When you walk the streets of Akihabara, you’re bound to run into many weird things. As the mecca of the otaku world, this district isn’t just a major electronics shopping center. In addition to supplying you with anime merchandise for all ages(and I do mean ALL ages, including those quite a bit older than 18), you’re also likely to find cosplayers, concerts, maid cafes, an entire AKB0048 theater, and enough sexual imagery to make anyone not used to the culture believe they had fallen down the rabbit hole into a perverse misogynistic wonderland.
And yet even the people who have been used to this atmosphere their entire lives have no idea how to react to one of it’s most strange residents, the self-proclaimed mad scientist HOUEN KYOUMA! By all outward appearances, Kyouma… Or, Okabe Rintaro by birth… Is an 18 year old man-child who refers to himself in the third person and always talks as though he’s unveiling his latest diabolic trap for Superman. They think he’s delusional, but little do they… Or even Okabe himself… realize just how accurate his claims are. As crazy as he may sound, Okabe has, through some miracle of science, accidentally created a time machine capable of sending text messages to the past, causing big changes in the future. Will this inexplicable invention be his ticket to the fame and notoriety that he’s always imagined, or will it be the greatest mistake he’s ever made?
Steins;Gate was produced by a relatively new animation studio called White Fox, and out of the dozen shows that they’ve put out, I unfortunately have only seen two others. They did The Devil is a Part Timer, which I highly recommend, but they also did Akame Ga Kill, I show I dropped after seven episodes. Both shows looked good despite having low budgets, and the same can be said of Steins;Gate. It’s not a very expensive show, which is fine, because it doesn’t need to be. The vast majority of it is dialogue heavy, alternating from people standing around talking to people walking around talking… Or, in it’s cheapest moments, people standing around thinking or brooding. It uses a lot of framing and perspective tricks to make these slower moments look less dull, and while I’d normally call a show pretentious for doing this, Steins;Gate is really focused about it, and it never comes close to as bad with it as most Studio Shaft productions can get.
When something other than talking is going on… Say, during the more exciting moments of the show, of which there is a generous amount… There isn’t a spike in the budget, like there would be with most shows, but they use a lot of clever editing tricks so the movement on screen appears more fluid than it really is, which I really appreciate… After all, a well-managed small budget will almost always impress me more than an unrestrained big budget. The character designs, while somewhat simplistic, are memorable enough. The characters don’t exactly look realistic, but in the anime medium, they’re about as grounded and non-cartoony as you can get, one weird moe-girl aside. The color scheme is dull, but it plays very well to the mature aesthetic of the series.
Aside from the really quick and beautiful animations that happen whenever Okabe time travels, there’s nothing really special about the look of this series, distinctive and unique though it might be, but it works perfectly in context, and any more movement than it has would have just felt unnecessary.
The music is also barely noticeable, skulking around in the background of scenes as it does it’s job accentuating the tone of the show without ever standing out. If you’re actually listening for it, the instrumental portion of the soundtrack is comprised primarily of soft piano pieces, although it’s not afraid to get loud and bombastic during it’s more intense scenes. In terms of both music and animation, Steins;Gate never gets more awesome than it does with it’s opening theme, Hacking to the Gate, one of my favorite openings of the decade so far. Having said that, this is one of those rare occasions where I wish the series had split itself into two different openings, as Hacking to the Gate, with it’s fast pace, explosive tune and clock-related imagery overlaying unhappy characters in a way that makes them feel hopelessly trapped in time feels way too intense for the first half of the series. Nevertheless, it’s pretty damn awesome.
The English dub is a Funimation effort, which is normally a good sign… Except for when they hire J. Michael Tatum as the script writer. I ragged on him really hard in my Heroic Age review, and I still stand behind everything I said… He’s a pretentious writer who thinks he’s better than the material, and makes a lot of really bad choices because of it. In spite of this, his style is more or less perfect for a show like Steins;Gate, whose dialogue poses, tries to sound smarter than it is, and panders to the audience just as hard as Tatum does. It made incessant references to Sci-Fi and nerd culture in the original Japanese, and Tatum clearly had a lot of fun Americanizing these references, throwing in nods to Star Trek, Doctor Who, and internet memes that fit well in context… Mostly. There are some quotes… For example, a Leeroy Jenkins reference in the final episode… that feel so out of place that you can’t help but notice Tatum’s giant wink to the audience.
His passion for over-writing also finds it’s home here, as a character like Okabe can only improve as his dialogue becomes more stilted and over-the-top. There are a few moments that do go way too far, one of the worst of which is a confrontation that Kurisu has with her father, who’s lines were so bad that the actor himself doesn’t sound comfortable reading them. Aside from that, it mostly works, and there are only a few moments where different characters sound the same(Mayuri and Dabu both using the phrase “Interwebs,” for instance. Stop trying to sound cool, Tatum).
