Steins;Gate and Desensitisation

Steins;Gate is just as much about its first half as its second. Although the first half tends to be overlooked (and mentioned somewhat apologetically to the first-time viewer who’s watched 5 episodes and still doesn’t get the hype), it is the way in which the second half builds on it that truly raises Steins;Gate to impressive heights.

Going back in time only to discover that you can’t fight fate isn’t the most original idea out there. However, Steins;Gate manages to take this aged trope to its terrifying ends. It isn’t just the arbitrary decision of a sadistic pen. The foreshadowing is all there. The ending theme is uncomfortably ominous. Yet, even amongst SERN’s reports of human experimentation and death-by-jelly, we’re constantly drawn back to the immediate reality of canned oden, Rai-Net battling and ecchi. We tell ourselves that these horrors only happen to other people, at least for a while. As this blog post succinctly puts it, Mayuri’s death is not “the “inevitable” death we expect from a horror game; it’s the death we forgot was coming.”

There’s more at work than that. We spend 11 whole episodes trying to crack the elusive time physics underlying the Steins;Gate universe, amidst other distractions. The anime does a good job giving us a false sense of progress with its cryptic revelations. By the time Mayuri dies, we realise that we are still none the wiser. We don’t have any leads except the vague sense that Okabe may have deserved what was coming. Unlike The Butterfly Effect, we don’t have everything rationalised for us in a neat little package. We don’t have the freedom to nod our heads in detached appreciation. We forced to stay at the front lines, playing by rules we don’t understand.

This is when we begin to see, in ghastly vividness, as the Okabe we’ve come to adore transforms into something grotesque. Not only is he forced to witness Mayuri’s death over and over and over again, he is forced to see the person he cares so much about being reduced into some sort of plaything as she is killed off for the most inane reasons. When Nae tripped and pushed Mayuri into the path of the oncoming train, I was just about ready to throw my computer out the window. It was so aggravating. How could the show expect me to take Mayuri’s character seriously like that?

vlcsnap-2013-09-27-14h52m32s214

Someone needs to ban tripping in the subway, pronto.

Yet, we must remind ourselves that this is exactly how Okabe feels. Not only are his attempts to save Mayuri casually ignored, he is ridiculed for trying. Slowly, he begins to lose his grip on his humanity. By episode 22, he confesses to Kurisu that he no longer thinks that it matters how many times Mayuri dies, and that he sometimes waits for her to die before time leaping just to find out when it happens. His pain has been replaced by the eerie reassurance that he has an infinite number of retries: an infinite number of times he can render Mayuri’s death ‘non-existent’, even he has to watch her die an infinite number of times.

It doesn’t mean that Okabe stops caring about Mayuri. It’s precisely because he cares so much about her that he refuses to give up even though the emotional cost on him is so pronounced. However, he has lost his ability to see that Mayuri’s deaths do matter. They matter to Mayuri. Even if they didn’t show up in her nightmares, the Mayuri in each and every timeline is just as real as the last. Even if they last only a minute, her suffering is real.

When it comes to animals, we are all Okabes in a way. We know how to empathise with Hachiko who waits for his master at Shibuya Station every single day for nine years, not realising that his master is long dead. It breaks our hearts, even if Hachiko is not a human being but a dog. What if it’s not just one animal, however, by billions of animals every single year? What if most of us, myself included, have inflicted suffering and deaths on thousands of animals through our food choices long before we’re even capable of questioning it? How do you think about suffering on that kind of scale? It’s simply incomprehensible.

The easiest way to live with it is the one that Okabe is invariably driven towards: we become desensitised. We tell ourselves that a lifetime of torture doesn’t matter when the animal is going to die anyway. We tell ourselves that once the animal is dead, their suffering is rendered ‘non-existent’ because there is no one to remember it. Like Okabe, who reasons that he can allow Mayuri to die so long as he has the power to give her life, we reason that we can treat animals however we want if we are the ones who were responsible for bringing them into this world.

However, like Okabe, the fact that we play so many psychological games to justify animal abuse means that we care. As long as humans have had morals, we’ve had an existential crisis about our love for meat, from the ritualistic slaughters of ancient civilisations to how hard we try to hide slaughterhouses from the eyes of the public today. Our lives are short, but they matter to us even if we know that we’re going to inevitably die some day. Nobody deserves to suffer for the time that they uniquely exist, even if it is only the precious few hours Okabe relives with Mayuri each time he time leaps.

This is why I cannot bring myself to agree with this blog post. The true ending needed to happen. Not only did Okabe need to be able to prevent Mayuri’s death, he needed to ensure that Kurisu doesn’t die for Mayuri’s sake either. He needed to stop seeing the lives of others as a means to an end, and value them for what they are individually worth. Otherwise, he would’ve never been able to redeem himself.

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