Time travel may be a common enough sci-fi staple, but when was the last time you saw a scientist use a microwave to send a banana into the past? That’s just one of the weird and wonderful things you’ll find in Steins;Gate, one of the most entertaining anime series I’ve seen in years.
Based on a popular Xbox 360 visual novel that originally appeared in 2008, Steins;Gate introduces Okabe, a self-styled mad scientist with plans of world domination. Pompous, arrogant and constantly babbling grandiose monologues to anyone in earshot, Okabe may think he’s some sort of billionaire despot in the making, but in reality, he’s just as much of an outsider as his sidekick, Daru – a computer geek and otaku culture obsessive.
In fact, all the main characters are misfits in one way or another – Okabe’s friend Mayuri, for example, is forgetful and curiously childlike, and she also has an odd habit of announcing her arrival by singing a little fanfare. Then there’s Kurisu, a grumpy yet supremely intelligent young scientist from America, and Moeka, a tall and largely silent character who communicates almost exclusively by text message – even to people standing directly in front of her.
While conducting experiments in his lab above a TV repair shop, Okabe and Daru accidentally make a time machine out of a microwave. Although his initial attempts to send a banana back through time have mixed results – the banana ends up back in its fruit bowl, but horribly gooey and putrefied – Okabe makes another discovery: he can send text messages to the past.
As Okabe’s texts begin to subtly alter the course of history, he learns two more things. One, that he has the ability to discern the differences between timelines after events have been altered, and two, a shadowy organisation called SERN has also discovered time travel, and is now determined to hunt him down.
There’s far more to Steins;Gate‘s story than this, and much of it is wildly complicated and difficult to describe. Yet while the plot is complex, particularly when it begins to delve into the concept of multiple timelines, it’s constructed with real intelligence. It helps, too, that even when you’re struggling to keep up with all the timey-wimey stuff, the characters are so engaging.
Okabe’s like an 18-year-old Doc Brown crossed with Edmund Blackadder – arrogant yet cunning, he’s one of the funniest, most memorable anime characters in recent memory. And while his verbose prattling may seem mildly infuriating in the first couple of episodes, later instalments reveal new sides to his character, and we gradually learn that, really, he cares far more for his friends than he lets on.
Ultimately, it’s the quality of the characterisation that really makes Steins;Gate stand out. Time travel may be its sci-fi hook, but really, it’s about a group of flawed yet ultimately likeable people and how they’re affected by their decisions.
It helps that the quality of the translation, dubbing and voice acting are genuinely excellent. It’s difficult to say how faithfully the dialogue’s been brought across from the Japanese script, but there’s a real spark and wit to it, and J Michael Tatum, who both wrote it and provides Okabe’s voice, has done some great work here.
Classily designed and animated, Steins;Gate‘s full of fun visual touches. Its setting in Tokyo’s Akihabara district – a Mecca for all things electronic and geeky – is perfect for its otaku-literate story, while its character designs are bright and distinctive.
Steins;Gate fits into a much larger story universe, which takes in the series Robotics;Notes and Chaos;Head (like Steins;Gate, these began as visual novels before they were adapted into manga and anime). Steins;Gate is its own, self-contained story, but it’s such a compelling one that we’re looking forward to delving into those other series, too.
Although its elements are familiar – time travel, a mad scientist, an evil secret organisation – Steins;Gate uses them in a way that feels entirely fresh. We’d even go so far as to say that Okabe deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as any of the other famous mad scientists you could mention, whether it’s Doctor Moreau, Doc Brown or Doctor Strangelove.
Funny, intense and occasionally creepy, Steins;Gate contains just about everything you could ask for in an anime series – indeed, it’s so compelling that the conclusion of this first volume of episodes left us desperate to see the second set of 12, due for release later this year.
Steins;Gate: Part 1 is out on DVD and Blu-ray now in the UK.
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