This anime season has seen some very interesting and disturbed characters such as Ohana in Hanasaku Iroha, Yukiatsu in Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai, and the multiple personalities in Ore-tachi ni Tsubasa wa Nai; but I think the most intriguing character is Okabe Rintarou (aka Hououin Kyouma or Okarin) from Steins;Gate. A self-proclaimed “mad scientist” in his early 20’s, Okabe runs a research lab to invent futuristic gadgets, but it’s more closely resembles a hangout for misfits than an actual lab. One summer, Okabe and his lab members discover that their phone-controlled microwave can send text messages back in time. One might see this anime as a science fiction story about the ethical implications a group of friends face when dealing with time travel and the fight against SERN, but I see a story of a socially inept man suffering from symptoms of Schizophrenia.
As of this writing, Steins;Gate has aired 11 episodes. What we know at this point is that the phone microwave can send 36 bytes of data back in time, and with each message, world lines shift, changing the future (or present). Okabe is also the only person in the world who is immune to the effects of shifting world lines, allowing him to remember events that happened in different timelines. There are a few problems with this situation. First of all, based on current physics, while it is possible to travel into the future, it is not possible to travel into the past. Secondly, microwaves are just a section of the electromagnetic spectrum, just like light or radio waves. There’s nothing to suggest that they can cause something to travel back in time. Lastly, Okabe is the only person who can remember initiating an experiment and observing its results. To stand as solid proof of time travel, he would need to be able to record his observations and repeat his results, and then have them verified by a second lab. Under the circumstances, though, it is impossible to prove that Okabe has succeeded in time travel and we have to believe that he is in possession of a fantastical one-of-a-kind microwave, and that Okabe himself has super-temporal powers.
While stories of time travel and a gifted individual sounds great and all, I am a believer of Occam’s razor, a principle that says that the simplest theory is usually the correct one unless a competing theory can be fully explained with proof. With no actual proof that Okabe’s lab has created a time travelling device other than his word, I think it’s safe to say that Okabe is actually suffering from a mental illness, specifically, Schizophrenia. According to the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), there are 3 criteria that an individual needs to meet to be diagnosed with Schizophrenia, and I believe Okabe meets all of them.
To meet Criterion A of Schizophrenia, an individual must display 2 or more characteristic symptoms for a large portion of 1 month. Admittedly, Okabe does not meet 2 or more of the symptoms listed in DSM-IV (only qualifying for delusions), but there is a note that states, “if the delusions are judged to be bizarre, only this single symptom is needed to satisfy Criterion A for Schizophrenia.” So what counts as a bizarre delusion? DSM-IV doesn’t define bizarre and basically leaves it up to you to decide. Okabe believes that he has changed history, he has special powers (reading Steiner), Ruka is a boy, Akiba is a moe Mecca, there is an “organization” out to get him, and that SERN is out to steal his discovery. If that doesn’t count as bizarre, then I don’t know what does.
The requirement for characteristic symptoms to be present for a large part of 1 month may be debatable in Okabe’s case. Episode 1 of Steins;Gate begins on July 28, and episode 11 ends on August 10. That’s a period of 2 weeks in which Okabe experiences continuous bizarre delusions. Whether that counts as a significant portion of a month isn’t defined, but I would consider half a month to be a large chunk.
Criterion B of Schizophrenia covers social-occupational dysfunction. While Okabe is a University student, he is never seen going to class or working a job. One could say that he’s too busy or preoccupied with his research, but just ask yourself, what does he actually do in the lab? That’s right, nothing. All of the research and technical work is pushed onto Kurisu or Daru, with Mayuri being the main source of groceries. With all of this free time, I think it’s safe to assume that Okabe is not comfortable in a school or work environment, especially considering he talks to himself through the phone and makes evil laughs at random moments (another indicator of Schizophrenia).
The third criterion for Schizophrenia, C, involves the duration with which the symptoms have been present. If symptoms are present for at least 6 months, then an individual meets Criterion C. While the anime has only covered a period of 2 weeks thus far, there is evidence that Okabe has had some symptoms long before the start of episode 1. In the second episode, Okabe dictates to the viewer that Ruka is male, however in episode 10 it’s revealed that she is in fact female and Okabe was the only one that believed she was male. Mayuri and Daru also seem to be accustomed to Okabe’s constant talking through his phone (while it’s turned off), and his warnings about “the organization.” This is evidence that Okabe’s strange behaviour has been present for a long time.
While DSM-IV does list Criteria D, E, and F, those are mainly to eliminate the possibility of an individual having a similar but different disorder, and I won’t be covering them here. The biggest problem with whether or not Okabe has a mental disorder is the length of time he has displayed symptoms. The anime does not give any specifics, but I think Okabe’s does have a disorder, it will become more apparent in later episodes.
As for how Okabe developed Schizophrenic symptoms, Steins;Gate does offer a possible explanation in the fever Okabe had as a child. In a discussion between Okabe and Mayuri, Mayuri mentions that she was afraid that Okabe was going to die when he got the fever, and that he had temporarily lost motor function. Okabe attributes this to being the moment he obtained his “reading Steiner,” but it’s more likely that he suffered some brain damage if Mayuri was concerned for his life. Any brain damage sustained as a child could have made Okabe more susceptible to Schizophrenia. His symptoms also seem to only get very serious during the anime. This agrees with the statistic that the modal age of onset is between 18 and 25 years for men.
It seems that with each experiment, Okabe gains a new delusion, but despite his worsening condition, his personality remains largely unchanged. In the very first scenes of the first episode, Okabe is depicted as an egotistical but kind character. He argues that experts in the area of time travel are wrong and that he’s right, and pays for Mayuri’s Opa toy even though he’s short on cash. Whether a delusion or not, in the later episodes he also believes he can beat SERN and changes history to bring Suzuha back. His unchanged personality brings into question whether he really has a mental disorder or if he can traverse world lines.
Okabe Rintarou’s situation is a bit like the problem of Schrodinger’s cat, you don’t know if a cat in a box is alive or dead unless you look inside. Similarly, at this point in the series, it’s not possible to tell if Okabe really does have the power to change history or if he’s Schizophrenic unless we finish the anime or ask the writer(s). While the anime shows time travel as actually taking place, keep in mind that everything is presented from Okabe’s point of view (it’s all moot if he’s an unreliable narrator) and there’s plenty of evidence from the other characters that show there is something wrong with him. Regardless of the result, I think the writers of Steins;Gate have done an excellent job in creating a complex character to capture the interest and curiosity of the viewer.
Mayuri said she did this when she and Okabe were children and Okabe had a fever, in order to pray for his recovery. She still does it.