Recently I’ve been getting back into my Japanophilia, playing JRPGs, watching anime and reading manga. The completion of the Naruto manga which prompted me to pick that up again, my discovery of the Persona series and other things have all factored in. So here I am, a couple of years behind the anime scene, looking for stuff and collecting recommendations. I bounced off of Code Geass, enjoyed my time with Barakamon and initially bounced off of Steins;Gate. But seeing that one at the top of so many top anime lists, and seeing Kotaku’s Richard Eisenbeis declare Steins;Gate as possibly the best anime he’s ever seen, I just had to give it a second chance.
Steins;Gate is an anime series comprising 24 episodes and a movie (which I haven’t seen). It aired in 2011 and is based on a visual novel PC as well as a manga.
Okay, so with all that out of the way, let’s get down to it.
Steins;Gate is the story of Okabe Rintarou (Okarin for short) and his friends who have accidentally built a machine that can send text messages to the past called a “phonewave”. Okarin himself is a self-proclaimed mad scientist and a real oddball. He’ll burst out laughing like a mad scientist, call himself “Hououin Kyouma” for whatever reason and talk to his switched off phone like he was a spy on a secret mission, constantly referring to some dark organization hunting him down. It’s fair to say, he has so much imagination and is so extroverted that he’ll seem delusional at times. His friends though are normal enough (though with their own quirks) that it doesn’t get too grating. Actually, the Japanese voice actor does such a fantastic job with the maniacal laughter that you’ll end up laughing even though it’s incredibly silly.
Okarin and his gang almost always hang out in their “lab”, which is nothing more than a glorified little apartment in Akihabara, a famous Tokyo district for otaku and geek culture. His friends are all lab members and there’s a whole thing about that.
At first, Okarin comes off as so weird that it’s hard to identify with him, but over the course of the story, he’ll drop his mad scientist act and show his more normal side and it turns out that he REALLY cares for his friends.
So for the first 10 episodes, what we get is a slow paced, almost slice-of-life style anime that’s really just chugging along on the entertainment value of the various characters and the promise that things will get very interesting because of the phonewave. You see, from the first episode on, strange things happen and as Okarin is trying to figure out the phonewave, he discovers that while he does affect the timeline, he remembers everything that happened before he altered it. It seems Okarin has a special gift.
Back to the past and again and again and again
Steins;Gate is essentially a time travel story, which in itself is great material for complex narrative. I’m not the biggest fan of the genre, but I do like “Back to the Future” or the final act of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”. The biggest dangers for these kinds of stories are plot holes and the need to stick to an internal logic. I’m not really into the thought exercises these kinds of stories provide and will largely gloss over the minutiae and just read up on fan explanations and theories.
What I look for in time travel stories are the dramatic moments that become possible. For example, when Marty receives the telegram from Doc Brown on that stormy night on that country road. Steins;Gate does have those in numbers. I don’t want to give away too much, but rest assured that the story gets dramatic and there’ll be plenty of heart-in-mouth moments especially as the story nears its conclusion.
One thing that sets this apart from the other time travels stories I’ve seen is the sheer quantity of timeline alterations Okarin makes. It’s hard to keep up and consider all the implications of Okarin’s actions. Without getting into spoilers, time travel becomes a means to an end, but also the cause of much despair and suffering.
So then should you watch it?
If there is one thing I want you to take away from this review, it’s this: watch AT LEAST the first 12 episodes before deciding whether you want to give up on Steins;Gate or not. I initially bounced off of Steins;Gate because I only mildly enjoyed the first 5 or 6 episodes. There are no stakes, no excitement and no real threat to Okarin and his gang. On my second try, I decided to prevail since it’s also just 24 episodes long. At episode 11, something happens and everything DRASTICALLY changes. What was a leisurely paced walk in the park watching birds and enjoying the sunlight suddenly becomes a frantic, breathless chase down a dark alley. I suppose the first 11 episodes served the purpose of set-up and establishing characters, of laying out the stakes. It did work, because I consumed the final 13 episodes in just two days. I just question whether the first 11 shouldn’t really have been more like 6.
Is Steins;Gate up there with the best anime of all time? Honestly, not for my money. As a reference, my favorite anime (excluding feature films) is Death Note. Steins;Gate does have its highs, and when it hits them, it’s fantastic. It’s truly great. But there are the pacing issues that really did have a negative impact on my experience. It’s too big a flaw for me to ignore, and to its credit, I really liked almost everything else. The art is good, the sound track is alright (I don’t care much for J-POP op/eds usually) but really cool when kicking in at those moments at the ends of some certain episodes. There are funny moments, sad moments, exciting and thrilling moments. Steins;Gate is a DEFINITE recommendation.
As a bonus, here is Okarin’s greatest moment, some class A Engrish: