November 21, 2006
What would you do if you found out you could jump backward through time? The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema's closing film, gives us an answer: If you're high school senior Makoto Konno, you extend your karaoke session until your voice gives out.
It all starts when Makoto has an accident in the chemistry lab after school. Not the superhero-comic kind, with electricity and beakers and bizarre chemicals; rather, she's startled, slips, and falls—landing on a walnut-shaped object which, she later discovers, lets her go back in time at will. (Her power works best when she takes a running jump, leading to a series of hilarious landings throughout the film.) After tentatively trying out her power by recovering the pudding her little sister stole, she sets about correcting all the little mistakes she had made throughout the day, ending it with that marathon karaoke session. It isn't until later that she realizes that even innocuous changes, or those made with the best of intentions, can have consequences ranging from inconvenient to horrific.
It's not the first time a filmmaker has played with the idea of altering history by changing a seemingly insignificant detail—The Butterfly Effect is probably the most recent example—but The Girl Who Leapt Through Time does so with a level of humour and humanism rarely seen in any film, let alone an animated one. Set as it is in contemporary Tokyo, its vibe is somewhere between Satoshi Kon's Tokyo Godfathers and the work of Studio Ghibli, which is unsurprising: Director Mamoru Hosoda was originally to direct Howl's Moving Castle before Hayao Miyazaki stepped in, but at 39 he's closer to in age to Kon's (he's 43) and likely his sensibilities.
While I'd like to see what would have become of Howl under Hosoda's direction, I'm glad that he left to make The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. While the film could have been made at Ghibli, a studio that is no stranger to films with mild science-fiction elements, I can't help but think that its atmosphere would have been different. Makoto's character lies between the fierce independence of Miyazaki's heroines and the more traditional female characters found in Takahata's films; she feels very much like a real human being as she pieces together bits of advice from the people around her and combines them with her own experience to form her worldview. Unlike most movie characters with fantastic powers, she's well-adjusted throughout the film, coping the same way as all ordinary people cope with extraordinary but ultimately solitary events.
At 98 minutes, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is just the right length with every scene serving a purpose without it feeling like a logic puzzle or a screenwriting exercise. Blending belly-laugh humour, adventure and wistful memories of the twilight of childhood, this feature is, quite simply, one of the best films I've seen in recent years. I'm looking forward to seeing much more of Hosada's work.