Friday, February 27, 2015

Why Steins;Gate Is One Of The Best Anime I've Ever Seen

Now as you may be well aware of (or not) I'm not a hard reviewer to please. Pretty often, when I start watching a particular series, I'd try my best to get into it and enjoy it -- even if there are certain elements of the show that don't exactly agree with me. 

However, every once in a while, there's that certain anime series that just really clicks with me and Steins;Gate just happens to be one of those -- which is the rationale for the title of this review. Seriously, I haven't found myself this hooked on a show since AIR from 2005 -- although, you shouldn't let this color your perception of Steins;Gate since the story has zero similarities with AIR. 

I stumbled upon the series completely by chance (since I generally ignore what is/was making waves in the anime/manga community) when a friend on Facebook said that it was pretty good and I saw that there was going to be a PS Vita localization of the original source material, the Visual Novel.

Initially, I was skeptical about it and thought that it might be your typical bishoujo game complete with high-school aged females falling all over the main character and a derivative tear-jerker plot. I am glad to say that this is not the case for Steins;Gate.


On its face, Steins;Gate is a pretty straightforward time travel story. It involves a group of mostly university students who stumble upon a way to send messages and eventually memories back in time. They discover how they can actually influence the present and the future by sending these messages to the past dubbed as d-mails.

Of course, since changing the past also changes the present, there is really no way to confirm that any changes have been made since one's memories of the past are inadvertently tied to the future. This would certainly be the case if not for the flamboyant main character, Okabe Rintarou -- known only to himself as the mad scientist, Hououin Kyouma, who has a special ability to retain his memories across the so-called "world line changes" in the anime, which he calls the "Reading Steiner."

However, things take a dark turn when Okabe discovers that their playful inventions and experiments have been discovered by a powerful third party, who have also been researching the area of time travel and it leads to the death of his childhood friend, Mayuri at the hands of this third party.

In an act of desperation, Okabe fires up the prototype time machine which can only send a person back for a maximum of 48 hours and tries to undo the series of events that led to Mayuri's death. However, he would soon find that his attempts would be foiled over and over again because the world itself has decided that his precious friend would die -- and he would witness her die over and over again in many different ways, always finding himself just a step too late to save her.

The resolution of this dilemma and the eventual conclusion of Steins;Gate is simply too good to spoil... or at least spoil directly. Keep reading and there will be some degree of spoilers. You have been warned.

Solid Cast Of Characters

While the main character, Okabe Rintarou and his eccentric, flamboyant ways often makes him the center of attention for the viewer, Steins;Gate definitely has a solid cast of characters who are all memorable and believable in their own right.

From Okabe's eventual love interest, the genius-girl, Makise Kurisu who falls under the tsundere archetype, to the gentle and sometimes airheaded but kind cosplayer girl: Mayuri Shiina, the part-time warrior: Amane Suzuha, the moe  moe cat girl: Faris and the androgynous Rukako (still a guy),  and even the fat, out of shape genius hacker otaku, Hashida Itaru, all of the characters of Steins;Gate are convincingly portrayed and while not many of them actually grow out of their particular archetypes, there are already so many unique points about each character per se that they don't really need to be anything else rather than who they are as they were initially introduced.

A Heart-Wrenching But Rewarding Journey

Since Steins;Gate is based on a visual novel, the story is mostly told through the eyes of the main character, who is a very uniquely eccentric character in his own right. Okabe often refers to himself as the mad scientist, Hououin Kyouma -- a name that no one else calls him except himself and Faris, who plays along with him and calls him "Kyouma."

Through Okabe's eyes, we get to know the other "lab members" who join in the "Future Gadget Laboratory," which is actually just a small flat rented out by Okabe wherein he and his friend Hashida Itaru create mostly useless "future gadgets" such as a drone helicopter camera  that can't be used for anything because the camera turns together with the helicopter when in flight.

While the show seems slightly light-hearted and even playful at first with Okabe and his lab members experimenting with how d-mails can be used to influence the future, it quickly makes a 180 degree turn when Okabe finds out that some things that happened in the established past just can't be undone.

Despite his eccentricity, it is slowly revealed in the buildup to the show's "serious business" that Okabe is a truly compassionate individual who is at times too kind for his own good -- definitely far detached from the Hououin Kyouma persona that he tries to portray so passionately.

