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Ten Years Later: Steins;Gate Anime

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Take a look back at one of the biggest shows from ten years ago.

Steins; Gate

Two years ago, I wrote a Ten Years Later article on my favorite anime of all time, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Since I’ve been maintaining my Top Anime list for the better part of a decade, updating it after each season in that time, only two things have always remained constant, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood at #1 and Steins;Gate at #2. After that, everything is extremely volatile; in fact, my #3 changed less than a week ago. Those two series are truly on their own level.

The first of them isn’t too surprising. Fullmetal Alchemist was one of the biggest, most beloved anime worldwide when Brotherhood started, and that was no less true within my own fandom. It was by far my most anticipated series in the extremely brief history of simulcasts at the time, and I was sure I’d love it, even if I never expected it to surpass the previous adaptation so thoroughly, much less secure the title of my favorite anime of all time for perhaps eternity.

On the other hand, I had absolutely no expectations going into Steins;Gate. For as long as I’ve been aware of the Visual Novel Database, the original Steins;Gate visual novel, released a year and half before its anime adaptation began airing, has been the second highest rated visual novel of all time, and that remains true for as far back as the Wayback Machine has relevant records. However, that only extends back to two years after the anime premiered, and that seems to align with the release of the first English fan translation of the game, so it’s still unlikely that I would’ve had any reason to expect the anime to be anything special.

One of the only things I knew about the series going into it was that it was somehow related to Chaos;Head, a series I hadn’t seen but had heard of mostly because of Funimation licensing it a little less than a year prior, and I hadn’t heard anything remarkable about it. Having since watched the series purely because of its tangential connection to Steins;Gate, I might not have even given Steins;Gate a chance had I already seen Chaos;Head, because Chaos;Head is a truly bad anime not worth watching even as a curiosity. Of course, I likely would’ve heard such positive word of mouth about Steins;Gate by its halfway point, or at least by its ending, that I would’ve been forced to go back and check it out. I’m glad it didn’t turn out that way, because I like knowing that I watched each episode of my second favorite anime – all of my top 6 anime, in fact – as it aired.

To add to my lack of expectations, I saw a series without much of a production pedigree, coming from a new studio with only two works under its belt – neither of which I had heard of – and a main staff lineup with no names that stood out to me. At least Chaos;Head came from Madhouse, by far my favorite studio, although I would later learn that it was perhaps the studio’s sloppiest production of the digital era.

To top it all off, it was clear that this was a time travel story. It’s funny to think of that being a red flag for me now that many of my favorites incorporate some elements of time travel, but it was a real concern at the time, and I can still sympathize with the fear. Time travel is inherently almost the riskiest storytelling device one can utilize, because we think in terms of linearity and causality. Bad time travel writing that leans on paradox-dependent contrivances immediately sabotages all credibility of its narrative, so seeing it as a central theme to a series didn’t inspire much initial confidence.

At another time, perhaps I would’ve passed over the Steins;Gate simulcast, at least at first. However, April 2011 was a special time for a number of reasons. I was taking a gap year between high school and college, so I had plenty of free time, even though I was working most days of the week. I had watched probably every anime simulcast up to that point, because there were still so few for those first three years. Spring 2011 was the season in which the balance shifted, and it became the norm for a series to be simulcast, rather than the exception. This opened up the world of new anime to me in a way I had never experienced.

Over the next few weeks, several other events transpired that would reinvigorate my passion for anime to a level that hasn’t subdued in the decade since. First, Sentai released the first bilingual collection of Clannad: After Story, which would soon change my life, my relationship with anime, and my expectations for what different genres can do. Had that happened a month earlier, perhaps I would’ve been looking into visual novels and known more about Steins;Gate going into it. Then, this very site was founded by the end of the month, providing a new, more expansive home to carry the legacy of AnimeOnDVD and Mania. Somewhere in there, I also finally acquired an internet connection that allowed me to stream video in HD for the first time. If I remember correctly, that week’s episode of Steins;Gate was in fact the very first thing I streamed in its full resolution.

