The concept of time travel in fiction has almost infinite possibilites. From new opportunities to adventures to questions of morality, there’s always something new to explore, and always in a different venue.
That said, with as common as time travel is, it’s easy to fall into certain traps and tropes. Plus, exploring the idea in a way that hasn’t already been done to death is extremely difficult. But visual novel turned anime ISLAND is, now halfway through its run, definitely looking to approach some of those more obscure and unique angles.
The first of those angles, funnily enough, is: is there even time travel going on?
Given the sepia-toned flashbacks we get here and there, the answer is going to run up to a solid “yes,” almost certainly. But in the meantime, there’s been so much bait-and-switch when it comes to smaller elements of the plot that just as we feel we’re starting to get answers, we end up rolling straight back to our first question.
It may not be an unheard-of tactic, but it’s certainly a rare one. Generally in stories of time travel or time bending, the first thing the author needs us to do is accept that the concept exists in the story’s universe, then tell us how it’s done, and then get into things. Whether it’s as fanciful as the phone booths of Doctor Who and Bill & Ted, as bordering on scientific as Timeline, or as weirdly cerebral as staring at a penny a la Somewhere in Time, there’s a function established.
Until episode 7, no theoretical method of time travel is even presented. We only have the words of unreliable narrators, plus a handful of flashbacks showing familiar-looking people with bigger busts or shorter hair. Only now, more than halfway through the series, do we even have a potential method for Setsuna’s arrival. But for the most part, we’re operating on faith.
Which why it’s extra handy to have a genre-savvy character like Sara Garando in the cast.
Modern-day time travel fiction runs into the same problem that modern-day zombie movies do: there’s so much of it in the real world already that not crediting its existence makes the characters sound like they live under a rock. Just as victims of a zombie outbreak in 2018 would have seen Night of the Living Dead and The Walking Dead and lots of other things ending in “Dead,” a modern-day person will at the very least know that movies like the Terminator films exist.
That awareness is encapsulated in Sara, with her String Theory and her encyclopedic knowledge of time travel fiction from the Golden Age of sci-fi. It’s likely that the rest of Urashima’s inhabitants have occasionally read a book or watched a TV show involving the concept, but Sara covers every potential angle of that knowledge. This comes in handy for plot-related reasons, but it also prevents the cast of characters from ever appearing too out of the loop when it comes to their issue’s depiction in pop culture.
That said, Sara is a member of the cast. One of the three main girls, in fact. And so she has her own motivations and wants. And that’s where ISLAND‘s use of the trope is especially unique: for much of the story, the concept of time travel is used not as an active device, but as a way to learn more about our characters.
Of our three heroines — Rinne, Karen, and Sara — Rinne is the most invested in the legend of Urashima Island. And she would be: she bears the name of its doomed legendary princess. And we already know Urashima goes pretty hard with its legends and beliefs, albeit in varying ways. Much of her identity at the beginning of the series is tied up in being that Rinne, and Setsuna being that Setsuna, even to a point that she admits that she’ll pretend it’s true even if she finds out it’s not.
In recent episodes, Rinne’s need for time travel to be real, possible, and accessible becomes even more immediate. New memories and information mean her situation is constantly shifting. She has clearly experienced something. And whether her destiny is with this Setsuna or another, the ability to move to a different time has become essential to her identity.
Sara, as mentioned before, has her own needs early on, which she believes can only be solved provided time travel exists. Her theory has some heavy Back to the Future vibes, but trimming away the sci-fi shows us someone burdened (wrongly, at that) with guilt, who wants a chance to fix things. At least in that moment, she needs time travel to be real. Because, like Rinne, she ties the cause and effect of it very deeply to her purpose.
As for Karen… funnily enough, though her problem only required a trip to the mainland to solve, her journey may well be the most tied to whatever is going on behind the scenes on Urashima Island.
There’s no shortage of ways to play with the concept of time travel in fiction. Books, film, and television have used is as an exploration of everything from history to personal morality to romance. But in ISLAND, the concept lurks under the surface as a possibility or even a hope. It may be the kickoff to the events taking place, but it isn’t the kickoff to the narrative itself. It’s the answer we need, and the answer we’ll (probably) be waiting on for a few more episodes.
Kara Dennison is responsible for multiple webcomics, and is half the creative team behind the OEL light novel series Owl’s Flower. She blogs at karadennison.com and tweets @RubyCosmos. Her latest book, Black Archive #21 – Heaven Sent, is currently available from Obverse Books.