Watching Steins;Gate with my wife: a re-evaluation of my favourite anime
Sometimes sharing a cherished pastime with your significant other can be a fraught experience. Common interests are essential to maintaining a healthy relationship over the years. How do you cope when they’re just not that into the stuff you like?
When I first discovered anime fandom back in the mid 1990s, it was an offshoot of the sci-fi scene in that it was a heavily male-dominated space, and generally anime was looked down on as “weird”, even by geeks. Now things are different, with female anime fans comprising a huge consumer demographic. Anime isn’t quite what you’d call mainstream yet, but it’s much more pervasive in Western culture than it was before, and beloved by a wider diversity of fans.
My wife and I started dating in the late 1990s, and she’d already been exposed to late-night showings of some of the more violent OVAs and movies licensed by Manga Entertainment, shown late at night on the UK’s Channel 4. I was surprised to learn she loved the anime Battle Angel Alita, adapted from one of my all-time-favourite manga. I collected the monthly floppy issues published by Viz Comics at the time, and was delighted to lend them to her. She also particularly enjoyed Dark Horse’s release of Katsuhiro Otomo’s and Takumi Nagayasu’s The Legend of Mother Sarah manga, tragically untranslated past volume 3 in the west.
Her interest in anime and manga has waxed and waned over the years — I doubt she’s read a single volume of manga in over a decade — but she’ll still consent to watch the occasional anime movie or TV show with me. Although she classes herself as an anime fan, compared to her poor obsessed husband, she’s incredibly casual.
Of my all-time top 3 anime, the only one she hadn’t yet seen was Steins;Gate. I put off asking her to watch this with me for a long time, as it never seemed to be the “right” time to start. Steins;Gate is not an anime for casual fans who want to do something else while vaguely absorbing a simple story via osmosis. My wife often fiddles with her phone or tablet during action scenes, or talks during dialogue scenes. Oh, and she hates subtitles. This was why I knew Steins;Gate would be a tough sell, and a challenge to keep her invested in it.
Steins;Gate is a 24-episode 2011 TV anime series (with an additional OVA and movie sequel) adapted from the 2009 Visual Novel of the same name, second in the Science Adventure series — you know, the series where every title must have an ectopic semicolon rammed in-between two seemingly unrelated words, against all grammatical logic and sense? Starting with Chaos;Head in 2008, and continuing with Robotics;Notes (2012) and three further subsequent main titles with multiple additional spin-offs, the Science Adventure series has become one of Japan’s biggest-selling multimedia franchises — of which Steins;Gate is unarguably the most beloved part.
An example of a VN anime adaptation done masterfully well, Steins;Gate frequently pops up on lists of “the best anime of all time”, and for good reason. I first watched it back around 2012–2013 when Netflix finally started their UK operation and didn’t care as much about anime weebs like me utilising a VPN to watch the US version’s superior catalogue. I knew almost nothing about it other than it was a complicated time travel show. My eldest son and I devoured it — the first half is admittedly slow, but by the end of episode 12 it transmogrifies from a kooky slice-of-life story to a bleak, dark thriller that twists the knife in brutal and unexpected ways. We could not stop — the very definition of a binge watch.
It is this dual structure that is probably Steins:Gate ‘s biggest barrier to newcomers. The start is so… damn… slow. Set in 2010 Akihabara, a geeky tech-filled district of Tokyo, it follows the daily life of first year university student Rintaro Okabe during his summer vacation. Okabe lives in his makeshift lab (he christens it the “Future Gadget Laboratory”) that he rents above a vintage CRT TV store. Spending his time inventing bizarre gadgets with dubious practical utility, he is joined by fellow nerd Itaru Hashida. Itaru brings the computing skills (and is forever irritated by Okabe calling him “hack” rather than the cooler sounding “hacker”). Itaru is also obsessed by 2D dating sims, and is a constant source of off-colour perverted jokes and comments. Rounding out the central lab trio is the incredibly precious, sunny Mayuri Shiina, Okabe’s childhood friend and apparent “hostage”. Mayuri is not a tech geek like her friends, though she is an avid cosplayer, costume designer and manga reader, plus she’s a big fan of fictional game “Rai-net Battlers” and collects the associated merchandise. It’s no surprise that the three of them gravitated towards a district like Akihabara.
