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Andrew Osmond goes mad for Steins;Gate

In our ongoing mission to provide a service for our readers, here are some more informative names for the anime officially known as Steins;Gate. Tokyo Teenage Time Machine is one. Another is How to Make Your Time Machine with a Mobile Phone, A Microwave and a Bunch of Bananas. More prosaically, there’s The Mad Scientist and his Friends Go Wild in Akihabara (and anyone who doesn’t know what Akihabara is should click here).

The trouble with writing about Steins;Gate is that its unfolding plot is a lot of the fun, and it’s still unfolding at the end of the first box-set. The first half plays as a character comedy, a mystery story and a complex piece of SF. With 24 parts (the first set has the opening 12), plus an OAV and a film sequel, Steins;Gate has time to stretch out on all fronts.

The show’s main character is Okabe, a self-styled “mad scientist” who is, indeed, highly kooky (and tall, which helps a lot when he’s declaiming). He insists he’s watched by a shadowy organisation; he conducts theatrical one-sided conversations with his mobile phone; and he’s generally a larger-than-life eccentric who could play a certain British time-traveller. Okabe also feels like a response to a complaint by Kenji Kamiyama, the director of Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex, that “It’s difficult to create likeable and fascinating male characters [in anime] nowadays.” Ironically, however, Steins;Gate is peppered with jokes about moe – cute girl – culture. Well, it is set in Akihabara.

Of course, a mad scientist needs his assistants. In the first episode, there are just two: Daru, a male geek with very useful hacking skills, and Mayumi, an equally archetypal moe girl who works at a maid café and greets everyone with a cheery “Too-too-roo!” A fourth member is soon added to the mix – Kurisu, a beautiful, brilliant red-headed teen scientist whom Okabe first meets on a very strange morning which only he remembers. Kurisu has no time for time-travel (ridiculous!) or Okabe (insufferable!), until she’s forced to concede there’s something in his eccentric experiments, and they enter into a fiery pairing of Alpha egos. More characters join the time team in later episodes, until there’s quite an ensemble.

Don’t expect crashing action scenes, at least in this first set. Stein’s;Gate relies much more on its characters as its plot proceeds by small steps. Okabe wades deeper into his experiments, only dimly aware of how deep he’s getting. Can he send a message back in time? Can he change the past, without changing himself? Is there any way to send himself through time? There are other mysteries. Is anyone else working on time travel? Is there anything in the ravings of a bulletin-board dweller named John Titor, who claims to be an actual time-traveller?

Titor, by the way, is based on a “real” person, while the show also brings in CERN (“misspelled” in familiar anime style as SERN), home to the Large Hadron Collider. CERN plays a similar role in Steins;Gate to Area 51 in other SF yarns. The show’s mix’n’matching of trendy conspiracy theories has echoes of the classic anime series Serial Experiments Lain; the two shows also share a tendency to use blank white skies and subdued colours and interiors to suggest insulated, highly subjective viewpoints. Then again, Steins;Gate has much more comedy than Lain, including gags about terrible cooking and an androgynous boy straight from Baka and Test.

Time-travel stories are a very translatable sub-genres, demonstrated by the forthcoming Tom Cruise blockbuster based on the Japanese book All You Need is Kill, as well as the huge popularity of The Girl who Leapt Through Time. The latter story is referenced in Steins;Gate’s dialogue, along with jokes about Back to the Future, while the excellent Funimation dub adds its own nod to a police box. Any viewers who’ve seen a few of those titles should be able to follow Steins;Gate – actually, the story’s far more lucid than many anime. See if you can guess what one or two of the characters are really up to, before their unsuspecting friends twig.

Essentially, Steins;Gate asks you to be a Time Policeman. The small details are vital – remember, this is just half the story, and the set’s final cliffhanger shows that time travel is a matter of life and death. See you in the future when we cover Part 2… or have we already been there?

Steins;gate is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment. Or will be. Or has been.

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