Following on from last week’s look at Love & Pop Jason Julier tackles conceptually similar territory, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time from House director Nobuhiko Obayashi.

This week marks the debut of director Nobuhiko Obayashi, responsible for the barmy and surreal Hansu (House) in 1977 that tore up the directorial rule book and continues to amaze. While the film was unavailable outside of Japan, word of mouth raised its profile over numerous years.  Recent releases from Masters of Cinema and Criterion, the former of which was lauded by Hope Lies last year, finally gave us the distinctive taste of Hansu.

Much of Obayashi’s subsequent and admittedly less extravagant work remains unseen or overlooked. For that reason Eastern Premise avoids the predictable takes a look at the 1983 film; Toki o Kakeru Shojo, known as the Girl Who Leapt through Time. The film has been released internationally under slightly different guises with the variations around the time element, for instance the English title is Girl of Time.

Originating via the overlooked format of experimental 8mm and 16mm films, which were screened by the Art Theatre Guild, he moved into the realm of commercials and his efforts were distinctive and popular. Obayashi lacked the discipline and grounding that a studio mentorship provided in the traditional Japanese system. Bursting into the mainstream with Hansu, the film was a tremendous success and attracted a lost generation back to the cinema. In the 70’s Japanese studios were struggling against the might of foreign films and television. The Toho Studio took a risk backing an incoherent proposal from a relatively unknown outsider. Obayashi never looked back from this springboard and continues to direct feature films today.

A common theme throughout much of his work is the backdrop of school and the supernatural. Those young high school girls who ventured into Gorgeous’ Aunt’s house in Hansu would not be the first to experience the bizarre and unexplainable forced upon them by the director. In the Girl Who Leapt through Time things start out innocently enough with pupil Kazuko Yoshiyama played by actress Tomoyo Harada, enjoying high school life. Things take a dramatic turn when she is asked to clean up the science laboratory one evening, before knocking over an unknown, simmering substance. Discovered by her classmates’ unconscious, the school are at pains to diagnose her collapse as anaemic and not because of her exposure to the toxic substance, which turns out to be lavender related.

This event results in a unique ability where Yoshiyama can travel back in time after smelling lavender. It is during these trips that a childhood love starts to blossom and an alien time traveller appears to explain all. Based on the famous 1967 Japanese novel from Yasutaka Tsutsui, the original text has been the source of inspiration not only for Obayashi but many others. A feature film from Mamoru Hosoda in 2006, a television series, a drama and an anime adaptation are just a couple of examples. General consensus is that Hosada’s looser adaptation is the better film but for Eastern Premise it lacks the charm and independence of Obayashi’s 80’s effort, which was scripted by Wataru Kenmotsu.

While the director seems restrained in his presentation from the stuffy school uniforms to the approach he adopts. It is worth watching the fringes as you can see the dazzling touches that Obayashi adds to what many consider to be a conservative piece. The skyline at times is an extension of the Hansu pop-fuelled palate and his use of editing remains forever interesting. For Obayashi it is not what unique perspective or angle you can adopt whilst shooting a scene but rather the post-filming flourishes you can inject later, as he directs and edits his projects. Yes, at times proceedings are as conservative as any Yasujirō Ozu film, but you soon realise that Obayashi will have a surprise in store just around the corner.    

The whole film reeks of the 80’s decade and has that MTV feel, where you’d expect excerpts to be shown on a ‘best of the decade’ musical montage and not look out of place. The only things missing from your period pop music video would be the outrageous hairstyles, shoulder pads and thick makeup. This also applies to the special effects that have dated badly on first impression, however fans of the director will devour these moments as pure unadulterated Obayashi. The budget plays a part in these technical limitations however key scenes still have a unique appeal about them; from the opening winter sky orientated sequence to the time travel moments and flashbacks to life as a child. Obayashi even goes so far as to squeeze in a pop video for the main theme as the final credits roll, involving the cast and memorable backdrops. This was a massive hit in Japan at the time and propelled Tomoyo Harada to fame; even today the song remains well known.

Other versions of the original text, particularly the anime and 2006 live action feature film are more widely available. However it is well worth tracking this effort for its charm before moving onto what we can only suggest is the purest Obayashi experience and his demented masterpiece; Hansu. A Japanese blu ray edition of the Girl Who Leapt through Time is set for release next month but disappointingly will not include English subtitles.