Steins; Gate (2011) Review: Time Travel and Weirdness
A story that includes microwaved bananas, a boy who looks and behaves like a woman, and a self-proclaimed mad scientist who seeks to “transform the world’s ruling structure.”
Strange enough for you yet?
Adapted from the second visual novel of 5pb. and Nitroplus’ Science Adventure series, Steins; Gate is a sci-fi thriller that keeps its viewers at the edge of their seats, shocks them in ways that leave them speechless, and moves them with the sincerity and growing bonds of the main characters.
While the subject of time travel is certainly not ground-breaking (as seen in notable live-action films such as the Back to the Future trilogy, 12 Monkeys, and Looper), it is not often you encounter an anime that delves into dark territory without it coming across as forced or contrived for dramatic effect. Even the short speech the protagonist makes at the beginning of this show—a feature you can find in many anime—is not spoken for the sake of sounding “deep,” but rather to comment on his later decisions and the inability of escaping fate.
While certainly not without its own flaws—or features which may deter certain viewers—Steins; Gate is truly a rare piece of work among the vast heaps of shows the anime industry pumps out every year. The characters are unique—for the most part—, the plot is complex and very well-executed, and each episode is packed with numerous details where even the most insignificant objects, events, or pieces of dialogue prove important. As a result, this is a show that requires its viewers’ utmost attention at every moment.
Below is the English-subbed opening sequence for the show:
Story and Structure
Set in Akihabara, Japan, the first moments of the show introduce viewers to a man, Okabe Rintarou, wearing a white lab coat and supposedly speaking with someone on his phone. After his childhood friend, Mayuri Shinna, interrupts him, the two of them head towards a conference that discusses successful time machine development. Within the first few minutes, Okabe is angered after reading the speaker’s pamphlet, claiming Dr. Nakabachi had ripped off John Titor’s time machine theory—John Titor being a self-proclaimed time traveler who had posted the same theory in the year of 2000.
Before Okabe’s conflict escalates further, he is led out of the room by a girl, Kurisu Makise, who is very interested in finding out who Okabe is. She claims that Okabe had tried to say something to her 15 minutes ago and that he seemed very distressed when he had approached her. Okabe, however, does not remember doing so and finds an excuse to leave her. A short period of time later, while Okabe is speaking with Mayuri, the two of them suddenly hear someone screaming. Immediately running to the source of the scream, Okabe discovers Kurisu Makise lying in a pool of blood.
At this point in the episode, viewers are most likely to assume that this event is what the entire story revolves around, yet this could not be further from the truth. One of the things that make this show so impressive is its ability to balance multiple elements of the overarching story—Kurisu’s death being one of several major events to occur within the first episode, let alone the show as a whole. And while it is later revealed that everything has been moving towards a single event, all of the sub-plots prove significant not only in terms of the value they have for the main story, but for the emotional weight they bear for their own characters and their relationships to Okabe as well. However, because this is a show with a large cast of characters, involving several subplots, each episode is fairly dense in terms of the information and details in it, which subsequently affects the pacing.
For an anime that is only 24 episodes long, and that expects its viewers to pay close attention at every moment, the first 11 episodes may feel like 15-20. Viewers may point to this as a flaw, especially considering that it falls under the thriller genre, but speaking from what viewers have said on multiple anime forums, subreddits, and my own personal experience, if you have the patience to stick it out until episode 12, you will be heftily rewarded.
Steins; Gate is not a show that relies on cheap twists and nonstop action to create a riveting experience for its audience; it is carefully crafted and builds gradually to one of the most shocking moments of the show, thereafter following on the same destructive, faster-paced path until the issue is resolved—though not without irrevocable psychological and emotionally-scarring consequences. If viewers are looking for an anime that becomes more dark, mature, and surprising as the show progresses, then Steins; Gate is a solid pick.
