It is hard not to sympathize with the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the anime of Robotic;Notes. As the spiritual successor of Steins;Gate, Robotic;Notes has been asked to follow up what is one of the most memorable titles of the last couple years. Indeed, the results of such comparisons have not been too favorable to Robotic;Notes, both critically and commercially. Of course, with greater success comes greater expectations and so some might say that the harsher criticism is perfectly valid. Sure, it is not incorrect to place greater expectations upon the creators of such a fabulous work, but the problem is that this case is more about misplaced expectations than anything else.
To be more precise, the issue here is that people expected a story just like Steins;Gate when in reality, Robotic;Notes is very different. This is not to say that these stories are completely incomparable; in both shows we have a group of characters coming together to build something, a time machine in Steins;Gate and a giant robot in Robotic;Notes, and both of them have large conspiracy plot lines serving as a backdrop. It is easy to be misled into thinking that both shows are aiming to be the same kind of story, but there are some key differences which differentiate the two.
One of the main differences between Robotic;Notes and Steins;Gate is characterized by their settings. While Steins;Gate takes place in the hustle and bustle of Akihabara, Robotic;Notes takes place in a lethargic and vacuous countryside. This is actually quite reflective of both shows for much of their run. Steins;Gate has loads of zany character interactions and often feels schizophrenic because of its delusional main lead, the self-proclaimed mad scientist Okabe Rintarou. On the other hand, Robotic;Notes is much more laid back and down to earth. The main character Kai, unlike Okabe, also has no great ambitions and is content to simply laze around and play his game Kill-Ballad all day long.
This laid back atmosphere in Robotic;Notes has earned much ire, as many seem to think that Robotic;Notes is just boring and uneventful. Personally I think this atmosphere has its own charm and has made the show very pleasant and relaxing to watch. The characters are endearing, and their interactions are natural and pleasant to behold. Still, there does seem to be the big question of just what in the world is this show trying to be about? What is it building to?
At least part of what makes Steins;Gate great is the pay-off after its really long build up. People often most remember Steins;Gate for its crazy time-line skewing adventures, so arguably, the real core of the show does not even begin until its second half. Of course the second half of Steins;Gate would have nowhere near the same impact without all the lovable character interactions of its first half. It reminds me of a typical KEY story where things start off in happy and fun times before it turns the corner into something much more serious and dramatic.
However, this is where comparisons between Robotic;Notes and Steins;Gate have really hurt Robotic;Notes the most. There has been a certain level of expectation in Robotic;Notes that it is somehow building up its story to something big like Steins;Gate and that eventually shit will hit the fan. I would know since I myself am guilty of first thinking it was taking this approach. In actuality, Robotic;Notes has never really been building up to a dramatic change of gears in its narrative like Steins;Gate. The core of the show has been visible to us all along – it is a celebration of mecha!
Yes, there is conspiracy and a few kooky characters here like Steins;Gate, but the show has basically been about robots. The main heroine Aki embodies the very soul of the show with her deep passion for mecha. She believes robots empower people to accomplish things they never could otherwise; they are a vehicle for dreams and ambitions. Robots represent hope and goodness in the world, and Aki’s pursuit of building a life-sized Gunvarrel, this universe’s Gundam equivalent, in the robotics club is her attempts to realize this ideal.
Further adding credence to this idea is how most of the dramatic moments in the show have been related to attacks on Aki’s ideals of mecha itself. The climactic scenes of the show so far have been the mass black-out scene in Tokyo with all the robots in the city going on a rampage, and the unveiling of Gunvarrel’s last episode, which ended up just being a morbid depiction of the end of humanity. As a result of these incidents in the story, public perception of robots is at an all-time low, yet Aki still holds steadfast to her ideals of mecha. This unwavering spirit and love for robots is what drives the show, and understanding this passion is critical to connecting with its characters.
Perhaps the fault of Robotic;Notes is that this passion for mecha is elusive to its audiences. In Steins;Gate, it is easy to get why a time machine is so cool, so conceptually it never had to work hard to keep the audience’s interests. I feel the show would hit home most of all with people who do love mecha. Even just being able to understand all the references to mecha anime throughout the show, including things like Char Aznable quotes, helps to enrich the experience. Indeed, if someone does not fundamentally understand why robots are awesome, how could they ever understand the characters?
Regardless, the basic fact of the matter is that Robotic;Notes is just not Steins;Gate. Of course there are some similarities, but both stories have very different narratives. Maybe if people stopped comparing the two, then the merits of Robotic;Notes would really be able to shine through. There is a genuine story here with lots of care and detail put into it, and I think it would be a shame if the only reason Robotic;Notes does not get the time of day is because it chooses not to copy its predecessor enough.