Summer Time Machine Blues (2005) by Katsuyuki Motohiro

During a sweltering summer heatwave, members of a high-school science-fiction club find themselves in a pinch when they break the remote for the air-conditioning in their clubhouse. An unlikely hero arrives in the form of Tamura, a time-traveller from the future, whose time-machine may offer a solution to their problems. The group begin experimenting, zipping back and forward through time to attempt to fix the broken air-conditioning remote. However, they soon realise that their tampering with time may have unintended consequences.

“Summer Time Machine Blues” is a feel-good summer comedy that manages to spin a wild tale from a very simple premise. It takes a little time to get going with the opening sequence, showing the members of the club playing baseball and at the local baths, providing an introduction to the characters. However, once the time-machine appears the pace picks up, with trips back into the first scenes making great use of the concept and low-budget, largely showing things from different angles or how seemingly innocuous events were caused by their time-travelling. Largely set around the clubhouse, the film manages to tie things together in a satisfactory way, explaining even the most minor details as due to their actions. The older cast seem out-of-place playing the childish students and the comedy is often rather forced, but the energetic plot and the way the film weaves together the narrative with characters in different time periods makes for an enjoyable watch. There is fun to be had in noticing details from earlier reoccuring in later scenes and realising the connections between their actions and consequences.

Time-travel always provides an interesting element to a film, with its related possibilities and paradoxes. The creators of “Summer Time Machine Blues”, clearly have a love for the genre and fit in many of these familiar ideas (the film includes “Back to the Future” showing at a local cinema). By taking such a ridiculous reason for travelling back, to fix the air-con remote, the film punctures the often pretentious nature of such narratives, with ideas of fate and free will seeming somewhat grandiose when set aside such an everyday concern. The story has a lighthearted feel that doesn’t concern itself overly with thematic depth or even character development; but works well as a summer farce.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) by Mamoru Hosoda

Makoto (Riisa Naka) is a high-school student who is often late and a little disorganized. She spends her free time hanging out with her friends Kosuke (Mitsutaka Itakura) and Chiaki (Takuya Ishida), a recent transfer student. After slipping on something in the science laboratory, Makoto finds herself with the ability to travel back through time. Able to rectify mistakes, or simply avoid difficult situations, she enjoys trying out her newfound powers. After speaking with her aunt Kazuko (Sachie Hara), Makoto begins to wonder if she should be using this ability for something more important. As well as helping out fellow students, by setting them up on dates, she also wonders about her own relationship with her friend Chiaki.

“The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” is based on a 1960’s serialized novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui that has been adapted a number of times through the decades. This film version is directed by Mamoru Hosoda, with a screenplay by Satoko Okudera. Makoto is a fantastic heroine, a tomboyish figure who encapsulates a teenage energy, whether irritated by her sister eating her pudding, or confused by her own feelings for Chiaki. Her peculiarities help her feel like a real character, as opposed to a simple archetype. The animation is expressive and action-packed, including small moments of movement that capture a sense of realism. Also impressive are the background details, particularly in the crowd scenes of the town or Makoto’s school that give the feel of a lived-in world. This also makes the scenes when time is frozen later in the film more powerful, with a sudden realization that everything has stopped. Seeing birds hanging in the air, or ball games locked in time is surprisingly effective in comparison with the lively scenes that precede it. The story is relatively straightforward as a high-school romantic comedy, but does include a few twists with the inclusion of time-travel. There are moments that are best not to consider too deeply, as with many paradoxes thrown up by the notion of time-travel, but they work within the fantasy nature of the film.

In the latter half of the film the story takes on a more contemplative aspect, with time itself becoming a central figure, one which warps and changes the world. We learn that Chiaki is from a future where a particular painting no longer exists, and he also makes reference to there being far more people in the present world than the future. A slightly worrying statement that is not expanded on. We also see two moments when characters who would have died are given a second chance through time-travel. “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” shows off the fun ‘what if’, but also brings us back to a consideration of what it means to be unable to return to former situations or change time (a reality Makoto must finally return to). We must learn to live with our mistakes, to seize the moment when it comes to romantic relationships, or friendships, in short to live without do-overs. The film ends on a bittersweet note that underlines the fact that it is about more than the comedy and romance, that it has a real message for the audience of grasping the present and setting yourself hopefully towards the future.

