Robots are cool, right? I think we can all agree. I love robots. I love robot anime. In particular, I love science fiction robot anime. Science fiction robots are much more than just cool machines; they are mirrors held up to humanity. Every science fiction author worth their salts dabbles with the idea of artificial intelligence at some point, engaged in questions of ethics, morality and the human condition. Because that’s the value of science fiction, to ask questions that we as a society may not be prepared for and then imagining an answer. Anime, such an open canvass for imagination, should by all rights be a fantastic medium for science fiction, but somehow we don’t really get many hard sci-fi series so when a show like Beatless, with a near-future setting filled with robots and open contemplation about the nature of the soul, I’m all over it.
It is dangerous to go into a show with these expectations because it, of course, has no idea I am demanding things from it through my monitor and will only do what it set out to do. Plenty of shows have robots without being about robots. In recent times, Plastic Memories had robots, but was about grief. Clockwork Planet had robots but it was about… wish fulfilment? Point is, we don’t always get what we want, and perhaps that’s okay, because we get exposed to a higher variety of shows that way. Sure, Plastic Memories, Clockwork Planet, and Beatless are all basically elaborate boy-meets-robot-girl setups, but they all end up as different shows.
…Or are they? I have no experience with the source, but this first episode of Beatless did seem to me to be the illegitimate love child of Plastic Memories and Clockwork Planet. I’m not entirely sure it works. The two halves of show felt too far apart to be bridged in a single episode. On the one hand, we have the good ol’ high school setting, which is the standard for every anime starring teenage boys gaining disproportionate power. On the other hand, we have the sci-fi i.e. everything about robots, techno-whatever, and all those issues surrounding their design and their use. It takes work to marry those two halves, because normally they would pass each by, ne’er the two shall meet, like ships in the night. Teenage boys don’t naturally contemplate the social impacts of super-technology. Science fiction settings are complicated enough already without this extra obstacle. That’s why Plastic Memories is specifically about a company that makes robots. That’s why Ghost in the Shell is specifically about an agency interested in the use and abuse of technology. Sci-fi settings need to be plausible and therefore we need to slide into it as naturally as possible. This pilot has already leaned on a few contrivances, and not just with the average-high-school-student protagonist. For example, nobody would ever pose in front of an explosion, no matter how cool it is. When the charactersare so aware of the camera the fourth wall wears thin. Yeah, I know, someone on the team is very proud of the designs and you really want to show off the work, but when you need the audience immersed in the setting it doesn’t help.
I’m ragging on Beatless, but it’s really not bad, per se. I see heaps of potential here, I’m just afraid Beatless will miss the opportunity to tap it. We can already see it having to take up a lot of episode time gluing its two halves — the wish fulfilment half and the hard sci-fi half — together and making sacrifices in other elements. For example, we basically had to blaze through the establishment of the central relationship between Endou Arato (Yoshinaga Takuto) and Lacia (Touyama Nao) with an instantaneous, ‘Do you trust me?’ ‘Sure!’. Next moment, they’re going to take a ride a magic carpet and spontaneously burst into song. On the other hand, we got a lot of good things every pilot can use: explosions, uncanny valley robots, and shiny lights. Those were fun. And I can see the depth there, lurking just beneath the surface. Already, we some weighty issues, some more heavy-handed than others, waiting to be explored, like issues regarding artificial intelligence and whether it’s either; why we make machines closer and closer to humans, whether we can and whether we should; and the relationship between power and responsibility, extrapolated to humanity and increasingly advanced technology. I can feel it, there is something here. The preview must be a red herring. I’m going to give Beatless a chance, and maybe it will wow us yet.
Full length images: 02.
ED: 「PRIMALove」 by ClariS