Characters and their Development
During the first two episodes, all of the main characters are introduced: Okabe “Okarin” Rintarou—the childish, considerate, self-proclaimed mad scientist; Mayuri “Mayushi” Shiina—the sweet and innocent cosplay costume designer and Okabe’s childhood friend; Kurisu Makise—the level-headed, rational, slightly insecure, science genius; Itaru “Daru” Hashida—the overweight, perverted, stereotypical otaku and close friend of Mayuri and Okabe; Moeka Kiryu—the socially awkward girl who cannot bear to be parted from her phone; Ruka “Rukako” Urushibara—the highly feminine male and close friend of Mayuri and Okabe; Faris Nyannyan—the waitress at a maid-café and friend of Mayuri and Okabe; and Suzuha Amane—the spunky, carefree part-time worker of Mr. Braun’s.
With such a large and diverse cast as this, viewers may find themselves dubious to the idea that each one is given ample enough time to fully develop as characters. While the show certainly does employ the use of stock characters—the most obvious probably being Daru, the stereotypical otaku—practically every single one receives a lot more attention than viewers may have originally expected. Perhaps one of the most satisfying parts of the show is watching how certain characters you may have found annoying, or who you simply didn’t find interesting at first, become endearing. And while certain characters do receive more attention, naturally as a result of the story’s focus, everyone is given enough attention to be perceived as full-fledged, identifiable people in the viewers’ eyes.
However, for those viewers who are quick to judge characters and the script of a show within the first few episodes, its unique brand of “weirdness” may be off-putting. By this I mean that viewers may find themselves feeling awkward at various points during the first half due to the characters’ idiosyncrasies and the dialogues exchanged between them. Part of the reason for this is because the main character is a self-proclaimed mad scientist who enjoys forced evil laughter, constantly pretending to be talking on his phone with someone about an agent sent after him by “The Organization,” and whose close friends enable his childish behavior, or even actively reciprocate it in some cases.
On the one hand, this feature of the show presents a realistic depiction of friendships and how one’s weirdness is often accepted by those who enjoy another’s company. It is important to note though that this is not done simply for the sake of being “different,” but for the sake of painting an honest and genuine presentation of people as they truly are—and that involves seeing them not only when they appear most “ordinary,” but when they let their guards down enough to simply be themselves. As it is difficult to reach a general consensus on this, I will leave viewers to decide for themselves.
Aesthetics and Conclusion
In terms of the overall look and feel of the show, despite how light the outside is depicted, the show has a strong dark, brooding feel to it from the very beginning. Whenever the city is portrayed, it is often bright gray—approaching white—and the lack of music at various extended moments is broken by the sound of cicadas—especially when the past or future suddenly flash on the screen as still-frames. This method of blending the present with distant events adds to the somber, reflective mood of the show. The only instances when “color” does appear is not in the cityscape background, but in the light-hearted tone of the characters’ dialogues during the first half of the show.
In terms of music, it is rarely heard. Most of the time, the show relies purely on the characters’ dialogues to fill the emptiness or the sound of minor background noises—like the typing of keys on a keyboard, the sound of footsteps against pavement, and the like. The only times when music is used is to enhance the eerie atmosphere surrounding bizarre or horrifying events/information, during which time orchestral music is employed. Thus, the soundtrack’s infrequent appearances makes the few instances when it does show itself all the more powerful.
For veteran anime watchers: If you are looking for a story that gives an honest portrayal of people, their vulnerabilities and wants, as well as a complex and well-crafted thriller, then you will greatly enjoy Steins; Gate. Whether or not you have the patience to stick with it until the 12th episode, however, will strongly shape your impression of the show.
For non-anime watchers: You do not need any prior knowledge or viewing experience of anime in order to enjoy this show. The first half is filled with light-hearted humor and set-up, while the second half is significantly darker, dramatic, and fast-paced. And if you enjoy a little bit of romance on the side, this show will give you that as well. Whether or not you are willing to stick with it, though, until the 12th episode will shape your overall impression.
What do you think? Leave a comment.