Time Leaping is Suffering: 4 Iconic Anime Examples

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers for Re:Zero, Higurashi, Madoka Magica, and Steins;Gate.
Content Warning: discussion/ mentions of psychological shock, mental disorders, false memories, dissociative amnesia, alzheimer’s, trauma, and suicide.

There are some interesting psychological and emotional themes in each of these 4 cases of anime characters who travel through time or timeleap. Some of them have several strong motifs in common. They are related to memories. The themes include not being remembered by others, feelings of isolation, hopelessness, confusion about one’s memories or mind, and having traumatic or sad memories that nobody else acknowledges. I like these themes because they’re psychological in nature, and have some similarities to topics in real world psychology. I’ll explore each of the four mentioned themes and how they relate to reality.

4. Natsuki Subaru

The childish, selfish, and carefree Subaru thinks he’s going to have a great time when he finds himself in another world: a fantasy world with magic and other races like elves and cat-people. Unfortunately for him, Re: Zero can be described as, “Subaru has a terrible time: the anime.” The Witch Satella, who is basically “the devil” in that world, cursed Subaru. Whenever he dies, he is returned to life again in the past, to the last moment where he relaxed. People are more likely to kill Subaru because 1) he’s covered in the smell of the Witch, and 2) he does stupid sh*t and practically asks for death. In the 25-episode series, Subaru dies about 12 times.

In Subaru’s story, one theme is the trauma of having horrifying memories nobody else has, such as what it’s like to die various kinds of violent deaths. Another issue is the sadness of not being remembered by his friends in the new world. Subaru must also deal with isolation and deep loneliness because, thanks to the Witch’s curse, he can’t even talk about his experiences. Finally, he suffers confusion and uncertainty about his memories and his mental stability. In one later arc, psychological shock renders him unable to do anything at all until he once again sees his dear friend Rem tortured and dying in front of him. For Subaru, I’ll choose just choose one of those (disturbing) items: the one about not being remembered by others.

This is something that affects Subaru strongly in the second arc of Re:Zero. He wakes up in Lord Roswald’s manor, where Emilia is currently living. Also residents there are the maids Rem and Ram and the enchantress Beatrice/ Betty. Subaru dies 4 times while at the mansion, and each time, he spends 4 whole days working with, talking to, and getting know the people there. Subaru is an earnest person when it comes to caring for other people and wanting to spend time with them. It only takes him a few days to form strong attachments, especially since, in this world, those people are the only thing close to family he has. So, by the end of his fourth time living those 4 or 5 days, Subaru is emotionally torn to pieces. His actions led to the death of Rem.

He says to Ram, who is ready to kill him, “But I remember. I know parts of you two that you’ve forgotten.” Ram demands, “What could you possibly know about me and Rem?!” Subaru says, “You’re right. I don’t know anything that’s really important. But you don’t know, either, do you?” Ram asks, “Know what?” And Subaru shouts, “That I love you guys!” Then he throws himself off a cliff, committing suicide so he can start over at the manor for a fifth time. I don’t like Subaru, since he never gets any more considerate, but I sometimes feel some sympathy for him. This is one of those times. It’s painful beyond imagining to not be remembered by the ones you care about.

Does this have any relevance to reality? It reminds me of several possible scenarios. You might feel pain similar to Subaru’s if your friends, families, or your significant other forgot who you were. Suppose your beloved mother or grandmother developed dementia or alzheimer’s and couldn’t remember your name or face. Suppose your friend had a mental disorder that made them forget you. Imagine your sibling had a head injury or other brain damage that made them lose memories of you, even just temporarily. Even if there is nothing out of the ordinary, your loved ones all have unique brains that make and store memories differently; many won’t recall the shared experiences you had that were so important to you.

Many of these examples come from my own life; sometimes I’m the one who forgot, and other times I’m the one forgotten. Either way, these experiences are painful, but things the majority of us must face. They are also very relevant to psychology and related topics.

3. Rika Furude

If you’ve seen the second season of Higurashi (When They Cry), you know that Rika was the “hidden main character,” all along, and only the one reborn over and over again into the village of Hinamizawa. Much like Subaru, Rika keeps getting killed, yet keeps restarting and trying to save herself and the whole populace of the village. But unlike Subaru, Rika rarely remembers how she died, who killed her, or any details leading up to death. Hanyuu, a godlike entity associated with Hinamizawa, keeps Rika’s consciousness company, and continues to reincarnate her. However, Hanyuu cannot be seen by normal humans or interfere in reality. Fans don’t know exactly how long Rika was lost in time, but it was around a century.

