How to Time Travel


The latest episode (7) of Jinrui featured fairy banana-induced time travel with the goal of making cakes.  This is certainly Jinrui-esque: a very complicated procedure to achieve an ironically trivial result, making it funny.  But what I want to focus on is not why Jinrui is the best anime of 2012 (which it is), but why its take on time travel is IMPECCABLE!

Or close enough.

In general, time travel plots tend to focus on either ethics or time paradoxes, or both.  Over the decades (centuries?), time travel has become more and more complicated.  And adding the constraints of physics to fiction has resulted in complex hard sci-fi time travel plots that nobody really understands.  One way or another, you’re going to go into some paradox.

Unless, of course, you ignore it.  Tenet #1 of flomu’s Guide to Time Travel in Anime reads:

1. Don’t overcomplicate time travel.

What I especially liked about this episode was how traveling through time wasn’t the main focus.  Rather, the overall goal was to find the assistant.  The scenes with the shapeshifting dogssistant (?) came off as more mysterious and dangerous than the mundane Watashis-baking-a-cake shots.  Time travel became an obstacle to this larger mystery instead of an amazing, revolutionary invention.  You don’t have people trying to go back through time to win the lottery or prevent a murder.  The sole mechanism of the time travel was a manufactured banana, and the fairies come right out and say so.

Furthermore, the fairies are the puppet masters here.  Everything happens in the fairy world, so there are no grandfather paradoxes or butterfly effects.  And since they hold all of the knowledge, we as the audience and observers of Watashi’s actions are not entitled to know the inner workings of time travel.  Jinrui does give a tiny nod to time paradoxes in the “disconnect,” but even that is quickly patched up by the magical fairies.

So the fairies suck all the complication out of time travel, ultimately turning it into a plot device instead of a plot crutch.  Jinrui doesn’t get bogged down with the overdone moral and ethical concerns of time travel, nor does it confuse the audience by trying to dumb down a concept that’s physically impossible.  And that’s impressive.

But now, we are confronted with a question:

Why does Jinrui use time travel at all?

I don’t have a good answer to that, mostly because I have no idea where Crazy Show wa Suitai Shinakatta will go next week.  Maybe it will go back and try to explain time travel from relativity and quantum mechanics and this whole post will be moot.  Or maybe it will follow tenet #2 of flomu’s Guide to Time Travel in Anime:

2. Make the result understandable.

Or “make it so that no matter how complicated time travel really is, the final state of everything is so stupidly clear that any question asked will sound stupid.”  For a good example of this, let’s turn to Steins;Gate.

Banana. What does it mean??

Steins;Gate: most popular anime of 2011, and something I put off until earlier this summer.

This anime has multiple devices that can perform some kind of time travel: the Phone Microwave, Kurisu’s Time Machine, etc.  None of these are explained in any detail, because Steins;Gate chose to focus on their effects, and made these effects very clear.  Letting Ruka send his text turned him into a girl.  Feyris’s text revived her father and made Akihabara disappear.  Time travel in this anime is nothing more than simple cause-effect relationships.

This is true, albeit less so, for Mayuri’s death.  Why does it always happen?  Why can’t it be prevented?  Simple: parallel worlds.  And what’s more, the main character has a convenient ability that can put the divergence of one world line from another into a simple number for the audience to understand.  The explanation behind the Divergence Meter and the Beta world line vs. the Alpha world line may be breaking tenet #1 above, but since so much emphasis is placed on the simple number and the very straightforward solution to the situation (undo all the texts), the plot is easily digestible.

As a result, the time travel side of the plot is clear, almost transparent.  We know Kyouma needs to undo all the texts, and we know, to some degree, what will happen when he does.  The surprises and drama kick in when Steins;Gate betrays these expectations of the results, not our expectations of what Kyouma must do to fulfill the transition between world lines.

I tried to think of a good ending to this post… but damn, I hate writing conclusions.  And since this isn’t my high school English class, I’ll just leave it at that.

