You are not likely to see Steins;Gate on any kind of “gateway anime” list. It's one of a series of recent series of anime that assume a strong immersion in otaku culture and involves a complex quilt of non-stop referents and obscure jokes. (Popular entries in this sub-genre include Lucky Star and most of Akiyuki Shinbo's work.) This is a show where even the subtitles appear to be in a different language. Whereas the first wave of otaku-centred shows (think Genshiken or Otaku no Video) took a realistic depiction of anime fandom as their subjects and were fairly accessible to outsiders, more recently these shows have been genre stories whose distinctly unreal characters just happen to speak channer.
To make matters more complicated, the language of Steins;Gate includes more than anime. It's equally based in conspiracy theory and complex physics, and while it's more willing to explain these elements, it still takes mental effort to keep up. Steins;Gate is then a kind of all-nerd show whose fast banter and cluttered mythos resembles a nichier version of Community. Of course, the obvious criticism is that this kind of technique is just fan-pandering namedropping, and there are times it approaches the inanity of reference humour, but all of the characters just play off each other so well it still works in terms of comedy.
So I come to this series much like I came to last week's, Dororon Enma-kun, diving into a see of cultural referents that I don't really share, although I have more steeping in current otaku culture than 70s anime nostalgia. But the purpose of the referents are essentially different in these two shows. In Enma-kun, the references harkened back to an earlier time and established a common base for the show and its audience to build on. But in Steins;Gate otaku culture isn't essentially the point – its purpose in the show is to indicate the hipness of both the show and characters as well, drawing a bond between audience and object through shared subculture. The characters reflect back on the audience, hearing their message board posts in the mouths of hot anime girls. The referents are a means and not an ends in Steins;Gate, reflective of a trend in anime to aim at existing anime fans as the target audience and exclude everyone else, making for intimate if niche shows.
The subcultural element takes front and centre in “Homeostasis of Compliments”, following up the cliffhanger from last week's episode: through the latest in a series of time travel experiments, our gang of weirdos has managed to change history so that Akibahara, the nerd capital of the world, has been changed from a kingdom of moe into just a bunch of electronics shops. This is basically the anime apocalypse, and Okabe, the only one who can remember what the world was like before the timeline shifts, expresses a degree of horror comparable to Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes.
The washed-out colour palette of Steins;Gate really lends a certain gravitas to the scene, bringing out the contrast between the previously colourful Akibahara and its current lifeless form, much in the way the grimy outside world contrasts with the brighter main characters. There's a certain degree of self-hagiography in this choice, portraying otaku as true romantics in an otherwise drab world, but it's subtle enough to be forgiveable.
This is a fairly standard butterly-effect plotline: one small change – in the case of this series a text message sent to the past – can have massive ramifications, completely changing an entire city. Still, this change is fairly comprehensible – in the past episode we learned that in the world of Steins;Gate Feyris was responsible for otaku-izing Akiba and possibly for the moe craze in general (making her public enemy number one for a lot of anime fans), so logically changing her past could create this shift. What's more surprising is when it's discovered later on in the episode that the groups' erstwhile transvestite Rukako is now a real live girl, which would seem to have nothing to do with Feyris's message. The general feeling here is of consequences spiralling out of control as the world gets further and further away from where we started. By “Homeostasis of Compliments” we're essentially at the mid-point of this spiral, where the changes have gone beyond the direct and personal but are no longer quite global.
(Incidentally, if Rukako is a girl now why does she hang out with these freaks? The core cast of Steins;Gate is in the “alleigance of outcasts” model. As a cross-dressing man Rukako fit right in, but as a girl whose only apparent oddity is a cosplay hobby she kind of sticks out.)
