East Meets West #2: Steins;Gate .vs. Back To The Future

This week I continue my next batch of posts for the East Meets West series, dedicated to comparing/contrasting anime and Western media of similar premises, and, based on a specific set of criteria, decide which of the two is, in my fallible opinion, the superior version. Last week, I kicked off this series with a look on two sports-based shows; this week I will be shifting my focus to my favorite genre of science fiction, time-travel. I’ve always found stories about people going back to the past and doing something there fascinating, not to mention the various theories / ways we could theoretically achieve such a premise (wormholes, exceeding the speed of light, etc). Throughout the last few decades, films would attempt to capitalize on this premise with mixed results; some examples being Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Doctor Who, Dark, Erased, and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

However, I think it’s best to say that the anime most fans would think of when it comes to time travel would be White Fox‘s critically renowned show, Steins;Gate while for North Americans, Back To The Future is probably the answer. I wouldn’t blame them; both shows have great timelines, interesting concepts and are full of adventure and entertaining plotlines. However, only one can be considered as superior in my book; hence, we start off this week’s edition of East Meets West.

EASTERN COMPETITOR #2: STEINS; GATE

Something something microwaves, CERN, tu-tu-ruu and mad scientists

Steins;Gate follows a trio of students living in Tokyo: Rintarou Okabe (alias Hououin Kyouma), a self-proclaimed “mad scientist” obsessed with conspiracies; his friend Itaru “Daru” Hashida, an obese, yet computer-savvy fellow with a penchant for all things moe; and Mayuri Shiina, Okabe’s childhood companion with a sweet demeanor and a catchy greeting. One day, after accidentally running into the corpse of Makise Christina Kurisu, an 18-year old scientific prodigy, he discovers that, by freak accident, he possesses a revolutionary piece of technology that allows him to travel back to a certain point in time, made out of a conjunction of text messages and microwaves. Enthralled by this new discovery, he rescues Kurisu and recruits her to join his scientific adventure on messing around with the timeline. Things get messy, however, once they recruit Kiryuu Moeka, who unbeknownst to her is an agent for CERN destined to eliminate anyone with control of this technology, and after murdering Mayuri in cold blood, Okabe is forced to use the technology to undo his tampering of the timeline and discover the truth behind the threshold known as Steins’ Gate – the ideal timeline where everything is normal and the future is safe from terror.

WESTERN COMPETITOR #2: BACK TO THE FUTURE

Something something DeLoreans, high school, 1955, and mad scientists

Marty McFly, a teenager living in Hill Valley, California in the year 1985, narrowly escapes a shootout involving Libyan terrorists which kills his best friend and scientific partner, Emmett “Doc” Brown, using a DeLorean which sends him thirty years into the past. After coming across a younger version of his father, his bully Biff Tannen, and his mother who falls in love with him at first sight, he recruits the services of a younger Doc Brown to help him get back to his original life and unwind whatever disruptions he may have caused due to his arrival. Initially hesitant, but later gaining trust after Marty successfully notes how Doc came up with his ideas for time travel, they set off with recreating the time-travelling DeLorean, while the latter works on untangling a complicated relationship with his mother, helping his father become a man (and hookup with his future wife), and accustoms himself to living a week in 1955 – an idyllic time when Communism was Russian, technology was in its infant stages, the Pope was Catholic, and ice hockey was still a Canadian sport.

THE SHOWDOWN

For these two films, they will be ranked based on five different categories:

  • Best Opening Theme
  • Best Protagonist Duo
  • Best Time Travel
  • Best Supporting Cast
  • Best Story

CATEGORY #1: BEST OPENING THEME

What better way to start off a compare/contrast series by looking at the opening numbers that each of the films starts with? Steins;Gate has Hacking To The Gate to introduce each episode, which serenades the audience with a futuristic-sounding beat and smooth vocals. I also consider it pretty nostalgic especially with its association to Anime North, where I first watched this series back in 2016, and later resumed with my best friend exactly a week before the 2018 edition of the event. The music was also accompanied by some fantastic animations and visuals, especially during the chorus part. On the other side, Back To The Future‘s orchestral opening, composed by Alan Silvestri, has “epic” written all over it. It’s a theme that just screams adventure right into one’s ears, has the makings of John Williams all over it, and is overall quite memorable. It’s the quintessential time-travel song.

I had a very difficult time picking which opening theme to select as the better for this category; I really enjoyed both of them. Eventually, I made my choice with Hacking To The Gate – not just because of the happy personal associations tied to it, but because its lo-fi tune is pretty suitable for everyday outings such as programming at work, while Back To The Future‘s opening, which is loud, dramatic and bombastic, just seems too intrusive and boring after a couple of listens. I’ll gladly say that the other tracks from its OST, such as The Power Of Love by Huey Lewis and Marty McFly’s rendition of Chuck Berry’s rock classic, Johnny B. Goode are far more worth the listen if you are seeking something out of this track and onto your playlist.

Visuals and musical quality give this one of the most enthralling anime openings I’ve ever watched.