One of the most confusing aspects of the show is that everyone uses multiple names for themselves. Mayuri tends to mush syllables from her friends’ first and last names together to make portmanteau pet names — Mayuri Shiina becomes “Mayushii”, Itaru Hashida becomes “Daru” and Rintaro Okabe becomes “Okarin.” Characters use the various versions of their names interchangeably, and this is immediately disorienting. Enhancing the confusion is Okabe’s insistence that everyone refer to him by his own delusional nickname — the self-styled “Hououin Kyouma, mad scientist.” He usually announces himself with a physical flourish and weird posturing.
Whereas Mayuri and Daru are at least vaguely normal, Okabe comes across as a total dick — imperious, bossy, irrational and rude. Forever uttering nonsense into his phone about “The Organisation” and verbalising paranoid delusions about being watched, the others are clearly numb to his idiosyncrasies and mostly let him get on with it. Yes, Okabe is a tragic sufferer of that very Japanese condition “chuunibyou” — literally “middle school second year syndrome”, or “8th grade syndrome” — that time in a teenage boy’s life where he tends to retreat into a bizarre fantasy land and speak utter gibberish that only he and select other friends can comprehend. It’s generally understood to be a common phase of adolescence that kids grow out of. Well, Okabe never grew out of it. We get the impression that something within Okabe is damaged.
In fact, every character in this show is damaged one way or another, but in order to address that we should first discuss Steins;Gate ‘s underlying premise, and how it is employed to expose and explore each character’s cleverly constructed personality and flaws. I mentioned already that the first half of the show is very slow — but I can forgive it, because it deliberately spends time establishing character quirks, motivations and relationships that are later inverted and torn apart to heartbreaking effect.
Episode one is deliberately confusing, in that towards the end of the episode, a character dies, something odd happens, and then she is alive once more with no recollection of previous events leading to her apparent demise. Protagonist Okabe is understandably confused that the murder he’d just witnessed had somehow become undone, and the audience shares his disorientation. It transpires that Okabe and Daru have accidentally created a time machine of sorts — a device comprised of a cellphone strapped to a microwave oven that can inexplicably send text messages into the past with the effect of altering causality, or in Steins;Gate parlance “shifting world line”. For vaguely defined reasons, Okabe himself is the only one who retains memory from one world line shift to another and perceives the incongruence between his experiences and the new, altered timeliness. As far as the other characters are concerned, their memories and current realities match up completely.
Sensing a chance at scientific greatness, Okabe sends more messages into the past to gauge how wide-ranging the effects are. He is aided by fiery red-headed “proper scientist” Makise Kurisu, the woman whose murder Okabe witnessed in the first episode. Kurisu has a genius level intellect, and has apparently published well-received scientific papers at the tender age of 18 (same age as Okabe). Understandably, she rankles at Okabe’s insistence of either mispronouncing her name as “Christina” (the typical Japanese pronunciation of which would sound something like “Kurisutina”), or arrogantly calling her his assistant and treating her as such. Initially skeptical about time travel, Kurisu soon becomes Okabe’s most crucial ally in fixing his mess — because oh boy, does Okabe’s alteration of the timelines cause one hell of a mess.
Okabe asks each of his friends in turn what message they’d like to send into the past, what about their lives they’d like to change. The story becomes a complex mix of “be careful what you wish for” and “the law of unintended consequences” by way of “the butterfly effect”. Unknown to Okabe, each D-mail sent to the past (short for Delorean-mail, as named by Mayuri in a cute Back to the Future reference) drives the present into ever more disturbing directions, leading to a tragic, horrifying outcome in episode 12 that forever alters the tone of the series. What was a mostly light-hearted slice-of-life story (with a slightly dark undertone) becomes relentlessly, brutally cruel as Okabe is tortured by guilt, powerlessness and grief.
SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS FOLLOW
Episode 12’s inflection point marks the place where the series begins to mirror itself. Okabe discovers that in this new world line his actions have created, his invention of a time machine has not gone unnoticed by powerful enemies with unlimited resources who will do anything to procure it for themselves and create a totalitarian future ruled by the technocratic fascist organisation SERN. (Yes, they’re meant to be the European organisation CERN who built the Large Hadron Collider and have so far failed to destroy Earth with artificial black holes.) In order to prevent the collapse of society, he must methodically undo his every action so far — at great emotional sacrifice to his friends and himself.