“Homeostasis of Compliments” was written by Masahiro Yokotani and directed by Kazuhori Ozawa. Yokotani's main writing experience seems to be in comedy, having composed sixteen (!) episodes of the also heavily referential lesbian romance parody Mariaholic. He brings that influence to this series, which still maintains a significantly lower-key sense of humour than a show like Mariaholic but features more in the way of physical comedy (Kyouma groping Rukako and Chris hobbling him for it) than other episodes. Ozawa appears to be the go-to director for this series, having already directed three episodes including the first, and helps to bring the aesthetic and pacing of this episode in line with the rest of the series. (He also worked on Shiki, which had a similar kind of dark grinding pace, although a much different art style and genre.) So from what little I know of the staff I picture this episode as kind of a balancing act between the madcap influence of Yokotani and the darker, slower style of Ozawa.
Series-wise, Steins;Gate is directed by Hiroshi Hamasaki and Takuya Sato. Hamasaki is listed as having previously directed Texhnolyze, which has a kind of similar feel to it, and Shigurui: Death Frenzy, about which I know absolutely nothing. Sato seems to have mainly worked on the Strawberry Marshamallow franchise, a show that even the normally staid ANN Encyclopedia describes as “cute girls doing cute things in cute ways”. Once again there's a kind of fusion of two genres here – the grim sci-fi series (Hamasaki) and the harem-ish anime comedy (Sato). It's a bit of an odd combination, especially the mix-and-match approach to staffing, but it works well enough. The animation is done by White Fox, a fairly new studio mainly notable for the excellent Katanagatari. Unfortunately, this series doesn't have anywhere near the visual inventiveness of that one, although the animation never really looks bad (since the show is largely talking heads, it doesn't really matter anyway.) The credits sequences are pretty uninspired, so I'm not even going to touch on them here.
In terms of plot, “Homeostasis of Compliments” is pretty light. Still dazed from the vanishing of Akibahara, Kyouma returns back to the lab and discovers (in the most awkward fashion possible) that Rukako is still a girl. Then they go grocery shopping and have a party. There's some romance drama later on, and another shift in the timeline, but for the most part the episode is focused on character interaction and plot advancement. This is really the formula for most Steins;Gate episodes thus far: the characters react to what happened last episode, then spend most of the episode bantering with each other about nothing in particular, and then the plot advances forward a bit just in time for the opening credits.
Serial dramas in the U.S. often face deserving criticism for this kind of “hollow middle” plotting. But there's a kind of charm to the length which Steins;Gate allows its digressions to go, and I think it's rooted in the story's origin as a visual novel. The visual novel (basicall an arty word for the “dating sim” genre of games, not to be confused with graphic novels, which is the arty word for comics) thrives on superfluous dialogue – every one (of the admittedly few) that I've played could be cut down to a third of the length without much plot or even character development being lost. However, these long strings of dialogue do have a purpose. As I said, it isn't to develop character so much as it is to develop atmosphere.
The seemingly banal dialogues in these games creates a sense of a relationships, forged not in a few key scenes but over many, many everyday occurences. In, say, a romantic comedy movie a relationship is an event, in a dating sim it's an object that is slowly created. This is the reason for all the hours spent on small-town hijinx in Higurashi before the bodies start dropping, to use just one example. A television series aims for a similar goal in creating an in-depth story space, a group of characters and settings that seem to be permanent icons we've grown to know over a long course of time. Is it any wonder TV audiences (and those of other serial media like comics or book series) get so attached to characters? As our relationship with the characters approaches the shape of our relationships with real people, the firm distinction in our mind between reality and fiction begins to melt away. It's no wonder that the dating sim, a genre which originates in the desire for a virtual girlfriend, shapes its narrative towards a similar end.
Steins;Gate, despite being a TV show, uses the visual novel approach to building these relationships (lengthy dialogue) instead of the usual televisual one (seeing the cast go through many different adventures and events). The use of repeated gags and catchphrases, such as Kyouma's nicknames for everyone he runs across, tie together the episodes into a coherent character construction. In this episode there's also, as mentioned before, more standard anime humour revolving around comedic violence and assorted girls' inability to cook, which I'm attributing to Yokotani. These kind of jokes are pretty pedestrian, although there is something funny yet terrifying about seeing Mayushii with knives.