Thanks to these factors, I found myself inspired to watch the first several episodes of every series in the Spring 2011 season that was simulcast, even though there were far more than in prior seasons, and the success of that experiment kept me doing so for years to come. Ten years later, I’ve never stopped considering the Spring 2011 anime season to be the greatest of all time, or at least of the simulcast era. In addition to Steins;Gate, it brought the highly anticipated return of Gintama, a season that also remains in my top 10 anime of all time, as well as the original series AnoHana, which unfortunately lacked a simulcast but was one of the only series I watched via less official means (I have, of course, since bought the premium collector’s editions from both NISA and Aniplex).

Steins GateMy lack of enthusiasm, though, was not disproven as quickly as one might expect given how highly I’ve ranked the series since it ended. The beginning of the series didn’t particularly impress me at all. In fact, for the past decade, my threshold for dropping an ongoing anime series has been “Is it at least as good as I first considered the first episode of Steins;Gate?” After all, if the answer is yes, one could make the argument that it has the potential to be my second favorite anime of all time, and I would regret dropping a series like that just as much as if I hadn’t given it a chance because of its association with a series like Chaos;Head. Still, the fact that I need to use that as my threshold is a testament to how unremarkable the series seemed when it started, and I very well may have dropped it if the aforementioned factors didn’t converge to keep me invested for just a bit longer.

The first half of the first episode doesn’t make much sense without any context, and the abrupt change at its halfway point is even more confusing. After that, it spends much of its time with a group of nerds being ridiculous in a cramped apartment room. Nothing about this had the mark of a potential masterpiece.

Even if the plot took some time to become compelling, I was quickly finding myself endeared to its idiosyncratic characters. Okabe, the truest protagonist in that almost no scene goes by without his presence (and for good plot reasons), is delightfully entertaining with his theatrical Hououin Kyouma persona displaying incredible range from the extremely talented Mamoru Miyano and mixing in his own hilarious version of English on a regular basis. Kurisu is his perfect foil, an actual genius who actually speaks English and has a wit sharp enough to counter a chuunibyou onslaught that would overwhelm anyone else. Mayuri is adorable beyond compare, but somehow never obnoxiously so, and still achieves absolute sincerity at all times. Daru strikes the balance between Okabe’s nerdy absurdity and Kurisu’s genuine ability, representing all the stereotypes of an otaku and hacker in an unusually lovable package.

Even the supporting cast is equally unique and memorable. The fact that the series really only has ten characters in total allows each of them, at least within the main eight, to stand out as unforgettable treasures. There’s immense value to each re-watch of Steins;Gate, but even in its weakest moments, it’s like hanging out with an extremely fun group of friends. Okabe and Kurisu are each contenders for my all-time favorite anime characters of their respective genders, an impressive achievement considering that delusional chuunibyou and especially tsundere are among my least favorite archetypes. That goes to show how much more these characters become.

The Japanese voice cast of this series is probably my favorite in any, perhaps even in any language. Miyano’s performance of Okabe extends far past his own usual typecasting, but also beyond the scope established in early moments of the story. Hououin Kyouma could hardly be further divorced from the emotional core of Okabe, something we see exposed more profoundly than almost any other character arc in anime. Asami Imai is someone I still only really know as Kurisu, but I consider that performance almost as iconic as Miyano’s, also balancing comedy with tender pathos, if not to the same extremes. Kana Hanazawa, more on the level of Miyano within the industry, plays more to type, but along with greatly appreciating her quotable cutesiness just like Kyouma’s “English,” she continues the trend of deft nuance when required. Tomokazu Seki is one of my favorite seiyuu, and Daru contributes to that substantially, breaking out of his cool typecasting at least as much as Miyano to embody the character’s physicality and goofy personality vocally without becoming too much of a cartoonish caricature.

