The Sound of an Android’s Soul

Music, Muzak and MIDI in Time Of Eve

Published in Cinefile Vol.7 No.1, Vancouver, 2011
Reprinted in full extended form in The Palgrave Handbook of Sound Design & Music in Screen Media, Palgrave/Macmillan, London, 2017.



At a crucial reveal halfway through Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s Time of Eve (Evu no jikan, 6-part OVA, 2008-9, compiled into a feature film in 2010), teen Rikuo remembers a past conversation with his best friend, Masaki. Unbeknownst to them at the time, they innocently stand at crossroads. Masaki will continue his studies in law; Rikuo is uncertain, having given up his aspirations to be a concert pianist. Masaki ridicules his decision, for Rikuo has rejected his aspirations after seeing a robot perfectly perform a piece of music on the piano. Rikuo doesn’t mention to Masaki what was most disturbing about the performance: only at this point in Eve’s back-story do we realise that Rikuo was truly moved by the robot’s performance.

This is not your usual existential dilemma – a field in which teen-oriented anime excels, more than most western photo-cine attempts at the same. Here in this near future (sardonically tagged as “probably Japan” in a pre-title card), the teen Rikuo has his world inverted because a robot achieved not a technically perfect actualisation of a piece of classical pianoforte music, but because to Rikuo’s advanced listening sensibilities (dedicated to encountering and hopefully generating such moments of actualised perfection) this robot’s performance emotionally moved him. Japanese cinema and anime has consistently told stories in manifold genres that evidence this inversion, wherein everyday life is accepted to be ‘existential’ until one day a ‘humanist’ moment occurs and transforms things. Anime’s preponderance of ‘androids with souls’ is thus less likely to be formally motivated by generic machinations of science fiction, and more likely to be culturally determined by philosophical enquiries of dramatic fiction.

In Eve, we never get to hear that robot’s performance, yet it weighs heavily in Rikuo’s head, softly ringing with emotional gravitas. With acumen and sensitivity, sound and music in Eve – an acute meld of sound effects design, spatial environment mixing, musical arrangement, phonographic reproduction, and compositional performance – function like a ‘meta-score’ moulded by concave and convex undulations of the inner surface of Rikuo’s head. Belying an aptly Japanese sense of how dramaturgy and psychology are represented in and expressed by narrative moments, arcs and formations, Eve’s conduction of sound and music precisely maps the story’s key themes of consciousness (a boy realising androids have feelings, while a ‘girl’ android realises her feelings to her ‘master’ boy) and in the process gives rise to a bounty for musicological signification.

While sound and music are easily foregrounded in Eve due to Rikuo’s character, the aural issues it raises are particularly well presented by the anime world, wherein considerations of the minutiae of post-human behaviour (as both social interaction and internal motivation) have been a staple meme ever since Osamu Tezuka’s ground-breaking manga, Tetsuwan Atomu (Astroy Boy, serialised between 1947 and 1963, then made as an animated TV series in 1963, 1980 and 2007). Atomu is the definitive ‘android with a soul’, questioning not only his own existence, but also interrogating Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics from a robot’s point-of-view. (Not by coincidence is Asimov’s logic similarly interrogated throughout Eve.) More so, just as the anime form gives rise to considering how appearance and simulation constitute a self-reflexive given (i.e., a realm where graphically rendered images of humans include identically rendered androids who within the fictional world are perceived as being indistinguishable from actual humans – but which to us watching anime appear equally ‘unreal’ due to their shared status as drawings), so too does its soundtrack give rise to how we perceive differences between ‘real’ and ‘artificial’ renderings and performances of music.

Emblematic of contemporary futurist speculative anime, Eve defines a world within which characters are populated in situations designed to illustrate the formation of that world. Here, we have a time when androids have become so ‘visibly realistic’ that whenever in the presence of humans, they are required by law to activate a spinning holographic data-band which rotates above their head like a horizontal halo. The seamless fanciful technology which enables this vision of a well-designed world is undercut by its terse anthropological decline, as we witness the prejudices these ‘near-perfect’ human machines endure once they have been thoroughly integrated into the industry and exchange of everyday life. A nebulous Orwellian organization – the wonderfully monikered Ethics Committee – is a ubiquitous media presence with messages like “Would you eat a tomato created by machines?”, while tabloid TV features confessional exposes on ‘android-holics’ (in Japanese, dorikei, suggesting something slightly sexual) – people who harbour affections for their ‘houseroid’ robots.

