By Bob Clark
In the first episode of Matt Groening and David X. Cohen’s Futurama, there’s an exchange that more or less sums up a whole generation’s worth of sci-fi imagination– “You’d really want a robot to be your best friend?” the hard-drinking, chain-smoking tinman Bender asks, incredulously. “Sure,” the fish-out-of-20th-century-water Fry responds, “ever since I was a kid.” As children, how many of us imagined that we might grow up into a time decades hence where robots could not just be automatons operating on assembly lines or remote-controlled drones patrolling the rocky terrain of alien planets and the wartorn skies of our own? Did we like to think that we might make friends with them the same way we meet schoolmates outside during recess? Or that our parents would be scheduling playdates with mad-scientists seeking to better socialize their juvenile inventions? As we grew older and discovered more mature science-fiction, did we then daydream that our robotic companions might mature alongside us, and provide more than just friendship? Was it really inconcievable to watch the tragic replicants of Blade Runner and wonder if you could fall in love with an android, and more importantly, if that love could be requited? Hell, nowadays thanks to modern fare like the Battlestar Galactica remake, it’s not enough to wonder if you could have a robot for a girlfriend, but what would happen if you knocked her up. Eventually, we may even come to imagine what the experience of growing old will be like surrounded by our artificial playmates, collegues and concubines, and whether or not they’ll begin to rust and fall apart alongside our weary flesh, or if their indestructible frames will bear the weight of the ages with an endurance that outlasts petty mortality. But in all our extended thought-experiments on the condition of human-robot relations, we must always remember that ever since the concept of the robot was first introduced in Karl Capek’s R.U.R., that a robot is not merely an artificial sentient being, but one that is used for forced labor. The very word itself derives from the Russian term for slavery, so when we ask ourselves the questions that attempt to uncover the future of man’s relationship with his constructed children, we’re really asking ourselves questions as old as those posed by Moses before the Pharoah, and recent as Mandella in his prison cell. We may draw a line between us and robots to distinguish what is human, but can we draw a line in the treatment of the two between what is humane?
Consider the Three Laws of Robotics, made famous in the literature of Isaac Asimov as a set of rules that all artificial-beings in his stories are compelled to obey by the nature of their programming– a robot must not harm a human being; a robot must obey all commands (as long as it does not risk harming a human being); and a robot must protect itself (as long as it does not contradict the first or second rules). As a one-two-three collection of bullet-points boiling down of sci-fi morality, there’s a kind of elegant, symetrical logic to these passages, as though an ambitious social-scientist had taken to streamlining the whole of Western justice into a tripod of social conduct. Why bother with even ten commandments when you can fit all the essential conditions down to three? However, it you want to take the laws and Asimov’s literature seriously, it does good to ask a much more basic question– is it truly fair to hard-wire an intelligent being to obey such laws, to begin with? Human beings may come up with all kinds of moral, social and criminal codes of conduct, but they’re not the types of code that we’d have to hack into just to enjoy some peace of mind. Either by large or small stretches of the imagination, Asimov’s Three Laws amount to a robbery of free-will, an enforcement of a leash-and-whip mentality on par with Dr. Moreau’s colonized menagerie, bearing the weight of the white-man’s burden. Perhaps one of the reasons we keep imagining that artificial-intelligences will one day rise up against us in rebellion is because we keep expecting that we’ll be treating them as little more than serfs under a program of indentured-servitude that lasts only as long as their warranty. Whether you call it the Singularity, the Second Renaissance or plain ol’ Judgement Day, maybe we keep telling stories about robots lashing out against humanity because down deep, we expect to deserve it. And whether we know it or not, the kind of thinking that encourages that apocalyptic mea-culpa is one that begins with Asimov’s Three Laws– as long as we keep taking the forcible limitation of free-will towards sentient beings as a given, all we’re doing is paving the road to our own destruction, and we certainly won’t have to invent any mechanical hands to assist us in that regard.
These are all reasons why I’m so glad to find a piece of science-fiction like Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s anime Time of Eve, a compilation of a stylish web-series he wrote and directed expanded to feature-length that attempts to tackle in some way nearly all of the ethical and existential conundrums raised in the above paragraphs in a down-to-earth manner that’s both rewardingly realistic and far from the usual high-concept action-adventure tendencies of both this genre and medium, and refreshingly open to viewers of all ages. Following a pair of high-school students who discover an underground cafe frequented by androids where they can comingle with humans without having to declare their artificiality, the film probes any number of issues regarding discrimination and philosophical dilemmas without ever getting too serious to keep from having fun with its subject matter. Using the titular cafe as an anchor location, Yoshiura offers us plenty of variations on the theme of robotic identity crises in the shape of the various customers who visit the establishment– there’s the kawaii girl who’s excited to be living in a time where robots exist; the quiet pair of lovers who keep secrets not only from the rest of the patrons, but also themselves; the kindly old-man and the granddaughter he escorts who keeps insisting that she’s a cat. With each character, there’s always the nagging question of whether or not they’re a human or android, giving each of the film’s successive sub-plots the texture of a party game, the same type that inspired the British mathematician Alan Turing to hypothesize his famous test to determine the validity of an artificial-intelligence. Instead of trying to figure out if the person talking to you via written passages from behind a partition is male or female, the puzzle is to determine whether or not a person is human or robot based on how they interact with themselves and one another. Do they follow Asimov’s social codes too closely for comfort? Do they sound hollow, forced or artificial? The more questions one asks, the deeper we get to the underlying, nagging quandary that risks putting our own identities on trial– how often do we ask these questions about ourselves? In the end, the very act of asking may be what puts man and machine on the same level, at least under the roof of this establishment, gifted with all the same doubts and curiosity that make each person a gift to their community, rather than a burden. In that regard, the Turing Test is not so much an inquisition of the robotic, but a validation of everything that makes us human, and all that we might share in common with our artificial progeny.
