Unlike Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, whose work I knew at least a moderate amount before I dove into a film-by-film examination, I knew next to nothing about Mamoru Hosoda before this new series—save name recognition and having heard of some of the films. Last week, I did a primer where I discussed Hosoda’s TV work and first couple films. That was fun, and it gave me a good look at his visual style, but it took his first non-TV-spinoff feature to really open my eyes to his brand of talent and artistry, the kind of distinctive filmic stamp those other two creators had in spades. 2006’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a wonder.
The film is a loose sequel to a 1967 novel of the same name written by Yasutaka Tsutsui. Though I was previously unaware of the text itself, the main character in that book shows up as the sage-like aunt of the film’s protagonist. But it’s essentially a movie about teenage love and learning from your mistakes that just happens to have time travel in it. It’s like Groundhog Day if Phil Connors could control the day to which he went back. Let’s get this out of the way — I loved it.
The movie centers on Makoto Konno, a young girl who loves playing baseball with her two cute dude friends Chiaki and Kōsuke. Makoto lives with her parents and little sister, does okay in school, but doesn’t really have much in the way of future aspirations. Until one fateful day, everything goes wrong. She oversleeps and is late to school, completely fails her math test, trips over things and is embarrassed in her cooking class, and is generally just having a crappy time of it. Later, while riding her bike down a very steep hill, she discovers that her bike’s brakes are gone and she has no way to stop herself from careening into an oncoming commuter train. As she is flying through the air—about to be hit by the train—she suddenly finds herself flying through a strange nether-realm of swirling bands over a white nothingness, and suddenly she’s further back up the street, running into an angry woman walking with her son. Makoto notices the 4:00pm chimes about to ring, even though they just had prior to her accident.
Her aunt, Kazuko, is an art restorer and knows exactly what this phenomenon is—Makoto can literally “leap” through time (something Kazuko used to be able to do). Makoto then decides to test it out, which is done by her running as fast as she can and jumping (the higher off a thing the better), ending up in a different space, in a different time. At first, she uses this to replay the day, getting to school early, acing her math test, and avoiding all the pratfalls that plagued her the rest of the day. She even makes Chiaki and Kōsuke go sing karaoke, and when their time is up, she just leaps and does it all over again. She uses it to go back a few days to have a dinner she liked. It all seems pretty great, doesn’t it?
The trouble, of course, comes when she starts seeing the consequences of her actions. The boy who got embarrassed in cooking class instead of her is now the butt of everyone’s jokes and constant bullying and he begins to take out his frustrations on others. And when she she tries to save her friends from a fire extinguisher the boy threw, it hits another, totally innocent girl. Beyond these physical harms, she keeps trying to set Kōsuke up with a younger girl who’s in love with him, but it keeps not working out and causing awkwardness, forcing her to jump again.
Her real issues begin, however, when—after Kōsuke and the other girl talk—Chiaki confesses that he’d like to ask Makoto out. She’s not prepared for that and leaps back to try to find different ways so he won’t ask her. She also begins to notice her arm, which has a digital number on it, apparently counting down (one would assume) the number of time jumps she has left. As the numbers tick away, what could be the most important thing for which to use a leap, and what could be worth giving up time travel?
Makoto also gets advice from her aunt Kazuko who, for whatever reason, is never wondering what’s happening. It’s not as though Makoto has to keep telling her that she can leap through time, which allows those scenes to be removed (slightly) from the narrative and act more as a reflection of Makoto’s inner distress. You need characters like that in a movie like this.
This is a very funny movie on top of being intensely dramatic. The consequences of leaping through time are at once comedic and gravely serious. What I love the most is that we, like Makoto, begin to lose track of what day it is and how many times she’s leapt. It ceases to matter where we are in time from moment to moment, because Hosoda shows us a glimpse of something to let us know if it’s important: The 4:00pm chime is the harbinger of that train. Being outside in the quad in the afternoon means there’s going to be a guy being flung around and possibly colliding with someone. The baseball field where the three friends play will always be in the middle of the day. It’s small, but it works very well.
Ultimately, the movie is at its strongest when dealing with the very real drama of a girl in high school. It feels very grounded even though the art style and premise are expressionistic. Time can stand still even if you aren’t a time traveler—because moments resonate in your heart and your brain and make you feel like nothing else is happening. Makoto doesn’t want to think about either Chiaki or Kōsuke in a romantic way, but she’s forced to, and that changes things whether she goes back to reverse them or not. Ignoring the problem isn’t going to help, and as the constant reminder on the chalkboard eventually sinks in, “Time Waits for No One.”
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a gorgeous, simple, yet thoroughly engrossing movie with characters you grow to love and a situation to which everybody can relate. Makoto is a brilliant, imperfect heroine who grows through the course of the story and sees that she needs to make every second count, even ones she knows are fleeting. It’s a movie I think everyone needs to see.
Damn, let’s keep this going! Next week, we look at Hosoda’s 2009 film Summer Wars, which is apparently about a high schoolers having to defeat a sadistic computer program. Ummm, I’m in?!
Let me know what you think of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time in the comments below!
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!