“My text travelled backward in time!”
Rintaro ‘Okarin’ Okabe enjoys role-playing the mad scientist Kyouma Hououin (wearing a white lab coat, pretend-talking via mobile phone about the ‘The Organization’ whom he believes are spying on his work, assigning each of his ‘assistants’ their own personal ’00’ number.) In fact, it’s hard to tell where the play-acting ends and the real Okabe begins, so self-absorbed is the young man. With his friends otaku Daru (the hacker) and Mayuri (the cosplayer) he runs the Future Gadgets Lab above an electronics shop in Akihabara and obsesses about time travel.
And then his life turns upside down. The precipitating factor? Turning his microwave into a time machine. The unravelling starts in such a small, seemingly insignificant way, in sending a text message to the past. But as anyone who’s in the least bit familiar with popular science fictional tropes and alternate timeline tropes knows (think Stewie in Family Guy or 2005 anime series Noein) altering the tiniest detail in the timeline leads to all kinds of Big Trouble. And as Okabe’s world begins to alter around him, the possibility that he might have set the Butterfly Effect (a factor in Chaos Theory) in motion – and that String Theory (an infinite possible number of universes) might not be a theory but a reality – comes home as he realises that he alone is noticing the changes that his experiments have caused.
And then there’s the satellite that mysteriously crashes into the top floor of the building where Okabe was attending a lecture. Or was due to attend a lecture. Or…
The moment when the ‘mad’ scientist finds himself standing alone in what was – until that moment – a crowded Tokyo street is truly chilling.
Okabe’s nerdy everyday world includes the May Queen maid café at which sweet-natured Mayuri (the self-styled ‘hostage’ and childhood friend who looks after him) works alongside Faris Nyannyan, Daru’s idol. Then there’s gentle-natured Ruka from the local shrine who’s been brought up to act as shrine maiden, ‘Shining Finger,’ the painfully shy megane girl who prefers to communicate via texts, even when face-to-face with Okabe, and outgoing Suzuha, the new part-timer at his landlord’s electrical store.
‘Okarin’ Okabe makes for a genuinely different kind of anime protagonist. He’s self-obsessed, passionate about his work (which can make him incredibly insensitive to his friends’ feelings) and often plain downright annoying, especially when practising his mad scientist’s laugh. Yet it’s hard not to sympathise with him as he begins to realise that his experiments have been rather too successful and he’s in so much trouble that he may have risked the lives of everyone that he cares about. His sparring partner is eighteen-year-old scientific genius Kurisu Makise (whom he insists on calling ‘Christina’ to her intense annoyance.) The awkward progress of their relationship (especially given the bizarre events of Episode 1) is alternately fun and toe-curlingly excruciating, especially given Okabe’s insensitivity and professional jealousy around his russet-haired rival.
Everything in Okabe’s 2010 (set in the same universe as the 2008 Chaos;Gate) sounds very much like our own 2010: the organisation that he persuades Daru to hack into is called SERN (CERN is, of course, where the World Wide Web was created and the Large Hadron Collider which recently made the world news.) Everyone communicates via d-mails over the interwebs and an antiquated piece of computer hardware/technology that plays a significant role in Okabe’s investigations is an IDN 51-100. So close… and yet so different. It’s hard to tell at this stage whether these differences are highly significant plot-wise or merely the writers playing safe by not using TMs (just think of those ‘almost McDonalds’ that are glimpsed in so many anime street scenes.)
Okabe’s voice actors are both excellent: Mamoru Miyano (Light in Death Note) and J. Michael Tatum (Sebastian in Black Butler.) The Episode 12 commentary (the only extra on the DVDs set) is well worth listening to as it’s a discussion between Script Writer (and voice actor) J. Michael Tatum and Head Writer John Burgmeier about the way they produced the English dub script. And they’ve done an excellent job; this is a dialogue-heavy show and if the dialogue doesn’t sparkle (and the sparks should fly in the verbal duels between Okabe and Kurisu Makise (Trina Nishimura) as well as the hints at a deeper chemistry between the two) then the dub isn’t being truly faithful to the spirit of the original. Purists may shudder at the thought that this has occasionally meant finding more familiar US analogies for allusions in the original script to Japanese popular culture. But in a sci-fi show, passing references to Star Trek and other cult favourites get the tone absolutely right; it’s a pleasure to hear the witty dialogue brought to life by the two gifted voice actors.
The striking Opening Song is “Hacking to the Gate” by Kanako Ito and the more contemplative Ending “Tokitsukasadoru Jūni no Meiyaku” is by Yui Sakakibara. The subtly contemporary score is by Jun Murakami and Takeshi Abo and is only used to underscore key moments, another plus point; less is definitely more when it comes to enhancing the drama. Of equal significance are the evocative summer whirring of the cicadas – and the buzz of Okabe’s incoming text messages, a sound that becomes more and more ominous as the mysteries accrue.
The twelfth episode leaves the viewer poised on the edge of a vast cliff-hanger. The tone of the show has darkened with the swiftness of a summer thunderstorm rolling in – as events turn shockingly brutal. It’s just a few weeks (at the time of writing) till the end of September and the release of the second part. I can’t wait to see what will happen next!
Steins;Gate is an intelligent, intriguing thriller that riffs cleverly with classic science fictional ideas about time travel and parallel worlds, that should – once you’re hooked – keep you on the edge of your seat, eager not to miss any of the scriptwriters’ craftily-planted clues.