Time Travel and Tragedy
We all know time travel, right? Marty McFly gets hit on by his mom. Bill and Ted get an ‘A’ in History. Bill Murray lives the same day over and over again in search of true love. And just like the unenlightened Bill Murray, time travel keeps us coming back to the silver screen again and again.
We see the two key types of time travel in these examples. We have our traditional dynamic time travel, the linear kind where we can change the past but often end up with those annoying paradoxes. And then there’s the “parallel worlds” theory. In order to prevent paradoxes, traveling through time creates or transports one to a separate, parallel timeline: as many timelines as there need be until the story reaches its conclusion. But despite this newfound freedom from a single timeline, our characters and world still abide by a number of rules and conventions. These rules and conventions? Here’s a little hint: it’s pretty much a Greek tragedy.
The Modern [Sci Fi] Tragedy
“The change of fortune [in a tragedy’s plot] should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. It should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty… Hence, they are in error who censure [the tragic hero] just because he follows his principles in his plays, many of which end unhappily. It is, as we have said, the right ending” (Aristotle, Poetics section 2 part 13).
You remember Aristotle from Philosophy 101, right? No? Well, Japan certainly does… in its own way. Each of our time travelers doubles as an Aristotelian tragic hero, and parallel worlds time travel re-introduces us to traditional tragedy.
A tragic hero is characterized by his tragic flaw (“great error or frailty…follows his principles in his plays, many of which end unhappily”), and this leads him to what is seen as hubris against the gods (again, Ancient Greece). Our hero’s subsequent fall from grace (change in fortune…from good to bad”) is merely the gods’ retribution against the hero’s perceived misdemeanors and sin of pride.
A tragedy ultimately reaches climax at the ultimate loss or undoing of our hero: the “tragic event.” Oedipus (Oedipus Rex, Sophocles) learns that he has fulfilled his prophesied tragic fate (refresher: kills father, marries mother), finds his dead wife/mother: and he stabs out his eyes and enters a self-imposed exile. But, what if Oedipus could travel back in time? Prevent the prophecy from coming to fruition? That’s when the exciting story begins!
There are a few key elements to the time travel tragedy. There’s the all-powerful fate, or prophecy, which leads to the tragic event; but changing fate isn’t so simple, and it requires everything from our protagonist to alter predestined events. Oftentimes even when fate is changed, an alternate, equally horrific tragic event takes place. As discussed, there are the parallel tragic events: there's a seemingly immutable tragic event fated to occur in each timeline. Then there’s the mystery element: the protagonist has to solve the mystery behind the fated tragic event and how to prevent it—by figuring out the rules of the universe. And there’s the “Butterfly Effect,” the segment of Chaos Theory that states, small, early changes will result in exponentially greater effects, and these completely change the affected worlds; this reflects the climactic nature of the tragic event in traditional tragedy and is emphasized by the magic of time travelin our features stories. Either way, the gods have been angered by changes to their universe, and they will not respond kindly.
At the Center of the Universe
In our stories, the tragic event does not affect the hero. The tragic event affects someone close to them, it is usually the loss of a close friend or romantic interest. And each of said characters is at the center of their universes and mystery-novel plots, more important than anything else in the world to both the protagonist and, hopefully, the sympathetic audience (us). The forces of fate and prophecy have determined their ultimate demise, and it is up to our heroes to choose whether to save those closest to them or to save the rest of the world.
And so I introduce you to our host of time-travelers, the tragic heroes of our stories: Akemi Homura (Puella Magi Madoka Magica), Rintaro Okabe (Steins;Gate), Satoru Fujinuma (Erased), and Naho Takamiya (Orange). (I fail to mention the other time-traveling characters in the cast of Orange since they are inadequate to perform the role of "tragic hero" and do not undergo a tragic arc.)
Although we find ourselves with a cast of tragic heroes facing an inevitable fall from grace, each element of this tragic paradigm is altered in some way in each story. The deciding difference, I’ll argue, is with regards to the conclusion of each story; concerning parallel worlds, there is usually an alternate tragic event possible, though equally as inevitable, in one of our other timelines. Steins;Gate describes this effect with “attractor fields,” outlining the two key tragic events, towards one of which any timeline will converge, or be attracted to. Despite these theories, among the actual conclusions of these anime, we find ourselves, more often than not, presented with less-than-tragic results.