With such a rich and varied oeuvre, it would be a sin to reduce Nobuhiko Obayashi to being merely the director of House (1977), Hanagatami (2017)or Labyrinth of Cinema (2019). Yet, it has not always been easy to get a hold of his films. Third Windows Films, finally rights this wrong by releasing the Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 80’s Kadokawa Years boxed set in October. The set contains School In The Crosshairs (1981), The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1983), The Island Closest to Heaven (1984), and His Motorbike, Her Island (1986). This time, we shine our psychoanalytic light on Obayashi’s adaptation of Yasutaka Tsutsui’s novel of the same name (General-note 1).
Once day, after class Mariko Kamiya (Yukari Tsuda) approaches Kazuko Yoshiyama (Tomoyo Harada) to give her the key to the lab. She tells her that she cannot forget close the lab after cleaning as someone has been messing with chemicals during spring break.
Together with Goro Horikawa (Ryōichi Takayanagi) and Fukamachi (Toshinori Omi) she starts cleaning the lab. After the tells the boys to bring the trash to the incinerator, she suddenly hears the ringing of glass in the locked room where all the chemicals are kept. Thinking one of the boys is playing a prank, she unlocks the door and enters. Suddenly, wandering through the fumes coming out of a fallen Erlenmeyer flask, she loses consciousness.
While many would be satisfied by categorizing The Girl Who Leaped Through Time a narrative about finding love, the narrative only reveals its themes if we read sixteen year-old Kazuko’s desire in a correct way. What Kazuko desires is nothing other than the love of the other; she desires to be desired by the male other (i.e. Goro) – One day, my price charming will come pick me up from one of those stars (Narra-note 1).
The sudden time-slip, an event foreshadowed by certain strange occurrences, Kazuko feels disoriented. This disorientation is caused by the shocking contrast between Kazuko’s feeling that time has unfolded in linear way and the realization that ‘today’ unravels in a very similar way as ‘yesterday’. Moreover, she becomes conscious of the fact that, even though time repeats itself, she is able to bend and change how certain events happen.
Yet, the realisation of repeatedly slipping in time confronts the spectator with a double riddle. What caused these time-slip? And how can she solve the repetition of time that, in a certain way, imprisons her? Obayashi elegantly evokes, via the imagery of Kazuko’s angels that via magnetism can kiss each other, that what causes the time-leaps is not simply something of a supernatural order but her desire to be desired as such. In this sense, the only way to escape the time-leaps is to bend the day in such a way that she can realize, for a fleeting moment, the position of being someone’s beloved, of being someone’s object-of-desire.
Behind the bittersweet story of finding someone who desires her lies a more tragic dimension. This dimension is not often mentioned, yet it forms the main dynamic that allows The Girl Who Leaped Through Time to have such profound emotional impact of the spectator. By playing with subtle associations, Obayashi reveals that the time-travel has profoundly marked our young girl. This experience does not only, unconsciously, determine her future path, but also radically problematizes the field of romance in her adulthood. It is by realizing that what should have been but has not happened that the spectator is left with a painful forlorn sadness when the credits roll (Narra-note 2 (spoiler)).
The composition of The Girl Who Leaped Through Time might feel more straightforward than other works of Obayashi, the dynamic composition – rich on zoom-ins, zoom-outs, and tracking and spatial movement – is still deeply marked by his peculiar style. Obayashi’s style is most evident in the way he utilizes cinematographical decorations (e.g. overlays, slow-motion, wipe transitions, collage-effects, jump-cut-like effects, imaginative special effects, stop-motion sequences, …) within his composition. While some of these decorations are merely used to heighten the visual pleasure, others are used to evoke that time is not following its usual rhythm (sound-note 1).
Obayashi fills his composition with many pleasing shots – shots that, in one way or another, utilize the geometrical dimension in a visually interesting way. Yet, the ultimate beauty of the composition does not lie in these fleeting shots, but in his creative blend of dynamism, visual decorations and musical accompaniment. Obayashi’s blend gives the composition and thus the narrative a dreamy-like ethereal feeling – a feeling that completely blossoms with Obayashi’s highly original final time-travel sequence (Cine-note 1).
