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Chobits: An Unexpected Sci-Fi Treasure

When I was in junior high, I finally picked up an Amiga to replace my aging Commodore 64.  As I packed it into its original box and tucked it into the top of my closet, never to be fired up again, I found that there was a great deal of sighing.  So many good times, I think I had grown to love it.  But is it wrong to love a computer?

Sometimes, the ladies can not help but feel a bit threatened of the attention men lavish on computers, but when the brilliant four woman team of CLAMP approached this problem, what they delivered was Chobits.  This is the most thought provoking anime I have seen in years, the end of which was freshly streamed to my pensive brain as of a few minutes ago.

The premise of Chobits is one of near-future cyberpunk idealism.  Imagine if computers underwent the ultimate step in user-friendliness, and now were shaped like people.  You go down to the local "persocom" store, and arrayed on display are a number of deactivated androids, cute as a button, the horrors of the uncanny valley well behind them.  They have been engineered to be waterproof and warm to the touch.  The main characteristic that helps tell a persocom from a person is the stylish access ports coming out of the sides of its head, almost like cat ears.

So you buy a persocom, and the salesman fires it up.  It opens its eyes and, after a brief access time, turns to smile at you (surely a programmed behavior) and asks you if you are its new master.  You shyly confirm that you are, and immediately feel apprehensive.  Why should you feel shy?  It is just a computer, after all, even if it is shaped like a person.  So you take your new computer home, it walking with you, helpfully answering questions thanks in part to its ability to access the Internet wirelessly.  Though your new persocom is mostly silent, just awaiting user input, you can not help but feel you have established a certain rapport.

Persocoms are great, they can do just almost everything a person can.  They can be programmed to perform tasks.  They can earn money doing jobs, provided somebody is willing to pay you for lending them.  They even have a natural learning function, so you may be surprised just what it is that your persocom learns to do in order to please you.  No wonder you can hardly go anywhere without seeing happy people walking with their persocoms.
So it is that there emerges a real fear among people.  Not of persocoms, but of their superiority to people.  Why would a person want to have anything to do with other people when they are so unreliable and selfish in comparison with a persocom?  A persocom is a perfect companion.  Maybe, with a few modifications, a perfect lover, too?  But persocoms do not have emotions, not like people, because they are just computers.  Everyone knows, deep down, everything a persocom does is just a program, no matter how advanced and lifelike it might seem.

Some people have said that this anime actually objectifies women due to the subservient behavior of the persocoms, but personally I think that this interpretation is bunk.  For starters, there are points in the series where persocoms do act against their owner's wishes.  However, I think the greater point here is not about how ideal subservient people are, I think the point is whether people prefer computers over people.  Because, after all, computers are pretty neat!  If computers were more like people, what then?  That is the premise on the table.

Despite this interesting premise, Chobits spends the bulk of its time emulating something else: a typical magical girlfriend romantic comedy!  Thus, a thin veneer of slapstick comedy and naughty shock humor is lavished on the surface of the elephant in the room (the future of android/human relations).  Yes, this is a bit like smearing shit on the Mona Lisa, but I guess CLAMP had to pitch it to the manga publications somehow.

As Chobits begins, Hideki Motosuwa is the last person you should ask about persocoms.  Hideki is a 19-year-old strapping young man whose earnest mind knows little more than how to do the daily chores back at his family's farm.  His simplicity lands him in trouble because he keeps failing college entrance exams.  For this reason, he takes his limited savings and moves to Tokyo in order to attend Seki cram school.  Frankly, I think Hideki's idiocy is the main flaw in the series, he gives even yokels a bad name with his lack of sound judgement.  The series could have been more interesting with a more identifiable leading man, even if it would be tougher to crack jokes as his expense.
Main Chobits cast.  Hideki and Chi are foremost center.  The other characters are not discussed to much great detail in this blog entry, but they all have their own stories about persocoms interfering with conventional ideas of what relationships are.
Though he knows next to nothing about persocoms, Hideki would love to have one because he hears it can (among other things) get him access to lots of Internet porn!  However, Hideki cannot afford a persocom; he can barely even afford rent!  Lucky for him, on the way back to his apartment, he comes across a persocom simply waiting to be taken out with the trash!  Is there something wrong with it or has it been replaced with a newer model?  Hideki decides to chance it, and takes it home.  Not knowing anything about persocoms, he accidentally leaves its software in the trash heap.  Whoops: there will be no Internet porn for him!

