Review: Steins;Gate – Part 1 / Cert: 15 / Director: Takuya Sato, Hiroshi Hamazaki/ Screenplay: Various / Starring: Mamoru Miyano, Asami Imai, Yuraki Tamura / Release Date: July 15th
The world of anime is full of ideas, some good, some bad, some crazy as a soup sandwich. For a prime example of the latter, check out Steins;Gate. Originating as a visual novel for the Xbox 360, it centres around the activities of the Future Gadget Lab. This down-at-heel operation consists of exactly three members: Daru, a hacker; Mayushi, who's more of a mascot than an active contributor; and their Pied Piper of a leader, Okarin. A mad scientist and proud of it, he parades around all day in a lab coat and is given to wild, self-aggrandising statements and paranoid ravings about secret organisations bent on world domination. Together, the three toil away in a room muggy with male hormones and stocked with second-hand stuff from the grotty TV repair shop owned by their long-suffering landlord. Their current project: a phone-operated microwave.
Sounds harmless enough, but then Okarin starts having what appear to be disconcerting lucid dreams and lapses of memory. He finds a girl stabbed to death, then a few hours later bumps into her again, alive and well. What's going on? Gradually, he realizes that the Phone Microwave is in fact a kind of time machine, one that can send text messages back into the past, thus potentially altering the course of events. Meanwhile, Okarin himself possesses a unique ability to retain memories across different timestreams.
That's not the half of it, though. Okarin becomes convinced that SERN (for which read CERN – yes, that CERN) is also working on a time machine, and that if it succeeds it will end up ruling the planet. The only way to find out more is to a track down a rare old IBM 5100 portable PC whose operating code will enable them to break into the SERN database.
Well, it all seems to make sense at the time, and anyway you hardly have a moment to quibble as the series bowls along in a whirl of conspiracy theories, crackpot science and nerdy undergraduate humour. Beneath it all is an underlying air of edgy, nervy expectation, a quality heightened by the animation, which locates the story in a recognizable version of Tokyo's Akihabara district but one presented in a muted palette which reduces it to a ghostly, half-real backdrop to the intellectual wild goose chase.
It's a show that's likely to divide opinion, and depending on your point of view you'll probably think Steins;Gate is the best thing since sliced bread or the worst thing since fish sausages. On top of that, even its most fervent admirers would have to admit that occasionally the weird mixture of whimsy and baffling temporal puzzles can be a bit too much to take, and that Okarin – who's like a geeky 21st century Billy Liar with a degree in physics and an incipient bipolar disorder – could have done with being dialled down a little. Nonetheless, this is the stuff of which cult TV is made.
Extras: Audio commentaries / Clean opening and closing credits / Trailers / Previews