Seriously: sorta creepy.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

This here's a movie from 2006 that just came out on R1 dvd this week; it's also the newest 'prestige' anime release to come around after an intermittent North American theatrical run. Better still: it's directed by Mamoru Hosoda, who's possibly been put in line to one day perhaps be called... the new Hayao Miyazaki! The new new Miyazaki!

Granted, Hosoda seems a more applicable candidate than fellow traveler Makoto Shinkai (Voices of a Distant Star; 5 Centimeters per Second), his apparent co-finalist in the internet's ongoing Who Wants to Be Japan's Next Hayao Miyazaki imaginary reality show. Honestly, Shinkai has nothing in common with Miyazaki beyond a surfeit of ambition, a zest for humanist fantasy, and theatrical exclusivity for his recent longform works. In contrast, Hosoda was once selected to actually join Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli as a director, on the strength of his prior, apparently very impressive Digimon franchise short films.

Yep, he's the guy who was supposed to direct 2004's Howl's Moving Castle before he either got fired or quit (it's not all that clear) and sensei stepped in to take the reins. Hosoda bounced back pretty quickly, though, making his official feature-length debut on the 2005 franchise picture One Piece: Omatsuri Danshaku to Himitsu no Shima, which supposedly doubles as a rather withering allegory for his time spent at Ghibli. Hey, if I was heading up one of those big multimedia things, you bet your goddamned ass I'd have Naruto settling all my personal grudges. That'd be the first order of business!

All of this put Hosoda in perfectly good company, by the way, since Miyazaki has proven remarkably tough to replace, or even supplement beyond studio co-founder Isao Takahata. Other former Ghibli directorial tryouts include Mamoru Oshii (all-around legend, began planning a picture called Anchor in the late '80s; never got made), Tomomi Mochizuki (original Ramna ½ director, made a 1991 Ghibli tv special called Ocean Waves; production got out of hand, nothing further resulted) and Yoshifumi Kondô (longtime Ghibli animation director and general protégé, directed Whisper of the Heart in 1995; died of an aneurysm in 1998). The time was probably as ripe as it'd get for a full-blown original feature from Hosoda, something aimed squarely at a general audience, a film both populist and idealistic.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was the result, adapted by screenwriter Satoko Okudera from a literary work by Yasutaka Tsutsui; it'd be one of two films of 2006 based on Tsutsui material, alongside Satoshi Kon's Paprika. The animation was produced at the Madhouse studio, albeit with longtime Ghibli hand Nizo Yamamoto serving as art director and Gainax big man Yoshiyuki Sadamoto providing character designs. It's all very bright and sunny, with half-empty mid-afternoon schoolrooms given just the right nostalgic gloss, and buzzing street scenes kept scrubbed fresh of too much smoke or ennui. It's a romantic piece -- to a fault, really -- and a very very nice anime, surely the type you could show to grandma, which is maybe a little valuable these days, if you're into that.

The story (which I'm totally planning to spoil, btw) concerns the adventures of young Makoto, a spunky 17-year old girl straight out of shōjo manga central casting. She's cute but sort of clumsy! Loves to eat but can't cook! Kicks the plot off by rushing out the door, late for class! No toast in her mouth; this is a sophisticated picture! Soon an accident in the science lab leaves her body charged with a strange power, the contours of which are revealed in a subsequent accident (she's clumsy!) involving a speeding train - the girl, yes, can leap through time! In that she has to literally get a running start and break through the barrier of reality to behold the unfathomable mechanics of reality (played by computer graphics) and land somewhere else. No multiple timelines, no Primer or anything - it's her, retaining all memory and experience, jumping the hell around.

The initial charm of the movie is that Makoto uses her amazing powers strictly for personal comfort or immediate gratification -- singing karaoke for hours, acing pop quizzes, stopping her little sister from eating her favorite pudding cup -- and the obligatory sticky situations that all time travelers inevitably get caught up in are applicably minor. There's nothing flashy with the animation work either; it's almost entirely controlled character stuff, aften very amusing, with all the careful modulation of 'realistic' portrayals that animation allows.

A big test comes when one of Makoto's guy friends confesses his longstanding crush to her, naturally prompting her to leap out of the way of awkwardness... except, she can't do that with longstanding feelings, plus she can't un-remember what she's been told (even if the boy never tells her), causing her to try and avoid him at all costs, which puts a strain on their friendship and eventually collides other circumstances Our Heroine has set into motion with her hi-jinx, and so on and so on.

It's all very low-key -- the most spice comes from a funny recurring gag in which members of Makoto's suspect she's about to commit suicide over some trouble or another -- but the movie makes certain to convey how these events aren't very minor to the teenagers experiencing them. Hosoda and Okudera maintain a sort of sympathetic adult distance from the action, often playing events for silly fun or overt slapstick while quietly underlining how much these events mean to his high school cast through slow-building character work.

