Yasutaka Tsutsui’s 1965 time travel novel has inspired at least three features and one television series, but each one is substantially different. That seems oddly appropriate, given the space-time continuum issues involved. While Mamoru Hosoda’s anime film is the most acclaimed, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s original 1983 adaptation is a sentimental favorite, largely thanks to former idol Tomoyo Harada. She is a teenager rather than a little girl and it would be a vast overstatement to call her a conqueror, but her earnestness perfectly suits the nostalgic charm of Obayashi’s The Little Girl Who Conquered Time (trailer here), which screens as part of the Japan Society retrospective: Pop! Goes Cinema: Kadokawa Films and 1980s Japan.
This is Onomichi in the early 1980s, so Kazuko Yoshiyama and her friends still have class on Saturday mornings. Traditionally, it is a day of service, which is why Yoshiyama was cleaning the chemistry lab. Unfortunately, a weird lavender smelling concoction knocks her unconscious before her two loyal guy pals, Kazuo Fukamachi and Goro Horikawa arrive to help.
The good news is her fainting spell gets her out of gym. The bad news is she starts repeating fragments of the next two days, sort of like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day (but not to such an absurd degree)—and oh what fraught days they are, featuring earthquakes, fires, collapsing roof tiles, and teen angst.
Granted, the special effects look hopelessly dated, but Obayashi conveys a wonderfully vivid and wistful sense of Onomichi’s seaside hills and winding pathways. You can practically smell the lavender, which plays a significant role in the narrative. It starts to feel like the home you never knew but always missed.
In her feature debut, former idol (and coincidentally the star of the early 1980s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun TV series) Tomoyo Harada is just terrific as Yoshiyama. She portrays the time-jumping teen with tremendous sensitivity and pluck, yet she also coveys the girl’s stubbornness and even a little flakiness. Likewise, Toshinori Omi is shockingly poignant as the torch-carrying Horikawa. Poor Ryôichi Takayanagi often gets dissed for his awkward stiffness as Fukamachi, but you could argue it is perfectly justifiable—even necessary—within the film’s dramatic context.