realises that this would never have happened had she accepted Chiaki’s declaration of love in the first place.

(Makoto promises Yuri if the incident leaves a scar she’ll fix things, but doesn’t explain how. Perhaps this is where Chiaki realises Makoto knows all about time leaping.)

Moral decision

Kousuke and Chiaki are playing baseball together. Makoto has told Kousuke Chiaki has gone to study abroad. We know this isn’t true because it was Makoto’s plan for herself.

Makoto has made a decision about her future. “It’s a secret.” She looks up at the towering cloud. I hope she’s not pinning her hopes and dreams on a future with a boy. (It’s possible that in the 1967 novel, that’s exactly the track the female protagonist will take, and in the setting of respected housewives, it’s not such a bad one, either.) But we never get told whether our young, modern Makoto chosen the arts or science track, or is just going to hang about waiting until she can reunite with the boy.

Makoto changes time until she can meet Chiaki in the baseball field. She hands Chiaki the device he dropped. She gives Chiaki back the device and when it explodes in the palm of his hand he gets an extra leap appear on his arm.

Makoto tells Chiaki she’ll work out a way to preserve the special painting he loves – “It’s not going to get lost or burned.”

Chiaki says goodbye. He tells her not to get herself hurt by jumping out in front of things. “The old look before leap thing definitely works.”

Chiaki disappears and by coincidence a couple who look very much like them on a bike sails past. She cries alone with the sunset in the background but then Chiaki rejoins her and gives her a hug. “I’ll be waiting for you.”

“Okay, I won’t be long. I’ll come running.”

A jet leaves a contrail across the sky in a long shot then fades to black, with red numbers.

i'll be waiting in the future

New situation

Makoto is now playing baseball with the volunteer club juniors, and the audience surmises that she will be friends with them rather than almost-rivals. The audience knows that Kousuke will end up going out with Kaho (pronounced incorrectly as ‘Ka-who’ in the English dub), the girl with the crush on him, so he is sorted romantically for now.

The_Girl_Who_Leapt_Through_Time_poster
original Japanese film poster

TIME TRAVEL IN FICTION

Time Travel When Do We Want It

1. Speed of light discovery: would you go back in time? and Time Travel In Fiction, from Guardian Science.

2. What Is Time? from Michio Kaku (a video)

3. Watch design built for ‘predictably late’ Indian time, in acknowledgement of the fact that different cultures have different attitudes towards time-keeping.

4. Why the past is different from the future, from Brain Pickings

5. What Is Time? One Physicist Hunts for the Ultimate Theory from Wired

6. 10 Myths About Space Travel That Make Science Fiction Better from io9

7. Why Time Travel Stories Are Meant To Be Messy from io9

8. The 10 Least Competent Time Travellers from io9

9. Is Time Travel Possible? (a video from Unplug The TV)

10. The Awful Time Travel Trope That Both Looper and Doctor Who Embraced from io9

11. 12 Greatest Time Travel Effects from Movies and Television from io9

12. Rachel McAdams has been in 3 time-travel films, but never time-traveled from io9

13. Time Travel Via Wormhole Breaks the Rules of Quantum Mechanics from Discover

14. A list of books about Time Travel from Reading Matters

The Influence of Edith Nesbit

Even if you’ve never read any of Edith Nesbit’s actual books, you’ve read books in the Nesbit tradition — basically all modern children’s literature. That’s how influential she was.

Edith Nesbit (married name Edith Bland; 15 August 1858 – 4 May 1924) was an English author and poet; she published her books for children under the name of E. Nesbit.

Wikipedia

The Railway Children cover E. Nesbit

E. Nesbit belonged firmly to the writers of the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, marked by its stories about children who acted rather than thought. These were resourceful and resilient children, and they were proud of their class. They were patriotic. Children are wiser than adults in many respects. Nesbit was one of the first to create this dynamic (e.g. Story of the Amulet), which would not have been possible without the ‘romantic reevaluation of childhood‘.