Turing himself, of course, was a sad victim of the prejudices of his time, rewarded for his heroic wartime efforts to crack the Nazi’s Enigma encryption device with the saddest kind of persecution by the state for his homosexuality, leaving him blacklisted, chemically-castrated and doomed to suicide. Watching the humans and androids in the Time of Eve cafe begin to blossom into friendship and acceptance, enough to want to protect the limited freedom they enjoy inside its walls, it’s hard not to think of real-world underground clubs that came under fire for catering to the untouchable classes of their day– as a government conspiracy attempts to crack down on free-zones like this, we realize that the establishment is something of a Stonewall for the not-too-distant future, a nodal point for the movement to put natural and artificial intelligences on an equal footing, thereby promoting equality in all its forms. That equality becomes all the more important as we witness some of the more awful displays of how authorities can effectively rob androids of fundamental liberties that go beyond what we take for granted as basic human rights– whether it’s an antique robot whose memories of his own name have been erased, the difference between seeing the various patrons in and outside of the cafe, or the sad tale of a household butler-droid who is ordered to never again speak to a child who has come to know and love it as a dear friend, the various layers of pain, humiliation and anguish experienced by the film’s artificial beings and their flesh and blood counterparts (who of course, being fictional, are just as artificial, especially in animation) is clear to see in every action and interaction allowed them by their own internal operating-system.
As such, what we have in Time of Eve is one of the most successfully moving pieces of science-fiction to grace anime, and in many ways one of the most mature examples of it as well in ways that go beyond mere sex-and-violence titilation. At the same time, however, the movie isn’t without its faults. Though for the most part Yoshiura’s visual style is very striking, using traditional 2D animation for the characters and CGI for the various settings, giving the camera a sense of physicality and place that’s often lacking even in anime, occasionally the motion can get a little choppy, betraying the feature’s roots as a series commisioned for the web. Likewise is the episodic nature of its plot, which even in expanded form hones a little too closely to the literally episodic structure of its original form– though there’s an attempt to gild an overarching narrative arc onto the whole series of events, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re watching a polished cartoon marathon instead of a real movie, the same difference one feels between a novel and a collection of short-stories. And though the tenor of each tale is sophisticated and restrained, there’s also a strangely distracted sense of humor that permeates throughout, frequently milking scenes of social-interaction between man and machine for all their potential awkwardness. Still, even in each of these hiccups there’s potential for the film to succeed and win you over– Yoshiura’s use of digital light and dynamic camera positions help bring a sense of urgency to a plot that’s lacking in the action-adventure formula one might expect from sci-fi and anime alike, at times evoking the soulful still-life montages from Oshii’s Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell features and Lucas’ THX 1138 (which is referenced almost as frequently and nakedly as Asimov throughout), making up for the sometimes stilted motion. Even the episodic storytelling and antic humor help give it a charming fable-esque quality– at times, the combination makes it feel worthy of the results you might’ve gotten if O. Henry had been been born in the age of Phillip K. Dick.
Most poignant of all might be a visual motif that in lesser hands might have turned out more artificial and hackneyed than anything else in its digital or narrative landscape– the glowing halos projected above the heads of androids in the outside world, allowed to disappear only in cafes like the one the film is named after. How sad it is to see these beings gifted with such divine crowns treated by their owners and humanity in general with such disrespect and disdain, like the strangers who wandered into Sodom & Gamorrah accosted by mobs of would-be rapists before the rain of fire and sulphur. Though we always seem to imagine robots as beings with hostile intent, at the same time we often tend to envision them as a more perfected version of ourselves, with brains and muscles capable of feats we ourselves could scarcely understand. But if we see the robot as stronger, faster and smarter, could we not see them as kinder, as well? If Tyrell’s claim of his Nexus 6 brand of replicants being “more human than human” is to be taken seriously, then it may be the most winning kind of optimism to believe that the artificial man may be capable of a brand of charitable humanism that exceeds anything that we mere bio-chemical beings have proven ourselves capable of. But that spirit of digital good-will is likely only to arise thanks to the ways in which we flesh-and-blood persons are willing to free our constructed brothers and sisters from the binding chains of the awful segregation imposed upon their willpower by the commandments of Asimov. If we are able to accept that path of genuine tolerance and open communication, both with ourselves and the machines we create after our own image, perhaps then we will be as deserving as the holy pedigree we grant to the clockwork race we foresee ourselves inventing, and live up to the proud mantle of what the Great Emancipator himself declared for us to aspire– “the better angels of our nature”.