Time of Eve
In this world, robots look like us. They move about like us, speak like us, and are capable of performing virtually any task we can, and yet they are not human. They are not human because they were designed in our image only to carry out our tasks; they are not human because they function only according to command; they are not human because they have no emotion; they are not human because, in this world, the government have decreed that robots can and never will be. Thus, life goes on...and as life goes on, such arbitrary paradigms inevitably weaken. One day, a highschool-aged boy named Rikuo, called an "android holic" by his friends for his fascination with the robots, stumbles upon a strange cafe called "The Time of Eve" whose single rule of conduct is this: "Robots and Humans are to be treated equally".
"The future, probably Japan. Robots have long been put into practical use, and androids have just come into use"
These are the words that one encounters at the beginning of each episode of Time of Eve, and in spite of their matter-of-fact simplicity, I think that they are the perfect embodiment of what this 2008 web release is truly about. Outwardly, it is a story about the relationship between humans and their robotic lookalikes, set in a futuristic version of Japan where such androids have become commonplace and are used as routinely as cars and cell phones. But just as this tagline's word choice hints that the story it tells is not necessarily restricted to this futuristic version of Japan, Time of Eve, is much, much more than a simple story about robots. Deep down, it is a gentle and careful examination of ourselves as humans, our incomprehensible personalities, and the possibility that our belief in the uniqueness of human sapience may merely show how limited we are. Beautifully-animated, lovingly detailed, and expertly written, it is a philosophical piece of science fiction that neither treats its setting as a gimmick nor dwells on it at the expense of its characters, instead deriving its thematic strength from its cast and their direct importance to the storyline to create a story that is, by turns, fascinating, poignant, and saddening. Though it may be a little slow for those in dire need of action or a dynamic plot, I found the lack of "dressing", be it in the form of gunfights, fan service, or comedy, to be enormously refreshing, and its intelligence and simultaneous warmth and cleverness balance out to make a piece that, while slow and thoughtful, is a far cry from the dryness often associated with "intellectual" works.
One might wonder, however, why the creator chose to put a series like this in animated form. Animation is often used for comic distortion, to depict the physically impossible without resorting to unrealistic computer graphics, or to dazzle the eyes with flourishes that would be impossible in live action, and yet Time of Eve requires none of this, being a story that could easily have been told in live action. So, why is the animation so wonderful? It's simple: it subtly but noticeably makes this setting different from ours, and this detail is essential to putting the universe of Time of Eve in context as a currently non-existent but still possible future for our world. The people look and move realistically, with even their hair color being of a tone you might see in a passing pedestrian, while the space they move about in is one that is so tangible and close to real life that I almost feel as if it could be a place I've actually visited, and yet, amidst all of the realism, there is something distinctly alien about Yoshiura's artwork. The shadows that gloomily overlay the sidewalks and give the Time of Eve its "hidden" feeling, the sunlight whose unearthly brightness gives the city streets a heavily illuminated and yet strangely cold aura, and the color palette of almost oily browns and grays all combine to make this world very much unlike our own. The level of detail in the artwork, indeed, is magnificent, down to the carefully painted pictures hanging on the walls of the cafe and the rows of "no robots allowed" signs that evoke the days of American segregation, and Yoshiura's recurring and ingenious use of computer graphics to create varying light effects for different settings has only grown better as he has continued to make anime. The animation, too, is superb, with the holographic halos that float over the robots and his trademark geometric schematics blending in perfectly with the character motion and carefully placed panoramic views, and while the show has few scenes that "dazzle" in the way that, say, the explosions from Akira do, the animation never failed to draw me in. His character design, meanwhile, has come a long, long way from the pixelated figures first seen in his Aquatic Language. Each character shares his traits of slightly-wider-than-normal eyes and lightly flayed out, pointed hair, and yet each figure is unique, down to facial features and proportions, attire, and even the minuscule folds in his or her hair. Yoshiura's distinctive style makes Time of Eve something of an unorthodox visual treat, one that, while not "pretty" in the usual sense, fascinated me as much as the show's actual story.
