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Steins;Gate: An Existential Anime

Based on the PC game, Steins;Gate is a sci-fi anime that was released in 2011. The series follows Rintaro Okabe, a self-proclaimed mad scientist who, together with his friends, accidentally discovered a way to send text messages back in time; a system they called ‘D-mail’. Upon the requests of different people, Okabe sends several texts, informing his past self to do things that would diverge the timeline, creating an alternate version of reality. However, he is the only one who retained memories of the previous timeline, a phenomenon he dubbed ‘Reading Steiner’. SERN, a secret government organisation, finds out about Okabe’s discovery and sends agents to retrieve it, killing one of Okabe’s closet friends. Using D-mail, the mad scientist frantically attempts to rescue his friend by going back in time. However, every attempt ends in her death, despite Okabe trying to lead her away from the place that she is killed. He then realises that the only way to save her is to undo every D-mail ever sent, taking him back to the original timeline.

While there are a number of anime that play with time as a tool for a sci-fi narrative, Steins;Gate stands out as one that thoroughly explores the concept by illustrating existence to hold multiple timelines; each one being an alternate version of every possible outcome in our lives. For example, someone might decide to visit his friend, but straight away another version suddenly exists where he does not visit his friend. While it might seem like a trivial difference, the two versions contribute to a long chain of cause and effect, ultimately reaching drastically different outcomes for the person. It’s an interesting idea to think that there might be more than a single version of existence, but Steins;Gate takes it a step further by portraying the flow of time to be non-linear in terms of cause and effect. Even though events in the story move in a single direction, the D-mails sent back in time result in a rippling effect; where the action of sending a message can change the past, present and future, moving Okabe to an alternate timeline. While we understand that the method of time travel is completely fictional and unrealistic, it’s fascinating to explore how cause and effect does not function in a single direction, and works more like a ‘ripple’.

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Aside from toying with the idea of time, the creators of Steins;Gate appeared to have put effort into including references of the real world in attempt to add an element of realism in the anime. For example, the main antagonist in the series is an organisation called SERN, and it specialises in secret scientific experimentation and research, as well as malicious operations motivated by world domination. This is meant to be an evil version of CERN, a real organisation located in Geneva that focuses on nuclear research. Furthermore, there is a character in the anime who goes by the pseudonym ‘John Titor’, a soldier who time-travelled from the future. This is based on a real name that was used in the years 2000 and 2001 on various bulletin boards, one that claimed to be a time traveller from the year 2036. These posts stated various predictions regarding nuclear attacks and the destruction of various world powers. The publications gained much attentions, ultimately turning the name ‘John Titor’ into a pop culture myth. Along with the technical aspects of time, the series built a credible sci-fi narrative that resonates with time-travel culture and scientific groups in our world.

A sequel film was released for the series, and it’s called Steins;Gate: The Movie − Load Region of Déjà Vu. The story takes place a year after the events of the first season, and it concentrates on the role of memory in relation to time and existence. Okabe experiences visions of memories from the timelines he previously travelled through, which causes him to fluctuate in and out of his current timeline. This occurs until he disappears from his reality altogether, and his friends cannot remember his existence; except for his friend Kurisu Makise, who understood something is amiss. With the help of another time-traveller, she realised no-one could remember Okabe, which leads her to journey to a time before his disappearance. Upon reuniting with the mad scientist, Kurisu learns that everyone possesses the ability to ‘Read Stiener’, which explained why she felt Okabe’s absence despite forgetting all about him. It’s also revealed why Okabe vanished from his timeline to begin with, which is because he remembers events and experiences from other timelines. Thus, his existence is pulled into a reality that would ‘fit’ his memory of cause and effect. This situation can be compared to how our own memories determine our current reality. In the event that they’re altered or erased, we would function accordingly; and therefore, experience a different reality.

While it’s not a new release, Steins;Gate is a refreshing anime, for it’s one that touches upon philosophical ideas of existence, especially in terms of time. Additionally, the series also succeeds in holding an intriguing narrative with bizarre, fun and fascinating characters. With an unconfirmed release date, a sequel series is planned, titled Steins;Gate 0.

El Psy Congroo!

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4 Comments on Steins;Gate: An Existential Anime

  1. I liked the series. Steins;Gate 0 was decent on Vita so let’s hope the anime adaptation turns out well too.

  2. emeraldmelbourne // May 31, 2017 at 11:27 pm // Reply

    I loved Steins;Gate! A true classic

  3. In what way do you consider Steins;Gate to be existential? Please elaborate…

    • Fair question. If something is existential, it relates to, discusses, or explores the subject of existence (E.g. existentialism: philosophical study of existence).

      Time is a significant element of our daily existence, if we think about it as something that allows us to move from one moment to another, from the past to the future (something more than just a tool for measurement).
      Steins;Gate explores the concept of non-linear time (hence the ripple effect) and timeline divergence, rather than simply tell a story that involves time travel. The sequel film primarily focuses on the role of ’cause and effect’ in terms of present existence.
      I know that it is a sci-fi anime and not a documentary, but Steins;Gate still considers possibilities to understanding time and cause & effect in relation to our existence.
      I hope this clarifies.

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