Review – The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)

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Following the recent announcement of a new work from “Man Most Likely to Fill Miyazaki’s Shoes (Maybe)”, Mamoru Hosoda, I thought it would be a good time to look back at the film that first brought him serious critical attention in the west, 2006’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

A present-day science fantasy, the story follows Makoto, an ordinary, baseball-playing teenager who, after a day filled with mishaps, miraculously avoids a serious accident on a railway level-crossing, finding herself catapulted back in time by several minutes.  To her even greater surprise, she discovers her temporal shift was no mere fluke and she can actually move through time at will, so long as she can build up a certain amount of momentum first.  Suddenly able to rewrite her daily life, Makoto jumps through time with child-like glee, acing tests, avoiding pratfalls and meddling in her friends’ relationships as she wanders into an unwelcome love-triangle.  Yet, as she leaps ever further and more regularly, the consequences of her actions slowly begin to catch up with her.

Having cut his directorial teeth working on parts of Digimon and One Piece, Girl Who Leapt feels like a moment of graduation for Hosoda.  The story is not his own, but, freed from the constraints of existing mega-franchises, this feels like it was the first opportunity for him to truly demonstrate what he was capable of.  In doing so, he turned in a warm, melancholy-tinged, feel-good adventure that appeared with little fanfare, but still quietly overtook Ghibli’s own offering for that year, Tales of Earthsea, as a critical and commercial hit, suddenly inviting suggestions that perhaps the House of Totoro had overlooked Miyazaki’s true successor after all.
It’s not hard to see why it would invite such comparisons either.  While the ‘high-school adventure’ subject matter is a little more typically anime than Ghibli would usually deal with, this is a film that treats its story and its characters with welcome maturity, breathing fresh air into what could so easily have been hackneyed and familiar.  Despite a relatively short running time, there is little reliance on the easy cliches that so often haunt romance anime and (perhaps by limiting the cast to effectively just three key characters) the film successfully develops its main players into believable, sympathetic individuals, so that by the time things begin to go wrong, we genuinely care about their plight.
While not studio Madhouse’s finest hour, visually Girl Who Leapt is still very appealing.  The lively character designs supplied by Evangelion‘s Yoshiyuki Sadamoto are brought to life with great gusto, none more so than Makoto herself, whose habit of landing less than gracefully after each of her leaps lends the film a fine dose of physical comedy.  The most remarkable thing, however, is probably the unremarkable setting.  The locations may be familiar standards (sports field, quiet streets, path next to the river), but baked by the summer sun beating down from crystal clear blue skies, I can scarcely recall another film that makes suburban Japan look as idyllic as it does here, outside of possibly Ghibli’s own Whisper of the Heart.

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Unfortunately, a recurring problem I find with Hosoda’s films is that they seem to lose their way into the third act, and this is no exception. Revelations finally filter through about what has caused Makoto’s temporal travels, but, as the sense of fun and adventure give way to something more angst-riddled, the film begins to unravel.  What frustrated me most was that, for a plot point the film seems to suggest is greatly important, I was unmoved by the ultimate reveal of what it is that has set the story in motion, leaving the eventual outcome slightly underwhelming.

Perhaps appropriately for the film’s subject matter, however, the passage of time has made me more accepting and I think having adjusted my expectations on rewatching allowed me to better savour the considerable achievements that came before that uneasy third act.  While it may fall slightly short of being an outright classic, The Girl Who Leapt Through time is still a hugely enjoyable film and, for my money, Hosoda’s best feature to date.

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