Television generally comes to me in phases.
I can go three months at a time binging movies and shows, then proceed to go three months without viewing much at all - it's an ebb and flow. It generally starts with finding a show, then immediately wanting more, then continuing with (an arguably self destructive) mega binge of shows that will eventually hit a point where I can find I can go no further.
It's at this final point I find myself, after completing a quarterly bender of a multitude of Anime; My Hero Academia, Food Wars, Psycho Pass, Noragami (to name only a handful) - all culminating in a viewing of an Anime that's been on my list for a while now, Steins;Gate
Steins;Gate, an Anime adaption of a visual-novel game of the same name, centers around the main character, self confessed 'mad scientist' Okabe 'Okarin' Rintaro, and him and his friends' accidental discovery of time travel - and the consequences therein. The show opens with Okabe attending a lecture on time travel, and meeting a girl, named Kurisu, who is confused at what he was trying to tell her earlier, despite the fact this was the first time they met.
Within the next ten minutes, we find her dead.
As he messages his friend about the incident, Okabe finds himself thrust back in time, with the Kurisu still alive, and no one aware of what had occurred. Confused, he comes to deduce that their 'experiment' (literally a phone against a microwave that turns backwards) has inadvertedly changed time, and the show follows on from there.
When I first attempted to watch this show, perhaps a month before my actual binge (enough time to finish up Haikyuu), I immediately felt put off. I'm not the biggest fan of the culture of soft-core objectification of girls in Anime - those shows that push terms such as moe, loli etc. as fan service. As the show kicks off, you're introduced to, perhaps, five people who'd fit that bill of filling that fan-service quota - for example Mayuri, a childhood friend of Okabe's works in a maid cafe, run by their friend Faris (who ends all her sentences with nyan). Daru, Okabe's male, hacker stereotype friend, sorta perpetuates this by toeing the line with a number of innuendos and perverted comments, which left me unsure of whether he was being genuine, or being satirical to the trope.
Although I missed it the first time I sat down, It's this, I think, which sets up the show very well. This introduction of common Anime stereotypes, coupled with the goofiness of their invention (it's labeled 'Phone Microwave (Temporary Name)') gives off the impression that this is going to be like any other anime, and it's through this they manage to lull the user into a false sense of security.
The opening episodes take the question of "If you had a time machine, what would you go back and change?" as each main character requests of Okabe a change to the past that will alter the present. As it progresses, we discover that only Okabe has the ability to remember across timelines. It's a little feel-good, but as they progress down this path, you can't help but feel a little on edge that something bad will happen - it's probably because we've all seen a handful of films and shows that deal with Time Travel, and how well it plays out. However since it is offset with that light-hearted atmosphere, you can almost afford to shake it off.
It's about halfway through that that's thrown out the window. You can sense it coming, but when it does, it's a train coming into your house. It was this point I was hooked.
I'm a pretty big fan of time travel as a plot device, as it's a largely played out trope, what you're left with distinguishing is the ruleset in which your time travel can operate in, while also being limited to some fundamental hard limits. It's not an easy task - the ability to think in two places at once is pretty difficult, and can easily confuse viewers (I got a little confused just writing this next paragraph) and each scenario handles time differently:
- Doctor Who, for example, takes a pretty loose set of rules, but since the Tardis can shift through space and time, leaves a lot of room for laissez faire writing.
- Back to the Future however, allows Marty to make changes to the past that will affect the future - right up to the point where he almost screws up his parents meeting, and so, himself being born.
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is often praised for its take on time travel, as it allows Harry and Hermione to go back in time, but cannot change the course of events that occur on that timeline. This is a bit of a mindbender, but as this video put it, 'when you go through the events before you time travel, your time travelled clone is already there'.
- There are other methods and rulesets of Time Travel that I'll have missed, but definitely the top of my list to watch is Primer.
On the other hand, when time travel leaves some holes, it can become a bit jarring, at least for me. Looper is an example of this. Don't get me wrong, it's a pretty decent movie (and I love Rian Johnson), there are just holes in their portrayal of Time Travel that leave a lot to be desired. I think its root lies in the fact the script toys with two different types of time travel - single timeline time travel (like Harry Potter) and multi-timeline travel (like Back to the Future) and breaks the rules for both. For example, Loopers have their future selves sent back in time to be killed (as insurance for the criminal organisation running the operation), and Bruce Willis (Old Joe) remembers killing his older self in the past. When it comes his time 30 years in the future, he attempts to change the past by changing how he comes back. Throughout the film, you get scenes where Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Young Joe) will injure himself in order to get his older selfs intention (via scars). This is a bit of a paradox - if Bruce Willis is from a different timeline, then this shouldn't have happened, but if he was from a single timeline, he should be dead.
