A Chobits Retrospective

Guest review by Ranma

I first watched Chobits when it was released in the US on DVD. I rented it on Netflix, and it was an early anime for me to watch in Japanese with subtitles. Chobits is based on a manga by CLAMP, an all woman manga/anime/media collective.  The manga, 8 volumes, ran in 2001 – 2002, and was adapted by Madhouse for television in 2002.

At that time I thought Chobits was fabulous. Of course as a relative anime newbie, I thought nearly everything I watched was fabulous. I hadn’t experienced my hundredth beach episode and magical girlfriend shows were more of a 60s sitcom concept than an animation staple to me.

But I’ve watched a lot of anime between then and now. And anime’s technology has improved and changed since then. Chobits was an early show to use a digital work flow, as opposed to traditional hand painted cells.

So when I found a copy of Chobits in an inexpensive thin pack at a local book and record store, it was with more than a little trepidation that I started re-watching the series. Would the animation hold up well when compared to more modern work? How would I react to the story now, with nearly 10 years worth of anime viewing under my belt? Would the technology in the story seem silly, like an old Jetson’s episode?

I needn’t have worried. CLAMP’s story telling skills and satire are more than strong enough to have survived the time skip.  And Madhouse was and still is one of the top anime production companies in the business.

Opening animation for Chobits.

Chobits is an entertaining and thoughtful allegory that takes its concepts very seriously, and on their own terms. It is not just a social commentary about people being consumed by an addiction to technology. It isn’t only a parody that personifies online services and portals as individuals. It doesn’t simply ask the question, “Can a person really love a complicated sex toy?”

The story is also about the impact of intelligent machines entering our society; and about how our society, and their own corporeal nature helps to shape them. It is a speculation about robotics, AI, and ubiquitous networking. The persocoms, the computer/android/network/database characters in the story, are not just conceits intended only to represent elements of our current world. The technology and the specifics are almost certainly not going to be prophetic, but the greater questions are something that we will have to deal with, if not tomorrow, then the day after tomorrow.

In other words, it’s science fiction. And pretty good science fiction at that.

Chobits is a distillation of trends and expectations about technology. Like many of the older, and thematically similar science fiction stories that preceded it, the old Isaac Asimov robot stories, or Ray Bradbury’s “I Sing the Body Electric” they deal with the effects of technology, not necessarily the specific details.  In particular the story has many similarities to Lester del Rey’s short story robot romance, “Helen O’Loy”.

The main thing that Chobits brings that’s new to the theme is the satire, which is sharply pointed at current developments in computers and how people interact with them; and with an awareness of networks, like the internet, that seems to have slipped by traditional science fiction for the most part.  The primary conceit of the story is that a sort of android type device are the personal computers of its world. They are called persocoms, which is the Japanese loan word for personal computers.  They have operating systems, CD disks, cables and all the accoutrements that have come to be associated with personal computers. But they are also made in the shape of rather attractive men and women. In addition to being used for dull and repetitive tasks that a human might do, they are capable of running software, surfing the internet, and so forth. The main visual cue that distinguishes persocoms from humans is that they have a rather odd headset like pair of ears, which in addition to providing cosplayers with years and years of inspiration, are used for cable access and God knows what else.

Protagonist, Hideki Motosuwa, new kid in the big city, goes window shopping for persocoms.

Persocoms aren’t depicted as having much in the way of personality, and their behavior is considered primitive; not really human. They are objects of status and utility.

The main protagonist of the show is Hideki Motosuwa, a good natured, but not terribly bright pre-college student who has moved to Tokyo to study for his college entrance exams. When he first arrives, being a country boy, he’s overwhelmed by the big city, and amazed at the persocoms that have become an important part of urban life.  But Hideki is a poor student, and while he would like to be have an attractive persocom, to help him with his studies and to surf the internet for porn, they are well beyond his means.

One night, while he’s walking home, he finds a bandage wrapped persocom, apparently abandoned by a trash heap.  Unable to believe his luck he takes it home and with the help of a classmate and neighbor he, and we, learn more about persocoms and how they integrate, and how they don’t integrate, into the society of the show. The abandoned persocom, who can only say, “chi!” turns out not to have an OS (operating system) and no software installed, but can still operate quite well, and is an amazing learner.  Hideki comes to realize that Chi, as he has named the persocom, is more than a normal, run of the mill persocom.

I’m not going to talk anymore about the details of the plot; it’s too good a series to spoil the fun. And it is a fun series, as well as a dramatic one. There are episodes of discovery, a fair amount of silliness, some winking and leering at the sometimes sexual nature of persocom/human interactions. The drama, some of it quite dark, is spaced out between the lighter material, and … there’s even a beach episode!

Chi, and the rest of the female characters, in their swim suit for the Beach episode.

As far as characterization is concerned, the human characters are engaging enough and their problems come to matter to us.

