Including Nobuhiko Obayashi’s whimsical The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Shinya Tsukamoto’s lesser-known The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo
Considering the disruptive events of the past few years, it should be little surprise that escapist fantasies have been a regular on the Hollywood menu – with time-and-space-bending romps the main course on many occasions.
Sometimes, they’ve been served cold (Christopher Nolan’s Tenet); other times, hot (Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho), or even positively on fire (Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All At Once). It’s a heritage that goes far back into Hollywood history – with the legacies of Groundhog Day to Back to the Future still looming large over any present-day forages. But the western industry isn’t the only one poking around the multiverse of madness, pondering the many what-ifs. In the east, as well, the subject of time travel remains tantalising.
THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME, NOBUHIKO OBAYASHI (1983)
While better known in the west for psychedelic horror masterwork House, maverick filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi also had a knack for family-friendly material. This is certainly the case with the gentle The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, based on a popular 1967 novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui (who also wrote Paprika, later adapted for anime by Satoshi Kon), which utilises quirky editing, experimental animation and pastel colours to create a dreamy, magical delight.
The film opens in a whimsical fashion. In an idyllic mountain village, the sounds of flutes and harps accompany two stargazing school students as they engage in a snowball fight; elsewhere, lush vegetation and tile-roofed houses set an enchanting backdrop to what feels like a nostalgic high school drama. But when schoolgirl Kazuko (Tomoyo Harada) passes out while cleaning the science lab – having accidentally huffed a lavender-scented chemical – she dreams that an earthquake will bring destruction to her village. Thereafter, she finds herself reliving days over (in a plot that foreshadows Groundhog Day, released a decade later), giving her a chance to warn friends of the impending danger.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, set for an overdue UK release by Third Window Films as part of an anthology of Obayashi works later this year, was Japan’s second highest-grossing movie in 1983. And while a more widely-distributed incarnation of the source material would arrive some 20 years later via Mamoru Hosoda (Belle)’s anime adaption, Obayashi’s original soundly matches it for charm – and surpasses it for retro creativity.
THE ADVENTURE OF DENCHU-KOZO, SHINYA TSUKAMOTO (1987)
This frenetic sci-fi fantasy from Shinya Tsukamoto was the last short film he completed before his pioneering cyberpunk classic, Tetsuo: Iron Man. The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo is perhaps slightly more embryonic than the latter, but both films offer the same boundless imagination while also sharing cast members and themes of metallic metamorphosis.
A deformed schoolboy named Hikari, who has a metal protrusion growing from his back, is saved from bullies by a friendly young girl named Momo. As thanks, he gives her a time machine! When activated, the machine sends him 25 years into the future, where a group of steel-clad vampires has created a super-weapon that has brought “a veil of colossal blackness” upon the world. Hikari then encounters an alternate version of himself; he’s told that his purpose – as “electric rod boy” – is to bring light to worlds of darkness through time, and quite literally pass the torch to ensure that history continues to repeat this prophecy.
Of course, the story and the time travel are just a backdrop to Tsukamoto’s incredible flair for creativity. Despite the mega-low-budget nature (the film was shot on Super-8), characters are clad with all kinds of prosthetics and make-up, with piles of metal tubes and cables recalling HR Giger’s vivid Alien designs. The use of undercranking (a kind of primitive stop-motion) in the editing, meanwhile, ensures an otherworldly element to the visuals – particularly as vampiric cronies and bulky time machines rip-roar through the streets at hyper-speed.
IZO, TAKASHI MIIKE (2004)
Prolific provocateur Takashi Miike (Audition) might be best known for low-budget genre flicks and ultra-violent yakuza showdowns – but he’s also demonstrated a taste for the cosmic on more than one occasion. Lynchian road movie Gozu – a fever dream about a gangster who loses his colleague in a strange town – premiered in 2003. Then, in 2004, Miike stuck with the surreal bent with a film about a historic samurai warrior who traverses time and space to exact revenge for an unceremonious death.
Izo opens with the bloody torture of the condemned title character in 19th-century Japan. But this is only the beginning of this “sordid half-dead”’s journey, as Izo commits slayings of kneeling salarymen in a hyper-modern metropolis, stern magistrates in a contemporary court of law, gun-wielding SWAT teams in an Edo-era settlement, and traditional village folk in a dense forest thereafter. These scenes are divided by rapid montages connecting historical events like the Hiroshima bombing with naked bodies dancing and amusement park rides – often accompanied by the music of acid-folk artist Kazuki Tomokawa, who dwells in a colourful poppy field.
There’s no time machine and no clear logic to any of it – which only adds to the surreal appeal. Izo is quite simply a delirious, temporal trip packed with colour, conflict and centuries’ worth of mayhem. In other words, everything you’d expect from a Takashi Miike time travel movie.
SUMMER TIME MACHINE BLUES, KATSUYUKI MOTOHIRO (2005)
In the serene and green Japanese countryside one summer, the heat is sweltering as a baseball game is underway. The players are a group of buddies who are also avid members of the school sci-fi club – but when they accidentally spill Coca-Cola on the clubhouse’s air conditioning remote, they must deal with a sweaty dilemma.
Potential solutions (like an alleyway full of disposed electric fans) present themselves, but it all seems fruitless – something needs to be done about the heat. And so, when a clunky, rather run-down time machine appears out of the blue, the group tentatively decides to give it a spin. Hijinks ensue, in this feel-good fantasy-comedy – as events from the near past are given a fresh perspective from the journeying characters of the present.
Based on a hit play by Kyoto’s Europe Kikaku theatre group, the film adaption of Summer Time Machine Blues features creative editing and camerawork, fun film references (Back to the Future is screening at the local theatre) and bags of cosmic charm. Originally released in 2005, the film now receives a belated UK release via Third Window Films off the back of the success of another time travel film that, like Summer Time Machine Blues, was written by the theatre group’s leader, Makoto Ueda.
Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, Junta Yamaguchi (2020)
…the film in question is Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes, an underground sensation in 2021. The project, another Europe Kikaku play adaption, was fashioned from just $25,000 in budget and a week’s worth of night shoots at a Kyoto café (they couldn’t afford to rent the premises, so the crew were only able to shoot footage after-hours). The result has received huge acclaim worldwide thanks to extensive film festival exposure and a strong word-of-mouth reputation.
Kato is a café worker who retires to his bedroom one night to find his own face glaring back at him from his personal computer. Apparently, this is some kind of Zoom call from the future – two minutes in the future, in fact – and since the transmission is clearly coming from the café downstairs, Kato decides to head down to investigate, unwittingly fulfilling the actions of his future self in the process. He calls friends for help, and the group ponders the situation. Then, they place the broadcast transmitting computer and receiving monitor opposite each other, creating a Droste effect that multiplies the mayhem.
The zany premise, fast pace and innovative means of production are at the core of what makes Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes so special; this is a bargain bin time-travel fantasy that’s so intricate and creative that it trumps almost everything else that has come before it. Because the kicker is, despite the mind-boggling logic that governs time travel, Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes is (to the naked eye) filmed entirely in one take – with barely a single cut in filming. Wrap your head around that one.