Time-travel has been a popular trope in science fiction media for a long time, and anime is no exception. While not extremely common in anime, there are nevertheless a handful of titles where time-travel plays an important role. Today I want to examine how time-travel is interpreted differently in a few such anime…
Before I get started, I should first mention that I have never done research on time-travel nor am I versed in any lingo sci-fi buffs may use to describe specific facets of time-travel. So I apologize in advance if my descriptions lack appropriate terminology and non-anime sci-fi references.
There are actually two prominent interpretations of time-travel that I’ve seen most used in anime. The first one involves a situation where a character goes back in time and his or her present existence overrides their past one.
Homura’s time-traveling in Madoka Magica is a good example of this interpretation. While Homura continually travels back in time to find a way to prevent Madoka from becoming a magical girl, her present self is continually inserted into the existence of her past self – only her memories rather than her body time-travel if you will, and become the memories of the Homura in the new time-line. This means that two of her won’t exist in the same time-plane; she simply becomes her past self each time she time-travels, with her memory staying intact. This makes it seem that, rather than her present self traveling back in time and becoming an “extra” being in that time-plane, she’s resetting time, becoming her past self over and over again rather than having both her present/future self and past self existing at the same time.
The time-travel in Haruhi favors the second interpretation. The various times Kyon and others have traveled back in time, they’ve encountered their past selves, and have even had to interact with them to some extent. Unlike Homura, when Kyon travels back in time, he doesn’t override the existence of his past self; instead, he exists independently of him. So each time he travels back to the same point in time, most importantly Tanabata of three years before the series starts, another of him is brought into that time-plane. This is why at one point in the series, three of him – along with three sets of memories – existed at that time at once: his “real” past self for that time, still in middle school, his self when he time-traveled there in Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody, and his slightly more future self when he traveled there again in The Disappearance.
This makes it seem that in the Haruhi universe, time is a continually flowing thing and the future is already established. As Mikuru has stated several times in the series, there’s already a predetermined future, so time cannot be constantly reset and discarded whenever one time-travels…which is exactly what Homura does in Madoka Magica. When Homura reaches a point in the time-plane she doesn’t want to continue – the point where Madoka dies after becoming a magical girl – she negates that time-line and whatever future it may have had.
Mirai Nikki touches on a similar theme as Madoka Magica, where Yuno is revealed to have traveled back in time in order to have another chance to get the future she wants with Yukki. What’s different in Yuno’s case compared to Homura’s however, is that when Yuno travels back in time, she has to kill her past self in order to take her place as the Yuno of that time-line. In other words, she can’t simply insert her memories and become her past self the way Homura does. She has to kill her past self or else two Yunos will exist in one time-plane. Something a bit unique about Mirai Nikki’s interpretation is that each time Yuno travels back in time, a new “world” is created (three total are brought up in the story) instead of one flowing wave of time continually being reset. This means that travel between each created time-line is possible rather than each being negated as soon as another one is created, which seems to be the case in Madoka Magica.
Some series opt to have both interpretations of time-travel play a significant role. Within the alpha time-line of Steins;Gate, Rintarou repeatedly goes back in time to find a way to prevent Mayuri’s death. In a similar way as Homura, only his memories go back in time and become the memories of his past self rather than two of him existing in the same time-plane (he can only travel back in time this way, not forward, which is also like Homura though whether Homura has the ability to travel into the future as well as the past isn’t specifically stated). Later in the story however, we find out that Suzuha’s time machine allows an actual body to travel back and forward in time. So, when Rintarou has to ensure that the beta and alpha time-lines align by making sure his former self witnesses a deceased Kurisu, he has to use the second method of time-travel; his whole being goes back in time, resulting in a period of time where two of him exist at once, just as Kyon experiences several times in the Haruhi series.
And even though the Haruhi series is driven by the idea of a preset, continuously flowing time-plane which I previously discussed, it’s also open to the possibility of time being reset and extra time-planes being created and overridden, much like in Steins;Gate and Mirai Nikki. “Endless Eight” is a prime example of how the series differentiates from time being reset versus time being traveled within. The former happens in “Endless Eight,” where the characters are forced to relive the same time period thousands of times. They’re not traveling back in time at the end of each loop, but rather, everything is reset before the old loop is negated and a new one begins again (except for Yuki of course, who experiences time as something continually flowing regardless of other circumstances). Likewise, the alternate world that arises in The Disappearance is seemingly negated after Kyon pushes the Enter key. But whether that alternate world was really destroyed (similar to Madoka) or continues to exist without Kyon (similar to Mirai Nikki) is up to interpretation (and a great scenario for a spin-off game!)
The now late Ray Bradbury wrote a fascinating time-travel short story called “A Sound of Thunder.” You can read a summary of it here, but it basically implies that even the slightest alteration in time – in the story’s case, even killing a butterfly millions of years in the past – can cause catastrophic alterations to the future. For the sake of telling their own story, you don’t see any major alterations to the world when characters in these anime mess with time other than an outcome that’s significant to the story.
A couple of the Pokemon movies – the 4th and 12th to be exact – even involve plots where the characters travel back in time and completely rewrite events in history with no catastrophic repercussions to the future. The 12th movie in particular had the characters travel back in time and almost cause events to occur that would erase their existence in the future (they literally start to disappear while still in the past) before last minute they’re able to change past events while simultaneously ensuring that their future will be as they left it. I’m sure what they did should cause major rifts in time and space, but hey, it’s a Pokemon movie we’re talking about.
Time-travel is an extremely complicated concept to pull off well in a story, so I commend anime like Steins;Gate and Haruhi that manage to do it with stark believability and few noticeable holes. There’s so much that can be said and argued about with the concept, that anime that use it can’t help but only convey specific facets of it that are important to their story. Just as words cannot fully convey the flow of time, anime and other media works can only offer us different interpretations to ponder.
“Time is the most undefinable yet paradoxical of things; the past is gone, the future is not come, and the present becomes the past even while we attempt to define it, and, like the flash of lightning, at once exists and expires.” – Charles Caleb Colton