When you think of some of anime’s most popular series and films, you easily find a spattering of supernatural and science fiction anime that plays around with the idea of time travel. There is something in the way time travel anime delves beyond the gimmick of a person passing through time and brings a much loved focus on the emotional response to time travel, as well as the cause and effect of its existence. Basically, anime is pretty good at the time travel thing. Why is it so good at this time travel thing, you ask? Obviously, the storytelling plays a major role in addition to the inspirational visuals, and here are some of the story elements that anime does best.
Can I really change the future, the present, or the past?
This is the usual story element in nearly all time travel stories, inside and outside of anime. Can I really change the course of events? There are some deep looks into the hateful relationship between cause and effect, and usually, this insight is heavily influenced by the mechanics of time travel, which of course, have yet to be scientifically ascertained in real life. Even the premise of Doraemon is that the loveable blue robot cat has been sent back in time to prevent an unfortunate future for his human counterparts. Of course, they should be able to change something, especially if it is the most depressing event in the Charlotte series, or the Beyond the Boundary series, or multiple events in Higurashi When They Cry.
In other titles, protagonists are sent back into time in order to prevent larger catastrophes, such as in the second season of Sailor Moon, Sailor Moon R. Likewise, in the anime Occult Academy, Fumiaki travels back in time in order to prevent an alien apocalypse. Filled with a very optimistic sense of hope, many of our anime protagonists face a time leap in order to change the past and the eventual future.
When it comes to science fiction, the mystery of time travel is broadly explained by one of two mechanisms: a single timeline and multiple timelines. Recent romance anime, Orange, utilizes the multiple timelines mechanism in order to solve the time travel paradox. Takamiya Naho writes a letter that is delivered to her past self in order to erase her past regrets. Even though Naho comes to the understanding that she won’t be able to help the future self who has written the letter, she and her friends try to create a future that will prevent the death of one of their beloved classmates.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo)
- Episodes: 1 (film)
- Aired: Jul. 2006
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a time travel classic in the minds of many anime fans. Much like Orange, the impetus to travel through time is a personal reason. Unlike Orange, however, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time follows the paradigm of a single timeline, in which Makoto Kanno’s own future is changed with each time she leaps back in time. Her daily life is greatly improved or at least a lot less awkward, using this newfound ability to get better grades and avoid hearing love confessions. While this seems like a very simple if not slightly comedic slice-of-life, there is a heartbreaking effect that unfolds with her frivolous use of the time leap. With a story that is much deeper than you would expect, time travel fans will enjoy the cause and effect play-by-play in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.
The Melancholy of Redundancy
Now that we’ve gone over something that all time travel stories do, let’s get into what anime does better than anyone else: the time loop. Rather famously seen in the “Endless Eight” arc of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, in which Kyon and his strange clubmates investigate mysterious events. Over the course of eight episodes, they find themselves in the midst of one of the most strange events, an endless time loop of their summer vacation that they repeat 15,532 times. The “Endless Eight” are both famous and infamous in anime circles, but this set of episodes is by far one of the most extreme examples of the time loop in all time travel media. A more normal version of the time loop is shown in Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei (The Tatami Galaxy), where the protagonists relives his college days, each time choosing a different social circle while trying to find the love of his life. A parody version of the time loop can be seen in Space Dandy, in which different episodes are possibly different timelines with different Dandies.
American audiences will be familiar with the time loop of pain and joy in The Edge of Tomorrow, the live action film adaptation of the light novel All You Need Is Kill. Anime fans, of course, can easily pinpoint the source of this film being particularly Japanese, as the time loop is repeated an extraordinary number of times, while also having a strong effect on the protagonist’s psychology. If you’re watching Higurashi When They Cry, it can have a strong effect on your psychology, as well. It should come as no surprise that some of the most popular anime titles ever feature a mental breakdown in the face of a time loop, including, Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica, Boku dake ga Inai Machi (Erased), and the recently aired Re: Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu. Notably and tragically, in the aforementioned anime, the time leaper alone holds on to their memories of their past experience of the time loop.
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: Apr. 2011 – Sept. 2011
Still considered the gold standard of time travel anime, Steins;Gate contains a mini-evolution of time travel in one series, in which a self-proclaimed mad scientist Okabe Rintarou stumbles upon various forms of time travel. During the so-called “Necrosis Arc” (Episodes 13-16), Okabe travels to the past multiple times in desperation to save his dear friend Mayuri. Okabe’s faltering hope, undying stubbornness, and pure desperation during this arc has captured the hearts of anime and time travel fans around the world. Even as Okabe truly sinks into madness, he still continues to put himself through the torture of the time loop in which the sweetest girl in the whole world dies every time.
Historical fiction and futuristic fiction
Until now, we have looked at time travel that is, more or less, limited to a single era in time, but another prominent story element in time travel anime is the large leap, especially into historical time periods, and sometimes into the future. Because it’s Japan, you’ll find a large amount of Oda Nobunaga anime in which a modern day person is somehow transported back into the time of Nobunaga. In Nobunaga Concerto, a normal high school boy Saburo is transported back to Japan’s Sengoku Era and must become Nobunaga so that everything can be right in the world. We can live vicariously through these characters, as if we also were transported to a different era in these anime period pieces. In Inuyasha, Kagome is also transported to Japan’s Sengoku period in which she quickly learns how different life is between modern day Japan and Japan of the distant past. Not only restricted to Japan-only history, in the anime Zipang, characters are sent back to the Battle of Midway during WWII.
