Anime fans need to seek this out, one of the most lyrical and inventive feature films of recent times. High school girl Makoto Konno is late for school, loses her favourite dessert to a hungry little sister, fares miserably in a surprise test, gets knocked flat in a schoolyard prank, and caps a perfect day when her busted bike flings her towards a speeding train. Suddenly, she wakes up safe in bed and realises she is reliving the same day. Discovering she has the ability to literally leap backwards through time, Makoto immediately sets about improving her grades and preventing personal mishaps. However, she soon realises changing the past bring repercussions for her friends and that trying to shape a better future for everyone isn’t as simple as it seems.
Yasutaka Tsutsui’s 1965 novel is something of pop culture classic in Japan. It spawned an anime adaptation called Time Traveller (1972), its sequel Zoku Time Traveller, a television drama in 1994, and two live action movies produced by mega-mogul Haruki Kadokawa (his 1997 version is the only one set in the year the novel was written). Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1983 movie with superstar Tomoyo Harada was a box-office phenomenon, but even that didn’t garner the critical praise and awards showered upon Mamoru Hosoda’s wholly deserving anime. It is not another adaptation of Tsutsui’s novel, but an all-new story that continues his themes (and hints that Makoto’s worldly-wise Aunt Witch is actually the Tomoyo Harada character all grown up) and was enthusiastically embraced by the author.
“Time waits for no one”, reads a mysterious inscription in the science lab where Makoto accidentally gains her time-travelling powers, and the story exalts youngsters to seize opportunity when it comes their way. A thoughtful script taps typically Japanese anxieties about good grades and secure futures, and shows a real understanding of teenage awkwardness. Moments like the bullied high school boy driven to a psychotic outburst and Makoto’s repeated attempts to avoid being asked out by goofy friend Chiaki (only to change her mind after gal pal Yuri gets romantically involved) ring true regardless of the sci-fi trappings.
Makoto’s first leap through time proves an exhilarating head-trip akin to the Stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey (a common touchstone for anime), but what remains endearingly human is how a klutzy, awkward teenager indulges klutzy, awkward teenage fantasies. Instead of saving the world, Makoto uses time-travel to prolong her session at a karaoke booth (“I’m gonna sing a hundred songs!”), eat her favourite meal a thousand times, aid a romance between her friend Kousuke and shy girl Kaho (only to keep making things worse), and rule the baseball field. These are great moments of slapstick comedy, enhanced by actress Riisa Naka’s delightfully maniacal laughter. For the vocal performances alone it’s worth seeing in the original Japanese.
A terrific final reels springs genuine surprises as Makoto races to prevent a tragic death and discovers she may not be the only time traveller in town. The romantic finale saps a little of the momentum, but stays true to the spirit of Tsutsui’s novel. It’s a movie to brighten your day.