Beatless

Seiji Mizushima (director), Hiroko Yaguchi (character design), Tatsuya Takahashi and Go Zappa (writers)
Nao Touyama, Takuto Yoshinaga, Saki Ono, Misako Tomioka, Sora Amamiya, Shino Shimoji, Hiromi Igarashi (cast)
Adapted from Beatless by Satoshi Hase
January 12, 2018 (Japan)

Beatless is a brand new anime on Amazon Prime Video that is very hard to find on that very same platform. It aired in Japan on January 12th and 13th, where Amazon broadcast it on the Animeism programming block for MBS. Despite multiple announcements and media hype, Prime Video did not have the anime available in the United States until January 15th, several days after its Animeism broadcast. Was this because of the changes to Anime Strike, a previous Prime Video service that used to cost an extra $5 per month on top of Prime service? When it was discontinued, Amazon supposedly merged all of the existing anime into their regular Prime Video collection. Would this have affected their ability to release it to US viewers on time? I’m not sure.

The Amazon Prime Video Beatless anime cover

The experience trying to find the anime was exhausting, even after it was released. This was in part due to the fact that the Beatles are a far more popular search around the world, and only one letter away. Throw in autocorrect, which assumes you’re not searching for “Beatless anime,” but you must be searching for a Beatles documentary. No, Amazon, I’m not into the whole Ringo Starr thing. I want my futuristic AI anime. I’ve been watching Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams and I just saw Ex Machina. So I kept searching Amazon for Beatless. I discovered that it shows up when you search on iOS devices, but not on the Apple TV Amazon Prime Video app or the same app on Xbox One. The trick is to add it to your playlist there and then turn on the TV and go to your watchlist. Just in case you were wondering. Thanks for the wild ride, Amazon.

In the first episode of Beatless, the new Japan exists on an advanced version of Earth in the near future. To quote the English translation of Satoshi Hase’s original serialized 2012 novel, “In the year AD 2105, the wheels of Japanese society spun smoothly only because androids were there to act as grease on the cogs.” This very foundation is portrayed in the anime through the use of the hIE devices, or human Interface Elements, who are created to look like humans and react with human responses based on interactive input. In the Beatless world, every hIE device is a young female. Whether it is assisting an elderly person as a companion or making food at a hotcake stand, these androids with artificial intelligence are in the business of performative beautiful female labor.

And that brings me to the question I had the entire time I was watching the first episode: is this just going to be another anime about a guy who falls in love with his perfectly willing female robot servant? I hoped not, because the premise for the story in multiple advertisements says “amid questions regarding the coexistence of these artificial beings and humans, a 17-year-old boy makes a decision.” This makes it sound as if the story of Beatless might reach beyond previous tropes and explore what it is actually like to interact with an AI being. But the first episode of the series does not reflect a deeper meaning.

It begins with an introduction into the aforementioned world of Arato Endo, his friends, and his younger sister, Yuka. He is a lonely young man whose father is always gone, and is portrayed as just a nice guy—something the audience is reminded of in every scene. This comes off as heavy-handed when Arato helps an old lady across the street who also has an hIE companion, while his friends make fun of him for doing nice things for girls that “aren’t real” and “simply programmed.” Arato, of course, insists that he thinks differently, that he wants to be nice to all girls.

Over the course of the episode we are also introduced to Lacia, one of five hIE beings with special powers. We don’t get to know much about these AI beings or their motivation as they escape from a science lab and burn it down, and subsequently caused citywide electrical failure. Minutes later in the episode, Lacia appears and offers herself to Arato, requesting that he be her owner because she cannot be permitted to make legal decisions. Someone else, she insists, must be responsible. She begs Arato to be her owner, saying, “I am a tool incapable of taking responsibility” while she holds off a mechanical attack. Of course he says yes and she presses his finger to her sternum to take his thumb print into her operating system.

The visual setting for Beatless is futuristic, metallic. There are hints of technology everywhere. Scenes intermittently have clear school tablets, school uniforms that can be cooled with the gentle press of an attached cufflink, and massive coffin shaped laser sword weapon devices that have yet to be explained. Yet there are also familiar anime settings that call to mind schools in Tokyo, and traditional activities such as attending the cherry blossom festival or a tea ceremony. And sadly, there’s the traditional roles of women in servitude in this anime.

Women being molded to be the perfect slave is not a new problem. Pygmalion’s story comes to mind when I think back to original stories of how “the perfect woman” could be “made” for a man’s own purposes and needs. This is an old and tired story, where woman only exists to serve man in some way. “To be the grease on the cogs,” as Hase himself wrote in the Beatless novel. Why are all the AI beings, the “grease” in this story, female?

Adding AI into the mix is another common method of exploring the idea of the “perfect” heteronormative servile woman whose only life goal is to satisfy and serve male needs. This has been used at length in anime. From Chobits to Fate Stay Night to Elfen Lied, the Robot Girl has been enslaved long enough. This type of story, the Robot Girl, has its own TV Tropes article. There are entire message threads dedicated to lists of “Robotic Slave Servant Version 2.0” anime that are available to watch. Discussions about how people would treat their android, whether or not they would have a harem, whether or not they would hunt them, and how often they would have sex with their robotic slave woman abound. One user says, “this should be part of anime’s theme if possible most of the time” in a forum post from November 2015. Is this the kind of thing that Beatless is going to cultivate in the story? Isn’t enough, enough?

The first thing that Lacia does after she saves Arato’s life is go home with him and cook for him and his sister. Most of the beginning was laying out the world and the setting for events to come. And then Lacia comes home to be with Arato and Yuka, and everything is perfect just before the credits roll. Nothing inappropriate is said or indicated, unless you count his younger sister’s infantilized yet scantily clad character design. Did I mention she’s the focus of the end credits? This adds to the confusion. Is this story about AI, or is it about objectifying women and teenage girls?

After the credits, there are a few more minutes of the anime, but it is unclear as to why they saved these scenes for post-credits. Since this is the episode that sets up the rest of the story, the creators have gone to great lengths to explain clearly to the audience what exactly what Lacia is meant for and who she is. First, of course, she performs a perfect tea ceremony for Arato in such a way that he looks at her breasts. But as the story makes clear, he’s a really good guy so he just calls himself a pervert in his head and moves on. Right after this, Lacia decides to make it very clear that she is not performing behavior in any way, but simply has mechanical responses. Again the audience is bludgeoned with the idea that these aren’t real girls, they’re just perfect robot servants! Even though Arato thinks there’s more. Of course he does.

Episode 1 of Beatless ends on two notes: firstly, Lacia asks, “What will you do with me, owner?” and secondly, the narrator makes sure we all know that Lacia is a “mechanical angel who entered the world and glittered brightly.” Is she? She saved a teenage boy’s life and made him dinner and tea. How does that make her an angel? She seems more to me to be a mechanism for a teenage boy’s politely lewd eye and his own personal needs. When he asked for help, she came immediately, without question, to serve him.

I hope that Beatless has begun at a simple level and is going to become more interesting and complex. It would not be the first show, animated or otherwise, to sell the whole storyline a little too hard in a pilot episode. So I look forward to watching the whole first season to find out if we really do get to explore the relationship between AI and humanity, and not just in a Robot Girl way.