This anime has what may be my favorite tag line ever. Are you ready for it? Okay, here it is: “The microwave is a time machine.” Grabs you, doesn’t it? Honestly, the entire plot summary from the DVD is awesome, with its sense of humor (danger is exciting because it’s deadly) and complete inability to explain what actually happens in this series. Which is perfectly appropriate for Steins;Gate. This is an anime that will leave you scratching your head and wondering just what the hell is going on, even halfway through the series, which is as far as this first DVD set will take you.
Rintaro Okabe, nicknamed Okarin, is a scientist. A mad scientist, to be precise. He’s obsessed with time travel and oversees the Future Gadget Laboratory with Itaru “Daru” Hashida and Mayuri Shiina. Their greatest invention is the Phone Microwave, a microwave operated with a cell phone that allows them to send text messages to the past. Of course, they didn’t just stumble on this discovery. There were months of research and… oh, no, wait, they totally discovered it by accident. Before text messages, they were trying to send bananas back in time, but that just reduced the fruit to green gel. Young-but-brilliant scientist Kurisu “Christina” Makise figured it out.
However, Okarin fears that They are always watching, trying to infiltrate his lab. And maybe he’s paranoid for a good reason. Mega-corporation SERN has been researching time travel for years. When the lab hacks into SERN’s network, they discover experiments gone horribly wrong and rumors of a future where SERN rules the world. Still, that doesn’t stop them from borrowing SERN’s research and fine-tuning the Phone Microwave. As news of the time machine spreads amongst Okarin’s small network of friends, he finds that each of them would like to send their own message into the past with hopes for changing the present. Even with the best of intentions, time is not a plaything and every message the lab sends back alters the timeline, bringing Okarin closer to a terrible future.
Steins;Gate is not an anime for the beginner. There is little in the way of introductions to characters or story; the first episode depicts a character’s death before suddenly throwing us into the past. Pop culture and anime/manga references are generally sprinkled throughout the dialogue and the fact that Akihabara is a Mecca for anime culture is a major plot point. I often found myself researching shows mentioned briefly by characters who visit maid cafes, dress in cosplay, and play a variety of video games.
Okarin himself makes the show considerably more complicated. Bearing a striking resemblance to a young, emaciated Bruce Campbell in a lab coat, he often speaks into his phone to voice his suspicions and revelations. He creates nicknames at random for his lab members, one of whom primarily communicates through text messages. It’s difficult to tell what’s real, what’s pomp, and what’s delusion. For a man whose profession is mad scientist, Okarin is surprisingly well-liked and even trusted. Only Kurisu questions the idea of him building a time machine, and even she accepts it after witnessing the Phone Microwave’s awe-inspiring ability to transform bananas into ooze. All this is to say that you shouldn’t expect the characters to throw you a lifeline and explain what’s happening.
That being said, Steins;Gate is an engaging story that, while a bit mind-boggling, can be both funny and frightening. We grow to care about the lab members, even though their backgrounds are largely unrevealed in these episodes. Despite Okarin’s self-obsession, he has a good heart and wants to help his friends. They, in turn, support him and try to keep him grounded. As the lab grows, they develop real bonds. And naturally, just as the series lifts us up, the story takes a violent and tragic turn… because someone is watching.
Steins;Gate is based on a video game that has spawned several manga, this show, and an upcoming movie. The characters are slick and angular, but without being unrealistic. I was surprised at how masculine Okarin and Daru were, which is not to say that they were muscle-bound giants. It’s just that I’ve seen so many anime and video games where the men could be easily interchanged with the women. Gaunt Okarin – with that serious Evil Dead 2 Ash look – and obese Daru were a pleasant change from this trend. There are occasional homages to some of the many anime referenced. Text messages play an important part in the plot and are featured on screen. What’s annoying is how quickly the text disappears. Expect to pause the show a lot.
The episodes featured here aren’t overly gory or graphic. However, throughout the story there is the constantly looming threat of Them. Okarin receives ominous texts depicting decapitated heads and the uncovered SERN experiments are fairly gruesome, though more in concept than in execution. The episodes end with an unexpectedly violent act that will catch most viewers off guard. While there’s not much in the way of fan service, there’s a lot of talk of otaku culture and Daru makes many insinuations about the women in the lab. One character, Ruka, is transgender and often admired for his good looks, though he’s very shy and insecure.
Steins;Gate is an interesting series, but can take some effort to follow. Viewers will be rewarded with well-rounded characters, an intriguing plot, and countless proclamations about the responsibilities of the mad scientist. I found myself surprised at how much I liked these people and was happy as their friendships developed. And, naturally, that’s when They pull the rug out from under you. Don’t forget, the microwave is a time machine!