Maybe the Real Steins;Gate Was the Friends We Made Along the Way

A spoiler-free review

Studio: White Fox
Release: April 2011 – September 2011
Episodes: 24

For someone who has been on the anime scene for upwards of a decade, it seems kind of crazy that I would not have watched one of My Anime List’s Top 5 Anime Series (Top 3 if you don’t count Gintama). Any show that can hold a candle to Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood in the eyes of the masses, which I still maintain to be the best television anime of all time, is something I should really want to see. So it’s a bit surprising that it took me so long to finally watch Steins;Gate.

 My friend owns the Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack (I asked her how much it was, to which she replied, “Too much, but high school-me had no impulse control.”) so we decided to marathon all twenty-four episodes in one setting. We began at 1 PM December 28th, 2017, took a one-hour break for dinner, and finished at 11 PM. Twenty-four episodes in just under nine hours.

Steins;Gate is a thrilling, addictive, vibrant show. No exaggeration: I adored almost every minute of it. I love time travel, I love philosophical sci-fi, I loved the settings, the character designs, the gorgeous lighting, just about everything.

The plot of Steins;Gate revolves around a young man named Okabe Rintaro, a university student and self-proclaimed mad scientist who rents out an apartment above an electronics store, deemed headquarters for his Future Gadgets Lab. Okabe and his friends, Daru and Mayuri, meet there almost daily to design machines, peruse forums, and make cosplay. Everything changes one day when, after discovering a dead body in Akihabara’s radio building, the world suddenly resets, and no one remembers it but Okabe.

For all Okabe’s waxing philosophical and the looming threats of war and apocalypse, it is a very college anime. With so much anime being set in high school, it was really refreshing and a genuine change of pace to watch a show with protagonists in their late teens and early twenties. Characters who have structures away from school, who don’t live with their parents, who talk more candidly about sex and relationships, who have jobs and rent to pay. Away from high school, friendships and relationships work differently, life works differently.

Were Steins;Gate set in high school I feel it would lose a lot, particularly its themes of forged community. Characters aren’t just passing time in class or a convenient after school club. The chemistry between characters, particularly Okabe and Makise Kurisu, the amount of effort they put into researching time travel, and the amount of effort they put into simply spending time together as a group, was wonderful. It takes the best qualities of high school anime and combines them with the sense of community forged when people work towards a common goal. The great, pulpy qualities of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya combined with the great character development and community of Shirobako. It’s a unique space to occupy, and very valuable.

The show has strong art direction, frequently employing unique camera angles and almost constantly having really fantastic lighting. Particularly obvious in the first episode but consistent throughout, the series employs a wonderful, super-desaturated palette. And yet despite the washed-out look, the familiar parts of Akihabara never become sterile. It’s a beautiful balance.

To avoid spoilers, I will not divulge any of the details of the time travel other than to say that there is time travel and it’s very well done. This show is expertly plotted and thoroughly explained. Every moment I thought I knew what was going to happen, it surprised me, but every surprise made perfect sense.

Okabe comes off as rude and insensitive in the beginning, and he’s a bit difficult to tolerate for the first few episodes. It would be damning if it didn’t set up fantastic character development. He goes through hell in this series, and it’s a really amazing watch. His evolution was stunning and I found my self totally enamored with him as a character, only becoming more and more invested in his growth.

For those not familiar with anime, Steins;Gate doesn’t expect the viewer to know niche information. Two of the main characters work at a maid café, and Daru references to dating sims and hentai games he plays, and the girls comprising his “virtual harem”. Other than that, the unfamiliar would be fine. It’s very watchable.

Regarding major flaws, I have two: firstly, the series does lose a bit of momentum between episodes 16-20. A few episodes of action and intense drama suddenly slowed back into the episodic nature of the first half of the series. While all the storylines were emotionally rich, I was aware of the length of the episodes, probably for the first time since the series started.

The second flaw is a MINOR SPOILER regarding how a supporting character’s gender is portrayed. If you want to avoid all spoilers, jump down to the next paragraph. One of the secondary characters, Ruka, or “Rukako” is a transgender girl, however other characters refer to her by he/him pronouns, at least in the English dub. She tries to rewrite history so that she is born biologically female. The main issue I take with this is how the other characters (read: Okabe) regard her gender. Ruka confesses to the other main characters that she believes she should have been born female, but none of the other characters refer to her by she/her pronouns until history is changed. Okabe is particularly insensitive of her. It is a dated, unnuanced, and transphobic portrayal which I believe should have been handled better. The episodes focusing on Ruka are 8, 10 (briefly), and 18.

SPOILER FREE AGAIN. Steins;Gate is a fascinating, uplifting series about causality, consequence, and community. It’s vibrant, evocative, arresting. I’m late to the party. This one is a winner.

RATING: W: 3, A: 2, S: 1; overall 9.5/10

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