Just like in His Motorbike, Her Island (1986), Obayashi uses the contrast between monochrome and chromatic colours to add a visual poetic touch to his composition. While most of these moments are merely decorative, Obayashi’s also utilizes such play in a evocative way. Very early on in his narrative, Obayashi elegantly employs such contrast to not only emphasize the cultural association between spring (春) and youth (青春), but also to subtle underline the youthful desire that marks Kazuko. From this moment on, every imagery referencing spring (e.g. the beautiful pinkness of the cherry blossoms) echoes the transient period of youth and thus the fleeting nature of time.
The fleetingness of time is further echoed via the poetry that Toshimi Fukushima (Ittoku Kishibe) explores in his classes and via the time-slips as such. It is by evoking such fleetingness that Obayashi does not only explore the transitoriness nature of being-in-love, but also the tragedy of a missed encounter, an encounter that might or might not happen ever again (Narra-note 3).
One simple decorative play with colour-contrasts is found in the two scenes where Kazuko loses consciousness after smelling lavender and inhaling some white fumes. Yet, what makes this moment so pleasing is, in truth, not this pleasant play with colour, but the elegant way in which Obayashi utilizes dynamism to poetically evoke how the fumes extract the consciousness out of our heroine and how the accompanying sounds (e.g. the rhythmical reverb and the chime of the clock) evoke that something of the time-dimension is getting touched.
The performances of The Girl Who Leaped Through Time might not be that impressive, most of them do exude a certain charm (Music-note 1). Tomoyo Harada – her first appearance as an actress – might lack some skill, her charming presence and elegant and innocent demeanour do succeeds in keeping the spectator captivated throughout the narrative.
Obayashi’s The Girl Who Leaped Through Time is not a straight-forward love-story. The film does not merely celebrate the beauty of the transiency of being-in-love, but also powerfully stages the tragedy of the missed encounter. Rather than the love that cannot be, it is the love that has become impossible that profoundly affects the spectator. Obayashi might not have written the script by himself – Wataru Kenmotsu did, he makes the film completely his own with his trademark stylish exploits, delivering a moving experience only he can.
General-note 1: AsThe Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1967) is one of Yasutaka Tsutsui’s most popular novels, it is not surprising that it had many different adaptations – tv-drama’s, films, stage-plays, … etc.
The first film adaptation of the novel is Obayashi’s. In 1997, a second live-adaptation of the same story was made. Momoru Hosada’s chose to offer a loose sequel to the original story with his The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006). In 2010, Masaaki Taniguchi chose to offer audiences a sequel to Obayashi’s beloved film.
Narra-note 1: Following her desire, Kazuko’s play with the kissing angels on her bed-side table should thus not be understood as a desire to kiss Goro, but a desire to be kissed by him.
Narra-note 2: It is because the mysterious time-traveller meddles with Kazuko’s memories that he ends up her breaking her desire to be loved by Goro. In other words, by etching himself into Kazuko’s most precious memories, he unknowingly overrode the unconscious traces that made Goro into her destined object-goal of desire. The ending elegantly illustrates that the unconscious knows, but the ego doesn’t.
Narra-note 3: The element of transiencyalso explains whyObayashi keeps showing the traditional side of Onomichi. Does he not lament, at a certain level, that the traditional Onomichi is doomed to disappear?
Sound-note 1: Such kind of decoration is, generally, accompanied by sounds that confirm, at an auditive level, that time is undergoing a certain manipulation.
Cine-note 1: This dreamy and ethereal feeling is most evident in the exquisite and highly imaginative visual sequence that depicts Kazuko’s conscious choice to travel back in time, to that Saturday where she lost consciousness in the lab. Moreover, the combination of the unorthodox visuals and the orchestral musical accompaniment ensures that this sequence touches the spectator deeply.
In fact, the second half of the narrative, with its energetic stylish flourishes, will wash away the irritation of those spectators that struggle with the first half of the narrative. Music-note 1: In this sense, the rich use of dreamy musical accompaniment can also be understood as a rather successful attempt at mitigating the lack of skill of the young cast. By evoking a certain emotional feeling within given scenes, the music adds a nuance to the performances that ensures that the interactions endear the spectator.