Anime review: Steins;Gate

When it comes to the topics of time travel, parallel realities, and diverging timelines, most mediums of entertainment turn to one of two formulas to convey their fictional tales – the more free-form and adventure-oriented angle seen in the likes of Dr. Who and Back to the Future, or a nitty-gritty technical presentation that comes across more as a manual and survivor’s guide to the realm of theoretical science than anything else. Steins;Gate manages to balance these two, offering up a cast of incredibly likeable characters, who play off each other in charming, comedic ways due to their individual quirks. However, Steins;Gate is deeply rooted in real-world theory, and while the ramifications of tampering with the time-space continuum may not be immediately obvious to the members of the Future Gadget Laboratory, the later episodes tread into dark, serious territory.

When we first meet the members of the Future Gadget Laboratory, they are a ragtag group of friends who spend most of their days cobbling together odds and ends to create gadgets for curious, single-minded applications, as well as conversing about their own particular interests. Self-proclaimed mad scientist Okabe Rinatarou (aka Hououin Kyouma) is as obsessed with his theories of altering the multiverse as he is with a made-up scenario wherein a secret group know only as ‘The Organization’ seeks to overthrow his every plan – be it an attempt to send a message back in time or a simple visit to the grocery store. Itaru “Daru” Hashida is the most skilled with computer hacking, and this specific skill set comes to be of great use later on. His obsession with gal games, however, simply earns him eye rolls from the rest of the gang. Mayuri Shiina is a longtime friend of Okabe, spends most of her days preparing cosplays for local conventions, and acts as the social and emotional tether to the group, as she is always wearing a smile and seeks to comfort anyone if they’re feeling frustrated or sad.

While these three characters are the first to be introduced, it is but a couple episodes into the series that the fourth crucial member of the Future Gadget Laboratory is introduced – Kurisu Makise, prodigal student visiting from America, and well-versed in the theory and science associated with time travel. It is when Kurisu and Okabe meet and decide to team up that the ball really gets rolling with Steins;Gate. As the two work to cobble together devices and equations, they stumble upon an accidental discovery – the microwave within Okabe’s apartment emits waves in such a manner that, when coupled with the signal from a cell phone, is capable of sending small bits of information back in time. Thus the team decides to test their findings via the most practical means possible – sending a text message (dubbed ‘D-mail’) back in time to see if it will alter the present. However, Okabe quickly discovers that he has been sent neither forward nor backward in time, but rather sideways, hopping onto another timeline that diverges from the original one he started on. The more Okabe allows individuals to send D-mails to versions of themselves or friends/relatives hours, weeks, or even years in the past, the more he realizes how simple altercations to the way people interact with their surroundings can greatly alter the present he experiences.

It isn’t too long before Okabe realizes that the more he and his compatriots tamper with the rules of one reality or another, the further he gets from the original timeline from whence he came. Thus, the Divergence Meter comes into play, courtesy of a friend and ally who informs Okabe that there is a way to set things straight – back to the way they were. The closer the Divergence Meter reads to 1.0, the closer Okabe is to his original timeline. He will have to manipulate certain events and even his friends in order to influence the Divergence Meter in the manner he wishes. Compounding this issue is the fact that CERN, a very secretive scientific organization, may have caught wind of Okabe’s activites after he and Daru first hacked into their databases. In this, Okabe finds there may be some truth to his self-concocted scenarios about members of an elite, all-seeing organization seeking to undo his progress.

Steins;Gate may not have seen quite as large a fan following as the likes of Sword Art Online, Death Note, or other mainstream anime in recent years, but it does present a rare case where critical and popular reception of the anime are practically even. It’s a series that combines geeky humor and intelligent writing to craft a science fiction story that avoids being too dense that it alienates many a viewer while similarly preventing its craft from being oversimplified. Admittedly, there are points throughout where the show believes it is being more clever than it truly is or seems to think it might be planting a false trail or decent cliffhanger when it is glaringly obvious what the next step for Okabe and company is. That said, each episode will leave you wanting more – to know how the members of the Future Gadget Lab intend to carry out their next daunting task, the ultimate ramifications of Okabe’s tampering with time and space, and how the casts’ curious dynamic will pan out.

There are many forces at work in this story, even if some are not obvious from the outset or even hinted at until near the halfway point. Some play out in a much more rewarding manner than others, while a couple are simply there for shock value. Similarly, some of the forces/individuals who would seek to foil the plans of the Future Gadget Lab members (whether on a grand scale or through small upsets) are not rounded out as well as others by the end of the series – ironically, one such character is introduced early on and doesn’t seem to break out of their odd, excessively nervous shell. That’s not to say that said character comes across as one-dimensional, but there are other characters whose development cycle proves more complete and rewarding in a notably shorter time frame.

Attention to detail – both on part of the creative staff and the fictional characters that comprise the series – is one of the show’s greatest strengths. There are items, locations, and characters whose influence over the process of jumping timelines/worldliness are made obvious from the outset, while there are others who are mentioned in brief early on, only to come back with resounding force during later episodes. The show’s animation is top-notch, and utilizes interesting perspectives to help flesh out the handful of environments that will be visited and revisited in different times and places. The pacing may not exactly be consistent throughout, but it is handled with the utmost care – the final leg slows down significantly to amp up the tension, take a long hard look at how all the characters have changed over the course of the series, and to prepare you, the viewer, for the final implications and resolution all the timeline-hopping will bring.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

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