But before we take a look at the series as a whole, let’s get the final episode out of the way.
The final episode
There actually isn’t much to write about. Okabe does everything he said he was going to do in the previous episode. The only question is how he’ll manage to fool his former self into believing that Kurisu is dead when she is, in fact, not. Some bloggers were coming up with complicated plans and everything, but Okabe’s “Plan A” is just some toy with a red liquid inside. Unfortunately, he has to opt for his own blood after, uh, failing to check whether or not “Plan A” would even work.
I’m bemused by the fact that a mad scientist apparently has no contingency plan. I would have brought back some animal blood at least, but maybe that’s just me; I’m not a mad scientist. Another minor quibble is the way Okabe easily shrugs off a horrific injury. It’s one thing if the man was stabbed once, but Okabe later stabs himself with his own hand. Oh well. The last third of the episode is also pretty much pure fluff. Mr. Braun even ends up hiring Moeka and befriending her.
The first two-thirds of the last episode plays out much like a spy thriller. Instead of a suave secret agent, however, Okabe’s running around in a floppy lab coat. It’s actually quite funny to see Suzuha in her skin-tight outfit, wielding a silenced handgun only to end up doing pretty much nothing. Anyway, the loose ends are tied up but I still feel as though something’s missing. I’ve written before how I think this ending lacks thematic finality so I won’t beat a dead horse again. Skipping that, how does the rest of the anime all add up?
The major contrivance of a harem anime is that the main character almost always has only one male friend. For the rest of the show, our eligible bachelor goes from one female to the next as if he was in some bizarre procession. Still, although harem stories feel fake, we aren’t exactly watching this genre for narrative immersion. Steins;Gate, on the other hand, isn’t exactly a harem. The end game isn’t about which girl Okabe picks. Rather, the fate of the whole world rests upon his hands… so why does the anime work against itself by being harem-like?
People have and will continue to disagree with me on whether or not Steins;Gate is harem-like. So most of the girls aren’t actual candidates in capturing Okabe’s heart — so what? The point is that in a time-traveling, “save the world from impending doom” plot, the story is structured so that Okabe only goes from one girl to the next. We only ever delve into the minds and hearts of cute, attractive females. Hell, although Okabe does have a goofy best friend in Daru, if we ever learn anything about Daru, it is incidental.
Case in point, we learn that Daru’ll have a daughter in the distant future. We learn this, however, only because one of the major characters is his daughter. Had Suzuha not existed — had Okabe not spent time with her — Daru would just be a Barney-sounding dude who hacks stuff and fixes time machines on the side. And for most of the anime, he pretty much is just this. While the female characters on the show get to have actual problems and issues, Daru’s a side character who cracks dirty jokes every now and then.
The same contrivance that thus plagues the harem genre also plagues Steins;Gate. Like I’ve said, however, the former can shrug off this criticism rather easily. This would be like calling Playboy out for having only naked women in it. Steins;Gate, however, fancies itself a serious science fiction story. The fact that Okabe deals only with women goes from mere coincidence to immersion-ruining. No, I’m not saying that the story should be ruined for everyone. If you don’t care that the entire show features one man girl-hopping, good for you. But for me, this particular quality about the anime draws me out of the story.
Steins;Gate hinders itself from reaching greater heights. The story just feels too trapped by the common pitfalls of the anime medium. Why are we — both anime and its audience — so allergic to male relationships? Just look at how No.6 is being derided for even daring to have its protagonists care for each other. Every now and then, even Tiger & Bunny gets called fujoshi fanservice in a pejorative sense. As an audience, we want an identifiable hero, but he can only ever have a comic-relief best friend. Should he dare to come close to another man, we seemingly can’t help but recoil and our anime reflects this.
It’s a pity then to see a potentially worthwhile story like Steins;Gate’s follow this male-allergic formula. Rather than having both genders send the D-Mails that Okabe has to undo, he only has to deal with hot, nubile anime babes. Why couldn’t the anime be more balanced? In a harem, the aim is to ostensibly please the straight, chauvinist audience. In a science fiction anime, however, this contrivance creates an artificiality that hinders immersion. And I’m sure some of you will say, “I can look past this and enjoy the story for what it is!” Fantastic, but let’s not assume everyone should be in the same boat.
“It gets better!”
Steins;Gate‘s first eleven or so episodes are really dull. Sure, it gets better, but ideally, every story should get better. The issue of whether or not “It gets better!” is a legitimate argument is thus a non-starter. Instead, we should just look at the base line, i.e. from where does the anime get better. In Steins;Gate‘s case, the base line is really, really low. I agree — the anime is much improved by the time Mayuri gets shot (coincidence? I think not!). In fact, there were times during the past month when Steins;Gate was actually the best anime on TV.
The problem, however, is that the story took forever to get to this point. And even when Steins;Gate does get better, this doesn’t erase the fact that the first half of the series is an utter bore. I simply could not watch another second of Feyris or Ruka, so as a result, I disengaged myself from the show until it got interesting. In the end, some people will give Steins;Gate a near perfect score because of the “It gets (way) better” argument, but I won’t. Even if I do go from a Big Mac to a mouthwatering filet mignon, I still have to eat the goddamn Big Mac to get there. Likewise, I’m not going to dismiss nearly half a season of dreck just because the second half is laudatory.
The bottom line
Okabe is an interesting character with a good mix of strengths and flaws. For an anime hero, he actually does quite a bit of emoting and thus isn’t your standard bland protagonist. Essentially, the man carries Steins;Gate well. Despite the fact that the anime is female-centric, however, only Moeka and Kurisu somewhat shine in their roles. Mayuri, the girl seemingly at the center of the conflict, is more like an elusive Holy Grail that the hero must pursue than an actual character with any depth. As for Feyris and Ruka, they mostly left me feeling cold.
As a result, the anime’s viewing experience is much like a roller coaster. It goes from really high highs to lows so low that I couldn’t help but nod off at times. As always, I don’t believe a two-cour structure is an excuse for any anime to mix in dull, boring episodes. If I could excise half of the cast and combine a couple of the characters, I would. The result would have been a tighter, more suspenseful anime. There are times when the show would pretty much put on a giant “TIME FOR EXPOSITION” sign and while these moments aren’t necessarily boring, the story had potential to be so much better. For what it’s worth, Steins;Gate is solid once the dust settles but nowhere near perfection.