The detail of the character design, however, barely compares to the degree of the thought and time given to the people in this show, and indeed, I think that Time of Eve's use of its characters as the actual source of its story rather than mere agents is remarkable. In my opinion, every person is designed to be seen from two aspects, the first being an exploration of her personality and what it reveals about the nature of the robots and this society, and the second being a story for us, as humans, to take home and take to heart. Although the characters sometimes frustrated me just as real people do, I found each character to somehow be identifiable with a facet of human nature: Rikuo is the curious soul in each of us who recoils when faced too closely with something it should not be touching yet instinctively desires to anyway, his gloomy friend Masaki is our downtrodden and bitter personality masquerading as uninterested cynicism, and Sammy, his robot, is the part of our soul that hides behind a societally imposed wall, seemingly impassive and content and yet begging and begging for the depth of her personality to be recognized. The story, at heart, is one less about the actual physics of creating a robot than about how the presence of androids created in our image would affect human society and human pride, and indeed, the treatment the androids receive in this series is utterly heartbreaking at times. When some of them come to pick up their school-aged masters from class, for example, they greet with polite voices and are left only to carry the packs shoved into their arms, denied words, eye contact, or even the most basal acknowledgment. Rikuo, the so-called "holic", is shown to treat Sammy significantly better than most people, never shown delivering such abuse and exuding a light but tangible sense of concern for her that his friends and family ridicule, and yet the events of the series make it very clear that his mindset is still stuck in his society's viewpoint, although we subtly begin to see that he, and perhaps other humans as well, have the capacity to change that. Watching him feels like learning to find the difference between "tolerance" and "acceptance" of alien concepts, and the contrast between his interest in the robots of Time of Eve and his horror at discovering that his own android may be moving about independently, for example, shows the sort of hypocrisy we all must overcome when actually left to contend with something averse and alien to our views. And yet his struggle is one that the show neither exonerates nor damns him for, and it is the exact sort of mental struggle that anybody whose worldview has suddenly and irreversibly been altered must deal with.
Each of Time of Eve's patrons, meanwhile, gets a piece to herself, each highlighting a facet in the rising potential for robots to attain human emotions and the human's response to such a development. There is, for example, an episode that indicates that something resembling love can form between the androids and that beings designed with the appearance and basic capability of human beings may be capable of developing the rudiments of their emotion without necessarily being given that emotion. Near the end of the series, several robots that do not have human features are thrown into the mix, almost as if the show attempts to test itself with new variable, and one heartbreaking scene ensues in which Masaki and Rikuo struggle not to point fingers at a dilapidated robot who is both distressed at his abandonment and erasure of his precious memories and determined to fit into the cafe on equal terms with everybody else. It is Sammy, however, whose struggle truly lies at the heart of the show. Although I can say relatively little about her that will not spoil the plot, it is through her eyes that we truly get the robot's side of this changing society, and the show so stunningly transforms her from an emotionless object into someone who, by the end, I felt was and had always been empathetic that I found myself in tears. I never ceased to be fascinated with this series, its musings, and its various case studies that combined to make such a wonderfully thought out universe, and yet I never would have liked it as much as I did had the development of the characters not been bound so strong and so important to the story. Yoshiura's earlier works, such as Pale Cocoon, have felt intellectually stimulating and yet a bit emotionally cold, but here, he succeeds in escaping that limitation and making a piece that can stir me equally on both levels. The result, frankly, is phenomenal.
Many anime have used androids as a thematic element, and yet out of all the ones I have seen, Time of Eve is the one that has most successfully used them to tell a story that feels as relevant to me, the viewer, as it is to the mechanical humans onscreen. Although rumors abound that more material set in the same universe will be made, the series is glorious even as it stands: its scope of thought exhaustive, its characters left at that lovely point at which we know they will change for the better, its artwork magnificent, and the overall presentation and effect nothing short of astounding. I risk falling into hyperbole with my review of this series, and yet I think it is one that all anime fans should at least try, for while it treads upon concept discussed for years, its approach is all to its own and all the better because of that. While I regret being unable to taste the coffee, I consider my stay at the Time of Eve to be very well spent, and hope that many others will soon understand the reference in this last sentence and grow to feel the same way.
I did indeed enjoy the Time of Eve. My favorite science fiction anime of recent years, and, in my opinion, one of the best ever made. Very worth seeing, and especially so for those who share my love for combinations of intelligence and beautiful storytelling. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: Although there is little objectionable material besides a few not-particularly-revealing moments of nudity, some drunkenness on the part of Rikuo's sister, and a robot's sad if not particularly graphic demise, this is a slow and dialogue-driven show that most children will not enjoy.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream in Japanese with English subtitles, available on crunchyroll.com.
Review Status: Full (6/6)
Time of Eve © 2008 Yasuhiro Yoshiura / Studio Rikka
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