A century is a lot longer than the amount of time others on this list spent timeleaping. In that century, Rika wasn’t always trying to save herself or the people around her. In a lot of the later worlds, she had given up and didn’t try to make any changes at all. Eventually, she broke out of the cycle with help from human friends and Hanyuu, but not without much suffering. The themes I want to bring to light are isolation and hopelessness. Rika goes through this more than the other time travelers on this list. There is almost no evidence of her constant mental and emotional pain in the first season, except in two cases. I want to highlight both.

In Higurashi‘s fifth Arc, Meakashi-hen, we see a timeline where Rika is still trying to make changes. It’s clear to her that Mion/Shion is the one who’s been murdering people, and she figures that Mion/Shion must be the one who kills her (Rika) and thus wipes out the village. When Rika tries to give Mion an injection to calm down Hinamizawa Syndrome, she is easily defeated. Mion threatens injures her and says that she will torture her to death. Rika gives up and kills herself, saying she’s had enough of this Hinamizawa and will move on. You can tell from this scene just how hopeless and angry she feels, not only because she killed herself to restart, but also because, by killing herself, she dooms the entire village in that world line. Rika never commits a murder, but she indirectly leads to many deaths each time she gives up.

One of the most important scenes for figuring out the mystery of Higurashi is in episode 15, wherein Rika talks to Akasaka and predicts the deaths that will happen over the next few years, including her own death. That was the closest thing she could think of to a cry for help, but the only human Akasaka couldn’t understand, and besides, he had his wife to worry about. This is also one of the few scenes where the audience sees Rika’s other self. She usually acts like a cute little girl for all the villagers, but over many years, her real personality changed into that of a grim, sorrowful, and skeptical woman who uses a much deeper voice. For Rika’s other self– her real self– to reach out to Akasaka, it’s a big deal, and it means that she’s unspeakably lonely.

The psychology topic that Rika’s case reminds me of is Major Depressive Disorder (or depression in other disorders such Bipolar and Seasonal Affective Disorders.) I’ve always been melancholy, and it’s been 7 years since I was actually diagnosed with depression, so I think I know what I’m talking about it. When you have major depression or bipolar depression, you often feel like you’re stuck in a cycle, repeating the same things, and even when you try your best, you can never reach that life where you are happy. Now, Rika is literally stuck in a cycle of time, and her depression is caused by the supernatural circumstance of being reincarnated endlessly into a village of tragedy. But the point is to make interesting parallels to reality. Rika is mentally a century old in Higurashi, and in reality, depression can make you feel much older than you are. In real disorders, you feel like you’ve lived a hundred lives or tried a thousand times, and it’s literal in Rika’s case.

Depression often goes hand-in-hand with frustration, and includes in its criteria feelings of hopelessness, emptiness, and loneliness. All this sounds like Rika to a T. Then there’s the lovely subject of suicidal feelings and suicide attempts. Not all cases of suicide are from people with a depressive disorder, and not all people with a depressive disorder feel suicidal. Some do for a short time and get over it quickly. Some never feel that way at all. Others still suffer with suicidal ideation for years on end. Rika probably only commits suicide in a few world lines, because reagrdless of what she does, somebody, for some reason, kills her. Cheerful, isn’t it?

2. Homura Akemi

Homura is one of the five magical girls from Madoka Magica, both the 12-episode TV show and the three Madoka movies. To make a long story short, Homura became a Magical Girl (with time-freezing and time-leaping powers) to save the girl she loved, Madoka. But each time she tried, Madoka either died or turned into a Witch within a month. No matter how many times Homura rewound and started again from a month earlier, she failed. Yet she continued trying… in total, for eight to twelve years. After Madoka became a goddess who existed in all timelines as the Law of the Cycle, Homura stopped going back in time, because it wouldn’t be possible anymore to change Madoka’s future. The entire rest of the world except Homura forgot about Madoka’s existence. Even though she remembers, there’s no way for her to interact with Madoka. These two factors were key in driving Homura to drastic measures in the third movie, Rebellion.

Like the others on this list, Homura went through hell. Nobody ever believed her when she tried telling them the truth of the cruel Magical system and the Kyubey creature(s). Or if they did, that knowledge drove them all to despair and killing each other. Homura built up many traumatic memories, including having to shoot her beloved Madoka because she asked to be killed while still human, shortly before the inevitable transformation into a Witch. Like Rika, she felt intensely isolated and hopeless, and like Okabe, she saw her friend(s) hurt and killed in many terrible ways. For Homura, though, the example I’ve chosen to focus on is the way she was the only one who could remember Madoka after she became a god.

