(Even as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is light on plot, I've no interest in spoiling the film, so you'll have to excuse a few ambiguous statements. If anyone has a request for spoiler-filled clarifications, I'll give them in the comments section.)
Before 2006, Mamoru Hosoda was only on the radar of a select few who were not close-minded enough to dismiss the possibility that two short Digimon films and one One Piece could actually be worthwhile. (Although they'll be forgiven for not knowing that Hosoda used the pseudonym Katsuyo Hashimoto as he
worked on multiple episodes of Revolutionary Girl Utena.) I'll cover those at a later time, but as curious anime critics will attest to, those works are not only good, but excellent. They float with an air of whimsy and appreciation for the minutiae of everyday life, even if their plots go far above the fascinatingly trivial characteristics that are so perfectly captured in the better Ghibli films. It should then be no surprise that Hosoda himself is a Ghibli alumnus. The man was poised to ascend as a spiritual successor to Hayao Miyazaki, but some apparent studio politicking forced him from his duty's as director as Howl's Moving Castle (even after having storyboarded more than a third of the movie!). His exit, along with Yoshifumi Kondo's (Whisper of the Heart) tragic passing in 1998, has left us with a Ghibli that seems to have been in a struggle to continue its legacy of excellence that Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata had established and maintained for decades.
But this is not to bog ourselves down as we look over our shoulder into a past that can and should have been better. Hosoda himself recognizes this (and will be explained later), and this virtue is what led him to create his critically-acclaimed piece that finally put him on the map: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.
High school student Makoto Konno, after slogging through one of the worst days of her life -- waking up late, utterly failing a quiz, scalding herself when cooking and starting a fire, getting inadvertently hit as some boys goofily play around, and nearly (!) killing herself at a train crossing -- manages to survive and go through the past thanks to an accidental event that allows her to leap through time. From this contrivance Hosoda shows a montage of hilarious situations where Makoto milks this gift, such as getting to the pudding before her sister does, working in ten hours of karaoke in one day, or besting her friends in baseball. The prevailing strengths of the Digmon and One Piece are on full display as Hosoda effortlessly shows through understated character animation the comical stumbles and triumphs that Makoto encounters in her pursuit of, what she feels, wrongs that need to be righted. However, it is when the potential love lives and interests of and from two of her closest friends, Chiaki Mamiya and Kousuke Tsuda, where short-term plans are shelved. Amidst confessions and confusions, Makoto avoids and pushes other characters, but never gets it right through incidental complications she's created. Her situation becomes more serious as a boy she had switched places with in order to avoid the cooking burn and fire is now bullied by others; he eventually responds to even more radical degrees to his assailants. Even when Makoto time leaps to save one of her friends, another is still hurt, establishing the fact that things have gone wildly out of control with the young girl's self-indulgent meddling.
At last, as the final third of the film begins, the story turns a notch darker, back to the roots of the original novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui (Paprika). This pseudo-sequel to the aforementioned book (which has been adapted numerous times into live-action) does gradually grip its science-fiction trappings. After an hour of sharp comedy, showing just how important these small-scale and throwaway incidents are to teenagers, Hosoda and screenwriter Satoko Okudera throw in a morbid though retrospectively fittingly planned twist. It is a literally time-stopping event, one that reveals not only the origin for Makoto's sudden powers, but allusions to a larger history -- all beautifully edited and assisted by Kiyoshi Yoshida's (Kaiba, Shigurui) excellent musical score.
Undoubtedly this shift to a more dramatic tone and an ambitious, dark scope can be unsettling for viewers. As the film is from Makoto's perspective from start to finish, the transition is unexpectedly jarring. This can be seen and argued as a negative, though given Makoto's previous value on ridding herself of perceivable regrets while ignoring the consequences and big picture, it is less a drawback than a logical thematic development in a story of a girl who struggles with the consequences of her actions.
Still, even with an acceptance of how Hosoda leads into the third act, the climax itself obviously invites some well-considered criticism. A certain promise on the surface may fly in the face of logic, though isn't necessarily meant to be taken literally -- rather, it is an affirmation from one to the other about their relationship. (Though, of course, there is a rational explanation for literalists that satisfies a romantic's interpretation.) The film is one of growth by building upon all experiences -- as the song, "Garnet," for the movie's credits points out -- regardless if they were good or bad. All promises are not or even cannot be kept, but some are, and those can be the ones that truly matter for you and your loved ones. It's best not to be consumed by what could have been; instead, take your opportunities and run towards what can be achieved. This truth is the promise Makoto can make, and is what she learns and accepts by the film's end.
The recently released Summer Wars might well be a more tonally consistent work -- given the possibility that it may be a refinement of Hosoda's old ideas, I expect it to be -- yet that does not diminish the appeal and power of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Its optimism goes beyond placating the audience to become a very real message of coming to terms with the regrets and what-ifs of our lives to become better people. Mamoru Hosoda has plenty of years of greatness ahead of him, and I look forward to see where that ideal and passion takes him.