Some of you may know this already but I’m a time travel otaku. Like I nerd out about the physics of it even though my understanding is superficial to put it generously. In fiction, it’s a device I get fascinated by when it’s done well and appreciate the effort when it’s done badly. I’m just a hopeless fangirl. And so, I was baffled when I realized that I never made a time travel anime list. Like this is a natural fit!

And then I started writing this post and remembered why. There are a ton of anime that use time travel. Heck, depending on how you decide to interpret it, every single isekai could be said to fall in that category. Throwing a character into an unfamiliar time is just as obvious a way to built conflict as throwing them into an unfamiliar place or role.

And so, I needed to narrow the playing field, like a lot. So first, I decided to use instances where time travel is isolated. By this I mean we are sticking the same “place” and only changing around the timeline. That write off any shows where characters travel to the past and end up in completely different worlds, etc. Basically, no more sticky isekai questions. It also ruled out Kyousougiga sadly.

Second, I wanted shows where the time travel element was actively used throughout the series and important to the plot. So anything with a character waking up in the past or future and then having adventures from that point on is out!

And this is how I managed to come up with my 5, very mundane picks for time travel anime. I think these are going to be super predictable…

5. Re:Zero

I know I said no isekai but this is different. Subaru didn’t just travel once from his homeworld and time to another, he constantly goes back in his current timeline…by dying. It’s sort of an emo Quantum Leap! I’m not entirely sure how important Return from Death is to the plot. What I mean is that I know it features a lot but I wonder if you could tell a similar story without that mechanic. By making the time Subaru succeeds a bit harder to achieve and having him learn needed info without dying. I feel like it would be possible but I’m not sure if it would work.

Still, the time rewind device is ingrained in the identity of the series and in many ways sets the show apart from the herd. I honestly think it belongs on this list. And I am curious to know how it actually works.

4. Erased

On the other hand, I think Erased is a series that simply doesn’t exist without time travel. It’s crucial to Sotaru’s character development that the grown-up, disillusioned and bitter person he has become is the one to go back and save Kayo. And it’s something he can do only because there is an unexplained magical thing happening to him, which emboldens him and revives his faith, and because he is back to a time when possibilities seemed endless.

The more time passes, the more I remember Erased fondly. I wish they made another series in this genre. I think that time travel and murder mystery happen to pair really well together. The gain, I think time travel pairs well with most things. Time travel comedy is awesome!

3. The Melancholy of Haruhi Shizumiya

I have to say the top 3 spots on here are completely interchangeable. It’s more like three no. 1s.

So I love endless eight. I adore it. I think it’s by far the best part of the franchise and just one of the best moments in anime. And I know some of my readers think I have brain damage because of this. I get it. It’s not for everyone. It is however precisely for me.

I find that Haruhi is a series with a lot of amazing ideas but it doesn’t always bring them across in the most effective way. However, in endless eight, I saw all the potential for a deep introspective and well… melancholy piece of science fiction really materialize. The time travel element is brought out slowly, without fanfare and as reality dawns on the viewers, the happy sunny summer holiday full of fireworks and fun times slowly takes on horrific implications. In this, time travel isn’t simply a narrative device, it moderates the tone and completely changes the impact and meaning of the entire arc. Did I mention that I really love endless eight? I should rewatch that arc.

2. Steins:Gate

I mean c’mon! The theme is time travel anime, I’m not going to leave Steins;Gate out. My relationship with the franchise is much more through the games. In fact, this is the series that got me into visual novels in the first place. And sure, it’s a boring choice and everyone would have it on their list. But there’s a reason for that. Steins;Gate is about time travel.

Like everything about the series revolves around it. And it even makes very earnest attempts to do the math on everything. I respect a time travel story that explains its time travel. I understand that it’s a bit of a dicey undertaking and risks alienating most of the fans, but I like it.

Steins;Gate is another show that I’m not sure could exist without the time travel element. Although I do think the anime could be reworked to a dimension hopping story instead of time travel, the game on the other hand is very focused on the moral and physical implications of time travel specifically. It’s a great game!

Also Faris rules!

1. Puella Magi Madoka Magica

That title… Is this a surprise to anyone? I did say the top three spots were random. And just to be clear, I’m not putting these in order of how much I enjoyed the series per see but more in how much I enjoyed the use of time travel within these series. And I have to say, in Madoka, it was a game-changer.

The time travel bit comes in later in the series than a lot of the other shows on the list, except for Haruhi. And it completely changes everything. It is the single more plot-relevant element in the entire show. It’s both the catalyst, the antagonizing incident and the resolve of the narrative. And it brings Madoka from a surprisingly violent story that seems to relish in misery, to a deliciously cruel joke.

I personally love the use of time travel in Madoka. It’s more restrained than in a lot of these other shows and we don’t actively see most of it, but the implications are so broad and all-encompassing in unpredictable ways.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for you…today! I know, I know, these are all super safe picks. But what can I say, I do in fact really like how all these shows used time travel. Do you have a favourite time travel anime? Is it the Girl who Leapt Through Time or Your Name? I also left movies out of my list. I forgot to mention that. If only there was a way I could go back and fix that.

30 thoughts

  1. I just remembered since it dropped today on Netflix: Godzilla Singular Point has a pretty funky take on time… travel? manipulation? I’ve finished the show, but I’m still trying to figure this out. It’s funky. It’s a fun kaijuu romp, besides that. And weird scientist Kamitani Mei is best girl of the season (do weird scientists count as mad scientists?).

