Content Warning: images of mass death/gun violence set in the Middle East
What’s it about? Humanoid Sudo Ayaka signed away the right to copy her neural net in order to secure life-saving treatment for her human son, Hikaru; but because the backup of AI personality data is illegal, she took the fall while her shady benefactors disappeared. 25 years later, an adult Hikaru has become a back-alley doctor for Humanoids in hopes of tracking down those responsible for stealing his mother’s data.
It’s been tough going for anime with transhumanist themes the past few years. Despite a wealth of interesting premises, it seems like most manage to drop the ball to some degree before reaching the finish line. Hope springs eternal, though, and there are two things that piqued my interest about The Gene of AI: its framing of technological progression and the relative restraint of its writing.
The show’s opening worldbuilding monologue treats the progression of technology as neutral. There is no (or at least minimal, and rueful at that) hand-wringing about kids these days with their TikToks and their Blackberries and their sock hops. The fact that AI are now a normalized part of society is taken as a given, which allows the show to bypass tiresome questions about whether it’s right for artificial life to exist at all and get right to “how does one create an ethical social/legal framework around beings whose selves can theoretically be digitally replicated?” It’s an approach that puts me in mind of Iso Mitsuo, who’s created some of the most under-sung sci-fi of the last 15 years.
Almost as important is the lack of melodrama in the execution. The case of the week that introduces us to Hikaru’s profession involves a Humanoid woman whose data was corrupted by a virus during the creation of a backup. The backup itself is clean, meaning her data can be reset with only a week of memories lost; but will she still be the same person if she does so? The writing sidesteps long monologues about the Nature of Humanity in its exploration of this question, choosing instead small moments: a small new cooking flourish during the missing week that made an especially delicious breakfast for her daughter, say. It’s a light touch that evokes greater issues like dementia without being heavy-handed or maudlin.
The visuals are somewhat perfunctory for a Madhouse production, and it would behoove the show to dial it back on the ostentatious CGI during its more abstract dialogue—there’s only so many ominous CGI fetuses I can be expected to withstand while taking the show seriously. I’m also somewhat wary of the cast’s adult women being shoved into the role of either maternal figure or potential love interest. So far we have Hikaru’s mother, the Humanoid women defined by her relationships as a wife and mother, Hikaru’s assistant who spends the episode watching the clinic and fretting about him, and a mysterious contact he speaks to briefly at episode’s end. I’m also not ready to discount the possibility that the show’s title is some manner of agonizing pun that will force us to divert into “but how does a robot love” before show’s end.
Overall, there’s enough promising execution here to make it well worth investing a few episodes, especially since it’s adapting a completed eight-volume manga and thus likely to have an actual coherent arc. What can I say, I can’t say no to an anime that aims high.