Steins;Gate is widely considered to be one of the best anime ever made. As of writing this, it sits at the lofty number nine of most popular anime of all time on MAL, an an even loftier number three when factoring user reviews. And if you have ever noticed that I am not afraid to be contrarian, I hate this series nearly as much as I hate Evangelion.
I do not like Evangelion, but I was at least able to finish it in one go with few to no problems. Steins;Gate managed to bore me to tears for 18 consecutive episodes before I finally realized that there was never going to be a moment where everything would click and it would all make sense. I was not going to finish this series and feel as though I had spent my time wisely, so I dropped it. I only finished the series when I decided to write this piece, because I will never allow a stranger on the internet to invalidate my criticism because the show was so awful I gave up on it.
Say what you will about Evangelion, there was at least enough tension to keep me watching until the last two episodes threw any narrative out of the window, but I’m not here to talk about why NGE was a disappointment again.
I am a big fan of science fiction, particularly time travel stories. With the way I am so eager to laud Re:Zero, you would think I’d be all over another time travel anime produced by White Fox. Unfortunately, that’s where the two series’ similarities end. But Steins;Gate is so universally acclaimed that I can’t just leave it be. It’s one thing for an anime to be bad, I can accept that, it’s another for every weeb and their okasan to say that this is an indisputable masterpiece. So if I can’t understand why everyone thinks this show is perfect, I can at least communicate was turned it into one of my least favorite anime.
A quick refresher if you’ve never seen it or haven’t in a long time; Steins;Gate is about an amateur team’s invention of a time machine that sends text messages back in time, calling them D-Mail. They’re led by the eccentric self-proclaimed mad scientist Rintaro Okabe, and joined by his childhood friend Mayuri, their computer expert Daru, and Kurisu, a scientist whom Rintaro initially found dead at the beginning, before her death was seemingly reversed by time travel.
I like to go through and say what the series I’m disappointed in did well. This is especially difficult because there are few if any salvageable moments from the entire series. However, it’s a cop-out to just look at a work of art and say that it has no merit at all, so I’ll go through the list, even if it’s short.
One of the most important things in any project, whether that’s a book, a show, or anything that requires a person to think of something and make it real, is that the creative team has to be passionate about it. You can pretty clearly tell that the writer, Jukki Hanada, and the original writers of the visual novel it’s based on are passionate about the potential of time travel and being able to send messages to the past. That enthusiasm is vital, and without it, you just get a limp, sterile piece of corporate media, usually without the hefty budget that accompanies actual corporate media. Unfortunately, that enthusiasm did not bleed over into any other part of the series.
There is a sequence where Rintaro’s actions lead to the death of Mayuri, and he continually resets time dozens if not hundreds of times trying different ways to prevent it. It is the only time that this series managed to interest me or provoke an emotional response from me. It might just be that it was reminiscent of Re:Zero, but the idea of this desperate struggle against fate was compelling. Even with the pinnacle of human engineering, we are fundamentally powerless, that is a theme worth writing about and exploring to its fullest. They really don’t address it other than this, though.
And well, that’s it, I only managed to praise two single things. If you ever want to ask me if I liked anything in Steins;Gate that wasn’t either of those two things, then the answer is no.
If I am now allowed to move into what I don’t like about Steins;Gate, my biggest problem with it is that there is not a single likable character in the whole lot of them. Every person here ranges from merely tolerable to absolutely terrible, and there is not a moment that serves to endear them or redeem them as people. Their lives and motivations are not particularly compelling, their designs are drab and boring, and their development is hacky garbage. If you think I can watch two bitterly unlikable people berate each other for over 20 episodes only to realize they’re in love, you’re right, it’s called Toradora, and it’s way better than this trash heap.
Rintaro might be the worst offender here, though it’s a race he’s only winning by a hair because he has the most screen time. He’s supposed to be a quirky Doc Brown type whose delusions of grandeur and pretentious manner of speech is supposed to amuse the audience, the problem with that being is he is unbearable to watch. It’s as though he was a character rejected from The Big Bang Theory because he was too unrealistic of a caricature of a geeky scientist to make the cut. If my writing ever paled in comparison to that of The Big Bang Theory, I’d retire.
Daru is the second worst, but if I watch a single episode where he speaks, I could easily be convinced otherwise. Am I supposed to find this sex pest funny or entertaining? Forget terrible sitcom characters, this guy is one more rejection and a manifesto away from committing an act of domestic violence. He’s not amusing, he just makes every scene he is in deeply uncomfortable, and pardon me for not finding out that one of the women he sexually harasses is his daughter from the future and thinking it’s the height of comedy. I’m genuinely convinced that Daru is secretly the protagonist of Mushoku Tensei before Truck-kun did our world a favor and the next one a terrible disservice.