I'm getting a litte off point. What I'm trying to say is that the rules that Steins;Gate follow are pretty solid. There are technical limits to what you can send back (36 bytes), physical limits in how far back you can go (not before the time machine's creation), and mental limits in who can remember that the timeline has changed (Only Okabe, at the beginning). They also add in this idea of 'convergences' - events that will take place no matter how hard you try - it's sorta a mashup of the time travel rules in The Butterfly Effect mixed with the whole idea that Death is coming for you in Final Destination.
Note: The rest of this post will deal in spoilers that might ruin the build up this show delivers - reader beware...
It's within these rules that a pretty compelling second-half of the show comes out to play. At that halfway point, Okabe witnesses the death of his best friend Mayuri at the hands of SERN (Yeah, that CERN), and over successive episodes attempts to save her life. In a loosely defined time travel plot, Okabe could go back in time and 'make all the right moves' to prevent it from happening, however due to the hard limit of convergences, no matter what he does, Mayuri dies - if she's not shot by SERN, she's accidentally falling onto the train tracks, or falling ill. What follows is a set of episodes where Okabe replays the same block of time over and over again, akin to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suziyama 'Endless 8' episodes. However where Haruhi felt like a slog, Steins;Gate varies these episodes significantly, which leaves you compelled to keep going (I stopped at episode 4 of Endless 8).
In order to fix the situation he's in, Okabe learns that he must undo all the changes he and his friends have made in the past in this alpha timeline, and return to the beta timeline. Each reversal of a change to the past extends Mayuri's life by a single day, until he realises that he must undo the very first time-travelling message, that somehow saved Kurisu's life. By this point in the anime, Okabe and Kurisu are romantically involved, and he struggles to come to terms with sacrifcing one or the other.
The second half only adds to the first, as the show takes the age-old trope of 'ill-gotten gains work evil,' and makes you question it. We learn through these episodes that Okabe, although coming off as aloof and delusional, is actually a deeply caring and thoughtful person. His 'mad scientist' persona was put on to break Mayuri out of deep depression when they were younger, and as he learns that he has to undo all the changes his friends made in the past, it breaks him apart even further. Is it truly evil to give the ability for your friends to change the past? It's this dissolution of Okabe, as he watches his friend die on a loop, and as he has to undo his friends wishes for his own selfish benefit that makes the character super compelling.
This character development never stops, right up until the last episode. In the end, Okabe (at the insistence of Kurisu) reverts the first message, resulting in Kurisu's death. Soon after, he is approached by Suzuha, who is Daru's child from the future. In the alpha timelines, she came from the future to find out who her father was, before heading to 1975, and prevent SERN from inventing time travel. However, in this beta timeline, she has been sent by Daru from the future to save Kurisu, as her death somehow results in World War III (I'm brushing over an entire storyline here, but bear with me - I need to explain how a time machine has just turned up). Suzuha manages to convince Okabe to go back to the day Kurisu was murdered, and he makes all the moves to attempt to save her.
However, this moment is a convergence. Instead of the murderer killing Kurisu, the knife slips, and Okabe is the one to accidentally murder her. In this episode, you can truely see the moment he breaks, as he's taken back to the present day, and vows never to time travel again - he doesn't want to have to repeat watching a friend die over and over again. He voices all his regrets in toying with time, and despite being urged by Suzuha, refuses to go back to save her. Under the hood, this kicks off the plot for the alternative history retcon season, Steins;Gate 0 which is basically a 'what if' if Okabe was stuck with the knowledge he can't save someone, even though he has the power - but that's a post for another day.
This is an Anime, though, so it has to have a happy ending. Mayuri slaps Okabe, and tells him to come to his senses, before learning that by failing that attempt, Okabe from the future has a message to him to convince him to go through with it a second time. It's at this point I was sold on the rules of time travel in Steins;Gate, but unfortunately, it's also where the rules fall apart a bit. In order to avoid the convergence, apparently, Okabe just needs to make it look like Kurisu has died. Even now, a couple weeks after finishing the Anime, I can't come up with a solid explanation as to why this worked. It's a shame that the rules loosened up for the protagonist, even though we had gone through a number of episodes where this has backfired for the group, it left a bittersweet taste in my mouth.
It's hard to deny that watching Steins;Gate left me emotionally drained. It's hard to put my finger on why, but I know for sure this wasn't the first time - over the years many books, films and shows have grabbed my attention, and wrapped me entirely around their stories and characters, and almost as quick as they arrived, they left again. Perhaps its the sense of escapism it provides, and the speed at which I consume them, leaves me saddened that it leaves so quickly.
Despite my feelings, I'd thoroughly recommend viewing it for yourself - You can find Steins;Gate on Animelab, or wherever all good animes are shown.