BASIC BIOGRAPHY

Edith grew up with a mother who had been widowed in a part of Surrey which is now Greater London. Accordingly, Edith thinks that bringing children up in London is awful. She much prefers the freedom of the country for children.

At the age of 21 she had a shotgun wedding but her new husband’s business partner made off with all their money. This is why she took up writing and painting greeting cards. Her husband became a writer too, but Edith was the main breadwinner.

She was a bit of a Bohemian Dorothy Parker type. She smoked long before it was acceptable for women to do so. (This gave her bronchial problems and was eventually the death of her.) She bobbed her hair when women were meant to wear it long.

The economic realities of the time: families were often in trouble, as was hers. Nesbit wrote numerous times about families who were struggling with money. The father is ill or redundant or defrauded by a business partner or even in prison. The mother might be ill, or caring for a sick relative. The children often have to go and stay with unsympathetic strangers in horrible lodgings. Even when Edith keeps her fictional families together, it’s usually in slightly impoverished surroundings.

Socialism

An important thing to know about E. Nesbit is that she co-founded the Fabian Society, which is now affiliated with The British Labour Party. So, E. Nesbit was very socialist. This of course comes across in her work. Her books recommend socialist solutions to problems. In the typical Victorian fairy tale class lines are sharply drawn. Aristocratic children are thought to be morally and intellectually and generally superior to everyone else. Most of Nesbit’s characters are middle class but every now and then she wrote a character like Mabel (The Enchanted Castle) from a lower economic rung. Dickie from Harding’s Luck is basically uneducated but is shown to be very smart, imaginative and courageous.  The aristocratic child is mean, cowardly and pretty stupid. This is a common trope today — smart underdogs versus stupid rich kids, but Edith Nesbit started it.

Another common trope of the Victorian era: A rich child befriends a poor one and improves them. In The Mixed Mine Edith inverted it — the poor child improves the life of the rich one.

Serialisation

Many of her books suffer from having been written in serial stories. With Five Children And It, for example, the book is divided into the granting of wishes. Each chapter had to have a self-contained plot and climax, which is not ideal.

Only Children

Nesbit didn’t really ‘get’ only children. She herself had a sister, a half sister and 3 brothers. The closest she got to an only child in fiction was Mabel of The Enchanted Castle.

enchanted-castle nesbit

Nesbit and her husband had an open marriage, though it was mostly the husband who slept with other people. Edith ended up taking in two of his illegitimate children and raising them alongside her own three. (Busy as she must have been, she formed a few romantic attachments of her own, the most famous with George Bernard Shaw. But that was just close friendship.)

MAGIC

Magic is used both as a comic device as well as a serious metaphor for the power of the imagination.

She loved to write about saurian monsters (monsters that look like big lizards). She usually called them megatheriums.

NESBIT’S INFLUENCE ON NARRATION

Nesbit’s voice seems unremarkable to contemporary readers because we see it everywhere. But at the time it was highly unusual. Nesbit spoke to children as if she were one of them, when everyone else was form, leisurely and didactic. Nesbit’s voice is inform, direct and that of a sensible child coolly commenting on the world. She adopts the child’s point of view whole-heartedly.

E. Nesbit introduced the technique of Paralepsis as Secondary Narrative into children’s literature.

NESBIT GOT ADULTS OUT OF THE WAY

Nesbit wrote some magical stories and some realistic ones. In her non-magical stories — The Bastable series — she removes one parent (prison/death/faraway country) and interposes a surrogate (housekeeper/Great Southern Railway Company) between the children and the remaining parent. This surrogate can now be upset without emotional repercussions. The Bastable series has influenced all those books that have come since, in which children have autonomous adventures: e.g. Swallows and Amazons, and the Melendy series: The Saturdays, The Four-Story Mistake, Then There Were Five, and Spiderweb for Two. by Elizabeth Enright.

