What would you do if you could repeat the past?
It’s a common-enough trope of science fiction, from the genre’s early days to the present. In many of the theme’s most well-known iterations — think the famous episode ‘City on the Edge of Forever’ in Star Trek: The Original Series — characters are presented with opportunities to change history, and must grapple with the implications their personal choices could have on history writ large. In the award-winning Star Trek episode just mentioned, seemingly innocent choices could damn humanity; a gentle life saved could lead to the triumph of Nazi Germany.
Indeed, Manga is not without its share of grandiosity, but the genre lends itself well to the personal and introspective. The past year saw the release of three key pieces of manga which illustrate the personal and introspective dimension of the time travel trope often referred to as Setting Right What Once Went Wrong. Only in these manga the things that once went wrong are far from Star Trek-like or earth-shattering in scale.
A Distant Neighbourhood is the much-overdue republication of the long out-of-print English translation of a manga by Jiro Taniguchi, originally published in 1998-99 in Japan. It is, like all of Taniguchi’s work, a beautifully told story. Taniguchi died, sadly, on 11 February of this year. Yet his work lives on, and he writes with the grace of someone who understood the human soul and knew what makes it twinge with sadness and what makes it sing with joy. His work is both poignant and touching and replete with those moments of heartwarming beauty that leave the reader sighing with a comforting shiver of happiness.
His story here is subtle and provocative in its originality (a very personal time-travel story, where the character slips back into his 14-year old body while retaining the consciousness and memory of his 40-plus years), riveting in its narration (by the end it becomes a psychologically thrilling mystery of sorts, as the 14-year-old Hiroshi, reliving his youth, races against time to unravel — and perhaps prevent — the disappearance of his father that same long-ago year), and yet also poignant, sweet and reflective in its telling. Sitting on a bench in the forest, gazing at the trees and the sky overhead, he reflects on his predicament; an adult stuck back in his childhood body. It’s the sort of reflection that can only come from reliving one’s childhood, and Taniguchi clearly put a lot of work into doing so as he created this work.
Surely, no one can ever become an adult. / Deep in people’s hearts, their child-self remains. / Because of time people are forced to act like adults. / The shackles we call maturity shut down the free minds of children. / Now… being fourteen again, I felt like I could see all the things I’d overlooked last time.
As the reader shares the gentle thrill of Hiroshi’s rediscovery of young love, and the unfolding mystery of what happened — or will happen? — to his father, the lessons offered by Taniguchi are poignant ones. No matter how hard we try, we cannot escape our past, nor can we change it. But we can use it to better understand our present, and learn to live more fully in our present. Indeed, that is perhaps the greatest gift that the past has to offer those of us who live in the present — the ability to live in that present more fully and completely. Understanding the past does not necessarily mean changing it, but rather using its understanding to change our present, and render it more fulfilling.
Orange, by Ichigo Takano, is similar in many respects but different in emphasis. Its opening premise is a more creative spin on the usual: instead of glimpsing the future first-hand, a group of high-school friends begin receiving mysterious letters from their future selves. It turns out that one of their group, Kakeru, is going to die by suicide, and time is counting down for them to prevent that outcome. The letters from the future try to guide the younger selves, by warning them about particular incidents which they’ll only realize in hindsight were key to Kakeru’s final decision to die.
It’s a grim premise and one that keeps the reader in horrified thrall. At the same time, the narrative is buoyed along by the typical cutesy milieu that one would expect of a teen manga. And much of the manga’s message seems to be geared toward convincing the reader to have confidence to do and say the things that one wants, deep down — an appropriate yet common teen manga moral. Have confidence to do and say the things you feel, is the underlying message. Indeed, it’s the things the characters don’t do, moreso than the things that they do, which their future selves feel sealed Kakeru’s fate: words left unsaid, feelings left unshared, apologies not given.