Providing his motivation — Mayuri dies before him, repeatedly, no matter what changes he attempts to make. On this “alpha-attractor-field of world lines”, Mayuri is destined to die, whether it is by gunshot wound, motor vehicle collision, falling in front of a train, heart attack… Okabe and Kurisu build a second time machine that allows Okabe to send his consciousness back 48 hours… but in doing so, he witnesses Mayuri’s inevitable death again and again and again. We observe Okabe’s soul shriveling up and dying within him, as he sheds the artifice of his Hououin Kyouma persona to become a desperate young man, mentally crumbling with his failure to save the friend he loves.
Okabe’s relationship with Mayuri is framed not-at-all romantically, though it is abundantly clear she is one of the most important people in his life. Mayuri appears to be, at the very least, somewhat neuro-atypical. I would not be surprised if the author intended for her to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Almost always happy, and so heart-breakingly innocent, her continued suffering is painfully cruel. Always uttering her signature phrase “Tutturu!” upon entering a scene, she could easily have become a shallow, irritating mascot character, yet she is written more intelligently than that. Despite her apparent immaturity, Mayuri perceives things the others do not, and she knows Okabe better than he knows himself. In several instances, Mayuri calls Okabe out on his shit and brings him back down to Earth. Without Mayuri, Okabe’s life would be an empty, desolate place — and he knows it.
It appears that much of Okabe’s mad scientist posturing is an act to keep Mayuri amused — or at least it may have started that way, and he got carried away with the idiocy. Their history is so sweet — he claimed her as a “hostage” after he sensed she was drifting away into grief following the death of her beloved grandmother. Somehow, Okabe claiming ownership of her personhood helped Mayuri to move on. Despite the apparent mismatched power dynamic between them, each needs and appreciates the other equally. Mayuri would do anything for Okabe, so it is completely understandable that Okabe would put himself through an endless hell of suffering for even the slightest chance to save her.
Where Steins;Gate really twists the knife is towards the end of the show, when approaching a solution to save Mayuri from death, Okabe discovers that in order to do so, he must return to the original world line where Makise Kurisu died. The Makise Kurisu who aided him through countless iterations of August 2010, who unfailingly supported him intellectually and emotionally, whose ideas and drive made even the concept of saving Mayuri a possibility, that Makise Kurisu has to die before they even have an opportunity to develop a friendship. This terrible choice almost destroys Okabe — does he save his best friend, or the amazing woman he has fallen in love with?
Kurisu has her own complexities and vulnerabilities that are only revealed later in the show. That she is just as big of a sci-fi geek as Okabe and Daru is heavily hinted early on — much to her embarrassment — but her family problems are next-level screwed up. Her tortured relationship with her father has shaped her — not just in terms of driving her to scientific excellence — but in regards to her awkwardness with human connection, and her crippling self-esteem issues. All she wants is for someone to need her as much as Okabe needs to save Mayuri. It’s a tragic twist that the one person who wants her that much has to choose between the two.
Of all the central characters, it’s probably 2D waifu-obsessed Daru who is the least screwed up. His relationship with his computerised paramours is certainly unhealthy, but he has a good sense of his own boundaries and isn’t afraid to tell Okabe where to stick it when his mad scientist act gets irritating. Daru is painted as crude and rude but with a heart of gold. A hard worker, he is instrumental in building the time travel tech that causes such havoc, and is invaluable in the fight to fix everything. His frequent off-colour comments may be a little hard to stomach for non-weeb viewers numb to this sort of innuendo though.
Daru’s main IRL female obsession is “Faris NyanNyan”, otherwise known as Rumiho Akiba — owner of the local maid cafe that Daru and Okabe frequent, and at which Mayuri works part-time. Faris plays along with Okabe’s nonsense and even generates a fair amount of insanity herself. Again, non-weeb viewers may find their verbose, tangential interactions utterly impenetrable. Faris uses her whimsical cat-maid persona to deflect from her own hangups — firstly that her family is incredibly wealthy and owns most of the land Akihabara is built on — she doesn’t want others to treat her differently, and secondly that she holds a deep sadness due to the accidental death of her father years before.
In a touch that is signature to this series, Faris initially appears to be an empty-headed eccentric moe fetish character, and when Okabe grants her wish by sending her D-mail to the past, neither he nor the audience are aware of what it contains. The effects are enormous — changing the district’s entire nature, but preventing the death of her father. It is not until Okabe reveals that her message must be undone that we learn the nature of the sacrifice Faris must make to save Mayuri’s life. Despite his sometimes clownish behaviour, Okabe inspires a strange devotion in his friends.
