Thoughtful Thursday: Themes in Steins;Gate

Minna-san, youkosu Anime Rants e! (Everyone, welcome to Anime Rants!) This week’s Thoughtful Thursday is a discussion of themes found in Steins;Gate. Here, I’m only referring to the original 2011 series of 24 episodes; perhaps at a later time I may analyze or review the alternate world setting, Steins;Gate 0. Please note: the anime’s themes are not limited to the ones I selected to write about. Others exist as well- –ones that I’ve missed or forgotten. It’s not surprising since Steins;Gate is a profound and thought-provoking anime masterpiece.

1. Time

In Steins;Gate there are various different story elements, character moments, and themes related to the theme of time. Trying to do justice to all of them would require a post in and of itself, so presented here are just a few examples. The changes that come with time can be disturbing and/or hard to believe. For instance, it’s almost unbelievable what Suzuha says about world war three beginning not to far in the future.

Also for an example, take Suzuha’s story in episode 16. She goes to the past (1975) to look for the IBM 5100 and her father. But in that world line, she lost her memories and didn’t recover them until 24 years later. Despairing at failing her mission, she killed herself. Okabe and company find out about it in the present and of course, they are shocked and horrified. Though Okabe managed to change world lines, Suzuha still died of an illness and couldn’t reunite with him. It’s truly shocking what can happen with the passage of time.

A second theme related to time is keeping the past in the past. Okabe says something like that at one point. He’s mostly referring to literally keeping the past the same instead of altering it with time travel. However, there is also an emotional meaning to what he said. They say that time heals all, but for me, time just dulls the pain. Events in the past are still painful and sad whenever you think about them, no matter how many years it’s been. Even so, we cannot let those memories and emotions related to the past rule us in the present. If we do, we’ll be missing out on good opportunities and experiences, and unwittingly make ourselves even more misterable.

Faris is the best example of a character who accepts her painful past. In episode 17, we discover that the D-mail she sent changed the worldline to one where her father did not die in an accident. To go back to the original world line to save Mayuri, Okabe must convince Faris to undo her D-mail and go back to the world she knows, where her father has long been dead. It’s incredibly tough, and Faris cries about it, but she’s able to undo her D-mail, and accept her father’s death. It’s mostly so that she can help save Mayuri, who is her good friend in the present.

As Einstein pointed out, the perception of time is relative. Sometimes it feels like time is passing very slowly, while other times it flies by at breakneck speed. Makise Kurisu mentions Einstein’s theory of relativity in her thoughts, when she is kissing Okabe in episode 22. For her in that moment, it felt like time was passing so slowly, because she was savoring the moment.

The theme of time is often coupled with that of infinity. Time, as well as space, are infinite. In addition, in the universe of Steins;Gate, there are infinite worldlines or dimensions. These are the only things that go on forever. Even the stars have “lifespans” and will eventually run out of hydrogen and be blown apart. Thus, even though time itself is infinite, no single object or living thing can continue existence for very long. As a human, your time is limited, and so you must make the most of your life while you can. That’s a sentiment we see all over Steins;Gate.

2. The Butterfly Effect

One little change can alter the future entirely, because one thing affects another, which affects another, and they all spread out like ripples. Steins;Gate is full of so many examples that it could be seen as an a giant study on the concept of the Butterfly Effect. Because of Okabe’s first D-mail, Makise Kurisu avoided being killed. Because of Faris’ D-mail, her father never died, and Faris never took the time to develop Akihabara’s moe-culture. One random message on a pager changed the worldline to one where Ruka was born female. Ultimately, because Okabe and Kurisu made the time machine, Mayuri was killed. Hopefully you get the idea.

3. Mistakes and Helplessness

Everyone makes mistakes, and they can be painful or have devastating consequences. The numerous mistakes made by some characters in Steins;Gate are usually very understandable, but they’re still not good choices. Moeka chose to base the value of her life on FB. Suzuha went back in time even though the time machine had been damaged, resulting in losing her memories and failing her mission. Okabe keeps trying the same things over and over to save Mayuri, not asking for Kurisu’s help until he had suffered an immense trauma. What’s more, Okabe messes up the first attempt to save Kurisu, accidentally killing her himself!

