Modern Japanese schoolgirl Suzuko (voiced by Shumi Shimamoto) is babysitting her little friend Shu (Mayumi Tanaka) when a freak explosion catapults them both back five hundred years into the past. Awakening on a death-strewn battlefield, Suzuko is saved from a band of would-be rapists by Shukumaru (Yuu Mizushima), a boorish but handsome boy warrior. He takes her back to his village where, slowly adjusting to life in the Fifteenth century, Suzuko enlists his help to search for the still-missing Shu. As Suzuku slowly unravels the mystery of time travel she comes to realizes she is connected to a little village girl named Suzu (also Shumi Shimamoto) and reliving an incident from her own past.
In 1985 Marty McFly was not the only time-displaced teenager trying to get Back to the Future. Fire Tripper was the first in the Rumik World video series of short anime films created by hugely popular manga artist Rumiko Takahashi. Takahashi, allegedly the wealthiest woman in Japan, made her fortune with long-running serialized romantic fantasies, from Urusei Yatsura (1981) to Ranma ½ (1990) although the fantasy-free Maison Ikkoku (1986) is arguably her strongest work. However, the Rumik World films showcased another side to Takahashi namely her deftness with twist-laden science fiction or supernatural tales somewhat in the manner of the Twilight Zone. Other entries in the series include the acclaimed horror tales Laughing Target (1987) and Mermaid's Forest (1991) and goofy space opera spoof Maris the Chojo (1986) which was also directed by Motosuke Takahashi (no relation) and ranks among her weakest work.
With Fire Tripper however, Rumiko Takahashi proved she could deliver a smart, compact (many of her serials tend to drag and grow increasingly repetitive), well-plotted story with psychological depth and visceral action. Qualities that came as a surprise to her detractors (in Japan Takahashi is widely considered the quintessential mainstream manga artist) although true fans know elements of horror, the supernatural and surrealism flowed freely in several of her Urusei Yatsura spin-off films, notably Urusei Yatsura 3: Remember My Love (1985) and Urusei Yatsura 4: Lum the Forever (1986). The latter featured an extended 'time displacement' sequence more unsettling than many a straight horror anime.
Never one to let a good idea go to waste, Takahashi recycled the whole schoolgirl-trapped-in-a-historical-ghost-story-with-a-bratty-but-handsome-boy plot for her later successful franchise Inu Yasha (2000) but Fire Tripper stands well enough on its own. The time travel conceit is quite ingeniously handled placing schoolgirl heroine Suzuko in the midst of an Akira Kurosawa scenario, confronting her with the harsh realities of the civil war era and pre-feminist attitudes though the emphasis remains foremost on romance. The love-hate relationship between prim but passionate Suzuko and gruff but goodhearted Shukumaru thaws into full-blown romance in genuinely affecting fashion, despite (spoiler warning!) a quasi-incestuous twist adding an offbeat note to the teen romance. There is some erotic tension with a nude swimming sequence and an amusing yet sweet scene where Shukumaru drunkenly stumbles into Suzuko's bed only to pass out to the dismay of his peeping tom friends. Yet with Takahashi on script duties the heroine refreshingly proves no bimbo (compare with the ditzy protagonist of Fushigi Yugi (1995), Yu Watase's similar time travel romance) but a smart, courageous, compassionate heroine who methodically pieces the time paradox mystery together in a manner that proves poignant and haunting. As a product from anime's golden age, the 1980s, the animation is exceptional bringing Takahashi's cute chara designs to life as realistically rendered figures and staging striking action scenes. Along with the animation the script brings Shukumaru's village vividly to life with its gossipy housewives and bickering farm folk while the heady J-pop score adds another evocative note.