Time travel! That sweet nectar of science fiction that never dries up because it’s paradoxically its own creator, caught in a stable time loop thanks to the Novikov self-consistency principle. It’s because of such beautiful madness that we’ve enjoyed the fruits of such stories as Doctor Who, Back to the Future, and one very quirky but heartfelt anime series called Steins;Gate.
Based on the visual novel by the same name, the anime follows the exploits of a young self-proclaimed “mad scientist” named Okabe Rintarou. Despite several failed inventions, he and his lab team of misfits accidentally produce a working time machine through a bizarre combination of a microwave and text messaging. Okabe’s experiments with sending messages back in time draw the attention of the lovely young scientist Makise Kurisu, as well as the dark masterminds at SERN (or at least their world’s version of the real-life scientific research center CERN). When his experiments draw a heavy price that puts the life of his young friend Mayuri at risk, Okabe is forced to loop back through time repeatedly, trying to save the lives of his friends and undo the damage caused by his obsession with time travel in the first place.
Now, some fans insist that the original Japanese voice acting is superior to the English dub. I think the original VAs are fine, but for me, nothing can compare to the absolute glory of listening to J. Michael Tatum as the wannabe mad scientist Okabe. This is a character who makes sweeping gestures and impassioned speeches at the drop of a hat, who turns drinking Dr. Pepper into a badge of honor, and who pretends to be talking to a shadowy ally on his cell phone while saying random code words like “El Psy Congroo.” When he’s at his best, Okabe can be very entertaining to watch.
But Okabe is a very unusual take on the classic mad scientist persona. While he genuinely does care that much about scientific research at any cost, it’s more than implied that he puts on such elaborate acts and dialogue for the benefit of his friends. It’s heartwarming to see him build paranoid fantasies about “The Organization” and enlist his friends as allies in his make-believe world. For all his wild speeches, Okabe is someone who cares about his friends in his own bizarre way. He’s like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, only much, much more tolerable and relatable.
Balancing out Okabe’s emotional drama and overconfidence is Kurisu (voiced by Trina Nishimura), who gets saddled with the nickname “Christina” and suffers from so many other mad scientist antics. She shares Okabe’s passion for science, but has better social skills and is more grounded in the real world. Any anime fan would immediately recognize her as a typical tsundere love interest, alternating between sincere affection and indignant hostility, but for what it’s worth, Kurisu plays the role well. She torments Okabe because he’s so over the top that he needs someone to bring him back to Earth—as well as help him grow as a person. It’s in scenes with Kurisu that we really get to see the best side of Okabe Rintaro.
The rest of the cast rounds out their dynamics, from cynical and geeky Daru to sweet and naive Mayuri, from shy Ruka to the plucky Amane Suzuha. With the introduction of the D-Mail subplot, we get to learn more about these side characters and their hidden depths, which includes dead or missing parents, gender identity issues, time travel paradoxes, and a few cases of severe depression.
Since there isn’t much to say about the animation apart from how good it is (especially the visuals set to the opening theme “Hacking the Gate”), I’ll just touch on the series as a whole. The science behind their time travel is well thought-out, drawing in alternate worldines and sending information back in time rather than actual human beings. The show even goes out of its way to reference and draw upon the Internet meme of the time traveler John Titor in its discussion. And speaking of memes, you’ll get more pop culture references in every episode than you can shake a lightsaber at while scrolling through 4chan boards. This show has plenty of drama and romance, but it’s also got several tidbits and shout-outs for all the geeks in the audience, too.
Ultimately, Steins;Gate has officially become my eighth favorite anime (right after Samurai Champloo, of course). It has a mad scientist in the lead role, some clever applications of time travel theory, tons of neat little pop culture references, and a colorful cast of likable characters. It’s an enjoyable ride and a real mind-bender of a show.
Well, that about wraps it up for me. And now I must be off, for there are strange men knocking at my door and a steam of mysterious texts buzzing on my phone!
El Psy Congroo!
The English dub of Steins;Gate is available through Funimation.
Bibliography: Steins;Gate (anime). Directed by Hiroshi Hamasaki and Takuya Sato. Produced by Gaku Iwasa. Written by Jukki Hanada. White Fox (studio). Funimation Entertainment (US). Original broadcast: April 6, 2011 – September 14, 2011.