Interpretations of time-travel in anime

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

*Credit goes to Random Curiosity, Ultimatemegax, and Kurogane’s Anime Blog for the screencaps*

16 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. AceRailgun says:

    Good post. I wrote a draft post about this topic but now I should probably wait a while to release it as you’ve pretty much covered everything I planned to say.

    Time travel is a complicated thing because there isn’t a solid set of rules and it’s always open to interpretation by the writer and that’s why you always end up with a different form of time travel every time.

    I only just realized that time travel is usually linked with tragedy. Steins;Gate and Madoka both have a really depressing reason for time travel and maybe this is the spin on time travel I should explore in my post.

    • Yumeka says:

      Heh, sorry I unintentionally took your post idea ^^,,, But yeah, exploring the tragedy of time-travel sounds like an interesting topic. I certainly think you could argue the tragic theme whenever time-travel is used in anime, even for Haruhi if you wanted to go out on a limb =P

      I look forward to reading the post whenever you get around to it.

  2. Alejandro says:

    Great post. But, as a Haruhi fan, I have noted that there are not just 3 Kyon, but 4. You are forgetting the Kyon who appears when the Disappearance’ Kyon is almost killed by Asakura.

    • Yumeka says:

      Actually, I’m only talking about the Kyons on Tanabata. The one who’s almost killed by Asakura is one (of three again) that exist on December 18th right after Yuki changed the world. The other two Kyons from that time-line are the “real” one of that time, probably asleep in bed when everything was happening, and the one that comes to rescue the one that got stabbed by Asakura.

      I think that’s right…time-travel is so complicated, especially in Haruhi, so I may be mistaken too XD

  3. marthaurion says:

    Wow…this is amazing. Just a couple of days ago, I was having a conversation with my friends about this very subject. I’ll give my general thoughts:

    So, in the first case, all of time is set in stone and if you go into the past, the universe would have already had you go to the past, so you can’t change anything. But this runs into the problem of a scenario that my friend pointed out. Say you were given an option: you can gain Jedi powers or get a Delorean like the one in Back to the Future. Could you then go back in time and force yourself to choose the other option? Well, if we assume time is set, then right before you make your initial choice, you would appear in the Delorean and say “dude, get the Jedi powers.” But what stops you from choosing the Jedi powers anyway? In this interpretation of time, there almost has to be an all-powerful being (say, the force of Time itself) that watches over these incidents and prevents these paradoxical situations.

    Let’s take the second case, where you can overwrite the past. This one simply begs the question: what happens the original timeline when you go back, embody yourself, and change it? Does it just go away/get eliminated? Are you destroying worlds? And also, you have to wonder: what happens if you go back in time further than your birth date? You would theoretically be unable to return.

    I feel like those cases have some slight inconsistencies, so here’s my theory. First, let’s start with the theory of Steins;Gate, where each timeline is like a parallel line among an infinite number of timelines. Now, when you travel “back in time,” you’re actually travelling to a nearby parallel with a universe identical to your universe up to the point in time you wish to reach. For example, if you want to go to 1990, you go to a timeline that has the exact same universe, but has only reached 1990. Since there is an infinite number of lines, it can be argued that such a line exists. You could also add in the stuff with the convergence number too…about certain events being deterministic unless you break a certain convergence factor (such as a person’s death).

    But the convergence number isn’t all that important. The important bit is that since you are travelling to another line, you are technically an outsider of this universe, so you wouldn’t embody yourself (like Rintarou does), but you would just be a second instance of yourself. So theoretically, you could go back to the old 2012 universe or even a 2012 universe where you had changed the past in 1990. I’d say this is a bit more consistent than the other working theories of time travel, but it’s only a working theory. If there are any holes, please point them out…I love this topic and would love to refine my theory.

    One last thing, I wanna say. Steins;Gate is so awesome for letting me think like this :D

    • marthaurion says:

      Quick amendment: I think that travelling back to a future that was altered may be a stretch…depends on whether you want to believe that you can change the future. Like asking “couldn’t you just travel to a different line with the same date, but the future is altered?” Then again, you could argue that only certain lines can travel to these lines…

    • Yumeka says:

      Thanks for sharing your speculations!

      Some of the things you mentioned remind me of ideas that were hinted at in books I’ve read. Basically, it’s the idea that for every choice you make, there exists a parallel world for each possibility of that choice, even if it’s something trivial like whether you decide to open the window one night or not. Obviously, if there was a parallel world for every choice that every being in the world could make, then that means an infinite number of parallel worlds. A form of time-travel could be the act maneuvering through those worlds.

      Anyway, time-travel is a great topic to speculate about…though it does give me a headache after a while XD

  4. Alterego 9 says:

    The butterfly effect is really interesting, and most writers still get it wrong. Even Bradbury simplified it a lot, with the same people and countries still existing in the alternate future, even though the timeline was altered before the very formation of mankind.

