Andrew Osmond gets wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey with Steins;Gate
Going from the first half of Steins;Gate into the second is a bit like going from a time-travel film like About Time into one like Source Code. Don’t get me wrong; the first half of Steins;Gate (covered here) was infinitely smarter, wittier and more multi-layered than Richard Curtis’s fluffball; but still, the change in tone is a shock. And yet, this new version of Steins;Gate keeps faith with the old. It doesn’t discard the characters that it’s set up; it cares about them more, and makes you care more, too. It doesn’t discard the plot, but starts ingeniously to reverse it. Having led us to the middle of a maze by an easy path, it challenges us to get out again by a far bloodier, harder route.
If you’ve watched the first half of the show (and if you’ve not, we warn you there’s a big SPOILER coming up), the cliffhanger was the tipping point. Mad scientist Rintaro Okabe and his saner (and we suspect smarter) ‘assistant’ Kurisu had seemingly mastered the ways of time travel. They’d changed the world in small but dramatic respects, including removing ‘moe’ cute-girl culture from Akihabara (sacrilege!) and turning a boy into a girl without Ranma ponds or pricey surgeons. For the first half, they’d used text messages to communicate with the past (a device similar to Gregory Benford’s pre-mobile novel Timescape, in which messages are sent in tachyon bursts; or the 2000 film Frequency, where Jim Caviezel communicated with his dead father in the past through radio). Now, however, the Steins;Gate characters are on the brink of physical time travel, going back in time in person.
They’re celebrating with a party… when a supporting character bursts in, accompanied by several armed goons, and demands the team come with them – all except the ‘spare’ member, the girl Mayuri, who’s been Okabe’s friend since childhood. As Okabe watches helplessly, Mayuri is coldly murdered in front of him. Then a sudden distraction lets Okabe leap back in time, desperate to prevent the tragedy – but he can’t. Whatever he does, Mayuri keeps dying again and again, as if time itself is murdering her. In many stories, time-travel is the ‘reset button’ (most infamously in many Star Trek Voyager episodes). In Steins;Gate, time-travel is mental and spiritual torture, throwing Okabe from one collapsing reality to the next, while denying him a basic human need; a present.
If that sounds grim, don’t worry. Although things are very dark in Steins;Gate for a while, eventually hope resurfaces. Okabe realises that even in limbo, he still has friends who aren’t just able to help him, but to make extraordinary sacrifices to put things right. In fact the series is fundamentally traditional; it’s a life-affirming celebration of friendship and humans being the best they can. Many time-travel stories – especially About Time – keep the support cast ignorant that they have a time-traveller in their midst, rewriting their whole life stories umpteen times over. In Steins;Gate, the non-travellers know what’s being done to them, and keep their courage and values even as the universe transforms around their heads.
The power of the plot is enough to make the show unmissable. Yes, we do get answers, to everything from why Mayuri calls herself Okabe’s ‘hostage,’ to the question of who is John Titor. More surprising, though, is that the show becomes heart-rendingly romantic without cloying, with one voice-over monologue – blending love with Relativity – which deserves to make any ‘Best Anime Quotes’ list (and blows Richard Curtis out of the water). Not all the viewers will like who ends up with whom – though there’s a cheeky ambiguity regarding one character, with teases that he might pair off with one of two candidates. But the resolution is pulled off with a panache to make any movie director proud, including a startlingly painful, flesh-tearing climax. (No, no, not the fingers!)
And talking of movies, if you’ve not heard, then a big-screen sequel to the series has already been made – Steins; Gate – The Movie, released this spring in Japan. If you can get to Edinburgh in October, then the European premiere will be at the Scotland Loves Anime festival – see this page for details!
Steins;Gate part two is out on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.