Time of Eve: Social Consciousness and Machines

The concept of artificial intelligence is certainly an intriguing one.  A veritable library of science fiction films, comics, and novels have been released concerning it, dwelling on themes as wide-ranging as the philosophy of mind, the moral implications of robotic servitude, sexuality, and numerous others—often in some combination.  Time of Eve, a six episode OVA released over the course of 2008 and 2009, follows in the footsteps of those that have come before, so it probably won’t come as much surprise to see Asimov’s three laws of robotics playing a key role in its thematic undertones.  And, perhaps not unlike many other works focusing on artificial intelligence, Time of Eve’s main concern isn’t even artificial intelligence.  It uses that focus as a mirror in order to analyze what it means to be human, using multiple layers of allegory and a keen pace of storytelling to do so.

The story kicks off by dumping the viewer into a recognizable, familiar—if fantastic—city of the future.  Streets, buildings, institutions, as well as media outlets, styles and fashions, and minute gadgetry like phones all remain pretty relatable, suggesting that this age of androids is only right around the corner from our current day.  The backdrop of a futuristic cityscape conveys a heavy corporate presence and maintains the reminder of the capitalistic thirst for consumption that drives Time of Eve’s socioeconomic undertones.  The familiar invasion of media outlets and news sources that flash on and off in the background show up in what appear to be everyday conversations between schoolmates.  Laziness and various states of ennui exist in the home, right in front of television sets whose only channel seems to be advertising and news flashes concerning a growing number of social deviants who treat their robotic servants as humans.  This could arguably be seen as an attack against any relatively reclusive subculture, from video game nerds who spend their free time playing MMORPGs to anime geeks who develop attachments to particular cartoon characters; however, the extent to which this theme is developed goes far beyond such a rudimentary social criticism.

Foreground: Sister Snorlax. Background: Android "Sammy" and Rikuo.

Rikuo, the male protagonist and the viewer’s keyhole into this world, lives with his unseen, hardworking parents, his lackadaisical sister, and the family’s android servant—or “Sammy”, as Rikuo has come to name her.  His sister comments on and often criticizes his attachment to the android, comparing him to the news flashes she watches on the television.  Although her comments are largely made in jest, that very conflict is something Rikuo himself struggles with quite fiercely throughout the work, and it ties into its primary theme that I discuss below.

From the home, the viewer is then introduced to the school that Rikuo attends.  There he meets his buddy Masaki, who also finds Rikuo’s marginal attachment to “Sammy” bothersome, although he views it in a much less amusing light than Rikuo’s sister does.  As the work unfolds, we find out that Masaki is the son of one of the primary members of an Ethics Committee, whose anti-robotic public service announcements dominate the ever present feeling of unease and suspicion that lurks in the background.  Class time itself is barely touched on, but the secondary function of the school environment—social interaction among peers—is what is focused on instead.

Nondescript classrooms are headed by robotic teachers.

In reality, the school is customarily seen as an institution of learning and betterment, a symbol of civilized progress and the individual’s capacity to retain knowledge.  However, the school has had secondary functions for centuries: that of retaining and enforcing social order through early disciplinary action and of guiding, distributing, and dictating the roles of its subjects through codified & regulated programs.  The school is and has been one of the institutions of primary importance to society, and the prevailing methods of teaching have for years been little more than attempts at getting students to repeat things rather than to open broader avenues for thinking.  To grab people from an early age and train them in the practice of social interaction—that is what schooling is about; the school is one of the foremost social programmers of our age.

So it is of no surprise then that in the context of Time of Eve, the school will be offset by the coffee shop’s atmosphere of refuge, freedom, and tranquility.  Here, both human beings and androids can relax without being questioned.  The dichotomy between human and machine doesn’t go away here, even though the “rule” of the oasis—and of the bartender—tries to pretend that it doesn’t exist.  It merely fades into the background.  Robots are still aware that they are robots, and humans are still aware that they are humans.  By blurring that distinction within the confines of the secluded space, each patron is invited to reflect upon what it means to be either an android or a human.

When two lovers meet in this coffee shop and lament how they must continually part ways, the ambiguity of their situation is obvious.  Both are androids, yet aware of each other only as human beings.  Are both of them merely fulfilling the motions of a lovers’ spat due to convenient strings of code that allow for such behavior?  Do they understand the notion of love and attachment?  Surely they must have some understanding of it, otherwise there would be no reason to carry out their actions; but at the same time, robots—being little more than super-sophisticated appliances used for grocery-shopping and dishwashing—are supposed to fundamentally lack the very things needed for things like “relationships” and “attachment” to develop.  And this is where Time of Eve gets interesting: with the backdrop of a media-fueled TV screen and a socially-conscious school setting, the allegory of the androids’ predicament is clear.  In true, if morose, Japanese fashion, the man briefly says, “it seems no one can really attain happiness.”  Happiness is quite the elusive concept and difficult to understand—is it really merely the interaction of chemicals in the brain, sparked off by specific social interactions?  Is happiness nothing more than some social and biological programming?

Within the fictional world of Time of Eve, the psychological dichotomy between human and machine has intensified to the point that the recurring image of a robotic hand picking a ripe tomato filled with gears isn’t so far off from the truth.  The fleshy beings, programmed to respond to social stigmas, trends, and personas by the medias that have invaded their homes, trained to respond and adhere to their arbitrary sense of rationality fed to them by the agendas in their schools, grow uncomfortable with their robotic servants.  It isn’t because the robotic servants look or necessarily sound displeasing; it is because the robots are man-made objects that grow increasingly more human-like with each passing newspaper article or television news report.  Each passing day yields new robotic innovations and achievements, from the android piano player guest at a school competition to, as is noted in the fifth episode, the yet-unreleased caregiver android designed to look after a human child as a parent.  The reason for the discomfort should be obvious, and it is the end result of a staunch materialist’s interpretation of the mind’s function and composition.  Human beings are every bit as robotic, disposable, and programmable as the very androids they have created.  “Humanity” is nothing more than a trait in which the possessor emulates human characteristics.  The “spirit” or “soul” in art, as well as the theologian’s “soul” in man, are little more than superstitions and vague hoaxes that “primitive” and “irrational” people have believed for millennia.  –Or at least, these are the fears and the reasons for unrest.

Quite frankly, this strikes me as a rather accurate depiction of the fear many might feel in a similar environment.  Modern man has an exuberant tendency to dispense with what he doesn’t understand, deifying knowledge and reason without even realizing that such deification is taking place.  Many are only too eager to believe such a nihilistic idea as what is described above, so it is understandable that a discomfort would manifest when Man is confronted and outdone by a machine of his own making.  This isn’t to say, however, that the opposite isn’t totally unbelievable—that a soul could inhabit mechanical circuitry, that an artificial intelligence could somehow give birth to a sense of Self that transcends its wiring and programming.  This view contradicts a great deal of the politically-oriented religious dogmas that concern the issue of spirits and souls, but it isn’t easily discarded.  Such an ambiguous concept as a “soul” inherently escapes the most fervent of rationalistic attempts at explanation, which is why it’s often flung unsympathetically into the dustbins of superstition.

Nevertheless, an uncertain and vague fear would still lurk in the minds of those confronted by an artificial intelligence indistinguishable from their own.  With processing power that seems limitless in its capacity for improvement, and the apparent freedom of a robotic entity to change its physical shape through the manufacturing and replacement of parts, it’s clear that an android could easily outpace a human being’s usefulness if it developed a sense of Self that was as functional, balanced, and sophisticated as its human counterpart’s.  Should a robot be capable of playing every note of Bach’s Johannes Passion, as well as expressing itself in the process, then Man’s fear of its creation would manifest in observing how useless and unnecessary—or more accurately, how less unique—he had become.  Our sense of pride is too great to allow such an eclipse to occur, which is likely the very reason Time of Eve’s “Ethics Committee” was formed to ‘remind’ the citizens of this fictional world of the dangers of androids.

"Sammy", revealing expression.

All of this can only make one wonder: if the humans in Time of Eve are so afraid of the implications of artificial intelligence, why would they decide to create their robotic servants in their own likenesses?  And the likely answer is quite simple: it’s easier to relate to them.  Human beings are complex creatures, and their psyches are riddled with contradictions and seemingly irreconcilable dichotomies.  By taking advantage of the notion that mankind would likely fashion a production line of complex artificial intelligences in its own likeness, Time of Eve turns the predicament of this “android condition” into an allegory for the predicament of the human condition.  That one must live and survive, connect with others, experience love and despair, and learn to trust others—these are the things that Time of Eve is concerned with; it merely uses the concepts and pre-established themes of artificial intelligence to do so.  And even it “admits” that these oughts aren’t easy, especially with its backdrop of social stigmas, paranoia-induced codifications of conduct, and distraction-laden modern living.

The very idea of an android challenges many of the ideas people have formed about what it means to be human, and Time of Eve exploits this to its fullest extent.  Whether the development of an artificial intelligence capable of mimicking all of the still as-of-yet unknown aspects of the human psyche is a concept of dread because it reflects back at us an image of the Self that lacks mystery, transcendence, and spirituality, or because it again reiterates the old science-fiction theme of a humanity that is bested and replaced by its own tools and servants, one thing is certain: Time of Eve handles itself beautifully.

Each episode exists as a quasi-stand alone work, focusing on different aspects of human existence, which allows the more complex and implied aspects of its thematic content to be developed as well as it is.  There’s enough of an overarching narrative, however, that it can only be watched in its proper order; the subplot concerning the ethics committee and the fate of the coffee shop is brief but important, though it isn’t until the final episode that this is brought to the forefront.  The character drama also plays itself up quite strongly in that final half-hour or so, verging on being distractingly maudlin in its presentation.  The rest of the episodes aren’t quite as melodramatic, although the writing does generally veer toward the saccharine and the mawkish.  While it weaves its themes with a steady hand and a few ounces of subtlety, its character-driven narrative is about as heavy handed as a steam shovel.

Technically speaking, the work is a bit interesting for an animated feature.  Dynamic camera movements perforate the otherwise still animation.  Advances in digital assistance has allowed animation to imitate handheld and shaky camera movements, and to go along with this, blur effects and out of focus shots spice it up.  Although Time of Eve certainly isn’t the first or the only animated work to start incorporating these effects, it’s still a new feature.  The digital CG in the background images and scene environments is integrated seamlessly as well, breathing life into—or in some cases, desaturating the life out of—the cityscape and urban set pieces.

Formalistic qualities of the work are largely unremarkable, albeit good.  However, it isn’t necessarily Yoshiura’s eye for camera placement or editing that tends to draw viewers in the first place; his ability to incorporate an extremely well-defined sense of science fiction mystery into his works proves entertaining time and again.  2005’s Pale Cocoon displayed his magnificent talent for exploring the unexplained, touching on narrative mysteries yet never letting closure demystify some ambiguity.  Doing this adds a richness to both the characters and the world of his work, and Time of Eve is no exception.  Although not as visually confounding or wondrous as Pale Cocoon, Time of Eve is still a solid, thought provoking, and intelligent work that exemplifies Yoshiura’s abilities and catalogue.

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About Merridian
Merri lives with his wife in the USA. He writes fiction and blog posts, plays music, and teaches CMA when he isn't working. He wrote for Forced Perspective while the project was active, and he is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of QNUW.

One Response to Time of Eve: Social Consciousness and Machines

  1. Xard says:

    Phenomenal essay, my friend. I didn’t think of the show too deeply while watching it and you might be onto something here.

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