The Dark Side of Time Travel

February 2, 2021 · 0 comments

By Andrew Osmond.

Re: Zero

Anime Limited is releasing new editions of two landmark anime series, Erased (carrying the full 12-part anime) and Re: Zero (carrying the complete first season). They’re different in many ways, but they both deal with time: time manipulation, time loops, time travel. But not fun time travel. These anime are about heavy time travel, mixed with murder and anguish and madness.

Time travel was once just an innocent daydream in anime. One film that most British viewers haven’t seen was Nobita’s Dinosaur. It was spun off from the Doraemon kids’ series about a blue robot cat. Doraemon (the cat’s name) has his own time machine, and transports the show’s young characters to the age of the dinosaurs for an adventure. Doraemon’s team protects the creatures from dino-hunters from the future, suggesting someone had read Ray Bradbury’s classic short story, “A Sound of Thunder”. Nobita’s Dinosaur was so popular in Japan that it was made as a film twice, in 1980 and 2006, and revisited again in 2020’s Nobita’s New Dinosaur.

There are plenty of other kids’ anime that use upbeat time travel plots, such as Pokémon 4Ever and the franchise-uniting Yu-Gi-Oh! Bonds Beyond Time. But recent anime has increasingly realised the darker, more anguished potential of time stories. It’s impossible to discuss these anime without SPOILERS, especially as many don’t advertise the time travel element, including a big blockbuster of the 2010s. Time travel is used as a twist, a joker card to reveal what you’ve been watching is back-to-front and turvy-topsy.

Your Name

That’s true in Makoto Shinkai’s blockbusting Your Name, which starts as a modern teen take on the body-swap fantasy – and then reveals halfway through that it’s a time travel story. On one level, it’s in the tradition of the 1990s American series Quantum Leap and the 2011 film Source Code. In such stories, travellers inhabit strangers’ bodies, trying to prevent terrible disasters in the past – in the words of Quantum Leap, “putting right what once went wrong.”

But the way Your Name is constructed makes a huge difference. Most of its first half is shown through the eyes of the girl character, Mitsuha, who we happily follow through her body-changing adventures… and then we find out that Mitsuha, her family and friends are all dead, wiped out by a disaster. It’s a massive dislocating shock – reminiscent, incidentally, of 2007’s Rendition, which plays a similar trick with viewer perceptions. It gives the viewer a sense of terrifying giddiness. No more is there a reliable “now.” A timeframe in which the characters are alive dissolves into one where they’re already dead.


Erased is another variant on the Quantum Leap idea of changing history for the better. Its hero “leaps” back into his childhood, eighteen years in the past, to bring down a serial killer. But it’s a series Stephen King might have scripted, a paranormal mystery thriller whose protagonist has scary powers he can’t control or understand. As the killer preys on children, in a story taking the viewpoint of children, there’s both sweet lyricism and autopsy-room horror. The idea of an adult leaping back into his childhood self is a nostalgic dream and a disempowering nightmare. The child characters pick their way through snow like babes in the wood, while a wolf watches from the lengthening shadows and waits.

Erased could be called The Boy Who Leapt Through Time. Mamoru Hosoda’s film The Girl Who Leapt Through Time has a heroine, Makoto, who’s delighted with her time travel powers. She exploits them to fix awkward situations, but then things start backfiring. In trying to fix up friendships, she sours them for herself, while the events she alters start terrible chain reactions. It culminates in a bell tolling, two bodies falling in front of an oncoming train and Makoto, her time-leaps used up, screaming “STOP!” helplessly at the world.

In film, the best-known “Japanese” time-travel story internationally may be the live-action Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise. It was based on a Japanese novel (not a light novel, as it’s often described) called All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. In both book and film, the hero spends a lot of time dying violently before being “reset” to an earlier point and setting out towards his next messy death. Edge of Tomorrow plays up the situation’s dark humour more than the book, especially in its choice of actor. If you wanted to see the normally indestructible Tom Cruise getting killed again and again and again, Edge of Tomorrow’s your film. As of writing, a sequel still seems possible.

Edge of Tomorrow’s closest equivalent in anime is Re:Zero. It plays in the first episode like a standard “boy goes to fantasy world” yarn before the boy starts dying – very nastily – and looping back for another go. While the series has some very funny comedy, it can go way darker than Edge of Tomorrow, with the long-suffering hero driven into hysteria, even madness. Apart from the physical agony of the hero’s deaths, the show points up his loss of any sense of “now” or “reality”. If every moment he lives will be erased and rewritten by the next reset, his existence has the substance of a nightmare. By the middle episodes, we’re watching him fail and fail, and fail again.


If you’re into such time-travelling psycho-horror, other anime explore it too. A prominent example, using the trappings of science-fiction, is the Steins;Gate franchise. Two dark fantasy riffs on the theme are Higurashi, recently revived on TV, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica. These anime revolve round ensembles of characters, most cheerfully unaware of the horrors encircling and looping them. But one unlucky character does know, or comes to know, what’s going on, and may even be responsible for it.

But the Ground Zero for dark anime about time-lost characters is a film that we don’t usually think of as having time travel – Satoshi Kon’s classic Perfect Blue. In it, a young actress wanders a maze of collapsing realities and recurring scenes, killing or being killed, with madness her only sanity. Perfect Blue’s time travel needs no machine or magic curse. It’s farworse than that; it’s all entirely in the head.

Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films.

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