The other character who must make a tragic decision is Ruka Urushibara (Luka in the Visual Novel translation), an effeminate young man, a close friend of Mayuri who idolises Okabe as a mentor, and perhaps more… Ruka has become one of the more controversial aspects of Steins;Gate. With the recent rise of transgender visibility in the mainstream consciousness, the treatment of his character can seem insensitive at best, or even offensive at worst. I do not think that the author intended any offence, and the peculiarities of Ruka’s storyline can be attributed to a degree of ignorance and well-meaning naivete on their part.
Ruka is a difficult character to categorise because of what happens to him in the story. Okabe introduces him as one of the most feminine, beautiful people he knows… “but he’s a dude”. In the original Japanese language version, Ruka exclusively uses the personal pronoun “boku” when referring to himself, which always denotes a male person. Okabe’s nickname for him adds the feminine suffix “ko” to become “Rukako”.
If anything, Ruka seems more like a cross-dresser than a transgender person. Despite wearing extremely feminine clothing, he appears to accept his biological sex, though confesses to Okabe that he feels he would have preferred to have been born a girl. Using D-mail (and some frankly bullshit pseudo-science that is completely laughable), somehow Okabe is able to change the past so that Ruka is born a girl yet looks utterly identical. Guys, that is not how genetics or any of this works… Following Ruka’s story requires hoisting your suspension of disbelief so high it enters Saturn’s orbit.
Of course, in the pursuit of saving Mayuri, Okabe must convince a heartbroken and distressed Ruka that she was never meant to be a girl and she must revert to being a boy forever uncomfortable in his own skin. Complicating this is the fact that Ruka (both male and female versions) are in love with Okabe — but as a boy he feels this is inappropriate and they could never be together. Although tragic, this extra wrinkle does muddy the waters even further and betrays the story’s basic origins as a dating sim. It isn’t quite the same as telling a happily transitioned trans person that they must de-transition to save their friend’s life… but the allegory is close enough. This segment, although hopelessly dumb, is still emotionally effective and Ruka’s sacrifice makes me tear up every time I watch it.
Athletic bicycle girl Suzuha Amane’s story is much more complicated than any of the other girls, and she has no romantic tension with Okabe at all. She pops in and out of the narrative in the first half of the show, and it is only later that it becomes obvious how central she is to the entire structure, premise, backstory and eventual resolution of the plot. She is (much) later revealed to be Daru’s daughter from the future. A future in which her father was already dead and she had never met him. A dystopian nightmare future ruined by Okabe’s time meddling, with a fascist world government run by the technocratic SERN despots. Suzuha meets several fates depending on the world line, and by far the most tragic is when she travels to the 1970s in a broken time machine to retrieve an essential piece of equipment for Okabe. Following an accidental malfunction, she is injured, loses her memory and spends almost 30 years living a normal life before finally recalling her mission. Heartbroken by her failure she commits suicide. The scene where, ten years after her death, Okabe receives her letter with her handwritten words “I failed” repeated hundreds of times gives me cold chills every time I revisit it. Of course Okabe finds a way to change worldlines to make her leave for the past before the time machine is damaged… but at the cost of that version of Suzuha never discovering the identity of her father.
The final lab member is Moeka Kiryu, another potentially problematic cast member. Moeka is pathologically shy — in fact she never makes eye contact, rarely speaks and communicates only by obsessively typing out text messages on her phone — even when the recipient of her message is standing in front of her. Like Suzuha, Moeka dips in and out of the story. Sometimes she is a lab member, other times an enigmatic background character, though most prominently she becomes a dangerous antagonist. As a “rounder” employed by SERN, her task is to locate IBN 1500 computers to prevent other organisations from using them to hack SERN’s proprietary time-travel database. At times she presents like an emotionless Terminator, yet at others she is broken and pathetic.
Moeka’s entire sense of self-worth is tied to her role, and she lives for the text messages she receives from “FB”, her handler (whom she has never met). In some wordlines, Moeka gets to the IBN 1500 before Okabe and he must pursue her to — in one particularly difficult scene — literally beat the information out of her. By this point, Okabe’s sanity is crumbling by the his multitudinous failed trips through time, and he has seen Moeka or her goons repeatedly murder Mayuri. His rage against her is understandable, but makes their confrontation scene no less difficult to watch. That Okabe is later able to forgive and even remain friends with her in later world lines is a testament to how he matures, and how desperate and lonely people like Moeka, when given a chance, can reform.
