“Who here is a robot and who here is human?” the two boys wonder, and try to discover the answer without outright breaking the law of the cafe. And as the series progresses, Rikuo - and perhaps Masaki - learn to ask another important question: “Does it matter?”
In the near future, “probably in Japan”, society uses humanoid androids as housekeepers, teachers, and workers. Newer models are indistinguishable from humans without holographic rings over their heads. The androids are seemingly emotionless, and obey Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. The practical and emotional consequences of these constraints are central to each of the stories.
Rikuo has a family android, called “Sammy”, whose growing humanity fascinates him. Masaki’s relationship with robots is more complicated, because of the people who helped raise him (both flesh and metal). The regulars of the cafe all have their own secrets, sometimes keeping them even from each other, sometimes sharing them or having them exposed.
The characters have recognizable and believable motivations. The secrets they keep are logical, and their reactions to revelation are heartbreaking or heartwarming or both. The Three Laws aren’t simply a background detail. They’re explored for their emotional and social effects, rather than a mechanism for explaining mysterious robot behavior.
The series does a lot of interesting world-building, and sets up a larger set of mysteries, but doesn’t explore them in the anime. As a result, there’s a lack of closure. Masaki receives some emotional closure, but Rikuo’s growing understanding of the plight of the robots doesn’t get a similar conclusion.
“Time of Eve” would make a wonderful companion piece to darker fare like “Ex Machina”, and like the titular cafe, sits comfortably in the shadows and spaces left by larger, more violent or dystopian works. It’s light without being inconsequential, with a simple premise that could drive a full-length series.