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Anime Time Travel: Who Got It Right?

by Paul Jensen,

Re:Zero has been making a bit of a splash this season, thanks in part to its time-bending premise. Every time the main character dies, he gets a chance to go back and try again, sort of like hitting the “restart level” option in a video game. Of course, this isn't the first time an anime series has tackled the subject of time travel. It's been a popular theme for quite a while, and it's given us a wide variety of story ideas over the years. Not all time machines are created equally, however, so here for your information and amusement are five methods of time travel in anime and manga ranked by how likely they are to actually work.

5. Trapped In History

Anime characters don't always have a choice in the matter when it comes to time travel. Sometimes they're just minding their own present-day business when some kind of magical portal or rift in the space-time continuum opens up and flings them into the past. That's what happens to Inuyasha heroine Kagome, who ends up back in Japan's Sengoku period thanks to some demonic shenanigans.

The one advantage characters in this situation often have is their knowledge of history. Predicting the future is a lot easier when it's still the past from your perspective, and knowing how events are going to play out can make a big difference. The only problem is that every action you take has the potential to change the course of history. That's exactly the dilemma presented in Zipang, where a modern Japanese warship ends up in the middle of World War II. Is it better to leave things unchanged or take a chance on rewriting the history books?

Plausibility: Low. Your odds of accidentally wandering into the past aren't great, but this is still a fun premise that allows writers to ask all kinds of interesting questions about history and culture.

Other Examples: Battle Girls - Time Paradox, Ambition of Oda Nobuna, and a whole bunch of other Nobunaga-related series

4. The Do-Over Button

Think of this as a much smaller-scale alternative to the previous scenario. Even if you don't want to change the outcome of a war, sometimes it helps to have the option of rewriting your own personal history. Characters in this situation often have some kind of magical power that allows them to rewind time and make a second (or third, or fourth) attempt at succeeding in a pivotal moment. The only problem here is that trying to avoid a bad outcome often leads to an even worse one, as certain characters find out in Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

Of course, this idea isn't the sole property of swords-and-sorcery shows; plenty of science fiction series have invented their own ways of jumping back in time to fix a mistake. Steins;Gate starts off with text messages and a heavily modified microwave, while The Girl Who Leapt Through Time presents a device that requires the user to quite literally jump into the past. Whether this technology is used to thwart global conspiracies or engage in romantic comedy hijinks is entirely up to the person using it.

Plausibility: Also low, but stories like this do tend to get at least one thing right: even if you give people a chance to undo their mistakes, they'll probably still find a way to mess everything up.

Other Examples: ERASED, Re:Zero, All You Need Is Kill

3. Visitors From Tomorrow

Cue the Terminator references, because this premise is all about characters from the future showing up in the present. Sometimes they're just here to make friends, like the classic children's series Doraemon where a robot cat from the future comes to the aid of a perpetually unlucky elementary school kid. On the other hand, they could be here to help you keep your eccentric classmate's godlike powers in check, like Mikuru from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.

People from the future don't always have the luxury of visiting in person, so in some cases they're limited to sending messages to the present. The manga series Orange features the main character getting a letter from her future self with instructions to save a classmate's life. Thanks a lot future self, I guess this is my problem now.

Plausibility: Going from the future to the present makes a little more sense than going from the present to the past, if only because future generations are more likely to have access to a method of time travel. Then again, I suppose it doesn't matter when a time machine is invented since it's, well, a time machine.

Other Examples: Noein, Future Diary, Occult Academy

2. Waking Up In The Future

Dying in your own time is bad enough. Getting resurrected hundreds of years later to help a bunch of silly future people solve their silly future problems is just annoying. Still, that's what happens to the Servant characters in the Fate/stay night franchise, all of whom are historical or mythological figures summoned to aid powerful magic-users in a fight for the Holy Grail. The culture shock of skipping a few centuries probably isn't helpful when you're already stuck participating in life-or-death duels, but at least the Servants get a shot at having a wish granted if they win.

For characters who haven't done anything worthy of being mentioned in a history book, there's always the good ol’ suspended animation approach. Just hop in a high-tech cryogenic tube, set the timer for your year of choice, and settle in for a long winter's nap. Just be aware that you run the risk of ending up like the protagonist of Blue Gender, who wakes up to find that the Earth has been overrun by ravenous mutant bug monsters.

Plausibility: It depends. Resurrecting historical figures in the present day is a tall order, but hitting the “pause” button on a living thing and waking it up in the future might be easier to pull off than actively traveling through time.

Other Examples: Drifters, Read or Die

1. Jumping Forward

Like the previous scenario, this premise involves characters traveling forward in time. The reason I'm drawing a distinction here is that this method involves the characters being awake and aware during their trip, instead of going to sleep in one era and waking up in another. In some cases, the characters may even play an active role in their journey by piloting a vehicle into the future. The mecha series Buddy Complex uses a giant robot for that task, because why wouldn't you use a giant robot if you had the option?

If you're not in control of your trip to the future, then chances are you're dealing with another one of those pesky time portals. For a delightfully odd example, take a look at Thermae Romae, which has an ancient Roman architect disappear underwater in a bathhouse in his own time and come back up in modern-day Japan. Who says involuntary time travel can't be relaxing?

Plausibility: Not as low as you might think. Our understanding of physics plays pretty well with going forward in time, at least compared to going backwards. Time passes more slowly for fast-moving objects relative to stationary ones, so you could theoretically make your way to the future by running around near the speed of light.

Other Examples: The Drifting Classroom, Voices of a Distant Star

And there you have it: enough cases of animated time travel to fill up a TARDIS, or at least a DeLorean. Got a favorite time travel series, or maybe one so bad that you'd like to go back and stop your past self from watching it? Let us know in the comments!

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