Review

by Theron Martin,

Beatless

Episodes 1-20 streaming

Synopsis:
Beatless ‒ Episodes 1-20 streaming
In the early 22nd century, 17-year-old Arato Endo lives in a world where automation has expanded to include hIEs (Human Interface Elements), highly-adaptable androids that can nearly pass for human and perform a variety of labor tasks. One night while returning home from the grocery store, Arato is attacked by automated vehicles and a familiar hIE, which have all gone rogue after being subjected to a shower of strange flower petals. He is rescued by a high-end hIE named Lacia, who formally requests that he become her first owner and thus take legal responsibility for her actions. Lacia comes home to live with Arato and his younger sister, but he gradually discovers that Lacia is far from ordinary even as a luxury model. Lacia insists that she is a tool who can reshape the world to bring about the future he wants to see, but can he really see her only as a tool?
Review:

This science fiction novel adaptation does not make a strong first impression. With mediocre-at-best artistry, the comical portrayal of Arato's little sister, and a cross between a classic Magical Girlfriend scenario and an android-centered thriller all weigh down an opening episode despite its interesting concepts and futuristic technology. That's a shame, as over the course of the nineteen episodes to follow, the series gradually delivers one of the most thoughtful examinations of humans' relationship with technology in recent years and one of the best explorations of artificial intelligence in anime.

The series' nature as a magical girlfriend story is inescapable, as Lacia follows a decades-long tradition of binding herself to a hapless male lead. However, this series distinguishes itself by never being clear if Lacia actually reciprocates Arato's love (or is even capable of doing so), and she might not even be certain about that herself. It's regularly pointed out that hIEs are specifically designed to behave in a way that will ingratiate themselves to humans – in other words, to give them what they want within legal boundaries – and revelations later in the series indicate that Lacia does need Arato for specific reasons beyond his accountability as a master. As more master/servant bonds between hIEs and humans are formed, the story gradually reveals that advanced hIEs aren't as autonomous as they sometimes act; they need connections to the right kind of masters in order to realize their full capabilities and identities, whether their primary purpose is to assist in defeating other humans, progress civilization, expand humanity's limits, or to enhance the environment.

That is the foundation for the philosophical side of the series, which extends into many fascinating questions. The first indicator that the series is aiming higher than usual comes in episode 2 with the introduction of analog hacking, which essentially involves hIEs taking advantage of their human-seeming appearance and behavior to exploit security holes in human mental defenses and thus subtly manipulate human behavior. It's also taken into account that humans who realize they're being “hacked” might respond negatively, with workarounds to this effect. This is a heady concept that is revisited periodically through the course of the series as both individuals and entire crowds are influenced by artificial intelligence.

Later on, the series also brings up the reasonable idea that super-intelligent AIs have been surpassing human intelligence for decades by the 22nd century in which the story is set. When humans are no longer the smartest beings on the planet, how do we keep in control of things? The answer the series presents is to anticipate how the AIs are going to think and direct them so that their choices are in line with human wishes, which underlies much of the series' last two-thirds. One of the other Lacia-class units represents the more devious side of this equation, while representatives of super-intelligent AIs do try to act in humanity's best interest, even as it surprisingly draws the most violent opposition.

The series doesn't stop there, either. At one point it considers a situation where an AI-backed hIE might aggregate public opinion as part of human governance; at other times it explores how those disenfranchised by the advance of technology might violently resist, or what might happen if AIs have to resort to creative ways to carry out basic prerogatives. It examines a case where hIEs are used to model human-hIE interaction in a test village and what might happen if utterly illogical elements were introduced. The series also examines how super-intelligent AIs might interact if their designated goals for improving the human world come into conflict, including the fear that might be engendered by those who see such manipulations as the end of humanity.