My favorite scene in the Rebellion Story movie is “the flower scene,” where Homura and Madoka share a heart-to-heart, alone on a hillside of grass and flowers. “You see, I had a really scary dream,” Homura tells Madoka in the false world where they currently reside. “In it, you had gone to a place so far away that I had no chance of ever seeing you again. And everyone else in the world forgot about you. Only I could remember you in the whole world! I was so lonely, and so sorrowful, but nobody understood how I felt. Surrounded by that, I started to think my memories of you were things I’d made up! I began doubting myself.” This scene makes me cry every time I watch it because it’s so relevant to my life with my memory and friendship issues. Anyway, the general psychology topics that come to mind are dissociation and false memories.

Homura’s memories were real, but her situation is similar to cases where an individual has a memory of someone who doesn’t exist and/or an event that didn’t occur. Sometimes, false memories happen in people with other conditions, like a dissociative disorder, where it’s hard to stay connected to reality. Frequent use of drugs and/or alcohol, and a tendency of vivid dreams are also sometimes associated with false memories. However, healthy, neurotypical people have false memories too, usually of details or every day events. According to a well-written short article from Very Well Mind, these false memories occur because of inference, misattribution, overly emotional recall, misinformation, and inaccurate perception.

Some of my memories of my best friend before she left my life aren’t actually real (though I trust the ones written in my diary, at least). They are things that my mind wished happened. Due to dissociation, I occasionally have vivid memories of people who don’t actually exist, or I confuse the characters in my head and my dreams with real people. Having false memories can produce shock, depression, and feelings of isolation, much like how Homura feels in the flower scene. It’s a type of pain that is difficult to communicate. You are the only one in the world who remembers, which makes you alone. And when the world tells you it never happened, you doubt yourself endlessly, and wonder if all your most significant feelings are fake.

1. Rintarou Okabe

Chances are you know who this character is even if you haven’t seen any of the Steins;Gate anime. Steins;Gate is one of the most popular anime series in the world, not much farther below shows like FMA: Brotherhood, Death Note, and Attack on Titan. So it’s no wonder everybody recognizes the mad scientist, Okabe Rintarou. Because he and the other lab members made a time machine, agents from the evil organization SERN broke into the lab to capture Okabe. They shot and killed his childhood friend, Mayuri. So with the time leap machine, Okabe sent his consciousness to another timeline in the past, and tried to save Mayuri. Beyond that, he later found out that he had to use the time machine to save everyone from World War III, which would kill billions.

Okabe Rintarou had problems very similar to the others on this list. Like Subaru, he must carry the burden of being the only one who remembers certain important experiences with his friends. Okabe felt isolated, alone, and desperate, much like Rika. He tried countless times to save Mayuri, and was the only one who could remember Kurisu, so he’s also similar to Homura. These four characters each experienced a multitude of unthinkable events, any one of which would be enough to cause PTSD. You could argue that Subaru was the most traumatized, since he died so many times in such painful ways, but I chose Okabe for this topic because he saw his lifelong friend Mayuri die countless times.

There are plenty of examples in the original Steins;Gate of Okabe having trouble because of his ongoing trauma. In addition, in Steins;Gate Zero, Okabe’s ordeals have affected him so strongly that he gives up, saving Mayuri but letting Kurisu die. The underrrated Steins;Gate Movie: Load Realm of Deja Vu also gives a great example. Okabe is so traumatized that he can’t be sure if he’s really in the ideal Steins Gate world line, having vivid flashbacks and hallucinations of his friends dying or turning against him. He doubts his own existence, too, and disappears from the right world line. I actually like Realm of Deja Vu just as much as the original series, if not more— Now there’s an unpopular opinion! Anyway, there is so much to say about Okabe that I fear I’ll end up writing pages and pages if I don’t stop. The point is that he’s strongly influenced by his trauma. To see his story for yourself, please, please go watch Steins;Gate.

This rather gloomy post has two purposes. The first is to honor these four characters and the excellent anime series of which they are part. The second purpose is to draw attention to mental health topics in the hopes that disorders will become less stigmatized, people will write talk about their experiences more openly, and neurotypical people will understand the not-so-typical people better. This has been 7mononoke of Anime Rants. Here’s something cute to end your read.

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