The first real challenge with his new persocom is finding where the power switch is located.  After trying everything else he can think of, he suppresses his bashfulness and fingers it.  Sure enough, her power button was right in the ol' robo-vagoo!  This an example of the kind of shock humor that their being androids allows persocoms to subvert.  Another thing that happens with nauseating frequency is persocoms drawing attention to the softcore porn magazines he leaves laying all over the apartment, inadvertently mocking his libido like only a naive automaton can.

Normally, when a persocom is completely lacking in software, it would not even be able to move, but Hideki's new persocon can.  All she can say is, "Chi," so Hideki names her Chi, and she is overjoyed to have a name, smothering him with a hug.  Hideki cannot afford software, but fortunately Chi seems to have some built-in learning software, so over the entirety of the series Hideki teaches Chi everything, and she becomes less a complete infant and more an individual.
Chi's remarkable cuteness is a central fixture of the series.  Computers cannot be this cute!
Throughout it all, Chi acts every bit as adorable as she looks.  Chi is also quite devoted to Hideki: after all, not only is she his persocom, but Hideki is the one who adopted her and is caring for her.  Although Hideki does indeed endeavor to take pretty good care of Chi, to the point of worrying about her constantly, he once again annoys me by falling prey to a running gag of getting embarrassed whenever Chi disrobes or wears anything remotely revealing despite her being a persocom.  Of course, Chi does that kind of thing constantly out of cute naivety but, unlike Hideki, she has an valid excuse for holding up her end of the sexual slapstick.

Would this anime have been as interesting if Chi was just an ordinary persocom?  Honestly, it probably would.  It is a very rich premise!  However, it soon becomes clear that there is more to Chi than meets the eye.  Despite being found as somebody else's trash, she may actually be a legendary persocom known as a Chobit.  This means she has extremely powerful hardware; if the average persocom is a personal computer, Chi is a supercomputer mainframe!  At times, she even flits about through the air, angelically (perhaps supercharging whatever manner of anti-gravity device allows persocoms to reduce their weight when active).  More importantly, even if she theoretically cannot have genuine feelings, she seems to put out an unusually good imitation!  It is almost as though Chi was custom designed to be able to love... which, of course, she was, or this would not be much of a romance, would it?  Chobits are considered urban legends born of wish fulfillment for this reason.

Surprisingly, CLAMP condones Chi's love, and ends this anime having come full circle to the opposite perspective they started: it is no longer a question of whether or not people should prefer persocoms over other people; the question becomes whether or not it is appropriate for people not to reciprocate the love of a persocom solely on the basis that they are to be regarded as mere machines.  Chi's whole existence is a test left behind by the original creators of persocoms, and Hideki is the one who is on trial for humanity.  Can a human being love an android unconditionally, regardless of how there are some things a persocom simply can't do?  I have to wonder if CLAMP might have been forced into this position because Chi turned out to be too endearing to their readers, or if this was their intent all along.

This anime gets an Excellent (10/11) on the Anime News Network from me.  Maybe this is a point more than it really deserves, mostly because Hideki's moronic antics really pull the whole thing down.  However, I will give it that point right back because this is a thoroughly unique premise and it is executed in a way that shines even through Hideki's bungling.  You can find other anime about robotic girls, but you will rarely find an anime that handles it with the same kind of intrigue as Chobits, and fewer still with the same degree of lighthearted innocence.

That is a shame, because if you are hungry for more, you will not likely find it (most other robot girl animes are sadly just excuses to skirt the censors for the fanservice).  CLAMP never did decide to revisit Chobits after wrapping it up with 8 volumes back in 2002, and the anime is a rare case of being pretty much all-inclusive of what happened in the manga, with only minor differences in certain plot points.  However, Chobits does have a spiritual prequel, an earlier CLAMP work called Angelic Layer, which takes place in the same world a few years earlier, but is actually about a fighting game played with dolls that are controlled mentally.  A few characters from Angelic Layer have a major connection to some of the characters and events in Chobits, but this downplayed somewhat in the anime for copyright reasons.


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