You could also argue that it was a mistake for Okabe to create the time machine in the first place. Involving his friends in it led to even more suffering in multiple worldlines. In the anime, Okabe had the chance to fix his mistakes (and the mistakes of other characters) with time leaps. This shows the theme that you can make amends for mistakes or redeem yourself. However, the memories of those devastating mistakes stay with Okabe forever. Here we see the theme major mistakes and their impacts can never truly be changed. Everyone must learn to live with their mistakes, and yet do what they can to make things right.

That being said, it is easy to fall into feelings of helplessness. This is one of the worst mental and emotional sensations in existence. No matter what you try or how much effort you expend, it seems like you cannot make any difference at all. Imagine how helpless Okabe felt trying to save Mayuri, and then Kurisu. Mistakes and failures are only two examples of things that make people feel helpless. There are many others. Feeling deeply helpless for a long time is a symptom Major Depressive Disorder. Serious injury, chronic diseases, and PTSD can also make one experience helplessness. The fact of the matter, though, is that you’re rarely completely helpless.

It’s ok to wallow in depression for a while– it’s a stage of the healing process– but eventually, you must recognize the truth. There is always something you can do, or change, or work toward changing. You can’t heal your own disease, but you can learn to develop hope that proper treatment will heal you or lengthen your life. You can’t often change what happens, but you can adopt healthier attitudes and perspectives about what’s happening. You can almost always find something enjoyable (or at least diverting) to do as a form of self-soothing. If one thing is impossible, look for another that’s doable. This is what I’ve learned from battling feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

4. Trauma, Apathy, and Dissociation

“You see, I’ve been having these strange dreams lately.
Something terrible always happens to me in them.
Like getting shot by a pistol, being in a car accident, or even hit by a train.
It all feels so painful and real and sad. I try my best to shout for help, but I can’t.”
~Mayuri, Steins;Gate episode 21

Many characters in Steins;Gate undergo much trauma and/or high stress, but none more so than Okabe Rintarou. Dozens of times, he saw his faithful best friend and childhood companion, Mayuri, dying in terrible ways. At this point it’s doubtful that I need to give any more examples on top of that. Okabe became traumatized and depressed. Trauma and stress can make you feel broken, numb, and apathetic, which in turn causes sadness and self-loathing.

In Steins;Gate episode 22, Kurisu says if the continued deaths of Mayuri don’t affect Okabe, then his heart is already broken. Okabe says, “I’ve known that for a while. I stopped being shocked as Mayuri kept dying and dying. At some point, my heart became numb to it. Sometimes I even waited to time leap just to determine her precise time of death. Eventually, my mind stopped being affected by it. Some part of me would casually say, I can just redo this.” You can hear the deep self-hatred and sadness in Okabe’s voice and see it on his face.

In this anime’s universe, dreams and feelings of deja vu can actually be parts of memories from other worldlines. That’s heavily hinted in Steins;Gate and clearly stated in Load Realm of Deja Vu. I mention this because Mayuri is deeply troubled and depressed due to her “dreams” of dying and not being able to help Okabe. The quote at the start of the section was Mayuri’s description. Also, Kurisu mentions dreams of being stabbed in other worldlines. These dreams must be a frequent source of distress for Mayuri and Kurisu. Their experiences also remind me of dissociation, a form of detachment from reality seen in many mental disorders, including PTSD.

Dissociation usually implies feeling like the world is unreal, or yourself being unreal; but it can also refer to confusion between reality and thoughts/ images in our heads. My dissociative experiences include false memories, the feeling of being unreal, confusing dreams with reality, confusing my past with that of of other people, and rare but powerful trance-like states. Plus, I have deja vu that’s so powerful it distresses me, and it can last several minutes.

Things like dissociation and confusing dreams are unpleasant and disorienting. These are real-world problems, but I’m mentioning them because they make me feel much the same as the characters in Steins;Gate. Because of that, I can deeply empathize with Mayuri in Steins;Gate and Kurisu in Load Realm of Deja Vu. The thoughts and feelings of Okabe, Mayuri, and Kurisu related to trauma are great ways to draw attention to psychological issues in reality.