While those two might be the most egregious examples, there is no one in the cast who makes the show better. Kurisu and by extension, her romance with Rintaro, is just for sad people to project on so they can hold onto the hope that if they remain antisocial, uncommunicative jerks, they’ll wear down their crush into liking them. I don’t care for Mayuri, Luka, or Faris, but they’re probably the least offensively written of the bunch, not counting that a lot of elements of Luka’s storyline have not aged gracefully. Regardless, I can’t work myself up to have an opinion on these loose collections of quirks and bland character traits.
This lack of tolerable or interesting character runs into the myriad issues I have with the story, namely that the story pads its runtime so stupidly much with blatant miscommunications that could be solved easily if everyone involved bothered to speak to each other. They use this dumb trope to the point that a Seinfeld writer would blush. How many times does Rintaro need to bully the newly female Luka by calling her a man, rather than sit down and explain that their time machine changed Luka’s gender in-utero, at the originally male Luka’s request?
But no, we instead get multiple full scenes where Rintaro just idiotically runs up to a girl and accuses her of being a man, and then gets mad and exasperated that no one understands what he’s talking about. Rintaro has known since the beginning that he is the only person who remembers the original timeline, but he makes no effort to clarify even though everyone else on the team knows that he knows about previous timelines. It’s this dumb hack writing that serves no other purpose than to cheaply generate conflict and extend the story further.
Then this leads directly into issues with pacing, of which there are many. I am confused as to why they had to pad this story out so heavily even though they had nothing to say with the time they were given. Until the confrontation and shootout with the SERN mercenaries, there is no action or forward momentum, it just plods along at a pace a snail would call leisurely. In my last essay on Appare-Ranman, I said too many anime take a 12 episode concept and drag it out for no reason, and this is as obvious of an example as you can get.
The first half of the series is dominated by these characters: defining them, their relationships, and how and why they would send these specific messages back in time, and the consequences of that. But like I said, these characters are insufferable, their relationships are built upon harassment and verbal abuse, and this story would have been much better if we had gotten to know them less. Better to have bland characters and deliver a tightly-woven story than spending so much time on your dreadful characters that the story languishes for a dozen episodes before even approaching the point.
Pacing is one of the hardest things to nail down in writing; its largely subjective, and people want different pacing out of different things. However, when you aren’t sure, it’s best to fault on the side of fast pacing, as that’s the most reliable way of creating a satisfying narrative. That means cutting out what’s unnecessary, and this slow pace is unnecessary. Slow pacing is reserved for TV series, movies, and books where the audience needs to take their time and really integrate in the world and characters being presented to them.
I hate to keep coming back to Re:Zero (no, I don’t), but the entire second season has absurdly slow pacing because it is about one central conflict that has multiple knots that need to be untangled, first individually, and then all at once. Re:Zero uses its pace to gradually expand the scope of the world and the characters in it, but Steins;Gate never does that. It meanders for its runtime, has a handful of scenes where all the big movements and action happens, and ends with the mind-numbingly played out “the protagonist’s future self arranged the catalyst for the beginning of the story”. It’s overdone, it’s trite, and unworthy as a finale for anything that’s come out in the last thirty years.
Steins;Gate is the recipient of a propaganda campaign to convince people that it was secretly good. I’ve tried discussing this on forums and Reddit, but the reception I’ve received is more along the lines of blind anger. If you like Steins;Gate and disagree with my points, please tell me why, I welcome the feedback. I do not understand the hype, and appreciate if anyone in favor of the show could actually make the case for it.
Overall, Steins;Gate is the culmination of nearly every problem in bad anime writing. A painfully slow and clunky story that fails to justify existing for as long as it does, and characters that don’t warrant the description they received in this essay, much less an entire franchise. The harshest philosophy of criticism I apply to art is whether or not it justifies its existence, and while that’s not a fair standard to apply to a lot of popcorn television, Steins;Gate is trying to be this serious work of fiction that makes statements and communicates themes, and it can’t even communicate why it should have been created.
As a series, it makes every effort to turn away viewers. Hard science time travel stories are inaccessible by their very nature, but this story tries so desperately to shake them off. It’s a wonder that the writer could tolerate these characters, much less any person tuning in to watch them.
These lessons in disappointment always seem to come back to writing, and for something that’s so important in art, it’s incredibly difficult to get right. Unfortunately, because of that, the bar has to be lowered. I mean, your characters don’t need to be likable, but they need some speck of charisma; it’s whether or not their compelling that makes a story good or enjoyable. At this point, I may as well watch mannequins in their place, I’d feel indifferent about a faceless hunk of plastic than the hatred that each of these characters inspire in me.
However, if you like Steins;Gate, I genuinely want to hear about what you like about it. I truly don’t think that there is anything utterly irredeemable, so when I fail to find anything, it only make me more curious. That’s my little reminder that you can comment here, or leave a like if you’re more of the silent type. If you want more of these essays, follow the Otaku Exhibition where there is a new one every Monday and Thursday. There’s also my Twitter, @OtakuExhibition, where you can get notifications about essays and my random stray thoughts on anime. Also, I’m hiring a new caption guy for the pictures because it looks like the last one walked off the job.