Home > Series Reviews > Time of Eve – Robot Rights and Wrongs

Time of Eve – Robot Rights and Wrongs

Science fiction is often used to test or explore social questions: What would a society in space look like? How would technology x change the way we live? By looking at possible futures, science fiction authors often make explicitly political points about the present.

Science fiction in anime also asks questions: How many missiles can we plausibly fit on one space fighter? What are cool ways we can destroy planets? Are alien chicks hot, and are cross-species unions fertile? (To be fair, these are also the questions James Cameron asks, and he—much to my annoyance—is very popular world-wide.)

Time of Eve, a short anime “mini series” released streaming in late 2008 and 2009, falls firmly into the first category of science fiction, making it an outlier for the medium. Moreover, it approaches its subject matter with knowing references to classic works of science fiction, while at the same time broaching new questions that previous writers didn’t really consider.

The opening (and deliberately iconic) shot of the show is about establishing robots' subservience to humans

Sometime in the future, robots have become widespread, and androids (robots designed to look like humans) are increasingly common. While all robots are controlled by Issac Asimov’s Three Laws, there is still ongoing debate about how they should be treated in society; a private group styling itself the Ethics Committee regularly runs ads encouraging support for specifically human labor, and there is considerable social stigma against treating robots as anything other than machines. All androids, in order to distinguish them from humans, are required to project a halo above their heads.

The story begins when Rikou, a high school student who may or may not be harboring an attraction to his family’s android, Sammy, finds an anomaly in her GPS log. Together with his friend Masaki, whose father is a highly placed member of the Ethics Committee, he checks the location and discovers a half-concealed cafe, called Time of Eve, with one very special rule: No discrimination between humans and robots. Because of that rule, androids, following the law to obey human orders, keep their halos turned off while inside.

The hostess of the cafe, Nagi, is friendly, generous, and dead set on enforcing the cafe's rules of non-discrimination

Dropped into what seems like a completely different world, Rikou and Masaki find that they aren’t just not allowed to discriminate between humans and robots, but rather that they can’t discriminate, because they can’t tell the difference between the cafe’s human and android clientele. With the dividing line between humans and robots no longer so black and white, they struggle with their preconceptions about how robots should be treated, particularly when it becomes clear that robots, absent their halos, can’t always tell the difference either.

Androids, and robots in general, act very mechanically in their daily duties, responding to queries and orders in a dull monotone and generally appearing devoid of personality. It’s implied, however, that they do this just to make humans feel more comfortable, and perhaps as a defensive mechanism. While naturally they have the same reactions and tendencies of anyone else, they’ve learned it doesn’t pay to remind your human masters that you are anything other than a kitchen appliance which happens to speak.

At times it feels like high school kids are being overly rude to their robots, just to prove to their peers that they aren't attached to them

While at the Time of Eve, however, robots (nearly all of whom are androids) act like humans. While it’s theoretically possible that their behavior in Time of Eve is the act, caused because of the rule, and their behavior outside is their normal state, the conversations held make it much more likely that the opposite is the case. We see androids seek love, try to understand what it means to be human, and generally explore the most ingrained order on their minds (to serve and aid humans) in the same way that humans would puzzle through their own ethical commitments.

In short, we see them allowed to act like people, something that, under normal circumstances, they are informally forbidden to do. Both Rikou and Masaki have to struggle with that revelation and what it means to them, and how their own lives must change as a result of that knowledge. Although the two of them have different backgrounds, worries, and baggage, they both ultimately reach a point of decision where they can accept and be enriched by their experiences at Time of Eve or go on their own way. Those two decision points serve as the climax for the series.

Masaki often reminds his friends that he doesn't have a robot at home. Explaining the reason for his lie takes up most of the last episode

That the show was released streaming rather than broadcast gave it the freedom to have episode lengths tailored to the story to be told, rather than padded out to 23 minutes and change. Over the course of six short episodes, we see a sequence of character studies, starting with robots but ultimately expanding, in the last two episodes, on our human protagonists and their own particular feelings on human-robot relations.

Often the show works to subvert or contradict initial impressions—one particular gem involves what first looks like a man involved in (too close) relations to a sex android, but winds up being far, far more complicated—but it also isn’t innovative for its own sake. Each story line is crafted with the message in mind, without being overly preachy.

