[Contains spoilers for Cloud Atlas, Steins;Gate and, if they’re still spoilers by this point, Madoka Magica]
There’s no better way to show your affection for someone than to get separated from them by the cosmic decisions of the universe and get really, really mad about it. Maybe, a la Cloud Atlas, you’re caught in a cycle of reincarnation and keep crossing paths and bonding, only to be separated by something in every lifetime. Maybe there’s time travel involved as your device for era/parallel universe jumping, and you’re caught in a loop trying to save your loved one (or just your relationship, a la In Time) and leap your way to an eventuality where you can both be safe and happy.
Either way, this brings a big cosmic concept like time or soul travel, proverbially, down to earth, and makes it about people rather than saving the world. Which makes it much more interesting in my book, especially with all the concepts it brings into play.
Any plot like this, especially the ones where wayward souls are involved, will eventually have to bring up the question of fate—something humans have been brooding over for thousands of years, the idea of the pre-ordained path that we’re all traversing. Do we have the ability to step off it and follow others if we become self-aware? Is this giving us the power of the gods themselves? Or at least, the very human power to rage at the gods and the universe for making our destinies so annoying and cruel?
Something like time travel definitely provides the ‘jumping off the fated path’ opportunity like no other, and so stories about it are often sparked by a character using it to change something. Like Homura and her tragic magic time loop (which I have talked about before but will also touch on again in a moment) and the good folks of Steins;Gate who, once all their playing with the past takes a turn for the sinister, find themselves in a physical and theoretical battle to see if they can save a member of their lab from dying.
Okabe discovers that even if he travels back in time and changes things so that the events that led to his friend’s death don’t occur, she always ends up dying anyway, sometimes by completely random accident. It’s enough to bring up the question of whether it’s something they can’t change, something that’s a fixed point in time… to which Okabe’s immediate reaction is to raise the middle finger to the concept of fatalism and continue to try and change things.
Now that, surely, is a good indicator of love (and platonic love, in this case, which I really enjoyed), though of course the self-made tragedy therein is that in all his efforts to trip up time and save Maiyuri, he’s actually interacting with her less and less and their friendship itself is suffering. The same way that Homura (oh, dear Homura) loses touch with the friend/lover she was trying to protect so that by the time the series starts they barely know each other, and by the time it ends (?) their relationship barely resembles the sweet, affectionate thing it was at the start, and Madoka has been effectually imprisoned.
What would you give up to save someone you loved? Is it worth all that fighting if some great finger of destiny is still intent on flicking you apart? And is it really the finger of destiny that’s doing the flicking, or have you, tragic protagonist, brought it upon yourself? Is that inherently more heartbreaking than anything pre-ordained? I think it is. A character making their own mistakes hits us closer to the core than a character who ultimately has no control over their own ending, which is, I think, what makes us wrinkle our nose at the concept of fate in the first place. We want to believe we can shift things and have our own free will, and we definitely want to believe that we can love who we choose to, circumstances or universe be damned.
Cloud Atlas’ tragedy is based on things happening to the characters that send them down a slippery slope, implying (the movie much moreso than the book) that these two souls, whether they manifest as friends or lovers, are destined to cross paths in every lifetime and then (with exceptions like Timothy Cavendish and Ursula, but from what I remember that was changed from the novel) be torn apart again and there’s nothing they can do about it, until the very last incarnation where they actually grow old together.
To heighten the ouch-factor, you even have tiny, tiny crossovers like Sixsmith, as an old man, meeting the young reincarnation of his lover Robert Frobisher, who killed himself when they were both in their twenties. He and the new incarnation, Luisa, hang out for a bit and Sixsmith is murdered before she can work out what the connection is, and without ever remembering anything that he does. The comet birthmark literally marks that character as star-crossed.
But, again, the emotional centre of the film ends up being characters raising the middle finger to fate, and having their tiny pockets of time together either before they’re torn apart or in spite of their cultural differences. Does this mean they’re soulmates, or just two people determined to help each other out who just happen to meet up in each new era? Which idea is more appealing?
I know we as a society and media kind of have a constant crush on the idea of one person destined to complete us, and that’s an interesting concept to play with in and of itself, but overall I think what makes these stories interesting is the human element: are they fated to meet, or destined to save the future via time traversing? Or in the end is it just about people wanting to protect each other, and willing to go to great lengths to do so, and isn’t that kind of more uplifting and dramatic in the end?
While I really enjoy the idea of characters re-meeting and re-losing each other again and again via reincarnation and what that might mean for the concept of soulmates, that we’re all connected by some great web of red strings and the tragedy therein, I also really enjoy the ultimate message of Steins;Gate: is this the choice of Steins Gate? Well, “Steins Gate” is just something we made up, much like the concept of destiny itself if you want to get really meta, so to hell with it. Humans are irrational, emotion-driven creatures that will always find a way to mess things up for better or worse, and these stories of theirs are fascinating to watch and play with.