The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

As I write these opening words, I'm trying to remember exactly what I've written about time travel before.  Any good reviewer has to have mentioned it somewhere before simply because there are so many time travel stories out there. The truth is, time travel is a fascinating idea, but the stories the concept generates rate from life-changing to pedestrian. A time travel story that is about the nitty-gritty possibilities of time travel might be fascinating to watch once, like Back to the Future 2. But who wants to watch it over and over again? Without a compelling story apart from the time travel aspect, even a devoted sci-fi fan isn't going to be interested. That lesson is kept well in mind by The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, a wonderful motion picture whose character focus is so good that it works in spite of the time travel element, rather than because of it.

Makoto is a a high schooler deciding what to do with the rest of her life inbetween games of catch with her best friends Kousuke and Chiaki. She's off to the worst day in the world, though. She runs late for school (again) only to be dumbfounded by a pop quiz. She nearly burns down the Home Economics department. Her sister's eaten her favorite treat. And to top it all off, the breaks on her bike die at the wrong time, sending her headlong into the path of an oncoming train. Or does it? Just about the time we think she'd go splat, she finds herself moving backwards in time. Awestruck by this new ability, she uses it to her advantage to get a perfect score on the test, make the fire somebody else's fault, and even eat her stolen dessert. But every time that time changes, new consequences emerge. Will Makoto realize that playing around with time is serious business before it's too late?

This feature film from 2006 is a delight to watch. Although the animation isn't perfect -- the characters occasionally seem to be on the background rather than in it -- it's much better than much of what's on the market. The soundtrack is engaging, and the dub is one of the best I've heard.  Other than a scene with some over-emotive crying, it hits all the right notes. In fact, it's extremely well written for English, with the use of slang that doesn't feel manufactured but is appropriate for the age of the characters. Technically, this is a strong entry for what is a slice of life drama with a little science fiction. You won't see robots blowing up, but you will see something that looks and feels like Only Yesterday or Graveyard of the Fireflies (though not nearly as dramatic).

What makes this film special is the interrelationship of the three friends and the winsome yet believable nature of Makoto. She's complex enough to be rude one minute and then regret it the next; yet on the whole she makes a cheerful protagonist that is grounded in reality. You know Makoto. You've met her in real life. That makes her special, because quite frankly anime doesn't have enough female role models that aren't busy angsting over vampires or piloting starships and whatnot. We want her to succeed because she's not all that different from the tomboy you grew up from down the road. You can't help but fall for her. And the story wisely stays focused on just these three companions; others are a part of the plot, but they stay on the periphery. Kousuke and Chiaki aren't defined by anime stereotypes; they are the kind of carefree (if slightly ill-at-ease in their skin) guys I knew growing up.

The actual plot of the movie, which obviously involves extensive time travel, is good, but it actually makes this film just less than perfect. One might say I am faulting the film for being what it is! But there is a certain rushedness in the film's 98 minute running time. With a little more time to breathe, the film could have been more poignant. Time travel here is a gimmick. A necessary one for the story being told, but a gimmick nonetheless. I would really just have enjoyed a straightforward drama with these characters, as they were compelling enough on their own.

That shouldn't stop you from seeing The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, though. It is an excellent film that hits a number of dramatic and comedic notes well and never really stumbles.  I could have handled it being longer! Even if sci-fi isn't your thing, give the movie a try. I think you'll find Makoto and company worthy companions for an hour and a half.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time -- mild language -- A