Or, to give an example, a comedic set piece seeing Makoto attempting over and over again to fix up two classmates via after-discovered personal information (so she knows they're perfect for each other!) might be mostly zany antics on the surface, but it's ultimately kinda moving in revealing how much romantic travails mean to all these high school characters. In the best of these scenes, the film allows the time-travel aspect to function as a simple, effective metaphor for developing maturity, with the young heroine learning from her mistakes and becoming more prone to confronting her problems wisely then leaping out of their way.

But, I suppose a modestly charming, small-scale work like that won't make anyone The New Miyazaki (regardless of Miyazaki's own interest in projects of that sort), so Hosoda & company gleefully chomp down on way more than they can swallow, to some odd effect. The picture's last half-hour sees it launch into a dramatic chase scene, which it then deflates with an anti-climax as if to point out the absurdity of having such a thing in a movie like then, and then goes and throws in the dramatic climax anyway. This conflict in tone soon becomes distracting.

There's soon a whopper of a plot twist, the kind that's so ridiculous it's sort of awesome - the boy-who-is-a-friend that liked Makoto is actually another time-traveler from an unspecified point in the future, where Shit is Different. And even as wild a contortion like that kinda winds up working, in that the film carefully positions the second leaper's motives as arguably more frivolous-romantic than Makoto's: he just popped back in time to view an awesome, eventually-lost painting he was really itching to see in person, and since he overshot his mark he decided to stick around, enroll in school, etc. Hey, hooray for youthful spirit.

However, this expands the work's scope past its functional breaking point. Its simple, effective core metaphor suddenly explodes across the ages into a tribute to pure, enduring love thrown against the ache of separation (a boyfriend transferred across the ocean... of time, that is), all booming and power ballad-ish and bigger than us all, which clashes badly with the tight focus of the rest of the film. If anything, Hosoda's narrative viewpoint teeters away from adulthood, just as Makoto swears a vow to meet her true love somewhere in the future, someday. Her face beams, and clouds flow past. Time! Waits for nobody! It's all very sad, but uplifting, and about love and things!

I think it's kind of gross, actually. I mean, putting aside how none of these 17-year old kids ever seem to have gone on a date before, or even so much as considered seeing more than one person for the entirety of high school, should a person to date hypothetically appear, am I alone in thinking a promise of eternal love waiting across however many decades, totally ruling out the possibility of ever growing or maturing into a slightly different person, is a wee bit creepy? I'm only 10 years out of high school myself, and I do remember thinking I was a pretty different guy at 17 than I was at even 14, so I'm not sure I'd even buy this if I was the age of the characters, but I'm totally not feeling it as an adult. Is this uplifting? Really? What happened to the gentle detachment of slapstick?

It strikes me as more a case of Hosoda (and screenwriter Okudera, and hell, maybe original author Tsutsui) shooting for the biggest, most sweeping themes possible, losing track of where the message is going in the process, not unlike his heroine's bouncing back and forth in chronology. Amusingly enough, the final result is almost precisely the sort of self-damaging romantic idealism-as-arrested adolescence Makoto Shinkai critiqued in 5 Centimeters per Second, wherein the sad-eyed hero can't get over that pure first love, even as said love goes on to live a happy and full life with her mature adult husband. Granted, Shinkai's film is an inferior work in almost every way (if, to be fair, shooting for a way more sophisticated concept with less in the way of resources), but I think its message remains less conflicted.

Maybe I'm just weighed down by my heart of stone. Shoot, maybe the film's going for subversion, or least enough tonal equivocation to suggest alternate readings. I can outline one of those in my head, from a conversation here and a possibility there, that Hosoda and his crew are only treating Makoto to the greatest, temporary indulgence of her moony dreams, with maybe a sad little understanding beneath it all, grown people knowing it can't last.

Yet animation -- not the medium, the actual things moving as you see them -- tells a story of its own, and Hosoda's does nothing but support Makoto's point of view by the end, a loud, sequence-of-drawings affirmation of sitting around forever for a perfect moment, replacing a different point of view for little apparent reason beyond making an audience feel nice. That's not like the Miyazaki I know. His works are buoyant and playful, but always spiked with a deep understanding of peril. There's often a whiff of cynicism to set the triumph of wonder into sharper relief, the steady uncertainty of an old student radical become powerful and mainstream. A sympathy for children, but a keen, coherent one.

I don't see a lot of that in here, as good as Hosoda's work can be. And it is quite good at times. But we're still stuck with the Miyazaki we've got, as mild a debit as that may be.