P.S.: A note on the parallel worlds theory.  After thinking about it a bit longer, I realized that the parallel worlds structure of Steins;Gate is pretty easy to grasp, especially for anime fans who are familiar with multi-route visual novel structure.  And since this was originally a visual novel, it’s pretty obvious that this approach to time travel would be well-received (as opposed to timeline corruption via butterfly effect… something that restricts the plot much more and warrants a longer explanation).

9 Comments on “How to Time Travel”

  1. Marow says:

    I was kinda annoyed that Watashi didn’t seem to care that there were multiple copies that looked like her. Felt a bit off-character, you know?

    As for time travel itself, I really love it when it actually works. I have yet to see Steins;Gate, so I guess I should give that a shot?

    • windyturnip says:

      I found it hilarious how she dealt with her duplicates. There’s no question that it was strange, but I found it rather appropriate. I smirked a little when Watashi referred to her clones dark personality.

      As for Steins;Gate, you really should check it out if you have the time. I thought it was a tad bit overrated, and it did have its fair share of time travel gimmicks, but overall it was a very enjoyable experience.

    • flomu says:

      I found it hilarious how she dealt with her duplicates. There’s no question that it was strange, but I found it rather appropriate. I smirked a little when Watashi referred to her clones dark personality.

      I’ll agree with windyturnip on this one. I loved her nonchalant attitude. It really vibes with the rest of the show, where everything amazing is taken in stride.

      Steins;Gate is definitely worth checking out. It pulled off time travel pretty well, even if the conflicts didn’t seem too interesting to me.

  2. windyturnip says:

    This entire episode was so surreal that it became hard to follow at points. Not to say that it was a bad thing, as I’m sure it was all intentional. The way Watashi seemed so apathetic to her situation only added to this effect.

    I’m starting to wonder if the time changes are going to play a role in the overarching plot. Both this episode and the last one seem to be prequels to the actual first episode. Is this meant to serve a purpose or is it just meant to further confuse the reader?

    For that matter, can anybody draw a message from this episode because I certainly can’t. I hope it gets cleared up next time, but I’m sure I’ll enjoy myself either way.

    • flomu says:

      Last episode’s spacecraft empathy theme was pretty bad and I don’t think this episode actually has a message.

      As for an overarching plot, I’ve given up hope of that way back in episode 2. For me, the main appeal of the show is how shallow the premise is. Since there’s nothing aside from “humanity has declined” (and the main character doesn’t even have a name), the author can do whatever the hell he wants. In some cases, that means a bunch of snark about the manga industry, and in others, it means he can dabble in time travel. So while the episodes may not be ordered chronologically, I don’t think it really means anything.

      Or maybe next episode will, in fact, have a theme. SPECULATION SUCKS

      • windyturnip says:

        You’re the first person who has actually agreed with me on the fact that the last arc was the worst of the season. They pulled through at the end with a heartwarming ending, but overall it was rushed and didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

        I think the show will be just find without an overarching plot, but I wouldn’t give up on one just yet. It’ll be weak if it does appear, but some of the episodes are already making little connections to others.

  3. Mushyrulez says:

    There are films that focus on time travel, and there are films that use time travel. Most films use time travel (this episode of Jintai, the entirety of Steins;Gate) to help move the story, and those that focus on time travel are almost always boring.

    …Now, to extend on your post, I’ll ask: what other plot elements are similar to time travel, in that they’re interesting in and of themselves, yet they’re almost always only used to advance the plot?

    P.S. I wanted to end this comment with a sentence instead of a question but is that even possible?

    • Mushyrulez says:

      A STATEMENT NOT A SENTENCE is that right?

    • flomu says:

      Hey hey hey you should watch PRIMER. It’s a good movie about time travel where the story is pushed to the background in favor of a bunch of time travel stuff.

      what other plot elements are similar to time travel, in that they’re interesting in and of themselves, yet they’re almost always only used to advance the plot?

      I can’t think of any right now. Maybe… SWITCHING BODIES???

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