As a kid growing up in the 1990s, there were a number of educational shows that tried their best to be cool. Some perennial favorites, like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, played to the beat of their own drums. Others failed miserably and came across as more cringe-worthy than anything else. But there were a handful that managed to just be “cool enough” that, while you wouldn’t brag to your friends that you were watching these shows, they still felt like they had merit and weren’t overly didactic in their “edumucatin’.” That’s exactly the territory where the 2016 anime Time Travel Girl: Mari-Waka and the Eight Scientists resides.
Apparently based on a 1983 Japanese children’s educational book called Magnets & Electricity, Time Travel Girl follows a girl named Mari as she inadvertently discovers a way to travel through time, always finding herself meeting a great scientist or inventor tied to the history of electromagnetism. As shown in the opening, the eight in question are: William Gilbert, Benjamin Franklin, Alessandro Volta, Michael Faraday, Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, Heinrich Hertz, and Thomas Edison.
In terms of look, Time Travel Girl does not seem like it comes from this era of anime, no pun intended. From the characters’ hair and eyes, to their archetypes, to even the opening itself, it looks like a show that stepped out of 2003. Placed next to older series like World of Narue or Someday’s Dreamers, it wouldn’t appear out of place at all. I think that also lends to the feeling of Time Travel Girl being a “cool” educational cartoon, because it’s like the aesthetics are a bit out-of-touch with current Japanese animation. That being said, the actual show is fairly fun and informative, and it does resolve instead of remaining open-ended. This is despite the fact that its formula makes that sort of repetition oh-so-easy.
What probably impresses me most about the series is the way it pushes the message that science and discovery are about questioning what we take for granted. By not letting assumptions (be they personal, religious, etc.) control us, it opens up pathways not only for we as individuals to learn, but also in the process creates opportunities for those in the future. A less pertinent message, but important in its own right, is that the show implicitly presents its own theory for why Thomas Edison was an asshole (seriously, look it up). There’s even a bit about slavery in the Benjamin Franklin episode.
If there’s any American cartoon series I would liken Time Travel Girl to, it would have to be Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? No, not the one with Rockapella, and not (despite the thematic similarities) the followup quiz show Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? I’m talking about the one with the grandiose opening, the two kids, and the giant floating virtual head for a chief. Both it and Time Travel Girl have just enough pizazz to be entertaining, but neither are especially gripping examples of animation.
Based on my dated comparison, it’s very clear that Time Travel Girl is certainly not meant for me. However, I could actually see it being dubbed into English and broadcast on TV, as it is unabashedly an educational cartoon. I think it would do all right in that capacity, though I don’t know if we’re still at a point where the characters’ Asian origins would be removed.
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