The Door into Summer (2021) by Miki Takahiro

Based on a novel by Robert A. Heinlein with a screenplay by Tomoe Kanno, “The Door into Summer” is a science-ficiton infused romantic drama. Soichiro (Kento Yamazaki) has a tragic run of bad luck, losing both his mother and father, and then his step-father. Soichiro’s only friends in the world are a stray cat he names Pete; and his step-sister Riko (Kaya Kiyohara). Following her father’s death, Riko goes to live with her uncle Kazuhito (Hidekazu Mashima) who runs the robotics company that Soichiro works for. After being double-crossed by Kazuto and his partner Rin (Natsuna), Soichiro decides to go into a cryogenic sleep for 30 years, finding things changed in unexpected ways when he reawakens in the future of 2025.

The film’s main failing is an overly complicated plot that takes so much time to explain that it leaves little room for character development or emotional attachment. The relationship between Soichiro and Riko, and even Soichiro and Pete are largely forgotten about for a long period after he wakes up in the future. The use of cryo-chambers and time-travel make things interesting, but cause the film to feel disjointed, without a clear focus on a central plot element. When Soichiro wakes up in the future he finds that things have changed and sets about finding out what happened to his former company, but it seems out of character for him, who would surely be more concerned about what happened to Riko, and leaves the audience missing that more meaningful story. By only moving things forward a few years from where we are currently the film also forgoes the opportunity to offer an exciting futurist world, with things appearing little changed aside from the mass adoption of androids and holographic signpost. Ideas of time-travel, androids, and technological advancement would all have been interesting aspects to explore, but the film seems to ignore in its most intriguing elements. The actors all doing a good job with the light romance and melodramatic evil corporation storylines, Yamazaki and Kiyohara have good chemistry as the step-siblings which makes it even more disappointing when they are separated.

Early in the film Soichiro explains that in winter, Pete wants all the doors opening, believing that he can find a door back to warmer, summer weather. Similarly Soichiro wants to use technology to travel into what he hopes will be a brighter future, without realising that life cannot be so easily ignored. The film’s central message seems to be that you have to pass through the dark times to reach the light, but again it strangely doesn’t dwell or expand on this theme. “The Door into Summer” has a lot of interesting ideas but never fully realises them, instead using science-fiction as window dressing to tell a rather lacklustre romantic story. There is far too little character development and a plot that is so focussed on getting from A to B that it forgets to tell a meaningful story along the way.

The Drifting Classroom (1987) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

Based on the horror manga by Kazuo Umezu, “The Drifting Classroom” follows a group of International School students in Kobe after their classroom is lost in a time-slip. Shou (Yasufumi Hayashi) leaves home after arguing with his mother, heading out to school where he meets up with his other classmates. Not long into the school day the building begins to shake. At first believing it is an earthquake, the teachers and children try to remain calm as they assess the damage. However, looking out of the window they see that they are in a mysterious desert-like world. They are later threatened by aliens attacking the school. They must learn to adapt and survive in this hostile new environment, while back in Kobe the people speculate about the sudden disappearance of the school.

“The Drifting Classroom” is a chaotic, action-packed, children’s adventure film with dark undertones. It shifts rapidly from a spirit of light-hearted comedy as the children explore this new world, their familiar surroundings made unfamiliar as they are now filled with sand, and terrifying horror as giant insect-like aliens arrive to terrorize them. The film mixes in other elements such as survival drama as they elect a leader and try to work out how to live on the supplies available in the school. The young cast do a great job, bringing a youthful exuberance to their roles. The primary characters are Shou, Mark (Thomas Sutton), Ayumi (Aiko Asano) and the youngest Yu, but the supporting cast do a fantastic job in creating a sense of barely controlled chaos, such as you might expect in a school full of children in such circumstances. Obayashi’s direction is suited to this bizarre blend of science-fiction, horror, and adventure, with the sympathetic camera moving wildly in concert with the cast. The ambitious story, involving time-slips, other worlds, and aliens, is achieved with a blend of CG special effects, green screen, and stop motion creature work. It is a story full of twists that is endlessly entertaining.

While the premise of the film, a school caught in a timeslip, seems like it would lend itself to a relatively slight fantasy drama, there is a dark subtext to “The Drifting Classroom” that sets it above a simple throwaway adventure tale.

If you wish to avoid spoilers, please check out the film before reading further.