5. Persistence and Human Social Nature

It sucks– it really sucks– but you have to keep trying in order to get anywhere. One reason Okabe is a great protagonist is his trait of nearly endless determination. Throughout the show, he never stops trying or gives up– except just once, temporarily, in episode 23. After traveling to the past to save Kurisu from being stabbed, Okabe inadvertently becomes Kurisu’s killer in that world. Due to the horror of the experience, he says he won’t try again to save Kurisu. Then his closest friend, Mayuri, essentially says to not be a wimp, and slaps him. Do you get where this is going? Okabe only managed to persevere because of the timely encouragement of another person.

Everybody needs and wants the love, respect, and support of others. If you’ve been really, truly lonely before, you know it feels horrible. Humans are social animals. We require emotional (and physical) proximity to others of our kind. Steins;Gate features story and character elements that show this theme. If Okabe hadn’t reached out for Kurisu’s help in ep 14, and if Kurisu hadn’t been so willing to cooperate, there would never have been any progress on saving Mayuri. Speaking of that little lady, she and Okabe love and depend on each other as friends since childhood. Okabe needed to use “people skills” with Ruka, Faris, and Suzuha, and deepen his understanding of them, in order to convince them to take back their D-mails.

Moeka wasn’t needed or wanted by anybody so she tried to kill herself, only stopping her attempt when she recieved a message from FB. Once needed by FB, Moeka will do literally anything for them, including killing her new friend Mayuri. Once FB abandons her, Moeka hangs herself in her apartment. Okabe manages to undo that and move to a timeline where he prevented her suicide. Not that he does so with any compassion. He hates Moeka at that point in the story. Regardless, this shows that people need to have someone who cares about them, who needs them, and whom they can lean on.

To be a person with good social values, you must eventually come to understand that every person is important, with their own personal stories, a their own parts to play in the greater story. Each of the characters around Okabe has a story of their own that he didn’t know until he spent time getting to know them and their wants and needs. Think of how Ruka has a secret crush on Okabe, Faris feels empty after the death of her father, Moeka is actually suicidal, Kurisu has a violent and abusive father, and Mr. Braun was actually FB, a recruit of SERN. The individual stories of all the characters make up the greater story of Steins;Gate.

6. Memories

“Humans are essentially temporal creatures.”
~Martin Heidegger

Like time, the theme of memory is extremely prominent in Steins;Gate. To do justice to this key motif, I’d have to write another short post of its own, so I’ll be brief as possible.

While not entirely true in reality, human identity in the anime is made up of the memories we each possess. The time leap machine works by copying all memories from the brain, compressing it into a small amount of data, and sending that data to your phone in the past. When you hold the phone to your ear, your brain recieves memories of your experiences from the future. In addition, Okabe has an ability he calls “Reading Steiner,” which lets him keep his memories even from seperate world lines. Meanwhile, with every time leap and/or world line change, everyone else loses those memories. By transporting your memories to the past, you transport your consciousness to the past.

There are pros and cons for Okabe and his friends remembering or forgetting certain things. One of Okabe’s painful experiences is remembering things other people cannot recall. A heavy sense of isolation comes from that. It’s incredibly difficult to know that you’re going to forget important memories soon, and still accept that the action must be taken. That’s the struggle for Okabe’s friends when they must take undo their D-mails. It’s also unsettling and disorienting to experience dreams and sensations like deja vu, containing vague memories from other world lines. There are real-life parallels to these kind of problems, especially in psych disorders. But unfortunately, I don’t have time to discuss those here.

Steins;Gate needed all these themes (and more I haven’t mentioned) to make it the beautiful anime masterpiece we all love. If the creators meant to leave audiences with takeaway messages, I believe I know which two are most important. First, you should accept reality rather than ruminating on the past, or escaping into fantasies (and fears) about the future. Don’t try to alter reality. Secondly, Steins;Gate tries to communicate this: treasure your memories. They are major parts that make up your identity.

There are various ways you can lose memories, such as use of certain drugs, longterm abuse of alcohol, consistently high stress levels, traumatic experiences, natural aging, head injuries, and certain diseases. Some of these are unavoidable, but many can be prevented. So, keep your old memories like treasures, make new memories whenever you can, accept painful memories, and use self-care and discipline to preserve your memories. You won’t regret it.

For reading my needlessly long post today, I sincerely thank you. This is Anime Rants, wishing you the best of luck, health, and safety! Sayonara until next time.


(Images were found by searching the internet and I don’t own any of them.)

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