STEINS;GATE 1, BACK TO THE FUTURE 0

CATEGORY #2: BEST PROTAGONIST DUO

I will now compare and contrast the main duo of both series, Marty McFly / Emmett “Doc” Brown and Rintarou Okabe / Makise Kurisu.

Ordinary scientist teams up with mad teenager to prevent the greatest invention ever produced by man from falling into the hands of science

With Okabe and Kurisu, it’s a whole world of upside down as their relationship is not as easy-going from the start. After coming across each other in a rather creepy and forced manner, which involves him whisking her away to his lab to avoid certain death, Kurisu often finds herself insulted by Okabe’s ravings, especially getting triggered when the latter unwittingly calls her by her unofficial nickname, Christina – to which she’ll remind him in an annoyed tone, “There’s no ‘-tina’ in my name!”. The two of them are constantly butting heads with each other, and their personalities are galaxies apart from each other – Okabe’s carefree personality often clashing with Kurisu’s serious, professional tone. It takes a lot of time spent together before any real progress can be made to their roles, and by the series’ end, they end up elevating themselves to the ‘undisputed romantic partner’ section.

Marty and Doc, on the other hand, are the main drivers of Back To The Future‘s various story arcs, and one would think that they’re quite an unlikely duo to bring about, considering the significant age differences, professions (Marty being the aspiring musician while Doc is the mad scientist), interests, and personal lives. Even across different timelines, their relationship remains completely on good terms, and it appears to be that they’re on the straight road to a long-lasting friendship. Marty himself even manages to build up trust in whatever wacky scenario Doc prepares, and is always ready to go along with it – his tagline being, “Well, you’re the Doc!”

Mad scientist teams up with ordinary teenager to create the greatest invention ever produced by man in the name of science

I have to admit, I have fond memories with Doc and Marty’s various adventures through time, but I didn’t really see anything going for them, outside of the standard hero-sidekick premise. Either Marty relies on Doc to bail him out during a tough situation, or Doc simply tells Marty what to do like… a professor at a lab; in hindsight, it’s pretty darn bland. With Kurisu and Okabe, you at least see them gradually coming to terms with each other, often not privy to sharing ups and downs with each other. They’re more than just partners in crime, and the series shows it. In one of the more memorable moments of the anime, Okabe begins to doubt himself as to whether or not he’s worthy to save the timeline, and his friends; Kurisu encourages him to go through with the plan, even if it costs him the thing that is the most dear to him: their friendship. It’s clear that they have a connection that Doc and Marty just don’t have on a metaphysical level.

Sure, Kurisu and Okabe get on each other’s nerves. But all this helps them grow stronger, and become a formidable duo which leads to their successful infiltration into the mythical ethos that is Steins;Gate, thus securing their happy ending. Doc and Marty, much like Batman and Robin, make a great duo for an action movie, but don’t offer anything else outside of this.

STEINS;GATE 2, BACK TO THE FUTURE 0

CATEGORY #3: BEST TIME TRAVEL

I would be amiss at analyzing both shows if I didn’t mention the main scientific element explored throughout the series’ progression: time travel. Throughout both series, time travel plays an integral role in shaping the characters’ stories and the various decisions they make; be it picking winning sports/lottery combinations, stopping megalomaniac enterprises from destroying the world, or re-igniting love. We also get to hear explanations of certain facets related to it, mainly alternate timelines and the butterfly effect, and if not obvious enough, the dangers of tampering with the past. Perhaps the most memorable way people view this concept, however, is through no other than the time travel devices themselves.

Future Gadget #8: Phone Microwave (name subject to change); also known by its more interesting name as a time machine (for text messages only).

Back To The Future applies this most famously through the DeLorean, a defunct 1980s car brand which requires 1.2 gigawatts of power to run and a speed of 88mph to activate its time-travelling energy, and see how the world has changed drastically from their last point of reference. Steins;Gate simplifies this by a huge margin. Using something called a (wait for it) DeLorean Mail (D-Mail for short), an obvious throwback to the former film, this method of travel solely relies on text messaging and a microwave machine to allow Okabe and company to jump between multiple timelines, by sending a message to someone in the past. While it doesn’t let a user explicitly see what happened a few years prior, it does lead to some funky outcomes such as the time when they changed Ruka’s gender from male to female.

Now Steins;Gate and Back To The Future contain some interesting applications of the hypothetical time machine, but granted they do contain some flaws. The DeLorean for example, is complex, bulky, energy-intensive and can be a bit of a hassle to work with – as seen near the end of the first film with Marty’s race to fly back to 1985, and its volatile reaction to lightning bolts. The D-Mail itself, while a lot more portable, energy-conservative and simpler to use, has less practical applicability, and is far more dangerous to use; Okabe discovers this when he comes across a few newspaper articles from decades before him describing people who have died while travelling through these portals. Sure, it might be useful if you want to remind yourself to be on the lookout for a past event, but all you get to see are the consequences, which if you ask me is a far cry from actually travelling to that time period in style and comfort.

