Time travel is a subject that’s been done in science fiction almost since the genre’s inception. It’s easy to see why, since there’s a lot of different ways to tell stories with it and it lends itself well to creative ideas. The problem is that very few stories do it well. It’s hard to write time travel without ending up with plot holes or paradoxes everywhere. Even good time travel struggles with these issues, especially the Grandfather Paradox. Steins;Gate is one of the few time travel stories from any medium that completely avoids these issues.
Steins;Gate (yes, the semicolon is supposed to be there, no it’s not grammatically correct) tells the story of Okabe Rintaro, a college student who claims to be the mad scientist “Hououin Kyouma”, who accidently invents a machine that can send emails to the past. Okabe and his friends start using it to run experiments, only to realize that even a small change can have massive consequences. The idea of only being able to send emails to the past seems limited compared to physically go to the past, but it’s used quite well. Steins;Gate isn’t actually about going back and meeting famous historical figures. Instead, it’s about how these small changes can have huge affects on the people involved, which is what drives the story.
The time travel itself works so well because it’s meticulously established early on and the writers are clearly aware of the possible issues they could run into. The foundations for it are established early on and are actually based in real science. That doesn’t mean you could hook up your cell phone to a microwave (that’s actually how they do it) and send messages to the past, but the science behind it isn’t completely made up. It makes plenty of references to real groups like CERN and the famous internet “time traveler” John Titor. All of this helps ground the concepts behind it in reality, an essential task for hard sci-fi. Steins;Gate never feels like the writers just made up a new concept to get out of a plot hole; everything feels like it naturally extends from the foundations it establishes early on.
Okabe himself is what’s called a chunibyo, a person who makes up elaborate delusions about themselves to sound important, and seems insane sometimes. His antics, which vary from rambling speeches to talking into his phone about “the organization” provide a lot of the comedy in the first half. The other standout character is a real scientist named Makise Kurisu. Kurisu starts working with Okabe after she discovers his invention works as an excellent foil to Okabe. Her no-nonsense demeanor puts her in constant conflict with Okabe’s constant nonsense, which leads to plenty of arguing and hilarious back and forth between them. The banter between the two of them is entertaining enough to carry a lot of the show on it’s own, even when the plot moves more slowly. The rest of the cast seems fairly archetypal at first: there’s the perverted fat geek, the ditzy childhood friend, the cat girl, etc. These are all tropes that have shown up dozens of times and should just end up falling flat. Steins;Gate executes this perfectly, though. Tropes are only used as a basis for each character, and even the secondary characters are given a good amount of development that helps them transcend there archetype and even explains why they are like that. What helps is that the show is willing to put them through a lot of emotional trauma that makes them easy to relate to, especially in the second half. The character interactions are also excellent and make the stakes feel more real. Every interaction between characters feels natural and never forced. For example, the childhood friend trope has been done to death by now, but Okabe’s relationship with his childhood friend, Shiina Mayuri, actually feels like they have real history behind them. There’s real affection between them and they almost seem like siblings.
Steins;Gate can be pretty easily divided into two halves that are radically different. The first half is mostly setting up the concepts behind the time travel they use and setting the foundations for the characters and their relationships. This part moves pretty slowly and just focuses on setting up the core concepts behind the time travel. Character development is mostly limited to introducing their various quirks and relationships. What really drives this is the humor, mostly stemming from Okabe’s antics and various 2chan and otaku references the cast occasionally drops. There are occasionally hints of darker things going on, but that stuff is mostly in the background and not the driving force behind these episodes. If you don’t like the humor, this part may seem kind of boring, but it’s essential for the payoff in the second half. Around the halfway point, things heat up fast and the second half is much darker and focuses on Okabe frantically working to undo the mess he made by playing around with time travel. This is where the bulk of the character development takes place and where the supporting cast really starts to get fleshed out. Even Okabe himself starts to seem less like a deranged nut and more like an ordinary guy who got carried away and ended up in over his head. There are a few episodes that are devoted to the (predominantly female) secondary cast that feel vaguely harem-y but that’s little more than undertones and they’re still relevant to the plot. The ending is also excellent, tying everything together perfectly and even providing a new perspective on earlier events (I highly recommend rewatching episode 1 after you finish).
The animation for Steins;Gate isn’t particularly impressive, but does the job just fine. There’s not a huge amount of movement, but there doesn’t really need to be since it’s mostly dialogue driven anyway. The character designs were done by huke (Black Rock Shoter) and do an excellent job of mixing the anime aesthetic with enough realism to keep it grounded. The music mostly stays in the background but does a great job supporting the scenes it’s used in. Most tracks are based on the main theme, Gate of Steiner, which is worth listening to on its own. The opening is one of the best I’ve seen and even foreshadows some later plot developments in the lyrics. The ending isn’t as good as the opening, but it’s still a great song. The dub was done by Funimation and is one of their best. The entire cast does well and is able to match or exceed the Japanese VAs, which isn’t easy since the Japanese version is also extremely well acted. What tilts the scales in favor of the dub is the script, which makes numerous changes to the 2chan references and replaces them with more familiar memes and nerd references like Dr. Who and Star Trek. This is actually to the show’s benefit, since it’s unlikely any non-Japanese viewer would understand memes from a Japanese website. Whichever version you watch, though, you’ll get an excellent cast so it largely depends on personal preference and how familiar you are with Japanese memes.
Steins;Gate is an excellent show that I would recommend to virtually any anime fan. The plot and character writing are both top tier and it’s one of the few stories to use time travel right. In case you can’t tell, Steins;Gate is one of my favorite anime and really does live up to all the praise it gets.
El. Psy. Kongroo.
Steins;Gate is available from Funimation and is available for streaming on their website. The sequel movie has been licensed by Funimation but hasn’t been released yet. The original visual novel is available from JAST USA. The semi sequel, Steins;Gate 0, isn’t available in English yet, but an anime has been greenlit.
Final Score: 9.4/10