The Summer 2016 Anime Preview Guide
Time Travel Girl
How would you rate episode 1 of
Time Travel Girl ?
What is this?
Mari is the daughter of a pâtissier mother and scientist father, but the latter has been absent for three years on some kind of research trip. When her friend Waka asks her to help bake a cake for Futa, their mutual friend and Waka's crush, they visit her older brother Shun's room and borrow his computer to find a proper recipe. Mari soon finds a copy of Magnets and Electricity, a book she remembers her father having. When she opens it and touches a picture of William Gilbert, the pendant that she always wears activates, suddenly transporting her back in time to England circa 1600. There she meets Dr. Gilbert and gets a first-hand look at his research determining why compasses always point north. Meanwhile, a panicked Waka, who witnessed Mari's sudden disappearance, goes with Shun to Mari's father's lab to look for clues, and a mysterious man takes interest in the lab's lights, which have turned on for the first time in three years. Time Travel Girl is an original anime work and can be found streaming on Funimation, Fridays at 7:30 PM EST.
How was the first episode?
It's hard not to be at least a little charmed by Time Travel Girl. The show reminds me of watching educational programming like Wishbone back in the day, where episodic adventures were interspersed with tidbits of actual knowledge about history or literature. This first episode didn't get too heavily into the history or science lessons, but I can easily imagine it'll get a bit more education-heavy from here.
It also helps that the show has a strong sense of energy and a likable cast. The relationship between the two leads Mari and Waka feels both natural as a friendship and reflective of their two very different approaches to learning. Waka relies on information that already exists, and thus excels at school - Mari is more naturally inquisitive, but also less driven, and her test scores reflect that. The two have a charming rapport that lends itself to lots of wandering conversations, and the show's consistently strong silly faces keep things light.
The rest of the cast is similarly upbeat, and I really liked how basically everyone took the show's time travel premise in stride. The ability to travel through time is often framed as the main character's secret, but here, Waka and her brother end up investigating exactly what happened to Mari, while Mari herself makes immediate friends with William Gilbert. And the show's visual design is perfectly suited to its goals - attractive but fairly routine character designs, lots of funny expressions, and not too much animation.
All that said, so far the show is more charming and refreshing than legitimately gripping. It feels unmistakably defined as children's television in its rounded edges and fairly simple narrative, and it already seems easy to see how the show's episodic priorities will play out. It's a likable version of what it is, but “charming educational scifi for younger audiences” isn't the most rousing pitch. Certainly worth a look if any of this sounds compelling, but not likely to be what most late-night anime fans are looking for.
Time Travel Girl is a little different from the rest of the shows premiering this season in that it's apparently trying to educate as much as it entertains. There's a legitimate story about a girl searching for her missing scientist father, but that premise is used largely as an opportunity to have the main character run into famous scientists from various points in history. It reminds me a lot of the edutainment programs that I had to watch in grade school whenever my class had a substitute teacher. Give the kids a cartoon to keep them quiet, and justify it by pretending they're going to learn something from it.
Mari is very much the standard “teach me something” protagonist, eager to learn and yet conveniently lacking whatever knowledge the show's trying to impart to the audience. She's got a studious and responsible best friend, and together they'd probably have perfectly mundane adventures if Mari didn't get tossed into the past as a result of opening the wrong book. The search for her missing father is actually a reasonably compelling hook as far as these kinds of shows go, and some of this episode's attempts at comedy are at least vaguely amusing.
Of course, being an educational series means trying to wedge teachable moments into the story wherever possible, and the results are inevitably mixed. An early scene featuring proper use of an AED ends up burying whatever drama it may have had under a layer of stiff, instruction-manual dialogue. Mari's interactions with English scientist William Gilbert prove to be a little more interesting, which could bode well for any future time traveling antics.
Honestly, I think Time Travel Girl might have been better off throwing most of its story out the window in order to focus more on its educational content. The narrative isn't really compelling enough to be worth watching for entertainment value alone, and it doesn't leave much screen time for science trivia. I appreciate the intention behind this series, but it's having a tough time finding a good balance between getting the audience's attention and actually teaching them something.
