Saturday, September 24, 2011

Steins;Gate 23: Open the Steins Gate

Steins;Gate has come a long way since we last checked in on it. In a very anime move, once the series hit the halfway mark it began cashing in on all of the investments made in the seemingly plotless first portion. The goal was to seduce the audience with not a single character but the group interactions between lab members -- the series space carved out so painstakingly, a comfortable groups of losers and outcasts who are just predictable enough for us to feel like we know them. With the repeated deaths of Mayuri the question is just how much Okabe will sacrifice to save that series space, that group experience.

As it turns out, he'll go so far as to sacrifice the group itself. Okabe becomes a myopic, revenge-driven hero, ignoring the larger repurcussions of his actions and focusing only on preserving Mayuri. The other girls -- Suzuha, Moeka, and finally Kurisu -- are sacrificed along with what little sanity and moral compass Okabe has left in the first place. In the end he ends up back with three lab members, neither of which could possibly fill the confidant role Kurisu did

This is, as E Minor notes quite bitterly, the end of the story. It's not a particularly happy end, but it's not a particularly happy character arc -- the story of a dedicated hero who becomes so involved with his quest that, when he's finally completed it, it's at best a bittersweet success as he's destroyed everything else around him as well as his own character and morals. This is a part of the classical rise-to-power narrative, a cinema classic (from The Godfather to The Social Network), but here there's no rise to power, only a fall from whatever piddling amount of power Okabe once had. The arc is, however, complete with the restoration of the original world line, Okabe having achieved his dream but the powerful ambiguity of his sacrifices still in the air.

So of course, in the last two episodes Suzuha shows up in a spiffed-up time machine to fix everything in a neat little bow, offering a way for Kurisu and Mayuri to both live. It's tempting to dismiss this ending as a fob to the fans who don't want to leave a series with a bad taste in their mouth and who want to see their favourite characters prosper. This episode breaks with the established rules of time travel in Steins;gate pretty considerably, rules that were if not really logical at least consistent. The idea of a rigidly balanced world of sacrifice and reward that was underneath the past dozen episodes is neglected. The most obvious symbol of this is Suzuha's time machine, which can now carry passengers and go back and forward in time, with no explanation other than "this timeline is different": Suzuha's sacrifice from previous episodes is rendered unnecessary with a flick of fictional fiat.

Still, I think this desire to see everything turn out alright is interesting, because it speaks of a fundamentall fannish audience.  Steins;Gate has courted this audience right from the beginning with its immersion in otaku culture and frequent self-referential mentions of its visual novel origins, and while that may have done a lot to hook viewers it ultimately also becomes a burden on the narrative, as the story now has to meet not only its own narrative ends but also fannish desires.

I'm drawing a distinction here between being a viewer of a work, critical or not, and being a fan.  Fan culture is something completely different from appreciation, and it stems from a distinct approach to texts.  Instead of approaching a TV show or book or whatever as a cohesive narrative whole, with characters and other elements an integral part of that whole, a fannish viewer accepts the text as a modular universe whose parts can be separated from it, almost a kind of paralell universe with as much nuance and potential for interaction as the real one.  I travelled in fanfiction circles in my misguided teenage years (yeah, I know), and one of the most curious things about these hardcore fans was that they often seemed indifferent to the actual story of their chosen text -- rather, they became attached to a particular character and focused their fandom on that aspect.  With this in mind it's not surprising that these fans often end up discussing fictional characters as real people that they feel love or hatred towards.  It's also not surprising that fandom attaches itself to texts that are already excessively modular, possessing dozens of minor characters who get just enough screentime to attract kindred souls, and usually with clearly delineated story arcs -- think the Harry Potter series or any popular shounen anime.

