Summer Time Machine Blues (Samâ taimumashin burûsu)

Japan (2005) Dir. Katsuyuki Motohiro

I won’t accuse Japan of being obsessed with time travel but it appears like they are with the number of films and anime they have made on the subject. However, we could aim this assertion at writer Makoto Ueda, who gave us the sublime Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes, a time travel film he preceded with this similarly themed comedy.

During a very hot summer, the members of a high school sci-fi club sweat it out in their clubroom, which is shared with the two female members of the photography club, Yui (Yoko Maki) and Haruka (Juri Ueno). To help Yui with a photography project, the boys play baseball for her to shoot, working up a real sweat, necessitating a trip to the public bath afterwards.

When they return to the clubroom, Soga (Munenori Nagano) accidentally spills coke on the remote control for the air conditioner, leaving them without cool air. The next day, a weird contraption is found in the clubroom, which they conclude is a time machine, and stranger still, actually works. Takuma (Eita) suggests they use it to go back 24 hours and take the remote control before it gets broken, but they get a bit carried away.

You have to hand it anyone who writes a self-contained time travel story as it requires a lot of planning to ensure all the moving pieces are able to coalesce with each other and not cause the story to trip over itself. The paradox associated with overlapping time lines is the root of many stories falling apart and losing the audience with gaping holes in the logic. Fortunately, Makoto Ueda takes his time travel stories very seriously.  

Unlike the aforementioned Two Minutes, Summer Time Machine Blues began life as a 2001 stage play, which sounds hard to fathom for such a wild concept, but as we see in the extras of this Blu-ray release from Third Window Films, it is possible. Sure, the scale is smaller, the locations limited, and the effects are practical and obviously rudimentary, but they still put pull it off.

Back in the 1920s and 30s whenever a stage play was transferred to the big screen, the format was almost rigidly adhered to – here, director Katsuyuki Motohiro gleefully takes full advantage of being able to roam wherever he pleases, meaning more show than tell, and more fun the audience, and presumably the cast too. And that really is the key to this film – it isn’t meant to be high concept sci-fi but a silly romp about youths being youths with an expensive toy at their disposal.

Just to clarify, I mean expensive in a responsible sense, the actual contraption itself is exactly that – a seat with a huge circular panel behind it, and a tubular date counter and lever at in front. How it got there is part of the early mystery, which would have been explained sooner if they questioned the stranger Tamura (Chikara Honda), who wanders into the clubroom unannounced, a little more efficiently, although he himself could have been more upfront about who he was and why he was there.

Regardless, the boys are too busy working out how to fix their broken remote problem, or they would if they weren’t preoccupied with enjoying the opportunity to run riot on themselves 24 hours earlier. This requires the audience to pay attention, not just to the events as they happened so when the reveal comes later they make sense, but also to what is happening in the background, as this become relevant too.

Maybe we can’t blame the lads for having fun, I suppose we would do the same thing, but they fail to understand that they run the risk of altering the future by messing about with the past. For instance, they do rescue the remote as planned, but because of how things play out, it has to be damaged again in order for them to learn their lesson, and concoct a contingency plan, which border on ill advised to serendipitously clever.

Sci-fi as a theme is leaned into quite heavily as part of the world building for our hapless time travellers, positing them as ready believers where others may not be so accepting. Takuma meets the owner of a fleapit cinema dressed in Star Trek TNG regalia (top only because of the heat) who gives him two tickets for a screening, and Haruka is his choice of date. But will she accept? If she doesn’t, he can always try again…

As the boys are jumping through time and meddling with history in ways they can’t imagine until it is too late, the girls are left to assume the roles of sensible anchors as chaos unfolds. It harsh to dismiss them as eye candy as they offer more, yet don’t have much of any substance to do, until the closing moments for a delightful twist we should have seen coming but skilfully slips under the radar due to all the manic confusion.

Playing a huge part in making the time hopping gimmick work is the presentation, not just in the urgent camerawork and wonderfully energetic and goofy performances but in the editing. The use of horizontal split screen for the time leaps or to show the overlap of the same scene prove a simple but ingenious way to keep things moving. SFX may be modest but with the amount of charm and humour to distract us, it is not an issue.

Time travel will always make for a fertile premise for any writer or filmmaker but if there is one constant, it is the comedy approach always makes it easier to enjoy and not worry about logical complications. Summer Time Machine Blues exemplifies this with aplomb and intelligence, knowing when to have fun with the concept whilst keeping an eye on the high stakes of altering the past. If Eddie Cochran were alive, I’m sure he’d approve of the puntastic take of his famous hit too.

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