Time-travel is a fantasy that has long spoken to some of man’s deep-seated insecurities. For instance, each and every one of us has regrets, no matter the mask we wear. I wish I had chosen a different school; I wish I had never met that man/woman; I wish I had said “yes” in that moment instead of “no.” Regret comes from the human craving for a sense of control over our lives – i.e., we demand that life grant us a mulligan. But in Steins;Gate, as in any great time-travel story, the viewer is forced to confront the reality that re-writing the past usually just bring more baggage to be dragged – for every action, there are multiple (perhaps infinite) consequences, and Okabe Rintaro is about to learn that life doesn't appreciate demands…
The eccentric, self-proclaimed “mad scientist” Okabe Rintaro, his childhood friend Mayuri, and genius hacker Daru are the founding members of what Okabe has dubbed the “Future Gadget Laboratory,” a kind of would-be SPECTRE organization. Though Okabe paints their club as a collective of geniuses bent on world domination, the group spends most of its time creating (relatively) useless gadgets out of household items. After they accidentally invent a device that can send text messages into the past, however, the Lab members begin to attract more attention than they bargained for. What follows is a brilliantly-paced, addictively suspenseful, and richly emotional work of storytelling that – if I had to put it in a box – can only be described as a sci-fi-tragi-comic-romance.
This is a very difficult anime to talk about without dropping spoilers, but I'll do my best to remain tactful. In terms of the plot, suffice it to say that the script is genius in its implementation of real-world time-travel theories. This is a time-travel story that is well-researched and makes sense: Hugh Everett’s multiple worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, the butterfly effect, and the concepts of world-line convergence and divergence are explained clearly and efficiently. Make no mistake, this is a script with a considerable intellect.
What’s most impressive about these plot devices, however, is not the lucidity of their presentation; rather, it is how well they complement the character development and the exploration of the story’s themes. Multiverse theory and the butterfly effect are nothing new to time-travel lore, but rarely have these concepts been used so intelligently and to such great effect in a storytelling medium.
After word starts spreading about Okabe’s time machine, more and more of his friends become members of the Future Gadget Laboratory to aid his research - it seems that everyone wants a piece of the pie. The opportunity to right all the perceived wrongs that life has dealt you is just too much for a person to pass up. Though the experiments begin small (obtaining the winning lottery numbers for the week, for instance), the characters begin to make increasingly risky changes to the past. Some of these characters attempt to change enormous life events or warn their past selves of some impending trauma. One of the characters goes so far as to alter the very circumstances of their birth (I know that that reads like a massive spoiler, but don’t worry – it doesn’t significantly alter the plot in and of itself, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of leaving that open to interpretation).
Though the first half of this series contains some of the funniest, wittiest dialogue I’ve ever seen in a television series (I was literally guffawing for a good deal of the first ten episodes or so), the slowly-growing gravitas of the characters’ attempts to play god begin to provoke some worrisome questions. If whatever can happen does happen, then how much weight do our case histories really carry in our concepts of who we really are? I could’ve chosen to go to a completely different school and pursued a completely different line of work; I could’ve been born a woman or I could’ve never been born at all. Suffice it to say that you may find yourself reflecting on some of the famously uncomfortable implications of quantum mechanics.
It all builds up to one of the most shocking, gnawingly heartbreaking moments I’ve ever witnessed. Don't let the impressive wit and levity in the series fool you, guys - once the threshold is crossed, a lot of this story is emotionally draining. But it isn't so much the twist as it is what follows from it that is the reason this series will stand the test of time. I know that I am speaking ambiguously, but there is no other way to avoid spoilers for those who have yet to see it. A suspenseful sci-fi comedy/thriller with light slice-of-life elements becomes a struggle against inevitability, and the questions provoked in the viewer are inescapable: How far would I go for the people I love? What could I have done differently? Does anything I do really make a difference?
The only draw of this series is the ending. I’ve heard some people express dissatisfaction, claiming that it negates the emotional impact of the preceding events. Personally, I think this is exactly backwards. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that this story does have a "happy" ending, but given the crucible that leads up to this dénouement the ending feels like something these characters have earned (and the payoff is immensely satisfying). After all, this is anything but a one-note series – the entire spectrum of human emotion is elicited in Steins;Gate, and it feels honest and palpable in every instance of expression. I laughed with my full gut, shed tears, and felt enraged by the actions of characters that were ultimately revealed to be simple, scared human beings just like the rest of us.
The humanizing effect of Steins;Gate’s beautiful narrative is, for lack of a better word, simply awesome. It is an immersive, emotionally-charged sci-fi epic that writes a love letter to its predecessors while simultaneously providing a refreshing amount of originality. Simply put, this is one of the best time-travel stories of all…time.
It may not be the greatest animation you’ve ever seen, but it certainly stands out amongst its contemporaries. Hair glistens in the sunlight, facial expressions are subtly affecting, colors are vibrant but not loud, and everything has a generally sleek, clean, polished look to it. What stands out about Steins;Gate’s animation is its subtlety – of colors, of character designs, and in the fluidity of motion. It’s a style that works perfectly with the tone of the series, and though it may not be as impressive as something like Attack on Titan, it’s just as effective in communicating emotion and drawing the viewer into a space that feels habitable.
