Let’s be real – time travel is an overused plot device and I’m certain that, no matter what genre of fiction you enjoy, “changing the past to stop a dystopian future from occurring” sounds familiar. Plenty of comic books, movies, video games, and books have utilized this trope, but so has anime.
Steins;Gate is an anime about time travel while focusing on the actions of a small group of people. Although the group does try to stop a dystopian future and save humanity, the focus of this story is the relationships between characters. “But Jonathan, does that mean Steins;Gate is a love story?” The answer is in your future along with some spoilers, anime-niacs.
Steins;Gate begins with self-proclaimed mad scientist, Rintaro Okabe, attending a seminar about theories of time travel. While in the building, he meets a young woman, Kurisu Makise, but after the seminar, discovers her dead body – Kurisu was clearly murdered. He emails his friend, Daru, and convenes with the man at their “laboratory,” a small, shoddy apartment, but discovers that the seminar he attended had never occurred because it was cancelled. Okabe is surprised to see that the email he sent Daru is dated 5 days ago, not hours, and even more surprised when he meets Kurisu, alive and well. So immediately, it seems as though time travel is possible within this show, which is a hilarious contrast to the ridiculousness of the main characters.
Okabe is an eccentric young man who often laughs maniacally, loves Dr. Pepper, and has designated his only two friends as his “lab members.” Daru is a perverted, overweight computer programmer who often makes inappropriate comments when other characters speak and loves “2D women.” Okabe’s childhood friend, Mayuri, is a wholesome, upbeat, though naïve young woman who has no scientific background but is supportive of Okabe and Daru’s efforts to create “future gadgets” – assortments of technology with seemingly no practical purpose. When Okabe experiences difficulties, he alleges it the work of the “Organization” which seeks to cause him harm and halt his experiments. Of course, there is no proof this “Organization” exists (sounds like Okabe is disorganized). Kurisu, an extremely intelligent scientist, takes an interest in Okabe’s experiments and joins the team, often butting heads with the eccentric man to amusing results.
As ridiculous as the characters and their mannerisms sound, Okabe and Daru have actually inadvertently discovered a means of time travel by sending emails from Okabe’s phone while it is attached to their microwave, and that becomes the vehicle for moving the plot forward as well as eventual, serious conflict (we’ve been putting our phones in rice like fools…). Although the first few episodes of Steins;Gate move slowly, the characters’ charm and their chemistry together made it easy to hope for their success. As the cast expands and the team alters timelines to fix situations via emails, however, tragedy occurs.
During one altered timeline, Mayuri is murdered. Of course, Okabe tries to fix this by sending more emails to the past, but Mayuri continues to die, no matter how the situations change (I hear DeLoreans work pretty well). Okabe discovers that he is the only lab member who can alter history and retain his memories, so each time his mind travels to the past, he confides in Kurisu who attempts to help, but it seems that Mayuri’s fate is inevitable. So in addition to saving the future for humanity, Okabe resolves to undo all of the changes he has made until this point in order to save Mayuri.
There is certainly much more to the overall plot and mechanics of time travel as it is presented in Steins;Gate than I am explaining, but ultimately, Steins;Gate is a love story and illustrates the willingness of one man to go to any lengths to save those he cares about. However, it is not romantic love between Okabe and Mayuri. Although there seemed to be no romance between the two initially, I incorrectly assumed that as Okabe continued to lose Mayuri, their relationship would eventually conclude in romance, but I was wrong (wish I could go back in time and change that…). Okabe and Mayuri are simply childhood friends who care deeply for each other. This is illustrated by Mayuri’s ambivalence toward technology, but the genuine joy Okabe’s presence brings her. Although romance does blossom later in Steins;Gate, I initially felt conflicted about this development.
It is clear that Okabe and Kurisu have a shared interest in time travel even when their personalities clash and, certainly, the hostility could be considered sexual tension. Perhaps I discounted the fact that Okabe trusted Kurisu unconditionally and explained, repeatedly, Mayuri’s death to her in different timelines because he knew he could count on her help. Certainly, there are some sweet moments between the two, but nonetheless, the moment that Okabe and Kurisu kiss, though beautiful, felt like a surprise, despite teases at its development. Perhaps, however, the problem lies with my own expectation of something predictable (trying to predict the outcome of a show about time travel hurts my head).
Were Okabe to express romantic love toward Mayuri after attempting to save her countless times, the romantic resolution Steins;Gate offered could have felt incredibly anticlimactic. The trope of two childhood friends who realize that they are in love only once they lose each other is something that I’m certain has, in some form, been done numerous times in various media. However, neither the resolution to save Mayuri or Okabe’s kiss with Kurisu conclude the show. The final few episodes that do address Kurisu’s death from episode 1, and the OVA, are fantastic finales to this story.
I am aware that this anime is based on a game and this show also has a sequel – neither of which I have experienced as of this writing, so it is clear that this show is enjoyable as a standalone story. Steins;Gate is full of wonderful characters, humor, mystery, intrigue, and is absolutely full of tension. There were extremely unexpected and terrifying moments when my jaw dropped in shock. Steins;Gate may be based around a clichéd plot device, but I loved this anime so much more than I thought I would. For fans of thrillers who don’t mind stories involving time travel, I recommend making time for Steins;Gate.