I remember when Chobits first came out, it generated more buzz than the manufacturing plant for Toy Story action figures. I watched the first two episodes, and thought they were good fun, but for some reason never watched the rest until now. Chobits’ success has been huge – it’s on all sorts of ‘top anime of all time’ lists online, the robot ears are iconic, and it helped propel CLAMP even further to the fore than Cardcaptor Sakura already had, for better or for worse. I enjoyed Chobits rather a lot, thinking it was very cute, but with some huge flaws – certainly not one of the best anime I’ve ever seen, but still well worth seeing.
Hideki is a Japanese country boy who failed his university entrance tests, so moves to Tokyo in order to attend cram school. In Tokyo, everyone has a persocon (which is what the Japanese call their personal computers in real life), a computer looks just like a human being, only with cute metal cat-like ears. Initially distraught that he can’t afford one of his own, Hideki finds a persocon dumped in the trash, and takes her home, only to find she can only say one word – ‘Chii.’
Hideki decides to call her ‘Chii’ and sets about teaching her Japanese. In that typical way of TV language-learning, she seems to be able to understand corrections and instructions despite not knowing any words, and soon learns to communicate like a small child, and remains unaware of things like modesty or sexual allure. Because Hideki is a good soul and not the kind of teenaged boy who would just rape Chii even more senseless because she is, after all, just a very sexy machine, he gets very embarrassed and tries to teach her how to behave.
Now, it changes the way one perceives Chobits quite significantly, knowing that it was conceived by CLAMP, an all-woman group of mangaka. Chobits is a seinen manga, aimed squarely at older teenaged boys like Hideki. And Chii is presented as the perfect girl. But she is a robot who knows nothing except being joyful at her master’s happiness, serving him absolutely, and being adorably hapless. Isn’t there something wrong with that being all a boy should want in a girl? If it was written by a man, it would seem very possible that it was just a misogynistic but straightforward piece of wish-fulfilment. But from CLAMP…it feels like a cynical exercise in manipulation that exposes the superficiality of male tastes. Perhaps I’m just thinking too much about this, but it is kinda sad that someone would think Chii was perfect, being so utterly docile and simple.
But Chii is very cute. Given Takana Rie’s recent psycho characters, it’s odd to hear her doing such a gentle voice, but her voice is perfect for Chii, plaintive and sweet. She gets dressed up in all sorts of gothic-loli dresses and looks extremely sweet. You can’t imagine her really having a relationship with anyone, but I can see why anyone would have paternal protection instincts when her character was revealed. Other characters are very entertaining – a lot of people don’t like Hideki’s exaggerated character (he talks to himself, is totally sexually naïve yet honourable, and is an all-around moron – in other words, a typical shounen protagonist), but his huge over-reactions made me laugh and he was a good person. Hyper-genki Sumomo, a tiny portable persocon, was extremely cute and always entertained me, although she did cross the line into being plain annoying in the Chibits short spin-off.
When the story starts out, it’s mostly a cute comedy about an attractive girl who doesn’t know anything. It works well in this idiom, and is charming and funny – great viewing. As the show continues, it begins exploring relationships with persocons, how people fall in love with them, or use them to replace lost loves – and in general, it seems to suggest that a robot can never replace a real person, even if the love one has for it is genuinely pure. But towards the end of the series, it all goes a bit wrong. There’s a bit of a harem feel to the first episodes – Hideki has several potential love interests apart from Chii. But they all get brushed aside in the most far-fetched ways. The teacher goes off with Hideki’s best friend, the landlady turns out to have been married and is key to the whole mystery of Chii, and Yumi, the girl who seemed most likely to be the best partner for Hideki and was shown to blatantly have a big crush on him, is suddenly paired off with some guy Chii works for, given a backstory, and we’re expected to swallow that it was all platonic.
Then comes the stupid story of Chii’s creation. I can accept the magic technology that made her also enables her to have mysterious powers, but the super-elite persocons chasing her? The landlady being a technological genius who made Chii, even though it was (presumably) a coincidence that Hideki came to live with her? Why was Chii in the trash anyway? All rather silly, with a lot of big plot holes. And then, of course, comes the possibility that Hideki’s true love for Chii will make her more than just a robot, so they can live happily ever after. Rubbish!
Chobits should have stuck to being a silly little comedy, because it did that really well. Trying to inject angst and epic back-stories and cool leather-clad characters just cheapened the rather charming premise. A shame.
(originally written 16.3.06)