    In reality, there are so many tiny factors shaping history, that even the smallest butterfy effect a few hundred years ago would change EVERYTHING. If nothing else, then the conception of children is depending on so many random factors, that just distracting a random man with a butterfly for a few seconds would guarantee that all of his future children would have a different genetic identity, just like his future dice throws couldn’t be the same as they used to be. And after that, everyone that he ever interacts with (in a slightly different manner), would also be thrown off the loop by a few seconds, also modifying THEIR dice throws, child conceptions, and other life-altering decisions that are depending on a few seconds, and millimeters.

    Send back a butterfly to Europe, to 1000 A.D., and there would be no William the Conqueror. After that alone, the context of every war, every personal relationship, and every invention would be so different, that the entire landscape of the world would be unrecognizable. That somehow this would could still lead to the Statue of Liberty being built, Hitler being born, or the Internet as we know it existing, ignores hundreds and thousands of details that led to these situations.

    • Yumeka says:

      Oh, very interesting thoughts about the butterfly affect. Now that you mentioned it, I can see that Bradbury did simplify it in his story. I guess that would mean that anime and probably a bunch of other media works just plain ignore it =P

  5. Kal says:

    I LOVE time travel themes. Some of them are done really well, others, not so much. You mentioned the 2 types of time travel that I have seen as well. The one where there is a single timeline, and the one where there are multiple universes created with each change (or they already exist). The multiverse in that case. The prisoner of Azkaban is another good example of a single timeline, where the events they did in the 2nd half already affected the events in the first half. A single line. Hard to pull off, but really good when done right. Everything has to be taken into account because it cannot modify what already happened, because it should have already happened… Or something like that :S Haruhi is on this more complex line as well. Time paradoxes can come into effect on this one though (you cannot make a change if it is not already there because it should have already happened… Well, it is a paradox after all…).

    The multiverse one is probably simpler. All changes exist at the same time, or overwrite previous changes. So it is a bit easier to work with, since you do not have to keep track of so much. The other universe, or timeline is just there. The time traveler can jump between then, or switch to another one by making a change. Like Madoka. There are no real paradoxes here, it’s just another timeline or universe.

    Anyway, I love when this is done right. It adds great complexity, but also great potential for storytelling.

    • Yumeka says:

      Heh, I was gonna mention Prisoner of Azkaban but I decided to just stick with anime examples (the post was long enough already XD)

      But yeah, good thoughts. I agree that the singular time-line theory is harder to work with than the multiverse one since everything has to connect. In the multiverse one, since possible outcomes can be negated or exist independent of each other in parallel worlds, that lessens the possibility of paradoxes.

  6. KRILL says:

    All I can say with regurgitating what other people have already elaborated on, is that Haruhi and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, are some of my FAVORITE anime examples or really even across any media. It was just done SO WELL. I loved it. But my favorite time travel yet would have to be the incident in the manga called The Drifting Classroom. It was just awesome for me, and its a classic horror manga but a sense of dread really lingers throughout the whole thing.

    • Yumeka says:

      Oh yeah, I forgot about The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. If I recall correctly, she didn’t run into her past self but sort of became her past self upon time-travel, so that would be an example of the first interpretation I mentioned =)

  7. Adziu says:

    I was going to ask if you’d seen The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

    Honestly, I think the presentation of time travel is pretty consistent with how it is in most science fiction, including the same paradoxes and conflicting theories regarding whether there can be parallel universes or if there’s a single timeline.

    Final Fantasy XIII-2 is also entirely based around these conflicts.

  8. Bill Billson says:

    Time is a constant stream for the multiverse (what contains all universes) and the biggverse (what contains all multiverses). One cannot go back in time; only transport from one universe to the next (same principle with multiverses and biggverses). Due to the multiverse theory, there are an infinite number of universes where all possibilities are played out. Therefore, you could travel to a universe that is similar or the same as our own that is at the same level of development as we are or further in development. However, the chances of such travel to a similar world are slim. What I am trying to say is that when you supposedly travel in time, you are going to a universe that is the same as ours except behind or ahead of us. This means that you can’t change the past of your own universe, but you can change the present of another universe that has the same past as ours (this would be the equivalent of changing the past or future). Due to this reality, paradoxes do not exist.
    TL;DR — time travel technically does not exist

  9. Mushyrulez says:

    I remember talking about this extensively during my Steins;Gate posts, but I completely forgot what I said in them >_>

    Also: timelines are subjective, although we can construct a coherent model of the whole if we had all the information. Remember that when a character ‘goes back in time’ in the first sense, it is only their new memories that override their past memories; their body does not change. (Remember, whenever Homura time travels, she has to retrain her body to become less frail.)

    So, if you think of repeated time travelling (a la Rintarou) as a sort of broomstick (the handle is one long line, and the tip is a hundred different timelines), Rintarou’s body goes through all of those hundred different timelines, and when he injects his memory into a past Rintarou, the future Rintarou still continues about his life in that timeline.

    Thus, at the very end, after Rintarou has time travelled back to the same spot hundreds of times and finally given up, his final, /unique/ timeline looks sort of like a snake – it goes up to the tip of a bristle, back to the handle, up to another bristle, back to the handle, again and again and again. In other words, what am I even saying this is why I don’t think about time travel, my brain’s melting

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