Part way through the film, Shou finds a memorial in the desert with the names of all the teachers and pupils he is stranded with. Other hints in the film, such as a character telling Shou’s mother that “children always go to the future”, and the slow pull out shot at the end of the film, indicate that in fact these children are marooned on a hostile post-apocalyptic earth, devastated possibly by nuclear war (an earlier scene sees one adult shouting “they finally pushed the button”). The film doesn’t shy away from death, with many students perishing due to a lack of food, and the aforementioned memorial. It confronts it’s audience, primarily children, with these harsh realities about life. The filling of the school with sand is an incredible visual metaphor for the timeslip they have gone through. They are literally trapped in the sands of time, left abandoned by previous generations thoughtless or reckless actions. Though there is hope at the end of the film, it is slight, with the children abandoned to their fate on this inhospitable planet, presumably ruined by those that came before. The ecological, anti-nuclear message is never made explicitly, but it is clearly there. A fantastical adventure with a troubling message about the world we leave to future generations.

HELLO WORLD (2019) by Tomohiko Ito

Naomi Katagaki (Takumi Kitamura) is a shy, bookish high-schooler who is assigned to the school’s library team, alongside other students including Ruri Ichigyo (Minami Hamabe). Ruri is also quiet and it seems that the two would make a good couple if either was confident enough to make the first move. The Kyoto of 2027, when the film is set, is part of a large scale project by the government to record the city for a vast historical record. Naomi is forced into action when he meets a future version of himself who explains to him that Naomi’s reality is in fact a version of Kyoto stored in a computer system known as Alltale. This future Naomi (Tori Matsuzaka), explains that it is imperative that he establishes a romantic relationship with Ruri and protects her from a tragedy that is to occur in the near future. With his future self’s help, Naomi sets about doing this, also being given a powerful tool to manipulate the simulated world around him; but things to not go smoothly when the system begins to reject the changes that they are causing to the historical record.

Based on a screenplay by Mado Nozaki and directed by Tomohiko Ito, “HELLO WORLD” switches up the highschool romance formula with elements of time-travel and science-fiction. Naomi is a familiarly sympathetic awkward teen, who struggles to confess his feelings to Ruri, who later transforms into something more akin to a superhero along with world-changing powers. It is an interesting dynamic, drawing together the two genres of high-school romance and superhero action. The film pulls several narrative twists throughout that keep things interesting and break with tradition, reveals about the true nature of the world and character motivations.

Heavily utilising computer-aided design and animation techniques, these stylistic choices pay off later in the film with truly incredible moments when Naomi’s reality begins to break apart around him. The use of computer animation also allows for a striking contrast between rainbow coloured elements and hyper-realistic backgrounds that gives the film a unique feel and helps further the sense of a world that is at once tactile and believable yet prone to collapsing into a the maelstrom of a corrupted computer system. The visualisation of computer program elements, a mix of authoritarian police officers and folkloric animal spirits further demonstrates the film’s creative blending of genres and styles. It is a testament to the strength of the protagonists that with such a chaotic backdrop of collapsing realities, not to mention the very nature of their own existence, that the central relationship between Naomi and Ruri manages to hold our attention and inspire sympathy for their situation.

“HELLO WORLD” is a curious film as it juggles several plots at the same time. Naomi’s relationship with Ruri, his attempt to become the hero of his own story, win the beautiful maiden and save her and the world from its impending doom, is a familiar journey for young male protagonists. Through his spiritual and emotional guide, the older version of himself, he learns to be confident and finally manages to transcend even his ‘all-knowing’ mentor to become able to direct his own destiny. The other theme the film tackles is the nature of reality and questions around fate, free will and the purpose of our personal struggles. Naomi takes the knowledge that he is part of a computer program surprisingly calmly, considering he is being told that he is not living in the real world, only a simulation. Everything around him is essentially pre-recorded and therefore predestined. This new understanding of the world around him gives him great power, allowing him to manipulate the events and people around them as his future self directs him to. It also challenges the audience to consider if it would be possible to alter this ‘reality’, something the computer program attempts to counter as it would jeopardize the stability of the system. More interestingly than these free will versus determinism questions, is the focus on Naomi’s own psychology. He continues to fight for Ruri, whom at first he is even reticent to talk to, despite learning that in fact this world he is in is not the true reality. It is an interesting dilemma and highlights the idea that humans can only interact with the world subjectively. To Naomi, his experience is all that matters; there is no point fighting for anything other than his own desires, even those of his future self. “HELLO WORLD” is a film that weaves a psychological science-fiction narrative through a romantic high-school melodrama, creating a story that toys with your mind as much as your emotions.