Melendy series Elizabeth Enright

NESBIT’S INFLUENCE ON MODERN POPULAR AUTHORS

Nesbit has been hugely influential on authors from the Second Golden Age of children’s literature:

E Nesbit has perhaps been strongest of all. Her stories, whether magical or not, are firmly rooted in the real world and have been hugely influential on books of the Second Golden Age which people of my own generation loved – Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, Diana Wynne-Jones’s Chrestomanci books, Lucy M Boston’s Green Knowe quartet, Peter Dickinson’s Changes trilogy, John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk, Joan Aiken’s Wolves of WIllighby Chase sequence and Eva Ibbotson’s hilarious witches and ghosts. Her dauntless brothers and sisters were echoed by Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, Noel Streatfeild and, more recently, a constellation of contemporary authors like Hilary McKay, Anne Fine, Fiona Dunbar, Cathy Cassidy, Anthony McGowan, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and Francesca Simon. Above all, she is acknowledged as the single greatest influence on Rowling, presumably because her conception of how the logical consequences of mixing the magical with the mundane is so comical. All have drawn from her faultless ear for family drama, her abundant sense of humour and her social conscience.

Amanda Craig

The works of Edith Nesbit aren’t perfect as works of art. The work Nesbit produced between the age of 20 and 40 is conventional and sentimental (by modern tastes). This all changed with The Story of the Treasure Seekers, about six London children who try to restore the family fortunes. In her character Oswald Bastable, it seems Edith was finally able to unleash the childhood version of herself.

Nesbit had an influence on another well-known children’s writer, C.S. Lewis:

The author’s voice in the Narnia’s books kindly explained things to the child reading…It was a gorgeously certain voice, which in itself lent a wonderful solidity to Narnia’s stars and sausages, so that they blazed in their spheres and swelled in their skins, but it never spoke from a position of adult detachment…He used the trick of uncondescending explanation, borrowed from E. Nesbit, only to involve you in perceptions you couldn’t have had on your own. Which made it doubly frustrating when the book was over, and you couldn’t invent any more of what you had taken part in.

— Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

J.K. Rowling counts the books of E. Nesbit of some of her own childhood favourites:

I love E Nesbit—I think she is great and I identify with the way that she writes. Her children are very real children and she was quite a groundbreaker in her day.

Echoed here by Amanda Craig:

E Nesbit has perhaps given us the strongest DNA of all. Her stories, whether magical or not, are firmly rooted in the real world and have been hugely influential on books of the Second Golden Age – Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci books, Lucy M Boston’s Green Knowe series, Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence and Eva Ibbotson’s hilarious witches and ghosts. Her quarrelsome, highly believable brothers and sisters were echoed by Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, Noel Streatfeild, Roald Dahl and, more recently, a constellation of contemporary authors like Hilary McKay, Anne Fine, Cathy Cassidy, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and Francesca Simon. Above all, she is acknowledged as the single greatest influence on JK Rowling, presumably because her conception of mixing the magical with the mundane is sharply satirical. The most recent winner of the Costa Prize for Children’s fiction, Kate Saunders, updated one of Nesbit’s most famous books with Five Children on the Western Front – having cleverly worked out that, in just a few years, her famous Edwardian family would have been embroiled in the First World War.

And so does Philip Pullman:

The books I read as a child shaped my deepest beliefs. When I was at university, my friends and I were thrilled to discover that our childhood favourites seemed even more powerful than we remembered. This was true of classic authors such as George MacDonald, Rudyard Kipling, E Nesbit and Tove Jansson; or 1960s writers like Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Peter Dickinson and Ursula Le Guin.

NESBIT’S REVOLUTIONARY TREATMENT OF ANIMALS

Margaret Blount in Animal Land writes that a little known (now) but influential story about mice was hugely influential (and probably forms the template of Peter Rabbit). See my post  Rodents In Children’s Literature for more about that.

