This coming weekend, Japan will see the release of the new Steins;Gate movie, Steins;Gate: The Burden of Déjà Vu.
So in preparation for this film—and because of the numerous recommendations I received when reviewing the pseudo-sequel Robotics;Notes—I sat down and watched the visual novel-based 2011 anime this last week. And not only was it one of the best time travel stories I have ever experienced (right up there with Chrono Trigger and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward), it might also be the single best anime I have ever seen. [*Note: This article contains minor spoilers.]
The hardest thing about writing a good time travel story is defining the rules of your universe (or multiverse, as the case may be), how your time travel affects your universe, and what limits your time machine has. Without this solid set of rules, it is more than a little easy to confuse the average viewer and annoy the overcritical among us (in which group I myself am included) who are quick to point out how the elements of the story do not make sense.
In Steins;Gate, however, all of the rules are well defined—down to how many letters can be sent in an email to the past as well as the extent to which time travel (quantum leaping if you will) is possible.
But perhaps the most interesting concept of Steins;Gate is the idea that there are unchangeable core realities (which switching between is nearly impossible). Preventing the rise of anime culture in Akihabara or sending yourself the winning lotto numbers is possible, but key moments in the timeline—like the death of certain individuals or society's eventual turn into a dystopia—are not.
When I started watching Steins;Gate, I worried that, like the first half of Robotics;Notes, the story would feel thematically schizophrenic as it tried to tie together all the game’s romance plots into one single story. Instead, each character-specific plot in Steins;Gate was given an episode in the first half and an episode in the second half of the series to resolve itself—which worked well within the time loop narrative.
The problem with time loop stories is that they can be boring and repetitive—(see Haruhi’s “Endless 8” for an example of such). The trick is to make each time loop different yet recognizable enough to keep it interesting. In Steins;Gate, the latter half of the story deals with one such time loop. The same events are always happening in the background, giving the viewer subtle clues about how close it is until the end of the loop. [Skip the following paragraph to avoid major spoilers.]
The story also shows in great depth the effects of such a time loop upon the average human—especially one with such a grizzly conclusion. Okabe, the main character, sees the death of a friend countless times. It both breaks his heart and hardens his soul as he experiences this torture countless times. And if it weren't for the support of those around him, it's clear he would have eventually succumbed to either sorrow or apathy.
While many anime (and popular works in general) have love triangles, few of them actually seem equilateral. Many times it is obvious from the start what the resolution of the love story will be and often one of the members in the love triangle feels more like a third wheel than a real romantic threat.
Steins;Gate succeeds with its love triangle in part because of the characters involved. All three, Mayuri, Kurisu, and Okabe, are interesting and well developed characters with unique personalities. And when the love triangle comes to a head, it really feels like Okabe could go either way—or simply be destroyed by being forced to make such a choice—adding even more to an already dramatic story.
[This section is nothing but major spoilers regarding the ending. So skip to “Random Thoughts” if you want to avoid them.] When it all comes down to it, Steins;Gate is the story of a man forced to make an impossible choice. He not only must chose between the two women he loves but also must chose which one of them lives while the other dies. The result is pure, well written drama as he tries to find a way around choosing—hunting for a loophole to let them both live. In the end, though, he fails and at last chooses, ending the life of one of the women he loves. The result is a beautiful piece of tragic storytelling, guaranteed to rock even the most jaded hearts with the powerful emotion it evokes.
Of course, this is more than a little undercut by the final ending where, after he chooses and she thus dies, he is given a loophole to save the woman he sacrificed to fate. Don't get me wrong, if any character in fiction deserves a happy ending, it is Okabe. However, by trying to have both its tragic ending and its happy ending, the former loses more than a little of its emotional power.
Is Steins;Gate really the story of a man who accidentally invents time travel or is it instead the story of a paranoid schizophrenic who has a psychotic break?
Okabe has more than a few schizophrenic symptoms: He talks to imaginary people on his cell phone and constantly rants about a secret organization that only he can defeat. Before the start of the story, he has no family support and exactly two friends—one of which seems largely unable to understand the world around her.
Perhaps instead of a time travel story, Okabe experienced a psychotic break upon discovering Kurisu's body in the first episode. Thus his mind escaped into a world of his own creation where not only was the girl not dead, but also was his friend and confidant. Then slowly but surely, he built this fantasy into a paradise world in his mind where he is fighting a secret organization bent on world domination—as per his former delusions—alongside an ever-growing cast of friends and allies. [Skip the following paragraph to avoid major spoilers.]
Then, one night Mayuri died in the real world, shattering the dream. From that point on, he became driven to restore his fantasy world to the utopia it had been, only for the real world to bleed through—ending with Mayuri’s death over and over.
I’m not speaking in hyperbole when I say that Steins;Gate might be the best anime I have ever seen. It is well constructed and emotionally resonant. Moreover, it is pretty much the perfect time travel story with the concepts it explores and the world it builds. I recommend this anime to absolutely anyone who is even remotely interested after reading this review. You won’t be disappointed.
Steins;Gate aired on Tokyo MX in 2011 in Japan. For those of you in the U.S., it can be watched for free at Funimation. Stay tuned to Kotaku East for the review of Steins;Gate: The Burden of Déjà Vu movie early next week.
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