  2. My personally favorite that you didn’t mention (likely because it isn’t the focus of the whole anime) is the Bites the Dust arc of Diamond is Unbreakable. It takes the conventions of Groundhog Day and twists them by having a physical adversary to defeat, along with the less physical roadblocks that come with the convention.

  3. Oh hey, another time travel series fan. I like that genre too when done right because of how endless the possibilities are when writing such a tale.

    Ah, finally a list where I’m familiar with all the shows. Steins’Gate felt more like a discount Back To The Future with all its terminologies and the whole shtick about traveling different timelines to restore the original one and all. I’ll be frank though I never really expected Haruhi Suzumiya to appear on this list, I had Shinkai’s Your Name on my head lol!

    1. I love both Steins;Gate and Back to the Future and I never saw one as a discount of the other. I did love how the game had direct link to all the actual scientific articles the terms were from so you can read up on it. That was fun!

  4. I don’t know if you’ve watched Tokyo Revengers, Irina, but it’s an anime that has time travel that aired during this spring season. It has the most nonsensical time travel I’ve seen in any show with time travel.

  5. Irina, based on what the anime has portrayed, I think I have an idea of what Return by Death is. I believe Return by Death is, more likely than not, not actually Subaru’s power but rather Satella’s power.

    Given that Satella controls Subaru’s save points, it would not be unthinkable that the phenomenon of Return by Death is the product of or an aspect of Satella’s powers, and there is evidence of this being the case. The first verbal indication of Return by Death not being Subaru’s power is in Episode 34 during the second tea party Subaru has with Echidna in which she describes Return by Death as being a power of a witch, and she specifically named the Witch of Envy, earlier in the conversation, so it should be Satella’s power rather than Subaru’s. Then after Subaru experienced the second trial, Echidna said that only Satella using her Authority of Envy could tell whether all those futures he saw in that second trial were real, which shows that Echidna believes that Return by Death involves Satella’s power and that Satella’s Authority of Envy has something to do with time and perhaps space too considering she summoned Subaru to this world. That would be an immensely powerful ability if her Authority granted her the ability to freely manipulate spacetime. However, we’ve seen that Beatrice, who uses yin magic, can manipulate space, which means that it’s possible that Satella uses yin magic to manipulate space rather than her Authority of Envy involving the manipulation of spacetime, meaning it’d just involve the manipulation of time. Time should tell which case applies to Satella. In any case, at minimum, we know that the Witch of Envy is immensely powerful given that she drained half the world 400 years ago and that because the strongest entities at the time could not destroy her body, leading to them sealing her instead, so her power to manipulate time is possibly more multi-faceted than what viewers have seen with just her rewinding Subaru back in time.

    One final point I have is that usually only half-bloods can enter the Witch’s Graveyard unharmed, but in Episode 28, Echidna specifically stated that Subaru’s Sloth Witch Factor that he attained a few days ago from killing the previous host of it was the only reason he was able to enter the graveyard unharmed. This suggests that Echidna temporarily relaxed the requirements for entering the graveyard by allowing people with a Witch Factor to enter the graveyard, an exception she made for Subaru at the time. If Echidna really meant what she said, that means that Subaru did not previously have another Witch Factor, which eliminates the possibility of him having the Envy Witch Factor like Satella does. I don’t know what power would manifest from Subaru if he had the Authority of Envy, but if he did have it, it would not surprise me if it was a really weak power involving time.

    Thus, I conclude that technically, Return by Death, should be described as Satella’s power. Another point I have is that people who call Subaru overpowered should actually be referring to Satella, the Witch of Envy, as being overpowered because Subaru is most definitely not overpowered. It is Satella, who is giving Subaru unlimited assists, that seemingly makes Subaru overpowered. Instead of saying Subaru “uses” Return by Death, it would be more appropriate to say he “makes use of it” after taking into account his situation.

    1. Interesting. There really aren’t any hard and set rules to time travel. I think I went by an ols interview where the publiher called it that but you know, things get lost in traslation a lot.

  6. I agree with this list a lot, however I never really thought of Re:Zero as a time travel anime, since I always thought of it as a dark twist on video game mechanics like checkpoints, since a lot of isekai anime have video game-like mechanics. Another point of pedantry on my side was that I didn’t really think of a looping of time as time travel, even though it technically is. Makes me think of how vast the concept of time travel can actually be.

  7. I’m glad someone else shares my love of the endless eight. I know it was unnecessary, and I know it was a waste of time and could have been used for new episodes, but it just feels so Haruhi I can never hate it.

    1. It was my favourite part of the entire series. To me those episodes made the show and the other ones were unnecessary…

  8. Good list. I’m a little dazed by the heat (over 30° C for a few days now), so I can’t really think of anything else that would apply (but the chance that I’m forgetting stuff is high). I do know that this season’s Vivy wouldn’t make the list. It’s too cookie-cutter to be memorable in any way (the way they deal with time-travel, I mean; the show, too, come to think of it, but that’s not what I meant).

  9. My list is pretty much identical (down to the rankings even) but I’d personally switch Steins Gate and Madoka just because the former resonated with me more. I haven’t watched Haruhi so I’d also add Tatami Galaxy to the list, although I’m not sure if what happens counts as time travel exactly…

    1. SPOILERS

      Higurashi’s is particularly interesting because it actually acts like the visual novel and uses the format to its advantage

Leave me a comment and make my day!