Fortunately, the acting in general is above par. Tatum actually sounds slightly better in the lead role than Mamoru Miyano did, which is a real feat when you consider just how awesome Miyano was with the character. Being able to both write and act as an over-the-top melodramatic nut-job like Okabe was clearly a huge inspiration for him, and he takes it to gleeful extremes. The only actor in the cast who really surpasses him is Trina Nishimura in the role of Kurisu, the show’s only truly scientific-sounding character. She plays her with a reserved dignity and a genuine attempt at camaraderie that smooths out any tsundere edge that the character may have had, and she pulls off Kurisu’s emotional nuance flawlessly. She’s the rock of Okabe’s team, and Trina makes you believe it.
Jad Saxton and Cherami Leigh do wonderful jobs as usual. They’re both basically playing characters that they’ve played several times before, so this is well-known ground for them, and their veteran instincts carry them through. Relative newcomer Jessica Cavanaugh had a disproportionately tough job with the character of Moeka, who spend the majority of the series speaking quietly and delivering very few lines, but then suddenly having to scream hysterically at the top of her lungs in her big episode, so I have to give her props for pulling it off. As for Daru and Mayuri… Well, let’s just say the actors did the best they could to make them less annoying.
The characters are acted well over-all, which is a good thing, because the sad truth is that they’re not written very well. There are a handful of good or likeable characters, but there are only two in the main cast that I didn’t have any serious problems with… Moeka, the cell phone girl, and Suzuha, the part-timer. They’re both tied very tightly to the plot, and while they initially meander for much of the first half, they don’t disappoint in the long run. Also, neither one is after Okabe’s dick. Well, one of them had a rapey moment with Okabe that bothered me, but it fit well plotwise.
The two main characters, Okabe and Kurisu, are actually really likeable. Okabe is an interesting and highly dynamic character, and he has a great developmental arc throughout the story, but he’s not believable. He represents two of Japans more recent social issues… He’s a NEET, or “Not in Employment or Educational Training(at least in the anime),” and he’s also a chuunibyo, or an adult who can’t let go of his childhood fantasies. And yet, his weird and socially inept ways are justified by the fact that he’s made one of the most important inventions of all time, and he has three very attractive people so in love with him that they’re willing to do horrible things to themselves just because he asked them to. Hell, he even has a best friend who’s a complete skeezwad otaku just so he can look dignified by comparison. He’s the perfect self-insert fantasy for the very people he’s representing.
And Kurisu? Yes, she’s awesome, but she’s supposed to be awesome. She’s awesome by design, and I don’t mean that in a good way. She’s a nerd’s perfectly idealized girlfriend. Even if it weren’t for her cool head, high tolerance level for absurd people, and laid back personality, she’s still that unrealistic fantasy girl who’s willing to look past your awkwardness and terrible first impression just because your differences from other people are charming to her. I firmly disagree with anybody who calls her a tsundere, as she only acts abrasively towards Okabe when he deserves it for antagonizing her, but she’s still basically a magical girlfriend without the magic.
Then you have Faris and Ruka, whom… And I’m sorry to say this… The show would be better off without. Their only two purposes in the story are to extend the plot by a few episodes and be Okabe’s other two love interests, and they’re both very problematic in their own ways. With Faris, we never find out exactly why she has such a high opinion of Okabe… I mean, if she was just playing along with his BS because he’s a customer, that would be fine, but we get no indication of that. And the idea of a teenage girl being indirectly responsible for the development of Akihabara’s moe culture is a whole other can of worms.
And Ruka… Well, anime normally isn’t kind with it’s portrayal of LGBT characters, but this one crosses a brand new line. He… Well, she, I guess? She’s a biological male who identifies as a female. She uses the time machine to change her gender to the one that feels right, and while her character does involve some ignorant stereotypes, it doesn’t really become a problem until Okabe asks her to change herself back for plot reasons, to which her response is basically “Sure, I’ll go back to my old miserable life in order to prevent a greater tragedy from happening… If you go on a date with me!” Holding the greater good(Her best friend’s life! Come on!) hostage just to spend some time with our favorite awkward adonis. And of course she’s also in love with him when she’s a boy, because stereotypes.
I’ve already mentioned in Okabe’s description what Daru’s role in the series is, although I do appreciate the attempt to develop him further through his relationship to Suzuha. But Mayuri is the worst. No, let me rephrase that: Mayuri is THE WORST, all capitals. She’s a doe-eyed infantilized moe blob, or basically a toddler with big boobs. Her purpose is to make the viewer feel like she needs to be protected, thus adding more emotional stakes to the second half of the series.
If you haven’t seen the show, but have heard a lot of word of mouth about it, you’ve probably heard something along these lines; “The first half was really slow, but when the second half kicked in, it became the most awesome thing ever!” Or something of the like. I don’t personally agree with that assessment… The pacing of the first half never bothered me, and the second half had more than enough problems that I’ll get to in a minute… But what I do take issue with is when people refer to it as one of the smartest shows they’ve ever seen. Now, I’m not saying Steins;Gate is a dumb show… It knows what it’s doing, and to that end, it never falters… What I’m saying is that it’s full of shit.