“Someday, someone’s going to look at this car and say, ‘Man that would make a great centerpiece for a Hollywood time travelling device’.”
– John DeLorean, founder of the DeLorean Motor Company, 1980

Because of this, my pick goes to the DeLorean time machine courtesy of Marty and Doc for this category. While it requires plenty of maintenance, it does a handy job if you want to explore the past.

BACK TO THE FUTURE 1, STEINS;GATE 2

CATEGORY #4: BEST SUPPORTING CAST

Both films have a large array of characters in the story to accompany the main heroes, both good and bad, but they come from a very different lineage. Steins;Gate‘s characters primarily consisted of teenagers of varying backgrounds, personalities and skills. I loved the diverse set of characters being presented in the story being able to interact with Okabe’s crew, and learning more about their interesting backstories, such as his concern for Mayuri and Faris’ love for her father and the moe culture, or provide some surprising twists and enhancements, in the case of Suzuha’s future relationship with Daru and Okabe or Moeka’s connections with Okabe’s neighbor, Mr. Braun and CERN. Just like how all the numbers play a part in the solution to a high school math problem, all the characters in Steins;Gate play an integral role to the story.

The same can also be said for Back To The Future as the characters Marty interacts with in 1955 are crucial to his very existence. Over the course of the film, he comes face to face with the (teenage edition) members of his family, and especially their childhood tormentor, Biff Tannen, who Marty has a strong dislike for; but the person he most especially bonds with is his father, who he makes it his personal mission to help him overcome his insecurities and lack of confidence, and to quote Disney’s Mulan, “make a man out of him”. What I loved about this relationship was how wholesome the tone was, and its delivery; in contrast to Steins;Gate where the main focus is spread out over a wide range of characters, all Back To The Future needs to make it work is to highlight this one relationship to summarize Marty’s story across. What follows is a happy ending for everyone in his family, who come out as better, changed persons with successful lives.

Father, mother, and son in one picture: Marty meets his soon-to-be parents in the scope of one week

Yes, Okabe and company have a wild adventure across Tokyo with their many acquaintances in time, but it can get all over the place if one doesn’t pay attention; whereas Marty’s relationship with the supporting cast – namely, his parents – is simple, charming, and contribute excellently to the film’s outcome, and their lives.

BACK TO THE FUTURE 2, STEINS;GATE 2

CATEGORY #5: BEST STORY

Anyone who is familiar with both series knows that they inherently share a similar plotline with each other – man goes back in time, man screws up the timeline, man rushes to restore that timeline and go back to the stage when everything was normal. Okabe is to Steins;Gate what Marty is to Back To The Future and their time machines are made up of seemingly normal, everyday-looking devices. Only difference is that where the latter is fighting against time as a motivator, the former is doing it as a means to save his friends from the clutches of an evil organization that wants to misuse that power. One is your typical “time travel” story, while the other is a more advanced application of that trope. Whereas one explores what it’s like to visit the past and gives us a fictionalized glimpse of it, another simply explores the consequences of playing with the fire of time travel. For all its complexities, I’ve begun to develop an admiration for Steins;Gate as opposed to Back To The Future because of them.

Back To The Future is a fun and entertaining way to see a time travel adventure in about two hours, but after that the story is more or less nothing out of the ordinary from what we’ve seen before. Even the sequels don’t change that much from the original storyline, and to prove my point in the second film of the franchise, they literally rehash the entire climax sequence from the first film with a few added twists. However, Steins;Gate, while no means revolutionary, turned out to be the more exciting of the bunch with many twists, turns, sharp visuals, and well-developed characters. Each episode managed to introduce something new, found ways to keep me invested in the story, keep the mystery going, and was clever in closing all the loose ends. If I can make the time to re-watch this series again, I wouldn’t hesitate to jump right into it; all the more since so many of my friends are pegging me to watch the sequel series, Steins;Gate 0. I’m certain it will be better than the next two installments of the Back To The Future trilogy combined.

Thus it behooves that this week, Steins;Gate triumphs over Back To The Future as the best version of the time travel show.

FINAL SCORE: STEINS;GATE 3, BACK TO THE FUTURE 2

Obligatory “Kurisutina” video block for you Steins;Gate fans

CONCLUSION

About ten years separate the period when I first watched Back To The Future at a family friend’s house in Indiana, and Steins;Gate. When I first watched the latter with my best friend three years ago, my mind kept tracing back to Marty and Doc’s adventures, but eventually I would learn that it was more than just that. It was an intriguing series that found ways to combine science fiction, romance, and slice-of-life together into one excellent adventure. On the other hand, Back To The Future, while more impactful, (where else can you find a series that has correctly predicted 3D movies, cordless video games, smartphones, and technically got it right with the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series, all in one place?) loses its flair after a while once you find other similar Western shows that play on this trope. That’s not to say that it wasn’t enjoyable – it’s one of my favorite flicks of all time behind The Karate Kid and The Man In The Iron Mask, but suffice to say, Steins;Gate did it better.

4 thoughts on “East Meets West #2: Steins;Gate .vs. Back To The Future

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