Sunday, 3 March 2013

Yasutaka Tsutsui - The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1967)

Listen: Kazuko Yoshiyama has come unstuck in time. Kazuko is exposed to a strange chemical while cleaning up the school lab with her friends Goro and Kazuo. Which winds up being fortunate. The next day, an earthquake and a fire wind up making Kazuko and Goro late for school and in their hurry they get hit by a truck. Just before the impact, Kazuko wakes up in her bed two mornings earlier. Kazuko has to convince herself and her friends that she really did travel through time, prevent the accident from occurring  and stop herself from travelling through time. Will she manage? Spoilers to follow!

Yasutaka Tsutsui is a Japanese SF author who I was initially familiar with through his short story collection 'Salmonella Men On Planet Porno'. This is an excellent collection of bizarre, sardonic and somewhat Ballardian dissections of modern culture in an SF framework. Most feature unpleasant or unreliable protagonists and a sadistic twist at the end. 'The Girl Who Leapt Through Time' could not be more different in tone. It's a sweet, nostalgic YA novella with a bittersweet ending, both breezily engaging and moving. However, bubbling underneath is just enough of a sinister undercurrent to remind you that this is Tsutsui we're dealing with.

The story's short length means that it moves along at a good pace. When faced with evidence, rather than sitting around hand-wringing, Kazuko's friends and teacher opt to believe her and help her find the solution to the problem. She manages to leap back in time to just before she encountered the chemical in the lab, where she finds out that all this was caused by Kazuo, who is actually a time traveler from the far future trying to get home. He confesses that he has developed feelings for her, but has to return to his own time. Kazuko loses the ability to time travel, Kazuo erases everyone's memories of him, and he returns to the future, promising that they will meet again some day, but that she won't remember who he is.

There's a lot to like about how this all plays out. On the surface, you have a deceptively simple story arc - two young people just realise they have feelings for each other when circumstances force them apart - which is both poignant and relatable. The mechanics of the time travel is never explained, but it all works out in an intuitive and pleasing way that doesn't leave any unstable time loops or contradictions. The story is told simply, elegantly and straightforwardly, with no narrative flab.

However, there's a little more going on here than meets the eye. Kazuo winds up being a thoroughly ambiguous and mysterious character. He provides us with the big chunk of exposition towards the end which explains what's going on, but we only have his word for it. The future he describes is subtly dystopian. Tsutsui very neatly avoids any hysteria in describing it, but there are some nice parallels with Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' thrown into the central conceit. Kazuo hints that a violent war is looming, and the spectres of overpopulation, poor people exiled to colonies on Mars and the Moon and computerised ice-schools all rear their ugly heads. While Kazuo suggests that things do eventually improve, again we only have his word to go on, and he admits that he prefers Kazuko's present to his future, perhaps because in this time he is able to make friends and connect with people in a way that's no longer possible in the future.

And of course, there's the whole memory wipe. Kazuo created a false identity and implanted false memories of himself into all his classmates and teachers, as well as the childless old couple who are supposed to pass as his parents. He then proceeds to erase everyone's memories of him without a qualm, to save himself from being arrested by the temporal police when he returns to his present. This is both creepy and manipulative, however believable his arguments that this will be the safest course of action for everyone may be. It is this sinister undercurrent, part of the narrative but wisely left uncommented on by the author, that gives 'The Girl Who Leapt Through Time' both shade and depth as a story.

The Alma Books translation, which I have, also appends another Tsutsui YA novella, 'The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made Of', which is a welcome addition. While it is less haunting than 'The Girl Who Leapt Through Time' and has no SF trappings, 'Nightmares' is perhaps more in the vein of the 'Salmonella Men' short stories, with its vivid, horrifying and somewhat Freudian dream imagery. Its story, about a young girl overcoming her fears, is perhaps more typical YA fare, but the reveal at the end, with its trauma-induced amnesia, is typical Tsutsui territory, albeit with a more optimistic and uplifting outcome than is typical in 'Salmonella Men'.

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