Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Special Guest Edition: Chobits
by Shaenon K. Garrity, Nov 17th 2011
Special Guest Edition: Chobits
For my last House of 1,000 Manga guest column, I wrote about Basara, an unabashedly feminist, unfairly overlooked shojo action epic. The manga I've chosen this week is, in many ways, its polar opposite. And yet, at their hearts, Basara and Chobits ask many of the same questions: What is the nature of love? How do you know who you really are? Is a powerful illusion any less important, or less real, than reality? And, when you get down to it, what is to be done with women? In college, I could have written a lengthy Women's Studies thesis on either series, had I majored in Women's Studies.
Discussing Chobits in an interview for the manga store Manga no Mori, CLAMP member Nanase Ohkawa asked, “Is it bad to fall in love with something that's not human or doesn't have a soul?” Chobits doesn't have the answer to that question, and this uncertainty—is the love between the main characters right or healthy, is it even love as it's normally understood?—beats under the skin of CLAMP's most popular shonen manga.
In the not-so-distant future of Chobits, “Persocoms,” personal computers in the form of humanoid robots, are common and popular. Although male persocoms are sometimes glimpsed in crowd scenes, nearly all the persocoms in the manga are female. Hideki Motosuwa, a virginal cram student, can't afford a persocom, but one day he finds one in the trash outside his apartment complex (a building which, incidentally, would go on to make cameo appearances in later CLAMP manga like Tsubasa, RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE and Kobato). Limpid-eyed, baby-faced Chi has no memory, programming, or vocabulary, but she does possess “self-teaching software” allowing her to learn. Hideki can thus mold her into his perfect companion.
As disturbing as this premise may be, it isn't radically different from many other magical-girlfriend manga; Ken Akamatsu's early series A.I. Love You, for instance, played with the Weird Science-esque “computerized girlfriend” concept back in 1994, almost a decade before Chobits. The twist is that Hideki's relationship with Chi isn't unusual; plenty of people have persocoms, to the point that persocom use has begun to warp society in subtle but powerful ways.
Seeking tech support for Chi, Hideki meets Minoru, a twelve-year-old computer prodigy who has surrounded himself with deferential, scantily-clad persocom maids. His Favorite is Yuzuki, whom he has sculpted to resemble his beloved dead sister (hello, uncomfortable incest undertones! We will be meeting you repeatedly throughout Chobits!). Minoru tells Hideki he dreams of a time when “the line between man and persocom becomes indistinguishable.” But he also confesses, “I have fun with Yuzuki, but sometimes I get sad afterwards. And the more fun I have, the sadder I get.”
Although characters frequently refer to Hideki as a typical “nice guy” who's unlucky in love, he seems to have ample opportunities with human women. But Chi is awfully cute. And, unlike humans with their complicated problems and needs and personalities, she's a blank slate, totally flexible, utterly undemanding. Minoru determines that Chi may be a special model of persocom, one of the legendary “Chobits.” Some rumors hold that a Chobit is a true artificial intelligence, capable of real emotions. The only immediate difference between Chi and other persocoms, however, is the placement of her reset switch. In other persocoms, it's in the android's large plastic “ears”; in Chi, as an early scene tactfully but clearly establishes, it's inside her vagina.
For several volumes, Chobits follows only the loosest of plotlines: Hideki studies, works odd jobs, goes out on dates, and educates Chi. Chi gets a job at a bakery; persocoms, it's explained, can work to earn money for their owners. Much space is devoted to the supporting cast, with each relationship reflecting some aspect of life and love in the time of persocoms. Meanwhile, the mystery of Chi develops. Someone starts sending Hideki strange photographs of Chi, sometimes with “CHOBIT” stamped on her chassis. Chi develops an interest in a series of picture books that comment metaphorically on her own quest for identity, a device CLAMP previously used in its short series Suki. The image the books paint, however, is not a cheerful one: it shows people holed up in their homes, shunning human contact to spend time with their perfect artificial companions.
Although Chi is intensely sexy in a barely-legal way, forever running around naked, letting her breasts and crotch hang out of her clothes, and putting panties on her head, her growing relationship with Hideki is presented as chaste and pure-hearted, mainly because Chi seems to have no interest in or understanding of sex. Hideki's relationships with human women, by contrast, are tainted by the possibility of mutual desire. As Hideki inevitably falls for Chi, Chi has her own internal conflict over Hideki, which takes the form of dream conversations with a skeptical, much cannier “dark” Chi.
Other men's relationships with their persocoms gradually convince Hideki that loving a machine isn't so wrong. In the early volumes, he's chagrined by the cautionary tales of his cram teacher Miss Shimizu and his coworker Yumi, lonely women rejected for persocoms. But later he comes to empathize with Minoru, keeping house with his customized sister/lover, and Ueda, a man carrying a torch for his “dead” persocom wife.
CLAMP deliberately designed Chobits to follow the mold of a stereotypical shonen romantic comedy, with such stock love interests as a sexy older woman and a cute coworker (a “childhood friend” character was also planned but didn't make it into the final draft). And Chobits functions flawlessly on the level of male-oriented romance manga. CLAMP doesn't skimp on the fanservice, with no end of partial nudity, suggestive costumes and poses, and, especially in the early volumes, scenes like the one in which Hideki wakes up to find himself in bed with Chi and Miss Shimizu. One element of shonen romance that the series lacks is domesticity; whereas most magical girlfriends in manga spend huge amounts of time cooking and cleaning, Hideki takes care of the housekeeping in his apartment while Chi goes out and gets a job.