This is why one cannot help but feel empathy for his character when he keeps trying desperately to save Mayuri until he reaches a point wherein her death becomes nothing more than a routine which he knows he can redo over and over again in the vain hope of finding a way to completely avert it.

While such a thing could drive any man, let alone a self proclaimed "mad scientist" insane, fortunately for Okabe, he is not alone in his journey. Throughout his different attempts to save Mayuri through multiple world lines, there is one constant, the emotional and intellectual support that he receives from Makise Kurisu. 

While Kurisu acts like the typical tsundere and gets annoyed at Okabe's playful jabs at calling her an "@channer (the show's equivalent for 2ch, I suppose)" a "hentai genius girl," or Okabe's favorite, Cristina (add a "tina" to "Kurisu"), it doesn't take her too long to realize that there's something different about Okabe every time he makes a time leap and downloads his memories to his past self.

Okabe himself is shown to be pretty smart, but when it comes to intellect, Kurisu definitely has him beat, which is shown pretty early in the first episode when she handily trumps him in a debate concerning time travel theory. This is why she is the only one who really believes that Okabe has made a time leap every time he does so and she is the only one who can "think things through" together with him until they are eventually able to devise a plan that might allow them to prevent Mayuri's death... which involves undoing each of the changes that Okabe and his lab members had effected through d-mails in order to prevent the sequence of events that would eventually lead to Mayuri's inescapable death.

Mind you, these are not just simple changes because each d-mail corresponds to the dearest wishes of each of the Future Gadget Laboratory's lab members. Basically, Okabe is forced to sacrifice these wishes in favor of saving Mayuri's life and just to illustrate how serious this is, one of these wishes corresponds to a lab member being able to spend years together with her father who should have died back in the past if not for the d-mail that she had sent.

What is great about Makise Kurisu's character is that while she does not possess the "Reading Steiner" that allows Okabe to retain his memories across his many time leaps, she is still consistently able to detect when the Okabe in front of her has time leaped from the future and with each time leap shown in the anime, we learn a little bit more about Kurisu herself and just as Okabefalls in love with her character eventually, which she does reciprocate, it's as if we, the viewers are also slowly falling in love with her through Okabe Rintarou's eyes.

Now... imagine Okabe's torment when he realizes that after undoing everyone's wishes, the final d-mail that he needs to undo was the one d-mail that allowed Makise Kurisu to live on in the first place? Now he has a most heart-wrenching dilemma in his hands -- to choose between his childhood friend and the woman he loves.

Really, it's a recipe for awesome and the final resolution is nothing short of satisfying. 

Certainly, there are some people who will claim that the conclusion makes liberal use of Deus Ex Machina, but with a character as bombastic as Okabe Rintarou Hououin Kyouma in an anime that's centered on something as fantastic as time travel, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief quite a bit.

A Great Follow-Up Movie
There are many great shows with amazing potential that seem to fall flat as the final episode draws near. Again, I'm glad to say that Steins;Gate is not one of these shows. When I'd heard that there was a movie, I was a bit adamant to watch it since theatrical adaptations of an anime series are often abridged, alternate retellings of the same story which pale in comparison when compared to the original. 

Well, color me surprised when I found out that the movie is actually a follow-up to the TV series - and color me extremely satisfied to discover that this time, it's Makise Kurisu taking the center stage in this movie.

Unlike Okabe, Kurisu only possesses a limited version of the "Reading Steiner" ability that allowed Okabe to completely retain his memories across different world lines. 

It was great to see Kurisu in action using her wits and intellect and going through her own version of what Okabe had to undergo in the TV series, but with only fragments of her memories across different world lines that at times, even causes her to completely forget about the existence of Okabe himself.

To make an analogy, watching the movie was like tasting that sweet dessert that you so crave for after a deliciously satisfying meal -- it completes the experience. 

Definitely Reading The VN

While the PC version is available right now, I actually prefer to wait for the VN to become available for the Vita and I'm definitely reading the original source material as soon as it is available for my system of choice. 

If you haven't watched this show yet, do yourself a favor and watch it now. Don't let the slow start fool you. This is just one amazing anime series that I would recommend to just about everyone. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll want to put on a lab coat and CRY THUNDARRRR -- and don't worry, you don't have to be a mad scientist to enjoy it. El Psy Congroo!
Even Nagi agrees that this show is awesome.


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