I can’t say much about it’s time travel logic without giving away too many spoilers, but it does cheat towards the end and go in the Back to the Future direction. What I can talk about is the huge turning point that everybody loves so much. Halfway through the series, a tragic event occurs, and Okabe starts using the time machine over and over again to try and prevent said tragedy, but his efforts prove futile. This is fine at first, until it’s revealed that even when the cause of the tragedy is completely removed, the tragedy still happens in all of it’s Final Destination glory. Frankly, if you can get through this story arc without even once saying “Oh My God, They Killed Kenny!”, then you’re not somebody I would ever get along with.
Since Steins;Gate is a Sci-Fi story, there are a lot of things it doesn’t need to explain… It is, after all, Science fiction, not science fact. It doesn’t bother to explain how a Microwave can send texts through time, but it doesn’t need to, because no time machine in the history of fiction has ever been fully explained. They give you a few details and you just take it on faith. It never explains how Okabe got Reading Steiner, the ability to retain his memories from alternate timelines, but it doesn’t need to, because Okabe’s the main character, and he needs to have some element of chosen-ness in order to be special. As far as these two details go, everything’s fine.
But if you’re going to insert a giant game-changing plot twist into the middle of a story, it has to follow some sort of in-universe logic. The tragic event I mentioned earlier does not. It never gets explained as anything other than an accepted repercussion of time travel. I guess the best way to describe it would be to imagine that you’re setting up dominoes, and you have a pit of lava in your living room. I don’t know why, just go with it. No matter where you aim the line-up of dominoes, the last one will inevitably land in the lava, regardless of what room it ends in. Now, a normal person would be curious… Is Chell playing a joke on you? But Okabe and Kurisu are not curious. They immediately accept it as a scientific inevitability, and just as immediately jump to possible solutions, probably to save the writers the effort of coming up with a reason for this conflict that still smells like the place they pulled it out of. Hell, even a stupid explanation like “Okabe’s meddling with life and death pissed off the Grim Reaper” would have been a better explanation than no explanation.
And if that’s not bad enough, the idea of other people retaining their memories of past timelines through flashbacks is bullshit. There are several moments where characters that Okabe’s interacting with have visions of their past lives to corroborate with what he’s telling them, and of course, it only ever occurs when it’s convenient for him. He tries to explain it by saying that everybody has Reading Steiner to some degree, but this makes no sense whatsoever. I can think of any number of characters who, if they retained certain memories from past timelines, would have been able to screw Okabe and his friends over six ways from sunday.
Now, I know I’ve been very negative in those last few paragraphs, and that’s because I was saying things I haven’t heard often, and that I felt needed to be said. But the truth is, Steins;Gate does more right than it does wrong. It’s adapted from a visual novel/dating game, which is a notoriously hard source to adapt from, and while it’s attempts to build stories out of two of the side characters’ romantic paths does make for some infuriating filler episodes, it still weaves a better story than most other visual novel based anime that I’ve seen. I haven’t played the original game, but from what I’ve heard, they left a lot of the more ridiculous content by the wayside.
I also appreciate the slow pace of the first half a lot more than other people I’ve talked to about it. Steins;Gate did a great job slowly developing the story and dipping it’s characters further and further down the rabbit hole, dropping subtle clues about the disaster to come when the story gets serious. The build-up is fantastic, and the relationship between the characters and their interactions with each other kept me from ever getting bored. Yes, I said the characters are calculated and unrealistic in the way they’re written, but the friendship and chemistry between them does feel real, and it comes from a very believable place, so I can’t completely write them off. Not most of them, anyway.
Nor can I write off the overall story. I don’t think it’s the work of sci-fi genius everyone else does… Sorry, I don’t… But it’s still a pretty damn good mystery, with enough build-up and payoff to keep you on the edge of your seat from episode to episode even after multiple viewings, noticing small, seemingly insignificant details you might have missed on previous viewings. It’s at it’s best when it’s focused on this mystery, and to that effect, it’s executed really well… And even when it’s not, it’s emotionally resonant enough for it’s flaws to be largely excusable. But as a sci-fi time traveling show, it really does make shit up as it goes along.
Steins;Gate is available from Funimation. It was originally released in blu-ray/DVD combo half-packs, but it has since been released as one product in the Anime classics format, and for a much more affordable rate than before. The original visual novel has been released stateside for several formats including the PS3, with the text actually translated, but I haven’t played it and probably won’t for a while. The 2013 movie, Fuka Ryoiki No Deja Vu, has not yet been released stateside, but it has been licensed by Funimation, and good news: It’s not a cash-grab movie! It’s an actual sorta sequel! A sequel series named Steins;Gate 0 has been announced, and appears to be set in an alternate universe that Okabe left behind.
You can love an anime series while impartially acknowledging that it has problems, and that’s the camp I find myself in with this series. Steins;Gate doesn’t really live up to all of the hype, nor does it deserve it, but it’s still a pretty fun series. It’s well produced and cleverly directed, and it’s original enough that I can honestly say I’ve never seen any series like it before. I guess it kind of reminds me of Angel Beats, insofar as the fact that it works far better emotionally than logically, but that’s pretty much it. The comedy and drama are blended well, but it’s just too problematic for me to give it the high mark it’s clearly aiming for. However, just like all of Okabe’s friends, I accept this show and all of it’s weirdness and pretension. I give Steins;Gate a 7/10.