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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was to write a sonnet, which can be considered an essay in verse. Thus, I chose a Spenserian sonnet inspired by a fascinating film well worth an essay or two.)

 

As God made Man in image same as He,
For years mankind has tried the same rare feat,
Creating sculpture, doll, and effigy,
And now most recently the great conceit
Of making human service obsolete
With robots meant to wear a human guise.
Can such attempts end only in defeat?
If not, has playing God been ever wise?
As children, we may gaze deep in their eyes,
Intent on some faint flicker of a soul;
While lack of one should come as no surprise,
Perhaps it’s but too much under control.
Within and out, this can of worms we dread,
And yet progress proceeds full steam ahead.
__________________

MPAA rating: Not Rated (should be PG)

Time of Eve was a series of six fifteen-minute Japanese animations released online from 2008 into 2009, which were then combined with slight additions into a 2010 film. It also is one of the most thought-provoking entries in the robot genre and an exceptional example of speculative fiction, allowing its themes to play out in an advanced world that remains decidedly plausible.

As the opening sentences explain, “in the future, probably Japan” (which is undoubtedly Japan, based on all the signs and names), “’humanoid robots’ (androids) have come into common use.” Their uses range from office duties to making coffee, and they are often owned by a family and treated more like an appliance than a maid, with their passive expressions and a glowing holographic ring above their heads distinguishing them from their masters. After studying the memory logs of his houseroid Sammy, highschooler Rikuo notices a mysterious log labelled “Are you enjoying the Time of Eve?,” a repeated question with the same uncertain mystique as “Who is John Galt?” When Rikuo tracks down the location of the log with his friend Masaki, who protests too much that he doesn’t own a robot, they discover the titular café, where a sign prominently declares that no one may discriminate between humans and robots here.

Over the course of several days, the boys visit and get to know the regular patrons, all lacking the holographic ring, in this gray zone flouting governmental robot laws: the cordial barista Nagi, whose enforcement of the rule doesn’t really extend beyond annoyed warnings; outgoing Akiko; a pair of lovers Koji and Rina; the grandfatherly Shimei and young Chie; and discreet Setoro, who often just reads in the corner. As Rikuo gets to know these customers, analyzing their personalities and actions to see if they are machine or human, his own opinions are challenged. When robots begin acting on their own, can they really be considered nothing but tools? If they can be considered even close to being human, is not the constant prejudice shown them worth opposing? Rikuo is at first troubled and then intrigued by what the café represents, and knowing Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics about how robots must protect and obey humans, he explores how his robotic acquaintances manage to test their independence with humans and each other.

While most of the story has a straightforward focus on Rikuo, his explorations are clearly part of a bigger whole. The enigmatic Ethics Committee is a persistent presence with TV ads warning against the over-personalization of robots, and constant peer pressure from friends and the danger of being labeled a robo-freak often guilt people from even thinking to thank machines for their help. One of the creative choices that makes Time of Eve special is what it doesn’t explain. Key plot points are often hinted at early with merely a brief scene or still (which rewards repeat viewings), while clues about forces in the background supporting or resisting the Ethics Committee are left intentionally ambiguous. It’s the stuff of fan theories, but the filmmakers give just enough information that the uncertainty adds to rather than detracts from the story.

The narrative’s emotional involvement crept up on me with profound emotions hidden behind even a small smile, and the challenging of Rikuo’s views also challenged my own. While I personally don’t think that robots will progress to the point of sentience, the world is well on its way to trying. Just recently, Chinese scientists created a realistic-looking female robot named Jia Jia, prompting Ethics Committee-style headlines that included words like disturbing and creepy. If androids should ever reach the level of humanity seen in Time of Eve, I might even be open to considering them people, though the idea of a soul is a different debate. Still, there would be a line at which only truly human-like machines would earn my sympathy, yet Time of Eve challenges that too, suggesting that even primitive intelligences are worthy of pity or comfort. Even if real-life robotics never reaches that point (and I hope it doesn’t), the questions raised by this animated tale have remained with me.

Time of Eve: The Movie is not much different from the series, simply tying the episodes together, but small additions provide a little more clarity to the original’s ambiguity. It may not have the action and fantasy of other anime, but within its subdued tone and handsomely intimate animation, its provocative themes surpass many better-known titles. In fact, though I’ve already compiled my Top 12 Anime List, I think Time of Eve would now replace Princess Mononoke as my #12 favorite. In addition to the cogent sci-fi drama, I also liked the small touches of humor, some of it awkward, some of it genuinely funny, especially a great moment at the end that lightens up the most poignant scene. It even ends in my favorite Neverending Story-style fashion, suggesting further stories for another time and (at least in the series) adding a barely visible question mark to The End. There’s no shortage of robot movies, from Short Circuit to A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Bicentennial Man to Ex Machina, but Time of Eve ranks up there with the best.

Best line: (Official Ashimori, quoting another barely seen character) “Preconceptions distract from the truth.”

 

Rank: List-Worthy

 

© 2016 S. G. Liput

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