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The History of Time Travel Anime

‘Time travel’ is “(in science fiction) travel through time into the past or the future”. It is a common plot device in anime and in fiction more broadly. Yet one does not have to travel far back in time to reach a period when the concept of time travel did not exist. The term ‘time travel’ was not coined until 1895, when HG Wells published an early science-fiction novel, ‘The Time Machine’.

While Wells popularised the concept, one can point to earlier examples of time travel in fiction. Take Spaniard Enrique Gaspard’s 1887 ‘El Anocronopete’, Frenchman Eugene Mouton’s 1883 ‘L’Historioscope’, or American Edward Mitchell’s 1881 ‘The Clock That Went Backwards’. Even then, one can see that the concept of time travel dates back only as far as the late 19th century. Until that point, people simply did not conceive of the concept of time travel. That is because few people experienced much change in their lifetimes until then. They were born, worked their farm for a few decades, and died. They expected the world their grandchildren inhabited would be much the same. In the heady days of the Industrial Revolution, however, technology and society started changing rapidly. One small example of these massive changes is that electronic clocks were proliferating, and people were synchronising their clocks and watches.

The discovery of the fossil record also contributed to people’s new-found discovery of a deeper sense of time: Archbishop Ussher’s 1650 calculation that the world was created on 23 October, 4004 BC suddenly seemed less than tenable. ‘Time travel’ was a change to humanity’s collective consciousness, akin to the coining of the word ‘nostalgia’ in the 17th century (or, for that matter, Frenchman Emile Durkheim’s 1893 coining of the term ‘collective consciousness’).

The idea was so fascinating that it has attained its present popularity. Time travel is, "the product of a ­culture that looks back with nostalgia to ­pre-industrial life, and forward with the certainty that Earth in the future will be radically different. Once people started asking what would happen if they could control their movements through time, they became addicted. Wells had to help his readers ­understand the concept. By the time Homer Simpson accidentally turned a toaster into a time machine, in a 1994 episode of The Simpsons, no exposition was necessary." (For more on the history of time travel, see James Gleick's book 'Time Travel: A History'.)

Over time, the idea has spread all over the world, including to Japan. Contact with the outside world, rapid industrialisation, urbanisation, the rise (and fall) of Imperial Japan, their disastrous defeat in World War II, and their subsequent peacetime Westernisation have made the Japanese people acutely aware of the pace of change over time. Naturally, time travel eventually found its way into Japanese art, including anime.

Perhaps the earliest time travel anime was Osamu Tezuka’s pornographic 1970 film ‘Cleopatra: Queen of Sex’. Tezuka is better known, obviously, for a vast corpus of works, the most prominent of which is Astro Boy. Anime News Network summarises the plot as follows: “Three people from the future are spiritually sent back in time to relive the era of Caesar, Marc Anthony and Cleopatra. As close companions to these key historical figures, they seek to understand the nature of an enemy's plan in their own time.” No doubt it features quite a lot of sex as well (note: I have not watched it in the past, and I shall not watch it future).

The first time travel anime series appears to have been Time Bokan, which aired 61 episodes from 1975–1976. I daresay it qualifies as the first child-friendly time travel anime. It followed the old ‘mad scientist creates a time machine and goes on adventures’ cliché first found in ‘The Time Machine’ itself.

I must, of course, mention Doraemon, the classic children’s manga/anime about the time travelling robotic cat. Although it was not adapted into an anime until the 1980s, the manga first came out in 1969.

Various other time travel anime came out through the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Perhaps the first which the reader is likely to recognise (or at least the first I recognise (other than Doraemon)) was the long-running shonen Inuyasha: A Feudal Fairy Tale. The first 167 episodes originally aired from 2000–2004, while the final 26 aired from 2009–2010. The main female character, Kagome, travels back in time through her family shrine’s well to Japan’s feudal age. There, she meets the half-demon Inuyasha and accidentally causes the events which will take 193 episodes to resolve. During this period, Kagome (and Inuyasha) can (and do) travel between the two time periods at will by passing through the well.

Mamoru Hosoda’s anime film ‘The Girl Who Leapt Through Time’ came out in 2006. This featured a different type of time travel to the others mentioned. Rather than travelling back and forth between two static periods, the main character gains the ability literally to leap back in time along her own personal timeline and redo events. She uses the power to correct any mistakes she has made, avoid awkward situations, and otherwise take advantage of her foreknowledge.

That year also saw the airing of the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. In this bizarre series, narrated from the perspective of ordinary high-schooler Kyon, one of the main cast of characters is a time traveller who travels back in time to investigate the mysterious nature of the titular character. The time traveller comes from a society which is used to time travel, but which has discovered that it has become impossible to travel further back in time than a certain event in Haruhi's life. It seems that Haruhi has somehow unconsciously caused this anomaly. Incidentally, Haruhi may or may not be God. The episode 'Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody' sees the time traveller and our hero, Kyon, travel back into Haruhi's past, possibly creating a time paradox in the process.

