If I had to explain the difference between the things I respect and the things I love, it's that the things I respect leverage ideas and concepts that appeal to my intellect and my sense of curiosity, while the things I love use characters and situations that appeal to my emotions and my beliefs. One lights up my brain; the other warms my heart. Rare is the production that combines the two. Steins;Gate one-ups that achievement by letting each of those halves enrich the other. It's great fun in many different ways — as a character-driven comedy, as a psychologically rich drama, as a science-fiction thriller, as an envelope-pushing fantasy — but without ever feeling like all those different flavors have been forced to share a roof. You can enter from any one of those doors, but they all lead to a common room, one where the real story is how a man learns to put down his mask and be only his own vulnerable self.
All in the name of science — weird science
From my heart and from my hand
Why don't people understand
-- Oingo Boingo, "Weird Science"
His real name is Rintarō Okabe, but he'd prefer to be called by the far more auspicious (try pretentious) name of "Hōōin Kyōma"1. In theory he's a college student, ostensibly majoring in some scientific discipline, but his summer track appears to consist entirely of goofing off in the apartment he's rented above a TV repair shop and making deliberately mannered pretenses at being a Mad Scientist™.
This "Future Gadget Laboratory" of his employs — if that's the word — two other aides-de-camp. One is Okabe's childhood friend Mayuri Shiina ("Mayuushi"), a sweet and naïve girl who sees the lab as an excuse to hang out with Okabe and relax from her day job as a waitress in a themed maid café. The other is Itaru Hashida ("Daru"), Okabe's portly college buddy, who also uses the lab mostly as a hangout (in his case, a place to play eroge), but his technical skills get a workout when he and Okabe concoct various basement-inventor experiments.
One sweltering afternoon, a toolbag full of monkey wrenches gets upended into their lives. Okabe and Mayuri attend a lecture on time travel — it's totally over Mayuri's head, but she never turns down an excuse to do something interesting with her big-brother substitute — only to have one strange thing after another unfold. A woman Okabe has never met before insists she talked to him only fifteen minutes ago; minutes later, he encounters the same woman lying in a pool of blood, apparently dead. A satellite-like whatsit materializes on the roof of the lecture hall building. Objects placed in the lab's microwave melt into a bizarre green gelatinous substance. And the dead woman turns up alive, well, and plenty miffed at the idea that she was believed to have been dead in the first place.
The now-dead-now-alive lady in question is Makise Kurisu, a physics student back in Japan from an extended stay overseas. Makise is as cool, calm, and collected as Okabe is manic and obsessive, and she more or less hijacks the time-travel lecture to leave Okabe eating her intellectual dust. What grinds his gears the most is how she not only managed to demolish all of Okabe's objections, but did so with such ... such ... panache! Being one-upped by anyone is bad enough, but the fact that it was a woman galls him all the more — one of the many things he will eventually have no choice but to wean himself of.
Makise would rather have nothing to do with a headcase like Okabe, but one peek at the weirdness abounding in the Future Gadget Laboratory convinces her something is afoot, and she's persuaded to play Hepburn to his Tracy (maybe better to say, Scully to his Mulder) despite her better judgment. She could find any number of better ways to spend her summer with the likes of him and Daru, but after she and Mayuri hit it off immediately — and further evidence that Okabe's crackpot experiments may not be so crackpot after all — she's in up to her neck.
A paradox and a pair o' docs
I never know which version I'm going to be
I seem to have so many choices open to me
It's not hard to see another unique event
When you miss the beginning and you miss the end
-- Wire, "40 Versions"
Okabe's discovery is absurd on the face of it. By tweaking the behavior of a household microwave and a cell phone, he's inadvertently stumbled across a way to send information backwards through time. Text messages are easier to work with then physical objects, all of which are reduced to a slimy green gelatin whenever they're transmitted. Nobody in the Lab, certainly not Okabe himself, quite understand how it works, only that it does. In both that sense and in their struggle to figure out the proper applications of their discovery, I was reminded of the way the inventors of the laser originally calibrated their invention in Gillettes, because at first they couldn't think of anything to do with it except punch holes in razor blades.
But the F.G.L.'s time machine is no toy, and you can't mess with causality and not expect bad trouble. To wit: Okabe's research material on alleged time-traveler and Internet phenom John Titor spontaneously vanishes. Okabe becomes all the more uneasy when he and Daru uncover evidence that seems to point to "SERN", the physics research laboratory, working on — or maybe having already completed — something similar to their own work. To beat SERN at their own game, they need an obscure old-school computer to decode some data filched from SERN's servers, one that might be sitting in storage courtesy of their cross-dressing friend Ruka Urushibara.
What started off as a bored lark now turns into an adventure, as the crew piece together a how-to on using the "Phone-wave (Real Name TBA)". Send a text message back to your prior self, or to someone else, and you can alter, however slightly, the unfolding of events. The problem is you can't always control how they unfold. When the crew decide to try a classic time-traveler's stunt — send winning lottery ticket numbers back in time — they're stymied when Ruka, the ultimate recipient of the message, screws up one of the digits. Then Ruka hits on the idea of sending a message back in time to his mother, perhaps to allow him to be born as a girl (as he's always imagined he deserved to be), and to Okabe's shock, it works ... except that Okabe is the only one who remembers how things were before.