Steins Gate Part 2

Along with their characteristics and voice performances, each of the ten characters has a design that’s not quite like anyone else, either within this series or elsewhere. This doesn’t look like the main cast of a popular anime lauded for its characters by any stretch of the imagination. Once you’ve spent some time with them, though, it’s the most easily recognizable and lovable ensemble around, and that just becomes another part of the charm. The original artwork from huke is quite gorgeous, and it’s adapted wonderfully. The overall aesthetic of Steins;Gate is something I’ve always liked. It’s not a lavishly animated series outside of a single creative cut that utilizes cinematic black and white and rough lines to great effect. However, it’s one with an extremely consistent look, something that can be hard to come by. It establishes its unique but comfortable style immediately and never slips up with characters looking off-model or notably limited animation. I’ll take that over drastic inconsistencies in production quality any day.

Several episodes in, though, the series really starts to catch its stride and clue in the audience to the bigger picture. It heavily incorporates the John Titor urban legend, including its own versions of CERN and the IBM 5100 renamed only as subtly as Okabe’s beloved Dr Pepper. Such a premise still seems like an extremely unlikely foundation for any sort of greatness, but it’s all the more impressive when Steins;Gate proves all expectations wrong despite confining itself in such triviality.

The halfway mark is when Steins;Gate is truly ready to show its cards and transform into something impossible to look away from. It builds up an appropriate amount of mystery and suspense until that point, but then its plot explodes into a captivatingly harrowing suspense thriller that rips Okabe apart and lets us experience the raw despair only felt by a time traveler forced to watch himself fail to prevent his worst nightmares taking place in front of his eyes countless times. The hopelessness of the situation is palpable, but he has no choice but to keep trying, even as he suffers more and more each time and it becomes more and more apparent that nothing he tries will work.

The worst part is the very reason why it’s so important that Okabe is featured in essentially every scene, and that’s because the time travel plot forces him, and us along with him, into a world that no other character can experience. This compounds his trauma with isolation; what do you do when nobody else can understand the situation you’re in? Of course, one of the central themes of Steins;Gate is battling against fate, and the characteristics established for each Lab Member in lighter contexts manifest as their individual strengths that they use to creatively overcome the seemingly impossible, rife with painful compromises along the way.

The series soon blends its intensity with more fun character moments, balancing the two to mutual effectiveness more masterfully than would seem possible. The final stretch of the series is unimaginably satisfying, simultaneously uplifting and visceral in a manner that guarantees either an uncontrollable grin or breathtaking tension at any moment, and transitions between the two seamlessly. Once it’s all over, it’s easy to recognize how brilliantly the entire series is structured. In fact, the clever Möbius strip it forms instantly makes that confusing first half-episode an utterly meaningful inclusion. The series has possibly more re-watch value than any other I can think of, because it’s an entirely different experience the next time around. Even the placement of, and changes within, the OP and ED are tied into the state of the plot, and some aspects of that are equally dependent on having seen the full series.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Steins;Gate is how subtle it is about its own brilliance. It’s as far from pretentious as possible; instead it’s understated and pithy all the way through. It presents itself as a silly comedy about nerdy losers doing mundane things and unofficially advertising Dr Pepper, with the eventual plot pulling from absurd places like John Titor’s story. Then it pulls out the rug and reveals itself to be an expertly plotted piece of creativity that weaves together its disparate concepts with mindboggling precision, offers a nuanced exploration of poignant despair and trauma, and establishes iconic motifs with profound thematic richness.

I was absolutely in love with Steins;Gate by the time its halfway point ripped my heart out. Even before then, when I didn’t expect much from the series and was wary of time travel narratives, I found myself writing far more about each episode on the forums of this site and its predecessor than any other series in that packed season, and engaging in prolonged discussions each week. Clearly I was thoroughly invested long before I cared to acknowledge that fact. Similarly, I found myself looking up the opening theme song and memorizing its Japanese lyrics in between episodes, something I wasn’t doing for anything else. Steins;Gate had become an important part of my life well before I realized it. It was also very fortuitous that it aired in the afternoon in my time zone, and on a day that I didn’t have work. If I remember correctly, episodes were released on Tuesdays at 2:35 PM ET, and I was there the second each one was listed on Crunchyroll, ready to write my forum post immediately thereafter.