Hideki, voiced by Tomokazu Sugita, who’s flunked his college entrance exams and is now going to cram school in Tokyo.  In addition to his being our main point of view character he exemplifies the inexperienced but enthusiastic computer/persocom user.  Everything about them is a mystery, he’s perpetually amazed by them, and he’s always doing stupid things with them; like not knowing how to recharge their batteries, or losing their Operating System disks.

Chi, voiced by Rie Tanaka, starts out as a, literally, monosyllabic  child; but she learns fast.  Soon she’s talking and exploring her world.  Her point of view is used several times as a narrative tool for us to discover, along with her, the world she lives in.  She’s happy when she succeeds in understanding something tricky, and it hurts her to realize she’s made a mistake. Sumomo, voiced by Motoko Kumai, is Shinbo’s “laptop” persocom. A small girl-like chibi in a pink harem costume; possibly CLAMP’s reference to one of the origins of the “magical girlfriend” genre they are working in and spoofing. She has lots of personality, but the implication is that it is factory installed and not a sign of true intelligence.

Hiromu Shinbo, voiced by Tomokazu Seki, is Hideki’s neighbor and classmate, and is worldly in the ways of city life and persocoms.

Minoru Kokubunji, voiced by Houko Kuwashima, is a 12 year old persocom prodigy, helps Hideki try and understand Chi’s special nature. Minoru is a slight, melancholy boy, who comes from a wealthy family. He builds his own custom made persocoms, all in the form of the seemingly ubiquitous anime house maid.  His main persocom, however, is a visual and personality based simulacrum of his deceased older sister, complete with maid uniform … paging Dr. Freud!

Minoru Kokubunji, persocom prodigy, and his “staff”. 

It’s interesting that a series created by an all women team, CLAMP, would have such a large amount of “fan service” in it. Partly this is because CLAMP knows their audience and they always have a solid commitment to producing something that is commercial and marketable. But they are also usually very sly about how they use “fan service” in their works. In the case of Chobits, one of the main themes is the sexualization of technology, and how it is often a mirror image of our own desires, and weaknesses. There is also the theme that the persocoms in the world of Chobits are an exploited and marginalized entity, with many of the issues mirroring gender politics and rights.  Most, but not all of the pesocoms in the show, if not the world itself, appear to be female. Interestingly, what’s not explored in the series is what male and female really mean in an artificial, non biological entity.

Most of the main human characters have a relationship of some kind or another with persocoms. Some positive, some negative, some happy, some sad.  Each of them offer Hideki a look at how persocoms are having an effect on society, both as devices and as emerging entities. And each helps him make up his own mind about how he himself with deal with the new world, and his own highly problematic persocom.

If the various persocoms seem a bit flat, well, that’s actually part of the point of the story. Most people consider them things and not persons. They are a developing group, and some are further along the road to being realized individuals than others. When they are hurt, however, it hurts us. The question each human character must answer to him or herself is, is the hurt because some-thing that is valued is damaged, or because some-one cherished is in pain.

And the 64 Gigabyte question is: What do the persocoms themselves think about all this?

Chobits features a “book within the anime” called The Town With No People. This is a mysterious series of books that Chi becomes fascinated with, and events within the book mirror many events within the containing story of Chobits.  The art style of the book and the music that’s played during the scenes while Chi reads the stories is one of the most evocative and mysterious aspects of the show. It would be a real treat to see a spin off done in this style; unlikely though at this late date.

Chi reading The Town With No People. (Possible spoilers if you watch more than the first segment!)

Some of the technological references in the story have dated a bit in the nearly ten years since the show’s original airing. Especially some of the audible ones. The mouse clicks, that act as audible separators during the eye catch, sound amazingly clunky. And the references to hard drives, complete with whirring sounds, seem a bit much given the supposed nature of a persocom’s brain. I find a lot of these aspects charming myself. If anything they give a sort of post-cyber-punk vibe to the show.

The music in Chobits, by K-Taro Takanami is one of my all time favorite anime scores. There’s a European cinema ’60s-’70s vibe to a number of the bouncier themes. The opening credits music, “Let Me Be With You”, by a Japanese group called Round Table, is a sweet and optimistic song. There are two different musical pieces for the closing credits, “Raison d’être” (Reason To  Be) and “Ningyo-hime” (Mermaid Princess), both performed by Chi’s voice actress Rie Tanaka.

Chobits was made soon after anime production in Japan switched from hand painted cells, photographed on film, to a digital workflow where the drawings were scanned and composited with the backgrounds in a computer. While there were some glitches in the movement here and there, mainly overuse of automatic ‘tweening, overall I thought the production values were excellent and gave us a glimpse of the kinds of changes that we now take for granted.

Buying and re-watching the series was definitely a win for me. If you would like to give it a look, as of this writing you can watch it on Youtube via Funimation’s channel.

Chi’s great-great grandmother …

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