Of all the shows being broadly ignored (including here) this season – and there are quite a few of them – AI no Idenshi may be both the least deserved and the least surprising. It’s excellent and thought-provoking. But it’s also decidedly weird in its storytelling – esoteric and kind of off-center in the way it presents a scenario. It’s like the angle you’re watching from is never what you’d expect from a conventional anime. And sometimes you can’t say what the point of a chapter was until after it’s over. That’s asking a lot from an audience (which is another sure-fire ticket to obscurity).
Gotou Kenji, beloved in the community for his work with kids. He’s injured in a fall during an outing, suffering a blow to the head, and is clearly not the same person he was. He’s both a human-interest story and a >cause célèbre for “Humanoid Rights Japan”, which appears to be a humanoid lobbying group. He only responds to his granddaughter’s singing (which the local news eats up), but the guy from HRJ argues that the family is violating the old man’s right by not allowing him to be treated by Michi. His solution – have Sudo-sensei work on him, as this won’t violate the man’s stated opposition to manipulation by “super” A.I.s.
There are several social issues at play here, and it’s clear that Gotou is being used by Humanoid Rights Japan to serve their own purposes. But the curve ball is what happens when Sudo operates on him. To wit, he goes back to “normal” – and in Gotou’s case normal means a man with a violent temper who physically assaults his adult son. As such his value as a prop drops off a cliff, and the reason for hiss family’s mysterious reluctance to have him treated becomes clear. It’s not so easy to write this off, though. Does the fact that someone is a bad person make it OK for their family to refuse treatment that could return them to what they were before an injury?
Next up AI no Idenshi really grasps the third rail with both hands with a story about a humanoid customer service manager who’s suffering stomach pains due to stress. Sudo-sensei points out the elements of this case particular to non-biological humans: he can turn off the stress response, but in humans stress response exists for a reason. The more obvious issue is the bigotry the man deals with from customers who rebel against talking to a non-human – “no different than a computer”. What people can discriminate over has a broad range – including someone’s accent or what country they’re based in – but as usual. AI no Idenshi doesn’t beat us over the head with that.
The company’s solution is to “outsource” problem cases, and the humanoid manager insists on coming along for the first escalation. It’s a real dog and pony show, a hothead bitching about his wallpaper being the wrong color. The two men assigned to the case put on an elaborate act that ends with one of them punching the other and groveling for forgiveness, which research has shown is “especially effective” with this sort of customer. When the humanoid protests that this spectacle is “inhuman”, it’s made clear to him that this is exactly the (ironic) point. And in fact, the mere information about whether the two actors are even human is “confidential”.
Again, we have a surprising turn at the eleventh hour which casts the conflict in a new and interesting light. If indeed these two were robots – and their eyes make it clear they aren’t humanoids – that opens up a Dinty Moore-sized can of worms. Clearly it was considered critical that humans be able to tell humanoids apart because they were in other respects too close for comfort. If there are robots advanced enough to “pass”, are we talking about a grey area of the law here – and how would humans react if they knew this was going on? As Sudo himself says (about the first case this week), things are never as simple as they initially appear to be. And that – very cleverly – is exactly the point of this week’s pair of stories.