Steins;Gate

Steins;Gate would have to be the most frustrating anime I’ve ever watched. On paper, it sounds really intriguing. Seriously, let me share with you the blurb I read about the series, leading to my purchase.

The microwave is a time machine. Okarin proved it. The self-anointed mad scientist nuked bananas into some gelatinous version of the future. Or maybe it was the past. Doesn’t matter. No one thought he could do it, but he did it anyway. He sent text messages through time to people he knew. To his friends. Some of them female. Pretty. He should have been more careful. He should have stopped. Tampering with the time-space continuum attracts unwelcome attention. Clandestine organizations of nefarious origins take notice. SERN. Always watching. Okarin knows; he can feel their eyes. That’s why he started the top secret Future Gadget Lab. To stop them. You should join. We get to wear lab coats, and it’s dangerous. Danger is exciting because it’s deadly. The microwave is a time machine.

Pretty cool, right? And at 25 episodes, something I felt I could really get my teeth into as the winter winds and rain lashed outside my house. So you can imagine my annoyance/bewilderment when I was four or five episodes in and, frankly, not a lot had happened. Indeed, in the space of time that many motion pictures introduce a concept, a cast of characters, move through several acts, and then have a resolution, I was still on the starting grid with “self-proclaimed mad scientist” Rintaro Okabe acting like a complete moron (later revealed to be an act, but early on you have no idea), and his “childhood friend” Mayuri Shiina, who is about half his size and who, in turn, acts like an immature 10-year-old.

These two are supposed to be 18 and 16 respectively, but feel more like a guy in his mid 20s hanging out with the aforementioned 10 year old. Yeah, a bit weird. Throw in Okabe’s mate, Itaru “Daru” Hashida (who seems to be based on Jack Black at his most annoying), and it’s like there’s a story struggling to emerge from this mess of people acting oddly and tossing around plenty of Internet-friendly references; assuming you’re well-versed in the Internet of over a decade ago that is.

Reading about the series after I finished watching it, the idea seems to be that these early episodes are great comedy, and fans find it really amusing. That may be – there’s no accounting for taste, after all – but I was easily into episodes seven and eight before I could separate the nonsense from the actual plot and started piecing everything together. Even then it wasn’t until episode 12 – where frankly, the brown stuff hits the fan – that I felt the whole series change quite a bit for the better.

So let’s just pause now and ask whether a 25 part anime should be spending half its run-time on weird, not-very-funny scenes, that obscure the actual story to some degree? This is textbook padding to my mind. Of course, to others, it’s perhaps a wonderful build to what’s to come. Horses for courses.

The second half of Steins;Gate is much better than the first. I won’t give the reason(s) why, or the actual moments that have to be undone, but Okabe finds himself having to go back in his own timeline, repeatedly, to try and un-do events. So yeah, I guess you could say there’s something of Back to the Future in here (as well as 101 other time travel stories), except the stakes are pushed to the extreme. Indeed, there’s a character introduced into the piece who I believe was only really there to be used in the latter half of the story, having to make a major decision about their very fundamentalness in order to assist Okabe. But that’s only one person. Broadly, the stakes Okabe are dealing with are huge.

This anime is also quite unsettling in some areas. Of course there’s the natural anime inclination to gratuitous poses from female characters (plus a scene where Okabe runs in on Mayuri and another female character showering together for absolutely no apparent reason), but what I’m talking about really goes way beyond that. There’s quite a lot of death in here – in many forms – and while you might twig that if our hero has the power to un-do things, these deaths and murders aren’t “real”, the viewer still has to live through them and in terms of the lore of Steins;Gate they have still happened in at least one timeline. Our hero has simply gone to another timeline if he manages to un-do the situation.

If you’re a Doctor Who fan you’ll understand what I mean if I say the second half of Steins;Gate is like the most Steven Moffat episode ever made, multiplied by 1000. And that’s no lie. Indeed, I think some of the Steins;Gate crew might be fans of the aforementioned Time Lord, as I caught at least two huge references to the series. That said, there’s so much pop culture jammed into Steins;Gate – come on, it’s set in Akihabara, Tokyo – that they might have just been riffing on the series because it’s another time travel based entertainment. Who knows. But certainly being a Whovian made me gravitate strongly towards the overall storyline – once those annoying first dozen, or so, episodes were over.

Can I recommend this series? That is the hardest question I’ve had all week. I began this piece by saying Steins;Gate would have to be the most frustrating anime I’ve ever watched. And that’s true; every single word. Should I be recommending something to my readers when I spent half of it tearing my hair out/staring out the window/wondering if I should just go and read Reddit to see if I’ve somehow bought the worst anime of all time, and so on? You would think the answer is a slam-dunk, “No way!” but when the second half of the series was much better, and much more adult, and tried really hard to throw hellish situations at Okabe for him to piece his way through, I get stuck because the second half was genuinely quite good. So how about this? If you are the kind of person who likes timey-wimey stuff, and would have been perfectly OK if Back to the Future was full of murder and mayhem and heartbreak, and understand that the first half of the series, literally, is really badly paced, and even painfully dumb to watch at times, but pays off in the end… well, if you’re across all of that…

Enjoy.

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