How this is possible is less important than the mere fact of it, and that it begins to undermine Okabe's confidence in his mad-scientism. Each minor change sends them drifting further away from the world as he knew it, and — to Okabe's horror — towards a world where their tinkerings have drawn the attention of people willing to kill, even to tamper with reality itself, to protect their secrets. At one point Okabe is trapped in a horrible no-exit situation where Mayuri is always killed no matter how Okabe tries to undo things. And when he does, it comes at yet another cost, and another — until he realizes the only way out is to go back as far as he can, to undo every single one of the changes that came before, and in the process find the real Okabe that he buried under his mad-scientist persona.
The difference is that genius has its limits
I was just guessing at numbers and figures
Pulling the puzzles apart
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart
Tell me you love me, come back and haunt me
Oh and I rush to the start
Running in circles, chasing our tails
Coming back as we are
-- Coldplay, "The Scientist"
This to me is the key to the story's real success: it turns from a story about Okabe and his friends solving a mystery or indulging in their curiosity, to a story about Okabe trying to become a better person, a more selfless and empathetic one. We see hints of it earlier on, although he's only able to open up to Makise (and, likewise, let her open up to him) after he's had a few traumas that knock the arrogance out of him. Later, once that's taken hold, he learns to trust in Makise's ability to understand him and believe in him, even across world-lines. Philip K. Dick, the SF writer who made his prime obsession the unknowable nature of reality, always countered that in his stories with the redemptive power of love and simple humanity, and the show takes both of those pages from his book(s) for itself.
Makise and Okabe form the nucleus of a large and complex cast the show juggles deftly enough that it's easy to forget so many people are in play. Daru, the resident tech wizard (and geek identification character), has eyes for Fayris, the feisty and limelight-seeking cosplayer girl who works at the same maid café as Mayuri, and who secretly harbors a yearning of her own that becomes of pivotal importance to the mechanics of reality-mangling. A shy and hesitant antique gadget buff, Moeka, whom Okabe nicknames "Shining Finger" for using text messages instead of ever opening her mouth, spins into the story for reasons that at first seem to be about nothing more than giving Okabe yet another obstacle, but she poses a deadly threat of a sort that in the end has to be confronted emotionally and not physically. And then there's Mr. Braun, the grumpy TV repair shop owner and Okabe's landlord, at first a trap to be avoided, then later another pivotal piece of the logical and emotional puzzle that Okabe's life becomes. Same goes for Braun's new hire, a spunky young woman whose not-quite-with-it-ness turns out not to be an affectation.
In my review of the various incarnations of All You Need Is Kill, which this story resembles in part, I touched on the Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day, and how Murray's arc through that film (as Roger Ebert noted) does not so much change him as reveal things that were always there and make good on them. The same goes here: Okabe has always had these qualities — why else, for instance, would he be so protective and impulsively kind to Mayuri, or Ruka, if those impulses weren't there? — he's just preferred instead to put his manufactured genius persona front and center instead, the better to keep Mayuri happy and hold her own personal demons at bay. That part of him is meant to be the life of the party, but it comes with baggage that often weighs more than it holds, and it can be hard for him to put down even briefly. The fact that he's a genius is not even the most interesting thing about him, but it's what he's convinced himself is most important — and it's something he has to learn to both doff and reassert.
A few things in the show are iffy for me. One is the handling of Ruka's subplot, where Okabe tampers with causality enough to retroactively reverse his sex, as per Ruka's own desires. Later, he has to talk her out of it so that he can undo that particular alteration of causality. The show wisely makes this painful and difficult for everyone involved — this is the first time we see Mayuri actually angry! — and confronts how many conflicting principles are grinding against each other. But the way the story solves the problem is by having Ruka go out on a date with Okabe, the better to address her inchoate desires for him which have persisted across world-lines. It's complicated even further by the way Ruka is able to remember how Okabe stuck up for her as a boy in her previous world-line (an incremental plot thread; turns out Okabe isn't the only one who can remember such things). The resulting date is amusing, and in a way where Okabe, not Ruka, is the butt of the jokes. (It doesn't help that nobody else in the crew is romantically adept.) But the idea and its resolution seems muddled at best; it tries to take on issues of gender and sexuality the show simply isn't equipped to address, even if it builds in a fail-safe amount of tenderness and insight for everyone involved.
What works best is the sweep of the whole, the arc from frothy banter to reality-hopping transcendence. I'm fondest of stories that begin from a simple beginning and grow until they seem to contain everything, but never lose touch with the human seed they flowered from. At one point Okabe admits "I made this place [the lab] because I couldn't invent friends," and the underlying conceit — the lab is in fact what created this circle of friends, just as that circle created the lab — only grows more important as the stakes and the scope rise. Near the end Mayuri has a monologue about her introduction to the lab, how it was and still is a place to call home, even if nothing "happened" there. But something was happening there; a few people who didn't really fit in anywhere found something to share, and a way to matter to the rest of the world — even if they're the only ones who ever know how important it all is.
One of anime's chief attractions is in the way the best of it can skip and switch between moods without hesitation — how slapstick comedy can give way in the next moment to earth-moving tragedy. Alfred Hitchcock once said, "I play the audience like a piano." This led Roger Ebert to comment that Federico Fellini required the entire orchestra. Where Hitchcock struck only a few chords of of paranoia, obsession, and black humor, Fellini knew all the scales: grand tragedy, farcical mishaps, the elegies of life both big and small. Anime at its best is like this, I think: when it sings not just in one voice but a whole chorus of them, many of which can be found cheek-by-shoulder in this show.
1 Written 鳳凰院凶真(the characters "phoenix, temple, evil, truth"). Most non-Japanese audiences aren't going to pick up on the differences in flavor between names like "Rintarō Okabe" and "Hōōin Kyōma", but it's a little like someone named "Joe Thomas" electing to use the nick "Radamanthus Starkweather".