Video games, and the visual novel genre in specific, assume a fannish (or modular) approach to their content.  In a video game, you sort of have to respond to things modularly and with fannish attachment, because -- as Philip Sandifer of the much-missed NES Project has repeatedly pointed out -- video games are lousy narrative devices.  Visual novels present much more of a conventional narrative, to the extent that they can barely be described as games at all, but in almost all examples of the genre you have to choose between characters or (more rarely) plotlines -- at some point you have to make a fannish choice, deciding which discrete element of the text you want to pursue and which ones you want to leave by the wayside.  The story is then neccesarily diffuse and fragmented.  So it's really not surprising that in the end Steins;Gate would have to have an ending that meets more fannishly appropriate as opposed to narratively sound end.  Leaving half of the girls in limbo would just not do for all of the fans those girls have accumulated over the course of the series [1].  The epilogue in the next (and final) episode goes further, briefly showcasing each character just to reassure us that they're all doing fine and have once again become a part of the community of outcasts.

Now, I'm not saying that being a fan is any better or worse than being a critic, but in the end a show cannot serve two masters (or at least it cannot without a level of deftness that Steins;Gate is frankly not capable of), and the artistic highs which Steins;Gate has shown in driving Okabe to his breaking point over the past ten episodes feel compromised and cheapened by this sudden change to a different mode.  Steins;Gate courted and celebrated (through characters like Feyris and Mayuri) fannishness to draw viewers, but that audience has in a way become a burden on the narrative arc.  "Open the Steins Gate" reaffirms this connection with its fans right from the beginning, with its opening shots of the streets of Akibahara.

Still, these last two episodes work in some ways.  The structure of Steins;Gate is actually quite clever: throughout the first half of the series many changes in the timeline occur and mysteries are brought up but not answered.  In the second half Okabe has to undo all of the alterations in reverse order, which involves revisiting the previous episodes in an unfolding pattern and resolving the mysteries raised there.  Whereas most narratives have a straightforward progression, the narrative map of Steins;Gate is a line folding back on itself, erasing all the progress it's made, until ultimately we end up in the same place we started -- as we did at the end of the last episode.  We are suddenly returned to the early days of the lab, with only three members and no time machine.

Structurally, then, these last two bits make sense: we need to revisit the first two episodes, the mysterious incidents surrounding Kurisu's speech, that we have at this point almost forgotten.  But we've already reached the end point of the regression -- we're back where we started.  That Okabe can undo the past while actively adding things, keeping Kurisu alive and creating the same community without any of the damage -- that saving the world this time requires not sacrifice but salvation -- can be seen as a kind of betrayal of the nothing-comes-for-free ethos that has underlied much of the show.  On the other hand, it's also a nicely optimistic statement: that not everything is as bleak as Steins;Gate's reversal plot and (visually, at least) dark world make it seem.  Sometimes, after all, saving the world requires not sacrifice but a new kind of creation.

I'm also interested in the attitude Steins;Gate takes towards science.  There are two approaches to science in the series.  The first is the raw geekery of Okabe's ramshackle lab, inventions created just for a couple of cool tricks and which may end up changing the world as a mere side effect, pursued out of love alone.  On the other hand there's the cold institution of the scientific world in both its academic and industrial applications.  For most of the series this approach is represented by the faceless evil of SERN, but in these final two episodes it takes the form of the vain and violent Professor Nakabichi, who is ultimately made out to be a kind of monster.

Institutional science, and Nakabichi in particular, is responsible for World War III in this timeline and a dystopia in the other one.  On the other hand, Okabe and the girls live in a kind of scientific utopia, albeit one that is constantly under siege -- where mad scientists can trip over time machines and dorky fun is the order of the day.  Steins;Gate ultimately pledges itself to the cult of the amateur and the cult of the nerd -- everything, from science to art to love, should be approached with a thoroughly unprofessional passion bordering on insanity and not cold careerism.  No matter how awkward the vessel it's in, I think that's still a worthwhile message.

Next week: Archer gets a little long-form.

[1] This is in no way confined to anime, visual novels or genre projects -- even mainstream sitcoms can promote fannish viewing.  The classic "will they or won't they" plotline is essentially projecting the fan habit of shipping onto a mass audience.  In some ways it's easier to appeal to fans than critics, and more and more media are turning this way.

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