An oasis in this troubled world is the Time of Eve café, which stipulates only one rule: “… there is to be no discrimination between humans and robots. Customers, please co-operate. Obey the rule and have a fun time …”. Specifically, this covert café sends a cryptic Japlish message (“Are you enjoying your Time of Eve?”) to androids who make their way to the café in order to – of their own volition – experience an absence of prejudice. In a way, the café is a stage within a stage of the story’s drama; a space for its characters – android and human alike – to query, reflect upon and ultimately come to terms with how they as individuals relate to the social complexion of their emotional contracts with each other. As such, the café space is also a figurative auditorium which symbolically and materially audits and ‘auralizes’ those same relationships. While Eve’s speculative themes and visual design deservedly invite sophisticated analysis, its soundtrack warrants special attention as it is directed, organised and realised in ways profoundly different from photo-cine films oppositely concerned with reductivist emoting and human-centric motivation.


As a giant screen simulates the tracing of an illegal data transmission from an unknown source to a random network of androids in the opening of Eve, background music plays – or to use the Japanese acronym, BGM. It sounds electronic, computerised, current (glitched ambient techno of a Japanese melodic bent, to be more precise). To musicologists who proffer rationalist qualitative views of how ‘great’ film scores operate, this would likely appear to be ‘non-signifying’ music: something simply ‘playing in the background’, devoid of dramatic purpose or thematic function, lacking in the craft of composition. How sad a reading that would be here in anime. How perfect a place to demonstrate why music in any audiovisual form is inescapably ‘signifying’: there will always be effects generated from the production, generation, rendering and placement of music regardless of any qualitative criteria forced upon it.

The music in question here is born of a techno ethos, wherein MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) sequencing and multi-tracking, analogue/digital synthesis, timbrel simulation, and anacoustic post-production effecting and mixing, all combine to confer a deliberately alienating computerised patina. Within a Japanese cultural context, the hi-tech veneer of Eve’s music here is a given: a non-divisive, non-polemic application of music as it contemporaneously exists in the broader social world (from night club immersion to CM broadcast to download consumption). Eve’s introductory proposition of how music exists now serves to orient a forthcoming series of more real or less real forms of music composition, production and performance in the film’s story.

The ‘glitched ambient techno’ also figures music can be an entirely non-human enterprise – birthing itself from an ‘anacoustic realm’ where melodic occurrences are inherited not from actual instruments, human playing and real-time recording, but from MIDI’s ability to position temporal events and harmonic nodes on a neural grid, matrixing music rather than composing it. While this is a standard reading of the pleasure drive of techno since Kraftwerk’s pioneering work in the late 70s, such a matrixing of events here is synchronised to the large screen’s display of a network of androids separately attaining a moment of consciousness (activated by receiving the mysterious Eve message). Profoundly, this entirely ‘non-human’ and ‘non-signifying’ BGM represents not how humans bellow their humanism, but how androids attain consciousness. Diverging from Kraftwerk’s (and in a sense, Asimov’s) celebration of programmed mechanics and automated robotics, this music is not ‘machine-like’ (an oft-bandied criticism of techno in general) but suggestive of how machines can innately and animistically ‘self-generate’ their own musical language.

One might interpret this reading as disproportionate to its effect and purpose in the film. But Japanese cinema has long employed a type of ‘interior/exterior inversion’ to govern where, how and why its musical moments occur 1. Eve’s opening music requires scrutiny precisely because it seems inconsequential, offhand, insubstantial. Just as emotional tenor in anime is transmitted through the most subtle of line work in the characters’ faces (a central aspect of characterization inherited from traditional theatre forms like Kabuki and Noh), so too is psychological symbolism conveyed within the music’s minutiae, operating not at a nominal linguistic level, but at the threshold of micro-material occurrences. The act of listening to the music of Eve is predicated on a contemplative awareness of this operational threshold – one decidedly more complex and subtle than the faux-European orchestral scores which have assailed the listener in western CGI animation movies over the last decade.

Eve’s next musical moment occurs when we are introduced to Rikuo and his ‘houseroid’ Sammy. They sit side-by-side in the lounge room, a haze of afternoon sunlight bleaching their quiet space. Both are motionless; Sammy has her abdominal cavity exposed, showing us cables connected to Rikuo’s keitai as he reads a log of her neural activity in the preceding month. We see the scrolling data on the keitai screen: it’s all computer code except for an English line “Are you enjoying your Time of Eve?”. At this moment the music - initially a sparkling web of sweet marimba – surges into a chordal progression laden with rich keyboard textures and a soaring female wordless aria. Simultaneously, another chordal passage sweeps across this, inducing a multiplied polyphony from the passages’ conflicting keys. It totals only about 20 seconds, but its combination of brevity and compaction follows Japanese hierarchical distribution, wherein the most important points are delivered with the silent slicing of a precision blade rather than the explosive boom of a cannon blast. As we hear this musical moment and register its euphoric, uplifting, transcending tone, we see Rikuo’s eyes widen slightly. But it remains unclear what he is thinking or feeling, despite the clarity of its impact. This musical refrain is repeated twice more in Eve, and only at those later moments can we deduce the aggregated implications and syncretized effect of the music.

Text © Philip Brophy 2011. Images © Time of Eve