However, it wasn’t until Nesbit came along that readers saw ‘real human souls in human bodies. Until that point, stories about animals had been about humans whose appearance has been changed by magic. Prevailing religious views would not have made such stories possible until Nesbit’s generation of writers came along.

Edith Nesbit’s The Cathood of Maurice was groundbreaking in this regard. It is the first short story in a collection of twelve, published in the anthology called The Magic World.

The Magic World

Another two stories of this tradition were The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White and Jennie by Paul Gallico.

NESBIT AND TIME TRAVEL

In The Story Of The Amulet, Nesbit basically invented a new subgenre of the time travel story. That way of thinking about time travel can be seen in stories from Sherman and Peabody to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. For more on that, listen to the Long Now: Seminars About Long-term thinking delivered 5 June 2017 by James Gleick.

Published in 1906, the very concept of time travel was very new at that time. In The Time Machine, H.G. Wells has to go to great lengths to explain the fourth dimension to the friends who have gathered in his drawing room. The modern reader may wonder why. That’s because the term ‘time travel’ was not familiar to anyone, and people learned in school that there were three dimensions. Einstein came along quite soon after and proved that time really is the fourth dimension. (In case you’re wondering, H.G. Wells didn’t have any special insight into astrophysics — the fact that he’d written fiction about what later turned out to be dead accurate is more of a commentary on ‘ideas that were in the air’ around the turn of the century.)

In any case, Nesbit had her finger on the pulse. Without the Internet, how did Edith Nesbit have access to these ideas? There can only be one answer: She was immersed in an interesting subculture of people and was having in depth conversations. Nesbit was a member of this intriguing organisation. She was no doubt also well-read. She had a special interest in ancient civilisations in general and in ancient Egypt in particular.

C.S. Lewis seemed to borrow the time travel ideas of Nesbit and used them in  The Horse and His Boy (1954) and The Magician’s Nephew (1955). C.S. Lewis knew Nesbit’s work well and happily borrowed from her tone, her devices, and her effects.

As I read E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, a tale of children’s magical adventures, a feeling of familiarity came over me. This 1906 book seemed to anticipate C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, published almost exactly half a century later (1955) but, unlike the rest of the Narnia series, set back in the era when Nesbit herself was writing. It’s well known that Nesbit influenced Lewis’s Narnia series – he acknowledged it himself. His template – a group of sibling children having magical adventures – was inspired by Nesbit’s books, and scholars have identified various specific instances in the Narnia books that Lewis adapted from different Nesbit stories.

The Toronto Review Of Books

If you’re a socialist rather than a Christian and you enjoy the Narnia stories you might consider going back to read Nesbit.

NESBIT AND GENDER

E. Nesbit, Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome wrote for both boys and girls in an era when books were gender bifurcated — domestic stories for girls; adventure stories for boys. They did this by including both boys and girls going off on adventures. There were no adventure stories for girls starring only girls. In Blyton and Ransome’s books, the males are generally more active, making the plans and decisions.

Nesbit was an early feminist (though didn’t necessarily use that term). At the time her girls were highly subversive. They are brave and adventurous, just like their brothers. They never sit round waiting for someone to rescue them.

“Father, darling, couldn’t we tie up one of the silly little princes for the dragon…? I fence much better than any of the princes we know.”

— a girl’s dialogue from The Last Of The Dragons, more reminiscent of Pixar’s Brave than of anything else from that era.

As a child Nesbit would have been described as a ‘tomboy’. She declared that she never loved a doll in her life, she loved playing pirates with her big brothers during the holidays and was generally rebellious, both at school and at home.

Five Children and It

Nesbit’s Phoenix is referred to as “It”, and is not described in terms of gender. The female children, Anthea and Jane, enjoy a range of activities, and do not appear to be limited by societal restrictions related to gender. Prior to these stories girls were treated to a whole lot of domestic dramas, whose main purpose was to persuade girls that being at home was fulfilling and the place to be.