But it’s also by drawing on the melodrama of teen romance manga that the author is able to draw out more complex philosophical questions. As it turns out, Kakeru and his schoolmate Naho have feelings for each other. In the future timeline, Kakeru and Naho each make mistakes and grow distant from each other, which is one of the things that sets Kakeru on his fatal path. Suwa, a mutual friend of Kakeru and Naho, winds up comforting Naho when she and Kakeru drift apart, and after Kakeru’s death Suwa and Naho eventually wind up happily married with a family.
Yet in the alternate timeline, in which the friends receive letters from the future and seek to prevent Kakeru’s death, Suwa deliberately draws away from Naho, in order that she and Kakeru will have a better ability to keep their relationship intact. The other friends in their group critique this decision: does Suwa have the right to deprive his future family of their happiness together, of their very existence, for that matter? Even if it means saving his friend’s life?
It’s a sordid, yet complex dilemma. Takano handles it deftly, inventively and well.
Erased, by Kei Sanbe, combines a more overt sci-fi element with that of a mystery thriller. The central character, Satoru, is an unlikely and unwilling time-travelling superhero of sorts. All throughout his adult years he’s suffered, unbeknownst to those around him, from a condition he refers to as ‘revival’. He will randomly find himself repeating short segments of time, and when he does, he knows that it’s because something bad is going to happen and he’s meant to figure it out and stop it.
The incidents include impending accidents such as a young child who’s going to get hit by a car while crossing the street and he can usually identify and stop the tragedy without drawing undue attention. He doesn’t know why this happens, but he’s learned to live with it (while working as a pizza deliveryman and struggling manga artist). Until one day ‘revival’ thrusts him back through an unprecedented jump in time, back to the eighth grade. There was a serial killer loose in his town that year preying on young children, and after the initial shock of finding himself back in his childhood body wears off, he realizes that this is the crime he’s been sent back to prevent.
Sanbe has constructed a fast-paced thriller; the action moves rapidly and keeps the reader easily hooked. Unlike the 14-year old Hiroshi in Taniguchi’s A Distant Neighbourhood, Satoru doesn’t have much time to reflect on the nature of life, family, and ties of affection. Instead, he’s thrust headfirst into a deadly mystery. Nonetheless, Sanbe manages to construct a very human character; Satoru’s rough and lonely upbringing and his complicated relationship with his single mother help round out the humanity of the narrative’s lead actor. It’s neither poignant nor reflective — the author has a thrilling mystery to solve, with little time to waste — but it is very human.
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And that, perhaps, is what characterizes one of the best features of the time-traveling manga genre: its use of time-travel to underscore the centrality of our humanity no matter what age or era we find ourselves in. By forcing the lead to confront the essence of their character at multiple points in their lives, an implicit message is constructed: the person we are doesn’t really change, even as we age and the times move forward around us. The things we care for might change; our self-knowledge might grow more perceptive; but would we really change anything about our actions, if given the chance? And even if we might seek to change certain outcomes, does our underlying motivation change? Isn’t the desire to change our past merely a desire to achieve more effectively the same outcomes we desired all along? Yes, we would want to avoid the bad things that happened to us or the mistakes that we made. But the central defining element of who we are — the element that drove us to act, even if in error — that doesn’t really change, does it?
What all three of these exquisite and tremendously rewarding manga emphasize is that it is not so much events that matter or even decisions made in the crux of the moment. Rather, it is our relationships with people that matter. If we could repeat our past, with the benefit of hindsight, isn’t it moreso our relationships with people that we would seek to amend? Aren’t our personal relationships the things that matter to us — that we miss, or regret, or desire to change?
It’s a realization that reminds us, once again, to focus on our present. Perhaps maturity is not so much about growth and change, but about developing the self-perception to realize more clearly than before what our own motivations are; what the things are that drive us.
Time-traveling manga teach us, more effectively than other forms of contemporary fiction perhaps, that the person we are does not necessarily change with time. Nor should it. We should not so much seek to change the past, as to move with greater clarity in the present.
Changing the past offers tremendously enticing opportunities. But changing the present offers even more.