This one was a pleasant surprise for me, as I did not expect that it was actually going to address most of the major concerns I initially had about the time travel scenario. For instance, that there is no language barrier when Mari finds herself back in early 17th century England is something that she wonders about, as she hears Dr. Gilbert speaking in Japanese but he hears her speaking in English. (Presumably some part of the time travel mechanism involves a universal translator?) The fact that a typical Japanese school girl in her school uniform would be considered immodestly dressed by the standards of Elizabethan England is also brought up, with Mari being forced to change clothes before leaving Dr. Gilbert's house with him. The writing also works around the issue of Mari providing spoilers by making her be an inadequate student in science, so she can learn about the topics as the viewer does. Given the time that this show is airing (early on Saturday mornings in Japan if Funimation is streaming it simultaneously) and that it is produced by Wao World, studio with an “Education and Entertainment” tag line in the credits, it is probably actually meant as an educational program focusing on electricity; after all, all of the other famous scientist shown in the opener were active in that field themselves. The Next Episode preview segment is also educationally-oriented.
Another thing I particularly liked was the attention to historical detail. William Gilbert was an actual medical doctor (he was Queen Elizabeth I's personal physician for the last two years of her life), and the theories that he described to Mari about why a compass always points north were actual contemporary theories. On the modern front, I also liked the accurate depiction of the use of CPR and an AED when Futa goes into cardiac arrest from getting hit in the chest by a baseball. However, I didn't like that there was no disclaimer about how Mari was incorrect to use CPR on the woman who fainted back in 1600. The technique is not supposed to be used on people who are actually breathing normally.
The particulars like these are where the strength of the show is at, as otherwise this is a pretty ordinary story which turns from an initial slice-of-life set-up into a time travel adventure. It is apparently not going to be a “historical scientist of the week” story since Dr. Gilbert's role in it is still active at the end of the episode. Hence we can probably expect 2-3 episode arcs for each scientist. (Unsurprisingly, the twist is that Mari's missing father may actually be cavorting around in the past, too.) The technical merits are completely unremarkable and perhaps even on the weak side.
But that doesn't stop this from being a completely inoffensive and even mildly entertaining little show, especially as educational programming goes.
I believe the term for this kind of show is “edutainment.” Time Travel Girl is clearly intended to teach kids about great scientists of the past, all of whom were impossibly handsome according to the opening theme, while still making it a show that kids might actually want to watch. Its first episode actually does a pretty decent job of it – it's as much about Mari herself and her friends and family as it is about science, with some fun time travel details thrown in.
Mari's first trip back in time is to London in 1600 to meet William Gilbert, who is trying to figure out why compass needles always point north. That itself isn't much touched on in the episode, being reserved for next week; instead we have Mari popping up in 17th century London and scaring some poor woman into a faint. Mari is about to find out what may have made her more susceptible to that – Gilbert invites her over to his house where his housekeeper is aghast at the fact that her school uniform shows her legs and so dresses her appropriately for the era…which means a corset. The corset-lacing scene is probably my favorite in the episode because it so well illustrates what daily life was like in 1600. (Plus, having once been laced into a Gibson Girl corset myself, I really feel for poor Mari.) The little scenes leading up to the dressing are also good, showing us the housekeeper glancing in horror a few times towards Mari's lap.
Pre-time travel the show doesn't quite work as well. Knowing that Mari's dad has been missing for three years is important to the plot, but I'm not entirely sure what the point of having Mari and her friend Waka witness their friend Futa going into cardiac arrest after getting hit in the chest with a baseball is. Presumably Mari is eventually going to learn what went into the technology behind creating the portable AED machine that saved his life, but in the short term all it seems to do is show how unbearably awesome Waka's older brother Shun is, and possibly how easily these kids get over traumatic experiences. As the ambulance with Futa in it is driving away, Waka's saying, “Let's go bake that cake!” to Mari and Shun's skipping off to cram school. Really? The show can take the time to explain that to Gilbert it sounds like Mari's speaking 17th century English while she hears 21st century Japanese from him and it can't give the girls a chance to be freaked out that their friend just died briefly?
As might be expected of what is basically a kiddy show, the art for Time Travel Girl is very simple, and I'm not terribly fond of it or the animation. It doesn't look bad, per se, but it also doesn't compare favorably even with the other kids’ show in this preview guide, Puzzle and Dragons. The Evil Government Agent (his character pretty much screams it) who shows up at the end implies that there's some deeper plot that will be revealed alongside Mari's adventures in science history, but it does feel like anything not taking place in the past is secondary at this point. It will be interesting to see if this show can ultimately overcome its edutainment roots and make a good story to go with the learning portion, but even if it doesn't, there are worse devices than time travel to make science fun.
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