In America, the movie industry has a clockwork system for releasing its films. January through March is the dumping ground. April through August sees the release of the big-budget tentpoles. September and October are mediocre months where films not quite up to snuff but that aren't terrible get released; then November and December hit, and there's a slew of artsy Oscar contenders. I don't know when exactly blockbusters are released in Japan, but it's clear that Time Stranger was made to be one of them. An action-packed movie stuffed with plot and motion but void of character development, this 1986 release produced by Madhouse and the infamous Rin Taro is never boring and often fascinating. At times a bit empty due to the unrealistic character reactions, Time Stranger is still a film I like better on each repeat viewing.
Modern day Japan. Nobucho's a rugby player who wants to confess his love to the sweetly beautiful Teko, but he isn't sure how. He talks it over with his tech geek friend Shinichi, who encourages him. The threesome wind up meeting together when Teko's brother stops by with his van and offers them a lift. Their sensei (brilliantly named Sensei, apparently) happens to be passing by and hops on board for the ride as well. However, a guy from the far future named Jiro carjacks them, quickly installs a special device, and Voila!...The van is now a time machine headed into the past.
Although Jiro's passengers are at first shocked by the revelation, they soon compose themselves. They make a couple of unplanned stops before the van makes a fiery exit on re-entry in May of 1582, just days away from a penultimate moment in Japanese history. As Jiro explains to his new friends why he's a fugitive from his own present, it becomes clear that the hunter, Toshito, who's after Jiro has some plans of his own. Knowing that changing the past could affect the disastrous future they know, Jiro and Toshito battle over the outcome of Japan's feudal era, realizing it could literally rip the fabric of time as they know it apart.
Richly animated and strongly plotted, Time Stranger is striking when viewed at the surface level. The twists and such are unexpected and obviously well-designed; The Anime Encyclopedia reports that it's based on a popular sci-fi novel, and the intelligence of that pedigree shows. Although the character designs are completely out of date now, they resemble yet surpass the looks of Harmagedon and The Dagger of Kamui. Even with passé designs, the animation is superb; it's telling that the quality comes through even on my virtually unwatchable VHS copy. Excellent pacing keeps us moving through the convolutions of the plot, too. Every time I watch it, I really do get sucked in.
But ultimately, it's not a great film: there's a lack of reality among the characters that weighs upon the show. Not ten minutes after their first time slip, the modern characters are making the best of things, dealing with every new and deadly situation with aplomb. If I were one of them and learned, as is revealed in the first few minutes, that Jiro couldn't take me back to my own time, I'd be freaking out! If we had some reason to expect these characters to be fearless explorers, we could make allowances.
But that's the truly difficult thing: Teko, Nobucho, Shinichi, and Sensei are all ciphers. There's actually no reason for all of them to be along, save for the plot. They have no history, as least that we're aware of. The only piece of their past we know about is Nobucho's crush on Teko, and that plotline is never developed properly. Instead, there's a lame subplot about Teko finding her real soulmate reincarnated in these various eras they visit. Nobucho never sacrifices himself for Teko or even mentions his feelings, so it winds up as only a gimmick to get the movie started. We do finally get a reasonable feel for Jiro by the end, but the rest of these folks are worthless; they don't even have individual personalities. My guess is that the novel expanded upon their personas and stories, but that the movie threw them out to give us an epic story in an hour and a half.
Of course, not every movie has to have great characterization to be a fun summer hit. Who remembers the characters from Spriggan or Pearl Harbor? And Time Stranger certainly has more intelligence than those two films put together. Though its age will probably doom it to obscurity, Time Stranger is an enjoyably flawed epic that I wish would be released on Region 1 DVD.
Time Stranger -- realistically graphic violence, brief (male rear) nudity -- B+