By the time the series ended, I was in college and didn’t catch the episodes right as they premiered, but at least within a few hours. The best part was that I had a much larger audience to expose to the series, as I made many new friends with at least a passing interest in anime just in time for what would soon become one of my favorites to wrap up. The moment it ended, I remember feeling the strange sensation of realizing that I had just experienced one of the greatest anime of all time, and it became one of the main series I would evangelize to anyone willing to listen for the rest of my time at college.

The year or two that followed were full of compilation videos, Kyouma quotes, “tutturu,” other references, and Dr Pepper within my friend group. Looking back, it was a bit silly, but only in appropriate homage to our beloved Future Gadget Lab. It’s an experience I’m glad to have had.

Steins;Gate ended up being extremely fortunate for its licensing pattern. At the time, few series were being simulcast by Crunchyroll and released by Funimation, and most Kadokawa series got DVD-only releases at first, but Steins;Gate managed to hit just the right timing all around to get its Crunchyroll simulcast and then Funimation limited edition Blu-ray/DVD release the following year. I’d love to see Funimation re-release it with more of the additional content their current limited editions enjoy, but I still love that art box and the physical bonus it came with, the latter exclusive to Right Stuf I believe.

Over the following years, I got to see the popularity of Steins;Gate grow throughout anime fandom and beyond, which was extremely satisfying. Just as the series surprised me so much during its initial airing, it broke out of its limited niche to affect an equally unsuspecting mass audience purely through its undeniable quality and the word of mouth that inevitably generates. Again, while I’m glad Fullmetal Alchemist is a hit, it was never surprising. That’s just the kind of series that’s going to be popular no matter how good it is; it just ends up more successful because it is so good. Steins;Gate isn’t that kind of series at all, meaning that it earned every bit of its success against all odds. So yes, Brotherhood is better, but as the underdog, Steins;Gate holds a special place in my heart.

This was clearly felt in the industry worldwide as well. The original visual novel was licensed by multiple companies for official English-language releases, including different limited edition releases with different physical extras for both PC and PS3. White Fox was selected to adapt its only comparable hit, Re:Zero, expressly because of the studio’s work on Steins;Gate, and at its best, Re:Zero starts to feel an awful lot like Steins;Gate. The quality of the anime adaptation even inspired a full animation remake of the original visual novel, Steins;Gate Elite, with White Fox filling in the parts not originally adapted in the same style, and this quickly got its own English release with another packed limited edition.

Of course, I have the limited editions of the anime, both the PC and PS3 releases of the original visual novel, and Steins;Gate Elite on PS4, including all physical extras from each, and I’ll probably buy a Japanese BD-Box to celebrate this anniversary. I didn’t play the visual novel on each platform, but I did play both the original and Elite. The latter is probably the only platinum trophy I’ll ever get, since I am decidedly not a gamer and it’s incredibly easy to achieve 100% completion in many visual novels.

©2013 5pb./Nitroplus

Even though I prefer the medium of anime over visual novels and Elite doesn’t quite achieve either perfectly, I still greatly enjoyed those experiences as well. If nothing else, they allow you to relive the magic of the series in its original form and with a whole lot more time to spend with that cast of characters. Playing them also makes it obvious why the anime turned out so well despite visual novels being traditionally hard to adapt. It’s one laid out rather perfectly to be adapted into an anime series, with relatively little content existing outside of the main route, and the very structure of series about leaping between world lines mirrors the structure of a nonlinear visual novel beautifully.

Despite how amazing Steins;Gate is, the rest of the greater Science Adventure meta-series to which it nominally belongs is underwhelming at best, often much worse than that. The only other entries that even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath are those that are directly connected to Steins;Gate, namely the film and Steins;Gate 0. The latter is particularly significant, itself comprising a visual novel, anime series, and upcoming Elite hybrid. It is a sequel, a prequel, an alternate timeline, an alternate ending, and the unseen events within the existing story all at once, in a way that only makes sense to Steins;Gate fans. These are fine installments but can’t compare to the original.

As with Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, I’ll continue to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Steins;Gate by re-watching each episode exactly ten years after its initial airing, each Monday from April 5 to September 13, and I invite you to do the same. Whether it’s your first time or your tenth, I guarantee you’ll find value in it.

This is the choice of Steins Gate.

El Psy Congroo.