Quite apart from that, the infamous Endless Eight arc features eight successive episodes depicting the exact same series of events each episode until the characters can find a way out of the time loop in which they find themselves. The difficulty is that even Kyon's memories are reset. Only Nagato, the virtually emotionless space alien who is also here to investigate Haruhi retains her memories, enduring the same two week period more than 15,000 times (more than 575 years).

Perhaps the most famous time travel anime is 2011’s Steins;Gate. Self-proclaimed mad scientist Hououin Kyouma (real name Okabe Rintarou) accidentally invents a time machine. This microwave-based time machine can be used to send bananas, text messages, or memories back in time. Technically, neither the time traveller’s body nor his mind travel to the past. It is thus distinct from the other time travel anime I have mentioned, where the time travellers physically travel through time. However, sending the memories back in Steins;Gate has the same effect as if Kyouma's body or consciousness were indeed travelling through time, enabling him to alter the events depicted in the memories. Kyouma finds himself drawn into a game of cat and mouse with the wicked CERN, which in the future develops an actual time machine and uses it to become a totalitarian dictatorship.

Another anime that involves sending text messages back in time is, of course, Future Diary, which originally aired from 2011 to 2012. As you probably know, twelve characters are granted diaries which can predict the future, and they must use this foreknowledge to outwit and kill one another until only one remains. The prize? The winner will become Lord God of Space and Time, replacing the former occupant of this position. Of course, there is a lot more to it than that, but, you know, spoilers.

Yet another popular time travel anime from 2011 is Puella Magi Madoka Magica. I am not at liberty to divulge the nature of the time travel involved, because of spoilers. Suffice it to say that, much like Steins;Gate, this anime depicts the tragic personal costs that so often constitute the sad fate of the time traveller.

In 2015, we had Charlotte, an anime about kids with superpowers (a good one, though). As it happens, one of those superpowers is time travel. More, I cannot say.

Last year saw three more highly popular time travel anime come out, namely Erased, Re:Zero, and Orange. In Erased, the MC’s consciousness travels back in time to his child self, providing him with the opportunity to solve a mystery surrounding the killings of a number of children that transpired in his home town. It is widely considered (including by myself) to have been over-hyped. In Re:Zero, the MC is mysteriously transported to another world, where he gains the ability to return to a ‘save point’ every time he dies. Essentially, time reverses but Subaru (and Subaru alone) retains his memories (either that, or Subaru's consciousness travels back, the effect being the same). Re:Zero is rather more highly regarded than Erased. In Orange, a group of friends somehow receive letters from their future selves containing instructions about how to save a friend of theirs from death. It is never quite explained how this time travel is achieved, other than some vague nonsense about black holes in the Bermuda Triangle.

A fourth 2016 time travel anime is the children’s educational anime Time Travel Girl, where a girl travels back in time meeting famous scientists and learning some science along the way. Yay, science.

In addition to these 'time travel anime' (anime in which time travel is part of the premise), various other anime which are not primarily 'about' time travel have nonetheless used the trope. The most notable are surely Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z. Fairy Tail also uses it (Ultear possesses the ability simply to reverse time, either on a small-scale or for a brief period), and one of the Naruto Shippuden films does as well. Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle, while mainly a journey across different dimensions, also involves some journeying through time.

A series which cannot go unmentioned is the happily never-ending Fate franchise. The basic premise is that mages summon to the present heroic spirits from ages past (or indeed future (or even fiction)) in order to fight on their behalf in the Holy Grail War, a battle to claim the omnipotent wish-granting device, the Holy Grail. Essentially, heroes die and then wake up in (usually) their future (the actual present, assuming there is such a thing). The Grail provides them with all the knowledge they could need about the present too.

The reanimation jutsu in Naruto works the same way: the dead are summoned back to life in "the future", not perceptive of any time having passed.

Yet another variation on the theme occurs in Makoto Shinkai's characteristically melancholy Voices of a Distant Star. The 2002 short film takes advantage of Einstein's theory of relativity, which tells us that time moves differently depending on the speed at which one is travelling. Two high school friends (with undisclosed crushes on one another) are separated when the girl is sent to travel through the solar system and beyond in military pursuit of alien raiders (Ender's Game, anyone?). Time moves much more slowly for the girl, who is travelling at tremendous speed across the stars, than it does for the boy, who remains on earth. The boy thus ages faster, and must also wait increasingly long and agonising periods to receive the girl's text messages.

It can thus be seen that there are many different ways in which time travel can be depicted. The very idea of time travel has evolved a lot over time. No doubt it will continue to do so. Time will tell.

What do you think of the time travel anime you have watched in the past? Which are the best and worst? Has time travel become too common in anime?

What do you think the future holds for time travel in anime?

Do you like the idea of time travel? Which type of time travel do you find the most compelling?