If the show wears any theme on its sleeve, it's that looks can be deceiving. Not that you aren't looking anyway

Lack of preachiness is helped by the very conversational style of the series; the writers have a clear understanding of how to have exposition through dialogue that still falls on the side of “showing” rather than “telling.” The style extends to the cinematography as well, which often switches between first person views and perspectives and relies on shaky cam effects, despite the fact that there is, technically speaking, no camera. The overall effect is, for lack of a better term, personalist: it draws attention to the experience and viewpoint of particular people rather than on some grand omniscient narrator, even as it’s clear that the makers of this show have something they want to say through these viewpoints.

Time of Eve takes the question of sentient robots far beyond where Asimov went. Asimov was very interested in how robots would transform humanity, ultimately coming to the conclusion in his books that the introduction of sentient robots would emasculate and stagnate human society. When anything a human can do, a robot can do better, humans no longer have the motivation to innovate or dream new wonders. Robot-dependent societies ultimately disappear as the timeline of Asimov’s canon progresses, because despite their technological advancement they cannot compete with the dynamism of robot-less peoples.

Rikou's issues with robots, aside from Sammy, relates to why he gave up playing the piano, and is the closest the show comes to addressing the Asimovian question

Asimov, however, scarcely considered how robots were treated would work its effects on humans and on robots themselves. Even those robots which were characterized as sentient, thinking beings, full characters in their own right, never really thought about making themselves free or independent; the one exception, in the novella “The Bicentennial Man,” makes it clear how odd such sentiments are. Asimov, in other words, envisioned robots who, at their most sophisticated, were very clearly people in most meaningful respects, but never considered the fact that these people were enslaved to be a social concern, save for what such enslavement meant for humanity. That robots should have rights or be generally worthy of consideration for their own sake didn’t seem to occur to him.

Time of Eve, by contrast, brings up these issues constantly, even if it doesn’t advocate for revolution in the process. Because of the Laws, robots do genuinely want to help humans, so the idea that they would continue to work as servants is not rejected outright. But the show, through the developing relationships of the characters, seems to point to a world where treating robots like human beings, as people with their own personalities and desires, is humanizing for humans themselves. By treating sentient creatures are objects, humanity is doing itself a disservice.

The one person who treats everyone the same is Chie, but a) she's four, and b) she spends most of her time pretending to be a cat

It’s fairly easy to pull parallels from Time of Eve to any society with stratified social classes or clear master and servant castes. Robots combine absolute subservience with the possibility of perfection, thus instilling the fear of every master class that the servant class may eventually surpass and replace them. Such fears lead to the continual need to affirm the “otherness” of the servant class, with clearly defined social barriers. Time of Eve depicts this in full bloom on the high school level, where any attempt to treat robots and particularly androids as anything other than coasters on legs is promptly derided by one’s peers.

(Curiously, adults in general seem much more open to robots, reversing the usually expected shift toward increasing tolerance among younger generations. Rikou’s mother might view Sammy as something a few steps up from a dress-up doll, but it’s implied throughout the show that she shows a warmth and affection toward Sammy that Rikou’s college age sister finds freakish.)

If the first shot is meant to dehumanize Sammy, the last provides her with an acknowledgment from an unlikely source

Of course, such claims are easier to make because robots, in fact, are not human, and because, despite its constant appearance in science fiction, we’re still nowhere close to developing true AI. (I’m personally of the opinion that we will never develop it, but that’s for philosophical reasons unrelated to this post.) But similar situations, and levels of dehumanization, have of course happened in human history even without the question of human versus machine, with the examples of slavery and Jim Crow being the most resonant in the American mind. For Japan, treatment of Korean and particularly Filipino immigrants probably continues to qualify.

And that’s what makes good science-fiction timeless: Precisely because the concerns are divorced from any actual event, it’s much easier to draw parallels to all of them. District 9 can be about apartheid, and how contemporary South Africa is treating refugees from Zimbabwe, and some other issue yet to appear, all at the same time. Time of Eve is intelligent enough to let robots be robots and not draw too direct parallels to any situation. Because of that, it transcends any local concern or temporary problem.

There's hints that the Ethics Committee isn't the only organization interested in robots, but any further revelation will have to wait on a sequel. Please, let there be a sequel

Time of Eve isn’t just one of the best anime offerings of 2009; it’s one of the best works of science fiction presented in a visual medium over the past decade. Even better, you can watch the entire series streaming here. The same director, Yasuhiro Yoshiura, is responsible for the tangentially related short Aquatic Language, and the completely unrelated single episode Pale Cocoon, both also available streaming.

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