In the not too distant future, androids have come into common usage as live-in servants, maids or bodyguards. The most recent models look exactly like humans except for the holographic halo encircling their heads. Like most people, teenage Rikuo (voiced by Jun Fukuyama) took robots for granted, till he noticed his android housemaid Sammy (Rie Tanaka) would wander off alone on certain days. One day, Rikuo and his school friend Masaki (Kenji Nojima) track her movements to a hidden café called Time of Eve. They are warmly welcomed by its friendly and attractive owner, Nagi (Rina Satou), who encourages them to be themselves. To their surprise, the boys discover Time of Eve is a place where robots behave just like humans - they gossip, flirt and bond over shared stories. Over time it becomes impossible for Rikuo and Masaki to discern humans from androids, something that proves cause for concern amongst the Ethics Committee - a government organization out to prevent robots from “infiltrating” the human race.
Robot girlfriends have long been a staple of juvenile romantic comedies in anime, but despite superficial similarities in its set-up, Time of Eve is not of the fan-boy wish-fulfilment sub-genre. Instead, creator Yasuhiro Yoshiura takes his robot concept in a more thought-provoking and disarmingly lyrical direction, one that continually surprises and charms. Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy and Japan’s foremost manga innovator and science fiction author, was once criticised for not adhering to the famous Three Laws of Robotics as lain down by celebrated SF writer Isaac Asimov. However, Tezuka pointed out that Asimov’s ideas were not actual laws set in stone, simply one man’s hypothetical concept, a concept he fully intended to challenge being heavily influenced by Shintoist and Buddhist beliefs. In Shintoism, all things, even inanimate objects, have a spirit. Buddhism posits that all things are capable of evolving into a higher form of life as they strive down the path to enlightenment. These ideas are at the heart of Time of Eve which adopts its android dreamers as a collective metaphor for social interaction in twenty-first century Japan.
In Japanese culture, people carefully cultivate an “outer persona” whilst keeping their innermost feelings and desires private, for fear of offending others. These social constraints, combined with further barriers erected by modern technology, have led to widespread feelings of alienation. Of course this equally applies to the wider world where all too often, fear holds us back from getting to know our neighbour. In the Time of Eve café, androids abandon their cold, emotionless, robot personas, along with their holographic halos, and express themselves freely. “ I want to understand humans better” says perky android girl Akiko (Yukana), then rather touchingly adds: “After all, we’re family.”
Countering the mistaken belief all “serious” science fiction should be dark and dystopian, this offers a more benevolent flipside to Test Pilot Pirx (1978) and Blade Runner (1982). One character even making a gag reference to that iconic Philip K. Dick adaptation and there are further in-joke nods to THX 1138 (1971) and The Terminator (1984) in delightfully tragicomic scene involving a clunky, malfunctioning robot whose scary appearance belies its cuddly nature. Nagi’s efforts to break barriers between robots and humans unfold over an array of alternately romantic, tragicomic or laugh-out-loud funny subplots whose episodic nature betrays the film’s origins via a series of ONA (original net animation) webisodes but build to a cohesive and involving story. Rikuo comes to question his previous feelings of superiority over robots and, in pondering what it is that makes us human, learns from their example. He starts to express his feelings openly and honestly. Meanwhile Masaki’s attitude towards the androids proves more complex. His first thought is the robots are part of some widespread conspiracy to usurp mankind. As we delve into his back-story, we discover Masaki was devoted to a clunky old robot named Tex (Mitsuku Saiga), who actually raised him, until his father (Akio Nojima) took drastic measures to sever their emotional bond. The various human-android relationships are quite poignantly drawn, although it is of mild disappointment that Sammy remains a stereotypically mild-mannered love interest when the Rikuo/Nagi relationship proves far more compelling. The film ends with a number of questions left unanswered which, alongside the tantalising end credit sequence that hints at some possibilities regarding what Nagi really is and what her mission might be, suggests a sequel could be on its way.