Whether or not tools can become extensions of humanity, rather than just items used by humanity, is also explored. Another view contemplates the intrinsic value that decorations can give to objects, and by extension how the value of any object – whether a simple teacup or an intricate tool like an hIE – can be defined by its appearance, with broader implications about how that might apply to humans and thus to marketing strategies. Take this in the vein of “increase your value by choosing clothes that make you more appealing” and it takes on a cynical corporate undertone.

But that's about par for the course for Beatless. As light-hearted as certain segments are, the series takes the ideas behind its story seriously, which results in some early segments that may seem frivolous (most notably the fashion show in episode 2) turning out to be more significant later. Despite that, the regular philosophical monologues and discussions rarely bog down the story enough to be a problem, and some of these can get surprisingly intense as they become pure clashes of ideas and reasoning. Nowhere is this more evident than in one lengthy scene where two super-intelligent AIs openly debate the role that they should play in human society, which reinforces the recurrent notion that humanity must be exceedingly careful in how AI is managed or the consequences will be devastating. Ultimately, this series is much more interested in putting forward ideas than making judgment calls.

For all of the series' cerebral aspects, it also delivers a significant amount of action. Many of these scenes, especially early ones, are typical battles between super-powered androids or zombie-like rampages where hIEs go out of control. A few show more creativity, but often the reasons why battles are happening are more important than the battles themselves; this is especially evident in one episode involving the Lacia-class hIE Kouka going on a rampage, albeit one with a well-defined purpose. The action gradually becomes a complement to the story's ideas rather than a focal point, more an expression of expedient conflict resolution than an end unto itself.

The series definitely doesn't shine on the production front, however. Lacia is a cool and beautiful character design, Kouka certainly has her own visual flair, and some costuming choices show some ambition, but none of the other character designs stir much positive sentiment (what's up with Snowdrop's weird eyebrows?) and the show's flat color scheme restrains any attempts at vibrancy. Modeling issues pop up on a regular basis and the animation quality in general, beyond some respectable use of CG, puts the series well below its peers. About the only times that the series visually impresses are when Lacia converts her Monolith into weapon form. Graphic content is sparse and sexual content is limited to some sexy outfits and a discussion of the limits placed on hIE sexual relations, but this still isn't a series suitable for younger audiences.

The musical score, with its emphasis on synthesized sounds, is generally better but also verges on overdramatizing some scenes and being questionably timed. Its most interesting selection is Kouka's western-flavored theme, although it also resorts to organ and piano themes at other times. For theme songs, techno-styled initial opener “Error” by GANiDELiA is vastly superior to the replacement that kicks in at episode 16, while the closers are equivalently fine, with visuals focusing primarily on Arato's sister.

By far the most egregious aspect to Beatless is its “intermission” episodes scattered throughout its first 20 episodes. One per season might be understandable, but four? And for a series that never looked sharp to begin with? Whether by design or not, this has resulted in an additional block of four episodes, called “Final Stage,” that will air in September and be reviewed separately. You can see my episode reviews for the first 14 episodes if you want a more detailed exploration of its ideas, but even without a conclusion yet, Beatless' ideas make it well worth more attention than it will probably ever get.

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : C+
Art : C+
Music : B

+ Ambitiously high-concept story about humanity's relationship to AI, deeply thoughtful approach with deceptively complex storytelling
Frequent recap episodes, subpar visuals, weak start

Director: Seiji Mizushima
Series Composition:
Tatsuya Takahashi
Go Zappa
Script:
Sadayuki Murai
Go Zappa
Storyboard:
Shota Ibata
Keizou Kusakawa
Kyōsuke Maeda
Tsutomu Miyazawa
Seiji Mizushima
Shingo Tamaki
Toru Yoshida
Episode Director:
Shota Ibata
Gorō Kuji
Keizou Kusakawa
Tenpei Mishio
Yōsuke Yamamoto
Original creator: Satoshi Hase
Original Character Design: redjuice
Character Design: Hiroko Yaguchi

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Beatless (TV)

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