Whereas the first half of Steins;Gate is mostly humorous slice-of-life fluff with a heavily hinted dark undercurrent, the second half completely inverts these values. The slice-of-life fluff never disappears, but Okabe can never completely engage with it, his demeanor like that of a trapped animal running on adrenaline. The plot’s darkness mirrors the earlier lighthearted shenanigans beat-for-beat, as each character’s actions and choices come back to bite Okabe in the ass. Steins;Gate demonstrates a mastery of setup and delayed execution, with countless callbacks to seemingly innocuous or irrevelant details, revealing hidden meaning. The ending, as with so many other time travel tales, returns to the beginning in a a complex, desperate paradox-avoiding race to right the chaotic, spiralling timelines unleashed by Okabe and Daru’s experiments. It is in its masterful conclusion that Steins;Gate truly earns its place among the absolute best time travel stories. A lone man, fighting desperately against “destiny”, failing over and over yet never giving up, Okabe transcends his limitations as a barely coherent, paranoid geek and becomes one of my favourite anime heroes. Supporting him, the brilliant, witty and willful Makise Kurisu is one of my all-time favourite anime heroines. Together they make probably the best couple in all of anime. They trust each other implicitly, are willing to sacrifice themselves for the other’s wellbeing, and despite their superficial bickering (and Okabe’s idiotic geekspeak) can communicate at the deepest level. I find I identify very much with Okabe, and I see a lot of my wife in Kurisu.
So surely she’d like this show?
Uh… No. Trying to get through this was like pulling teeth. I even consented to watch this dubbed, which was not as painful as I feared because this dub is fantastic. Especially Okabe and Mayuri — perfectly cast and very well performed. Whereas with my son we binged through the whole thing in a weekend, with my wife it probably took a month. “Can we watch Steins;Gate tonight, darling?” I would ask. She would freeze, roll her eyes and say “Not tonight darling, I’m tired.”
It didn’t help that early in our journey, she became unwell and was admitted to hospital for a few nights. While there, she shared a room with a woman who also had an anime-obsessed husband. “Oh God, he’s not making you watch Steins;Gate is he?” she said to my wife. “I couldn’t stand that shit, I made him stop after a few episodes.” Thankfully my wife recovered and was able to return home, away from evil influences.
Even just getting to the vaunted episode 12 was an exercise in Chinese Water Torture for both of us. Me, because I was desperate to get her to watch “the good parts” and for her, because, well, she was bored stiff and despised the central characters. We’d watch one, maybe two episodes at a time — she couldn’t tolerate any more than that, due to Okabe’s inane prattling, or Daru’s perverted jokes. (She hated Daru. And you know what? She has a point, sometimes he is downright skeevy.) I found myself wincing at their interactions, and at the overlong and contrived conversations Okabe has with himself. She just could not get on with Faris, and didn’t seem to get that she and Okabe just feed off each other’s nonsense and speak utter gibberish unintelligible to anyone else. I could tell she hated this thing and it made me anxious that perhaps… she wouldn’t actually like “the good parts” either.
We did eventually reach the parts where it turns “dark” and although she did pay a bit more attention, she was never “grabbed” by it, like I and my son had been. We didn’t progress through the second half any quicker than the first. It seems the only bit she really enjoyed was the last couple of episodes where the plot kicks into high gear and everything was resolved. “That part was great,” she said. “They should have cut out most of the shit in the middle and just gotten straight to that.” Cue massive stab to my heart.
She quite liked the inconsequential (and clearly now non-canon) OVA/episode 25 but I’ve not yet been able to get her to watch the movie Steins;Gate: The Movie — Load Region of Deja Vu with me, let alone Steins;Gate 0. I’m not even sure if I should bother. The thing is though, this series holds a very dear place in my heart and I want to share it with her. However, I worry that the very act of sharing it with someone who actively hated bits of it might detract a little from my own love… Or maybe not. I still rate it in my top 3 anime of all time, I’ll just have to be very careful about who I recommend it to in future. Clearly, Steins;Gate is not for everyone.
Based on the Visual Novel by 5pb. and Nitroplus
Directed by: directed by Hiroshi Hamasaki and Takuya Sato (White Fox)
Number of episodes: 24 (+OVA)
Broadcast: April 6 to September 14, 2011
Easily available to watch in the West on DVD, Blu-ray and to stream on Netflix
Originally published at https://anitay.kinja.com on November 14, 2020.