Here I am at the 11th hour of the Christmas season (now the day after, so I guess it’s the 13th hour?) writing my Anime Secret Santa review for 2021. For some reason, I totally missed Secret Santa last year, probably due to general COVID-19-related malaise, or because I didn’t write it down, but this year I’m happy to be back writing a review of one of the three submissions tossed my way by an anonymous Santa-person. As always, thanks to the wonderful folks over at All Geeks Considered (and previously the Reverse Thieves) for spearheading this annual fun-time!
For context, I’ll say that my Santa picked these three for me to choose from; the 2012 slapstick comedy about a spy and a regular girl attending middle school together, Kill Me Baby; the 2010 maid-cafe-slice-of-life-plus-aliens series And Yet the Town Moves; and finally, the 2010 sci-fi drama ONA turned feature film about the blurry lines between androids and humans, Time of Eve.
Initially, my pick was going to be Kill Me Baby because lately I’ve been drawn to sillier, slice-of-life comedies (I just finished Hinamatsuri, for example) as opposed to more dark and serious sci-fi stuff. My old roommate from Japan told me he loved Kill Me Baby back in the day so I’d been meaning to check it out for some time. But, because time makes fools of us all, and I’m generally pretty terrible at getting through large amounts of anime quickly, I opted to put Kill Me Baby on the back-burner for another time and go for Time of Eve. I had attempted to watch the original ONA a number of years ago, and while the general premise appealed to me, the slowness of the story led to me putting it on hold and just… not coming back to it. So instead of watching the 6 episode ONA, I opted for the film compilation version this time, hoping it would be easier to manage on a shortened schedule.
Time of Eve takes place in a not-too-distant-future Tokyo where humans use androids as personal or family servants. They cook, clean, run errands, pick up kids from school, all without complaint or protest. While flashbacks show us androids that looked more like ASIMO or Baymax, most of the androids featured in the show are visually indistinguishable from human beings, expect for the SIMS-like halo they are required by-law to constantly have displayed over their heads. The character whose perspective we follow throughout the film is highschooler Rikuo Sakisaka and, to a lesser extent, his best friend Masakazu Masaki. Rikuo checks the activity log of his long-time house android, Sammy, to see the mysterious phrase “Are you enjoying the Time of Eve?” displayed on her recent activity. Along with Masaki, he decides to investigate this mysterious phrase leading him to the discovery of an underground coffeehouse called Time of Eve where there is only one rule; Do not discriminate between humans and androids. Rikuo and Masaki begin visiting the strange cafe regularly and find that while they are there, they cannot tell which patrons are humans and which ones are androids. Over time, Rikuo and Masaki form relationships with some of the customers, causing them to question the rhetoric fed to them by society that androids are merely an unfeeling servant class that have no free will of their own.
Time of Eve utilizes the time-honored tradition of sci-fi backdrops and concepts to explore the injustices of our own world, calling into question the powers that try and divide us into in-groups and out-groups based on mostly arbitrary social hierarchies. Time of Eve pulls from other android-related sci-fi works, like Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, iRobot, and others, but in terms of what this reminded me of the most was Robin Williams’ Bicentennial Man (1999). I say this not only because of the numerous invocations of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, but because the tone of Time of Eve is generally a lot less dour and serious than those more hard-boiled android sci-fi offerings. It focuses mainly on the generalized domesticity of androids in this future world and how human beings see them. While Bicentennial Man centers on a robot who wants to become human, Time of Eve pitches the idea that in effect, androids are already “human” in their own way, capable of expressing needs, wants, desires and acting on them based on their unique form of free will.
Rikuo and Masaki meet a charming collection of characters in their time visiting Time of Eve including Nagi the barista, a couple who are perpetually fawning over each other, an old man who babysits a four year old girl, and some others. The film emphasizes the idea of the coffee shop being a place where “everybody knows your name” (I’ve never seen Cheers but I get it!) and people are encouraged to interact with one another on totally equal ground, something that cannot happen outside the walls of the shop. Most of the time, the boys try and sneakily determine who might be an android or not, but as the interactions go along, they end up connecting with the different patrons and find that it doesn’t matter. Spoiler warning for one such interaction: They originally think that one man is there with an escort android and that he is one of those “robo-freaks” (as the dub calls them) who treat androids like relationship partners. However, as we learn more about him and the lady alike, it turns out they are both androids and neither of them knows about it. What the two boys learn here is that even these two androids don’t know the other is an android. If the two of them don’t even know each other, how could they themselves possibly tell the difference between a human and an android either? Of all their interactions in the cafe, I think this one is the most compelling towards making the point of the work overall. Spoilers end. Rikuo and Masaki go through an arc that often plays out when our views of the world are challenged in adolescence. They both approach this new concept with a hesitant curiosity, and often reject what they see for being contrary to what society has told them their whole lives. When Rikuo sees his house android, Sammy, show up at the coffee house for the first time, acting wholly different from the service droid he knows, he struggles to accept this drastic change in her demeanor and presentation. Masaki struggles with accepting androids because of his father’s position as a higher-up in the Ethics Committee, a political agency that strictly monitors interactions between humans and androids, and because of android related trauma he experienced as a child. I found that the depictions of the two boy’s fear, wonder, and growth when faced with their eye-opening experiences was one of the biggest strengths of the film. Other characters like Nagi serve as a strong foil to them as the character who herself is fully immersed in this counter culture, showing them a confident alternative to the way things are “supposed to be.” If anything, I wish that the narrative arc didn’t intentionally choose to obscure Nagi for plot reasons because I think that had she been treated as a true third main character, diving further into her perspective would have greatly broadened the depth of the work.
Where I think Time of Eve loses me the most is in its wishy-washy-ness towards what kind of story its trying to be. The lion’s share of the film focuses on the day to day interactions at the coffee house, which is definitely where the work is the strongest. Some of the arcs that revolve around tossed aside androids, or how the Three Laws can hurt robots, are downright heartbreaking. However, the third act of the film diverts somewhat towards more political intrigue that felt conceptually intriguing but half-baked in execution. The social and cultural context of why the world exists in this way and the Ethics Committee and their shady origins as a stealth hate group are fascinating ideas that were unfortunately introduced too late with an unsatisfying pay-off. I just don’t think Time of Eve had enough runtime to do the balance justice. I found it to be particularly egregious in the end when the film just ends after a fairly oblique allusion to Nagi’s backstory. Additionally it seemed to be setting the audience up for a more interesting story about the Ethics Committee, possible exceptions to the hard rules that androids and humans must follow, and a different set of characters who operate in those societal systems, but it never really goes there. It introduces a lot of these big concepts and then the film is just over. I have to think there may have been an intention to make more of this, but that didn’t seem to pan out.
Overall, I think I enjoyed Time of Eve for what it did well and I respect it for what it was going for. There are some scenes that are truly great with some compelling stuff, but the work overall suffers from not knowing what it was fully going for, or a lack of runtime, or both. I think had it been a full 12 episode season, we might be looking at a really solid piece of speculative android fiction, but considering we have what we have, I am grateful that it chose to focus on heart and character over plot and bombast. I have a lot of respect for that. I’ll take one Evlend, please!