The visual novel origins of Steins;Gate also shines through in its harem-esque cast. As is par for the course in that genre, the cast consists of one lead male (Houin Kyouma, considerably less generic than these leads usually are), possibly another dude as comic relief (in this case the fat uber-nerd Daru), and a shitton of women that secretly want to jump the first guy's bones. The girls even break down into standard harem anime types – you have the tsundere* (Chris), the girl next door (Suzuha), the ditz (Mayuri), the wallflower (Moeka), the blatant otaku fetish object (Feyris), the other blatant otaku fetish object (Rukako), and probably a couple others I'm forgetting. Now, Steins;Gate has developed most of these characters beyond the glib descriptions I've given them, but it still reflects the kind of casts visual novels have even when they're ostensibly about something other than which chick you get to bang at the end (as I gather the Steins;Gate game is.)
That one-guy-many-girls romance comes to the forefront towards the end of “Homeostasis of Compliments”. First we have Chris melting down during the party and showing some affection to Kyouma, fulfilling the deredere side of her archetype. The power goes out momentarily, and the normally cool and distant Chris confessions her affection for the atmosphere of the lab in general (solidifying the “series space” created by the relationships among the individual characters) and then later describes Kyouma as a “companion”. Of course, when the lights come back on they're in a compromising position. This scene really kind of reduces Chris to less of a character and more of an archetype. I mean, we even had the “It's not like I like you or anything...”
Later, Kyouma discovers that Suzuha has not just missed the party but skipped town. Despite his concerns about altering the past any further, he decides to use the D-mail to tell his past self to chase her and not let Chris stop him as she did the first time around. This seems to work, although with uncertain consequences.
There are two potential motives for why Kyouma would be willing to risk altering the past in unforeseen ways (after having just seen how easily that could happen) to stop Suzuha from leaving town. The first would be that he loves Suzuha, at least subconciously. In this view he is rejecting Chris, who has just semi-confessed to him, by telling his past self to ignore her and go after Suzuha. In this new timeline it's doubtful whether the heartfelt conversation between him and Chris even happened I think this is probably more likely, although it's unusual for harem protagonists to clearly choose one girl and reject another, much less do so halfway through the series (although Bakemonogatari did it.) While a time-travelling love triangle would be interesting, I think the more interesting option here is that Kyouma did it simply to preserve his current situation, surrounded by friends and cute girls. In other words, Kyouma has fallen in love with the series space just as much as the viewer (well, at least this viewer) has, and wants to keep everything the same. Chris's affection towards him is as dangerous as Suzuha leaving, as both threaten the status quo. As a self-proclaimed mad scientist, Kyouma is obsessed with threatening and destabilizing the world order, whether it be through taking over everything or through bringing down the devious SERN, but he is also starting to fall in love with the way things are now. In both cases Kyouma's decision sets us up for some serious conflict in the remaining half of Steins;Gate, in the first case a romantic conflict between Chris and Suzuha, while in the latter case a more interesting formal conflict between the status-quo elements of the story (what I'm calling the series space) and the overarching science-fictional plot. Maybe both conflicts will materialize.
Like the time-travel and other mad science its characters get up to, Steins;Gate is an experiment, sticking concentrated elements of hard sci-fi and harem comedy into a beaker and watching the sometimes violent reactions. It's not as though these two genres have never been fused before (hello, Tenchi Muyo) but Steins;Gate is so deep into each rabbithole that it's hard to see how the two genres can be reconciled in the end. Whether or not this conflict continues to play out or is brushed aside is the true task for the upcoming second half of the series.
* For those of you not fluent in otaku fetish lingo, a tsundere is a female character who outwardly dislikes and mocks their love interest to the point of abuse (tsuntsun) but is inevitably revealed to have a soft, tender side that actually cares for him (deredere). This started out as an attempt to develop multi-layered characters but has turned into a cliche of its own, albeit one with legions of fans.
Next Week: A look at the unofficial season premiere of Futurama.