Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination — Steins;Gate

produced by White Fox, directed by Hiroshi Hamasaki and Takuya Sato, available on Funimation

Big Bang Theory meets 12 Monkeys

Steins;Gate is a series that will likely fall under a lot of people’s radar because it isn’t your typical anime series.  There are no mecha or ninjas; really no superpowers or angsty teens doing a lot of screaming.  In fact, there really isn’t all that much action at all.  It isn’t overflowing with fanservice, though it’s got plenty of nerd references and not the ones would you think.  Most of these are deep-culture references (for example, do you know what OTP is in reference to fanfiction?) or out-right scientific ramblings.  Some get translated for the audience and some do not.

Without many of the hallmarks of traditional anime, what remains is a unique and distinctive series that is aimed at a very niche market.  The show challenges a viewer’s intelligence with complexity and subtlety and rewards them with an unsettling but plausible series of events.

Story – 3 out of 5
A team of post-college adults, led by self-proclaimed mad scientist Rintarou Okabe, manage to accidentally invent a time machine using a cell phone and a microwave.  Once confirming this discovery, they begin working to understand the implications of time travel.  However, they quickly garner the attention of a malevolent international conglomerate (a fictionalized version of CERN, spelled SERN for the series).  This results in a deadly chess game of time travel and similar events, with Okabe trying to protect his friends and his own reality, but at the possible cost of his own sanity.

The story is inventive and unique, especially in anime, though some viewers may feel parallels to 12 Monkeys or even Magica Madoka.  While similar plots have been walked, this particular garden is far from heavily traveled.  The problem, though, is the speed at which the series moves.  It would be unfair to compare it to the US released version of Dragon Ball Z, where a single fight can span whole episodes, but the plot does move at a snail’s pace, with usually only one or two single plot-relevant events occurring over the course of the whole episode, with various charm-of-life tidbits occurring in the interim, which often becomes formulaic fast.

Art – 4 out of 5
Steins;Gate has some great character art that is distinctive and unique.  The show balances a realism to the characters with anime’s idealism.  Characters are visually quirky and unique, making them easily identifiable.  Likewise, backgrounds and objects themselves are perfectly captured.  Outdoor scenes and scenes in public are especially well illustrated.

Animation – 4 out of 5
The animation is very smooth.  There’s a real attention to detail in the movements of characters, but nothing that becomes distracting.  Given the lack of action in the series, it’s surprising how well the characters are animated and how well the life of the city beyond them is captured.

Characters – 3 out of 5
There isn’t too much to the characters, especially in the early episodes.  It isn’t clear why the various characters put up with the demanding and obnoxious Okabe, but half a dozen episodes in, we start to see they’re more or less as crazy as him.  Plus, we do witness some validation to his intelligence.  The characters do evolve and grow, but much like the story itself, it is done so at a snail’s pace.

Acting – 4 out of 5
Given my propensity to watch anime in the original Japanese, I thought I would take the chance to watch the English dub this time and I was not disappointed.  J Michael Tatum delivers a very compelling and brilliant performance as Okabe.  He’s paired off against Trina Nishimura (as Kurisu Makise) who delivers a really strong but understated job.  The rest of the voice actors give really stellar performances, performances that rival some of the highly-lauded classic Streamline dubbing.



Overall – 3 out of 5
Three out of Five seems too stingy, but the show’s extremely slow pacing and likely niche appeal really keeps it from being more highly ranked.  The reality is that not everyone will enjoy this show, no matter how well its constituent parts prove to be.  The plot is quite smart, the characters are engaging, and the art is at times breathtaking.

Of special note is the translation itself of the script.  Without a line-by-line comparison between the Japanese and the American casts, it can be hard to say just how well translated the script is.  Some English dubs suffer because lines are translated more literally and the wording becomes stilted and forced.  That isn’t the case here.  Whether by virtue of the quality performances or whether the dialogue rather than the words were translated, the English dub is very approachable and very easy to follow, even for non-anime fans.  For dub fans looking for a new show to promote as a good example of the potential for English dubs, consider this a new arrow for your quiver.

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