Occasionally, anime will also make a jump into the future. In Ima, Soko ni Iru Boku (Now and Then, Here and There), a young boy Shu is suddenly transported to an apocalyptic future, where people are desperately trying to survive in a world that has become a vast desert. In this devastating tale, we see if Shu’s present-day values can persevere in a world that has fallen to human corruption. For a less depressing anime, in Buddy Complex, Aoba Watase is sent seventy years into the future in which a giant mecha war is currently underway. Whether it’s going backward or forward, we get to follow characters who are of a present-day mindset, just like us, in a time that is nothing like our own.
Of course, in the spirit of world building, anime doesn’t always simply run around in Japan’s glorious/horrific past or perhaps horrific/glorious future. Sometimes, it has a run through a completely different and fantastical world. For the Fate/stay night franchise, many of the “Servants” are summoned from the past in order to fight in the time of the series. In the case of Suisei no Gargantia (Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet), the era changing would best be described as distant future and extremely distant future, where modern day mindsets are all but obliterated from the story. A young mecha pilot in the midst of a war with strange octopus aliens is suddenly caught up in a wormhole that sends him far off into space where he crash lands into Earth which has become a water world. Let’s just say, we all know science fiction wormholes don’t just simply change your physical location.
The time master
If time travel is possible, why not have someone who is controlling time? Mirai Nikki explores this idea, even by having a God of Space and Time, who can create alternate timelines. In Cross Ange: Tenshi to Ryuu no Rondo, the main antagonist has the ability to create whole universes and has created a separation of dimensions. Not so much controlling time, but these so-called time masters may even be protagonists, who knowingly or unknowingly controls time travel or a time loop, including Haruhi in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya or the narrator in Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei.
The time master aspect is further explored by characters who can readily jump between timelines, or, if we’re using a space-time dimension basis, can readily jump between dimensions. A good example is seen in Kyousou Giga, in which characters easily dimension hop without much care of time in general. Additionally, even the original Myoue has the ability to create dimensions. This idea of dimension hopping is also shown in the anime film Glass no Hana to Kowasu Sekai (Garakowa Restore the World), in which Dual and Dorothy pass freely between different worlds and timelines. The two meet a number of people and friends, but they must destroy worlds that have been infected by viruses, including the people they have grown to love and care about in each world.
An extremely brief look into the future or past
As seen with Orange, time travel doesn’t always necessarily involve traveling, but can be iterated with the ability to gain knowledge of the past or future. In Mirai Nikki (Future Diary), the characters of the anime have phones that are actually Future Diaries, which can show the future for up to 90 days. Much like other time travel anime, these characters can use this knowledge in order to take advantage of the present.
Specific characters that can know the past or future are modern-day representations of oracles and can be seen in anime in which there are many characters with various special abilities. In Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches, Noa Takigawa is a witch who has the ability to see a person’s past trauma. Formerly very lonely and friendless, her ability allows her to develop a deep connection with other classmates. She, however, can also use this power to exploit people. Conversely, in the currently airing Bungou Stray Dogs, Oda Sakunosuke has an ability named Flawless, which allows him to know what will happen five or six seconds into the future. As a member of the Port Mafia, this powerful ability allows him to survive surprise attacks. In a very time travel-esque twist, if Oda sees a future and changes his decision, he will see a new version of the future based on his revised decision. Time reversal, as well, is easily seen in Kujo Josuke’s stand Star Platinum: The World in the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure series, along with other temporal powered stands.
Time travel posers
As seen with characters with special abilities to see into the past or future, it’s not really time travel, but it sure does feel like it! Well, there are whole series that are actually just time travel posers. In post-apocalyptic anime, such as Shinsekai yori and Trigun, the people of the anime live their lives as if they are living in the past, as catastrophic events have destroyed civilization as we know it. Similarly, in anime films such as Spirited Away and Children Who Chase Lost Voices, characters enter supernatural realms in which people or spirits live as though they are in the past. These anime give the feeling of time travel without the actual travel. Many recent anime which deal with Japanese yokai, including Natsume’s Book of Friends, The Morose Mononokean, Noragami, Kamisama Kiss, and Into the Forest of Fireflies Light, characters seemingly experience the past, as many of the yokai act and talk like people from the past or at least age very slowly.
It could be argued that in Re: Zero, rather than traveling through time, Subaru is restarting, as a game mechanic, rather than actually going back in time. Of course, his experience is a time loop, but the actual mechanic may not be time travel. As for other time travel posers, in Re: Hamatora, Art has a special ability called the Regeneration Minimum, in which he can recover from any fatal injury, even growing back lost limbs. If we use logic from Saiki Kusuo no Psi-nan, Art is essentially reversing time for his body. Then, we have characters who change their physical age to a younger version, also reversing the time of their bodies. In the Monogatari series, Shinobu and Yostugi have much younger bodies than their actual ages. Re:LIFE adult characters take the appearance of teenagers and “re-do” their high school life. In Dragon Ball Super, Mai and the Pilaf Gang members similarly become children by making a wish for youth to the Dragon Balls. Although not time travel, the story telling device is similar to time travel mechanisms.
Voices of a Distant Star (Hoshi no Koe)
- Episodes: 1 (OVA)
- Aired: Feb. 2002
In one of Makoto Shinkai’s other works, Voices of a Distant Star, the protagonists, though separated by a large distance, can communicate through email. Being light years away, their correspondence is delayed by years, giving a scientifically sound fulfillment of time travel. Nagamine Mikako is sent on an expedition into space. When she sends an email to her former classmate Terao Noboru, he doesn’t receive the message until eight years later, when the message feels like a message from the distant past.
Just as you would imagine, anime does a fine job of navigating the complicated seas of time travel, crafting complex stories around diverse and deep characters, who respond to the fluidity of time in surprising and interesting ways. We can always depend on anime finding new and great ways to surprise us with the time travel theme. What do you like the most about time travel storylines in anime? What kind of story elements does your favorite time travel anime use?