There's this mistaken idea that in order to tell a story about Deep Things, you have to have a long story or a complex one. But longer and more complex aren't automatically deeper or even more interesting. Time of Eve has some big things on its mind — the biggest being the old standby of what it means to be human — but it doesn't try to address them through sprawl or pretension. It tells a modest, focused story about a few characters we come to care a great deal about, and manages to say so much more than other stories that try to be about everything at once and wind up being about nothing at all.
The man-machines, the future human beings
Eve postulates a near future where androids are now common household fixtures. At a glance, they are entirely human, save for the glowing ring hovering over their heads, mandated by law, that marks them as artificial. They have all the personality of Siri or Cortana — just being able to make those reference hints at how on the mark this story was! — but they're not substitutes for human companionship. At best they are butlers or caretakers. Still, that hasn't stopped some from attempting to see their androids as more than that, and so TV PSAs flash "Android Ethics Comittee" messages like "Love? You won't find it here" over desentimentalized images of humans and androids together.
Young man Rikuo Sakisaka grew up around and with androids, and so all of this is second nature to him. So is Sammy, his female home android, a patient and diligent big-sister figure who makes his coffee, prepares his breakfast, and keeps the household running when his ever-absent parents do not. All seems well enough, except for when the strange phrase "Are you enjoying the time of EVE?" shows up in Sammy's service log — something that coincides with her walking off on her own, ostensibly to do errands.
Rikuo and his school chum Masaki decide to tail Sammy, and find her repairing to a clandestine below-the-sidewalk club of sorts. "Time of Eve", as the place is called, caters to both androids and humans, with the stipulation that there is to be no discrimination between the two. Androids there have their status displays turned off, and behave with many of the same idiosyncracies as humans — in much the same way servants and peons loosen their ties and kick up their heels when the master has gone home for the day. It's a speakeasy for a society where the crime isn't bathtub bourbon,
How is this possible? Apparently androids in this story have a sort of emergent sentience, something that has evolved naturally out of their design and programming, but until now lacked a place where it could be expressed without fear of repercussions. The café is a safe space — not only for them, but for the humans who want to mix with androids, also without fear.
Yes, androids do dream of electric sheep
The first half or so of Eve is highly episodic, a reflection of how the movie was itself a series of OVAs before it was stitched together into a feature film. On successive visits to the café, Rikuo and Masaki meet, mingle with, and puzzle over the regulars there. Sometimes, we're invited just to see how their "real" personalities contrast with the manicured, staid, robotic (no better word, really) face they present outside the café. Akiko, a hyperactive young woman inside Time of Eve, is the android for one of Rikuo's fellow students, and when she arrives to pick up her master from school she's as indistinguishably docile as any other android.
More fascinating, and emblematic of the movie's gentle fearlessness in the way it examines its ideas, is Koji and Rina. The latter is a female android, apparently being used as an (illegal) sexual companion by her human partner Koji. What Rina actually was, and is, and the true nature of Koji's relationship to her, become one of the film's most eye-opening surprises. And not in the sense of being a twist for the sake of a twist, but as part of the movie's whole larger process of examining what having an android race will do to both androids and humanity like.
All of the other characters in the café eventually become part of that process as well. Consider the kindly old man Shimei and the little girl Chie (always pretending she's a cat); Shimei is a variety of android devised to replace a human parent, or grandparent — something that makes us wonder if it's humans he's ultimately meant to be parenting, or other androids, as a way to bring them that much closer to being human in their own way. Human fear of artificial life, from what's hinted at in the film, is based mainly on mankind's irrational fear of being knocked off his pedestal, of no longer being unique by dint of his mind and his spirit. But the movie hints that this isn't a competition; androids aren't out to replace humanity, but to sit side by side with them on the same bus.
The ultimate aim of having Rikuo and Masaki pay witness to these things is twofold. First, it brings about within them — Rikuo, mainly — a change in attitude towards androids. Once having seen them as sentient beings, it's hard for them to un-see that. Whenever Rikuo returns home and sees Sammy standing in the kitchen docilely offering to prepare coffee, it's impossible for him to just see a piece of machinery anymore. He knows what's behind the mask now. Second is how it prepares Masaki for a confrontation with how he has, in fact, had a tender spot for his family robot as a child. When his father, an Ethics Committee member, tracks both son and 'bot to the café, it causes the 'bot to examine its Asimovian Three-Laws-style programming and look for a creative way to protect a human being from harm.
Ahead of its Time
Eve's modest scope — its action would condense nicely to a single-set stage play -- is not the only thing that keeps it from becoming too top-heavy for its own good. This is also a very funny film, all the more so because the humor pops sideways out of the material. A lot of it is manifested by the way the film chooses to look at things, as when Rikuo and Masaki at one point have a mutual thought-bubble fantasy about the nature of Rina and Koji's relationship (made even funnier by a reverse-angle shot involving Chie; I won't ruin the joke).
But none of this makes the film itself into a joke, and Eve avoids sabotaging itself several other ways. When Rikuo and his relationship with Sammy were first set up, I cringed, wondering if the story was bound to be about the Pygmalion-esque fulfillment of Rikuo's fantasies. Instead, the movie is more about how Sammy gains dignity in the eyes of her fellow humans, and maybe even in her own eyes as well. He is not interested in her as a sexual object, and neither is the film; both he and it see her as someone whose nascent humanity is only just now being allowed to flourish. There is a wonderful shot early on when Sammy looks into a mirror with her halo switched on, then toggles it off and begins letting down her hair both literally and metaphorically.
Eve was directed and written by Yasuhiro Yoshiura, who captured my attention previously with Patema Inverted. That movie, made after Eve, was more fantasy than SF, strictly speaking, but it also chose to look at its central premise — what if mankind caused gravity to fail? -- through the eyes of a society represented by a microcosmic few. Much of what was wrong with that film wasn't the concept, but individual details in the execution: it concentrated all the evil of the setting into a single load-bearing villain, a one-dimensional, hand-rubbing cackler straight out of the silent era. But it caught and kept my attention despite that, and like Time of Eve it cared at least as much about its people as it did its clever ideas. Its greatest flaw is in how occasionally the pacing flags, reminding us of how it was originally multiple OVAs stitched together. There's a subplot about halfway through the film involving a near-antique robot entering the café looking for its former master, and it tries to milk laughs from the whole thing at a length that seems disproportionate to how funny it actually is. But none of it is fatal.
History has been on Time of Eve's side. In 2008, when the first parts of it debuted (it was originally released as a six-episode OVA, later edited together into a feature film), artificial intelligence still seemed like something confined to computer labs. Now, eight years later, people talk seriously about what kind of society we'll have to build when automation obviates whole swaths of blue- and white-collar labor alike. The idea of artificial intelligences not only developing, but needing, their own autonomy is starting to loom. Entertainments like this may not be able to tell us what to do about it, but they help us imagine what possible futures look like. If knowing is half the battle, maybe dreaming is the other half.