This is easily one of the most well-acted and well-translated dubs in the history of the medium. I was left absolutely speechless by the integrity of the voice-actors and the astounding wit of the translated dialogue. J. Michael Tatum’s English adaptation needs to be heard to be believed. Though the opening theme of the series doesn’t really fall in line with my musical tastes, it is appropriately quirky and has a bit of a Doctor Who feel to it. The rest of the soundtrack is simply fantastic. Ranging from light piano ballads to thick synth pads, the instrumentation always fits perfectly with what’s happening on-screen. It’s…it’s fucking stellar, dude…
This is where Steins;Gate truly shines. Unlike so many anime that seem to force the relationships between their characters along at an unnatural pace (a problem that I had with both Welcome to the NHK and Dusk Maiden of Amnesia, for instance), these people aren’t simply handed to you. Just like your friends and family, just like your neighbors and your enemies, these characters have a surface personality that slowly dissolves as we get to know them. The sense of urgency that comes with a growing attachment to these characters instills a genuine desire to shoulder their burdens, and it’s hard not to feel as if their vulnerabilities are vivid reflections of our own.
These are people that do a very good job of hiding the fact that they are broken (or at least severely cracked) individuals. For all of Okabe’s showmanship and his mask of crazy, he is a profoundly lonely man who cares deeply for the people closest to him ("I started [The Future Gadget Lab] because I couldn't invent friends"). This tenderness is hindered by his crippling fear of intimacy and physical contact, as seen in episode three when Okabe literally struggles to even shake hands with Kurisu before recoiling at the last second. Mayuri - who is one of the most charming, hilarious, and beautiful anime characters of all time - may be naiive and a little slow, but she too struggles with issues of self-worth, despite her role as the glue that holds the group together. Kurisu has an horrific relationship with her father, and the stiff competition she’s faced among her colleagues in the States has left her embarrassed about the inner nerd that she so desperately - and adorably - tries to hide (there’s nothing quite like the giddiness that comes from seeing Kurisu blush when she unwittingly reveals herself to be a Star Trek fan). I could go on for hours about every character: Daru with his quick-witted sarcarsm, Ruka's tragic repression of his homosexual desires, Moeka's profound depression and dependency issues...everyone is just so dynamic and fully fleshed-out.
These characters are also very intelligent, and their banter is hilariously witty. The humor never feels forced, and it’s almost always in virtue of the authenticity of the characters. Everything feels so naturally paced, and it doesn’t hurt to have an abundance of references to internet, video game, and sci-fi culture either. Apropos of which, one of my favorite moments of the series is the discussion of what to call the Phone-Wave. Though I would’ve totally been behind Daru’s suggestion that it be called “The Mail Who Leapt through Time,” the fact that Mayushii is the one to come up with “Delorian Mail” as the official name is just awesome. Apparently, she too is a little sci-fi nerd, referencing the Back to the Future trilogy twice in the same scene! The authenticity of the emotions expressed by Faris, Daru, Okabe, Kurisu, Moeka, Suzuha, Ruka, and Mayuri has to be seen - has to be felt - to be believed. As these characters grew with each other, I too felt myself growing closer to them. I shed tears on multiple occasions across two viewings, the empathy I felt for these people was so perfervid. It is one of those rare anime I’ve seen in which I genuinely felt as if I had developed a real relationship with these people.
In summation, all of these characters are easily among the most believable, loveable, and memorable personalities ever created. I saw the series about two months ago, and my roommate and I are still quoting it on a daily (Mayuri and Faris in particular are sources of comic gold for us).
Steins;Gate is an awe-inspiring masterpiece that easily earns its right to be called an instant classic. It forces us to reflect on all the decisions we have made, are making, and will make in the time we are given. This story belongs among those rare works of art that leave us with a renewed sense of gratitude for the people in our lives that we too often take for granted, and for the beauty and nourishment of commonplace experience. Like American Beauty, it turns our initial impressions of its characters on their heads and forces us to reevaluate how we make judgments about our fellow beings; like Bioshock: Infinite, it uses multiverse and time travel - "time travel" - concepts to shed light on the oftentimes unbearable weight of the choices we make; like both, it is a story that is brutally honest in its communication.
More than most anime I’ve seen, more than most stories I’ve encountered in any medium, Steins;Gate pushed me into emotional and philosophical territory that was so powerful, so real, and so haunting that language is ultimately rendered impotent before it. In the beginning of the first episode, our demure hero muses: “If history tells us anything, it is that scientists often make very poor poets.” I think you need to give yourself more credit, Okabe – you (and Ken Levine, of course) have done more than most of your contemporaries to give us a glimpse into the poetry of physics.
Written and submitted by Nicholas Anthony D’Elia
overall score: 10/10