What It Is: If you’re not super into anime, or even run in the same circles as someone who is, you’ve probably never heard of Steins;Gate. Which is frankly a tragedy, considering you hardly have to be a fan of the medium to appreciate this masterpiece in storytelling. Unlike a lot of the shows in this column, Steins;Gate doesn’t only have one season because it was cancelled. It’s because it was only written to have one season. It’s a single, self-contained story that accomplished what it came here to do and had the decency to end rather than drag itself out for no reason.
The cult series follows a group of college students, chief among them Rintarou Okabe, resident Mad Scientist, as he attempts to unravel the strange occurrences only he seems to be noticing. Turns out, Okabe and his gang of science misfits accidentally created a time machine, capable of sending digital data through time. Their attempts to better understand what they’ve created eventually spiral into a conflict greater than any of them could have ever seen coming.
Why It’s Great: Oh man. I’d be remiss not to start with the refreshing quality of knowing a story was planned out from start to finish before a show started. Sometimes flying by the seat of your pants can work for a writer to keep things fresh, fun, and unpredictable. But more often than not, if you go into any kind of drama without a plan ahead of time, you will end up disappointing your audience. And it’s that much more satisfying when you can perfectly see all of the breadcrumbs on a rewatch. The kind of show, where everything you saw in those early episodes, even if you didn’t know it at the time (or ever caught on to it later in the series) was important. Shows where when you finally have the last piece to the puzzle, all of the other pieces suddenly fit together. Steins;Gate is not only one such show, but one of the best examples of it I could possibly list.
When you first start watching Steins;Gate, you are very likely to be confused. That is okay. Good even. The characters are confused too, and one of the things this show does really well, is giving you information exactly as the characters on the show get it. So trust me, it’s worth muddling through those early episodes for the answers, and trusting that they will be given to you just as soon as the main characters learn them themselves.
One of the other interesting aspects of Steins;Gate, is its origin as a visual novel, and how that affected it’s adaptation into a TV series. The visual novel was essentially part dating sim, an aspect that was largely removed from the plot of the show, but the result was that the overwhelming majority of its characters were still women; all distinct, detailed, and compelling in their own individual ways.
Kurisu is a snarky, taking-none-of-your-bullshit, girl genius who graduated from university before she even turned 18, and has a brain the size of an airplane hangar. Suzuha is a bicycle riding tomboy with an infectious joie-de-vivre whilst simultaneously being ready to throw hands at the drop of a hat. Ruka is a sweet girl with a quiet strength, who by the way also comes out as trans (and while there are certainly aspects of this that could have been handled more respectfully, the fact that this was even a part of her character in a 10 year old anime is bananas, and the treatment of her identity was something it’s sequel series Steins;Gate 0 sought to help correct).
Even the characters you don’t expect to be anything more than surface-level archetypes get an opportunity to prove they’re so much more than that. Mayuri first appears to be a childish, simple girl perfectly content to just do what she’s told, but she ultimately proves to have an emotional intelligence far surpassing any other member of the cast and a heart perhaps even larger than Kurisu’s brain. Faris especially isn’t a character you start the show expecting anything more from than being a cat-girl who works in a maid cafe, but whoda guessed it, Faris is actually an entrepreneur and business owner who not only owns a decent-sized chunk of this city but shaped its very culture.
The greatest thing about Steins;Gate however, is that it may very well be the only story about time travel to create a set of rules about how it worked, and then fucking stick to them. There is a clear idea of what can and can’t be done, and when those ideas are changed, they do so because we’re figuring this shit out as we go. At no point do we directly contradict something that was previously 100% known to be a hard and fast rule.
Along the same vein, it may also be one of the only time travel stories where the core thesis seems very clearly to be: don’t fucking do it. Don’t mess with time. Nearly the entirety of the second half of the show revolves around them having to steadily and systematically undo everything they accidentally changed in the first half. So take it to heart kids, don’t fuck with time. And don’t put bananas in the microwave.
Where You Can Find It: If you’re in the UK or Japan, then you can watch Steins;Gate on Netflix. You can also watch the subtitled version on Hulu, or pick your choice of language (English or Japanese) on Funimation or YouTube.