Last Tuesday, we finally saw the release of the Steins;Gate visual novel on consoles in the west. Originally releasing in 2009, Steins;Gate tells the story of a self-styled mad scientist who stumbles across an actual technological advancement when he creates a time machine. The game was successful enough to see an anime adaptation in 2011, and the series has enjoyed mostly warm critical and fan reception both in Japan and overseas. With the visual novel fresh in everyone’s mind, it’s a good time to revisit the anime series and see what made it so special–and to check out some of the flaws that get lost in the praise.
Steins;Gate makes an interesting choice on how to start a series: slowly. Painfully, drudgingly, laboriously slowly. I watched in fits and starts until episode 7, and it was episode 12 before I felt confident I’d ever finish the series. There are a good number of reasons for this, and it’s worth hashing through all of them. If you’re anything like me, or most casual anime fans I’ve spoken with, these are the walls between you and a really enjoyable piece of sci-fi.
The first episode is confusing. It plays with time in a way that won’t make sense until much later in the series, and characters are thrown into complex situations before you’re acquainted with them. It doesn’t help that the main characters are strange. Our main character is Rintaro Okabe, a self-proclaimed mad scientist and first year university student who suffers from paranoid delusions and tends toward maniacal laughter. He doesn’t show any layers beneath in the early going, making him hard to root for. He’s socially awkward, narcissistic, and utterly delusional. In the first episode his primary interactions are with Mayuri Shiina, a ditzy cosplayer with a tendency to sing out a catchphrase jingle (tuturu!) whenever she greets someone. Neither character is particularly relatable from the outset, and seem to exist as caricatures of some rarer anime archetypes.
Kurisu Makise is introduced lightly in episode one, and is a main player throughout the rest of the series. If you are going to connect with anyone in the early going, it’s likely to be her. She’s a brilliant, mostly-sane woman thrown into the midst of a mad scientists cabal (which mostly includes Okabe and his few, close friends). She sees through the ridiculousness going on around her and brings legitimate scientific knowledge to a group of posers and weirdos. Her own history makes her a different kind of outcast, and her increasing attachment to the group is one of the more interesting arcs in the series.
That arc takes a while to start paying off, however. The first seven episodes or so are mostly setup. Within the first three episodes, you can see the director’s hands moving characters and plot pieces into place for something big. Plot threads are called to attention without immediate followup, but you can see the deliberate motions for what they are–not tangents, but essential setup. A very specific computer, an IBN 5100, gets a lot of focus in the early episodes, but it’s some time before you realize its significance. Side characters with little to no bearing on the plot are introduced, only to become more relevant episodes later. In fact, the entire first half of the series evokes a “crisis of the week” feeling, and it’s not until the show’s back half that those threads pull together into something significantly deeper.
It’s after episode 12 that the real show begins, and for many, that’s too long an investment. It certainly was for me–getting through that first half took me months of quitting and restarting, while the last half was a binge leading to a number of late nights. The stakes raise significantly, and the real impact of time manipulation really starts to come through. The show really starts to build its own mythos, and you start to understand why some of the show’s weirder characters act the way they do. You even start to root for Okabe, assuming you haven’t completely written him off by this point. It’s a mixed blessing by the time the show ends. I tend to prefer smaller, self-contained stories. If a series can really hit home inside of 12 episodes, I’ll take that over a hundred-episode goliath any day, even if those hundred episodes match in quality. Steins;Gate, however, managed to really endear me to its characters. It did such a good job of turning me around on these characters that I found myself lamenting the end of the series. I wanted to see more of these characters, regardless of if they were dealing with time shenanigans. I wanted to see their relationships evolve, I wanted to see them find happiness, and I definitely wanted to see if they’d manage to become adults. This made the ending bittersweet, but ultimately satisfying. I wasn’t left with any big, lingering questions. I was just left enjoying my time with these characters.
On the technical level, the show gets the job done. The sound leans on the atmospheric, letting the music drop in only when it really needs to add tension or hit a particular emotional note. It leans heavily on piano and strings, leaving a lot of the show feeling dreamlike–which, given Okabe’s mental state, is quite fitting. The dub holds up as well, with J. Michael Tatum bringing the both the crazy and the tortured as Okabe and Trina Nishimura making Kurisu perpetually vexed without crossing into overbearing. The animation doesn’t have a lot of heavy lifting to do, as there are far more scenes of conversation than there are action. When the action does hit, it’s impactful and smooth, though usually grounded in reality rather than being an over-the-top sci-fi extravaganza. The color palette also comes off a bit dreamlike, using the glow of computer monitors and fluorescent lights to make many shots look slightly overexposed. The show does wear its visual novel origins on its sleeve by packing the cast with an array of pretty girls, each seeming to fit into its own archetype, but it never goes far with it. Most of the characters become significantly more than, and sometimes diametrically opposed to, their first-glance niche.
Steins;Gate is hard to recommend to everyone. The characters are weird, the plot starts achingly slow, and revelations that might otherwise salvage your opinion come far too late. However, if you’ve got the time to power through a few hours of setup, or the desire to see one of the more unique takes on time travel out there, give Steins;Gate a shot. It’ll pay off, like, six hours later. Eight, tops.