In his lengthy analysis of Chobits for The Comics Journal (Issue 269, July 2005), Dirk Deppey calls it “a flight from adolescence, a return to the preteen girl's ideal of love, where the man is always dependable and the purpose of love is to hold hands…with none of that messy, oozing, squirting stuff to get in the way of the nobler emotions.” As Deppey points out, the central romantic relationship in Chobits is immature not just physically, in the way it's carefully constructed to remove any threat of sex, but emotionally. Chi is a child, starting the series as a mental infant and never advancing past the level of a very sheltered prepubescent girl. Hideki's relationship with her is initially Pygmalion-like, the relationship of a parent to a child, but by the end of the series he's regressed to Chi's level, rejecting adult sexuality to be Chi's eternal playmate.
Discomfort with sex, and particularly the idea of sex disrupting the purity of romance, is threaded throughout Chobits. In one unsettling plotline, Chi is kidnapped by a hacker who hooks her up to masses of wires, a sequence with unmistakable overtones of rape. Chi responds by powering up into her “dark” persona, attacking him, and, in a moment surely no other manga would attempt, intoning, “You are not ‘the person just for me.’ So do not come inside me.” But, as later developments make clear, not even “the person just for Chi” can, er, come inside her. Sex is off the table.
The manga's central relationship goes beyond romantic innocence and into immaturity, a refusal to face the complex, messy, sometimes scary world of adults. The final chapter shows Hideki and Chi in bed together, but only after it's been firmly established that nothing could possibly happen between them there. They're not lovers; they're best friends at a slumber party.
Deppey claims that the rejection of sex makes Chobits a manga for girls, not boys: “No growing boy in his right mind would ever entertain such a fantasy.” In this assertion, Deppey is off the mark. Teenage boys can be just as insecure about sex as teenage girls, and, during its initial run in the early 2000s, Chobits particulary resonated with the emerging male otaku concept of moe. Literally meaning “budding,” moe initially referred to crushes on fictional female characters, then expanded to describe intense nerdy passion for anything. Over time, it came to be associated with a particular style of exaggerated, huge-eyed childlike cuteness.
It's hard to deny that there's a sexual element to moe manga and anime, but fans are quick to argue that moe is more about passionate devotion, perhaps even a parental urge to protect and nurture. (Hayao Miyazaki, annoyed by the moe attention lavished on the young heroines in his anime films—Nausicaä of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is often identified in fandom as one of the key ancestral models for moe—complained about otaku wanting girls “as pets.”) The moe ideal is intense, quasi-romantic attachment removed from physical sexuality. In this sense, Chobits is an eight-volume dramatization of moe philosophy.
A running theme of Chobits—one that ties into the moe devotion to fictional characters, artwork, and toys—is the question of whether it's right to love an object, a machine, in the same way one would love a human being. Characters ask this question throughout Chobits, along with the related question: is Chi a machine? Rather than taking the easy way out by establishing that Chi is human in whatever ways count—the emotions, the soul—CLAMP repeatedly clarifies that it's impossible to tell whether she thinks or feels in a human sense. Yuzuki, Minoru's persocom “sister,” tells Chi that she knows she only loves Minoru because she's programmed to feel that way. In the manga's climax, Freya, the “dark” Chi, rejects the notion that Chobits are capable of love: “The Chobits legend is a lie that stemmed from people's desire…and their guilt. Wishful thinking.” The huge, blank, mindlessly tender eyes of the persocoms offer no clue.
Ultimately, the manga concludes, Chi's personhood doesn't matter. Even if persocoms don't have real emotions, humans’ feelings for them still have meaning. Or, as Hideki declares at the climax: “Chi's heart is real. It beats inside of me.” If this resolution is less than comforting, CLAMP glosses over it by playing up the sweetness of the relationship between Hideki and Chi. What grouch could deny such an adorable couple?
But the appeal of a relationship with a persocom has little to do with love: it's just so much easier than a human relationship. The first page of the Tokyopop translation lays it out: “Beautiful, obedient…fully functional. They're perfection.” The relationship between a man and his persocom is described as one of “power” and “responsibility” versus “dependence” and “trust.” In other words, it's the ultra-traditional ideal of a male/female relationship. The persocoms are perfect women, stripped clean of everything that makes real women less than perfect servants to men—that is, one might say, everything that makes women human.
Like CLAMP's previous series Cardcaptor Sakura, Chobits goes to pains to establish different flavors of romantic relationships—older woman/younger man, younger woman/older man, human/persocom, persocom/persocom—but when, late in the series, Ueda speaks glowingly of the “many types of couples” in the persocom-haunted world, the illustrations are mostly of human males with devoted she-bots. The one type of romance that appears in Sakura but not Chobits is gay romance, perhaps because same-sex couples suggest an essential equality that goes against the male-master/female-servant persocom model. This may also be why the only male persocom in the story, the android government agent Zima, is paired off romantically with another persocom: a relationship between a dominant human woman and submissive male persocom would upset the power fantasy.
Chobits is the strangest of beasts: a difficult, complex, thought-provoking T&A manga. Ultimately it chooses to have its cheesecake and eat it too, raising a host of challenging questions only to leave them unanswered so as not to spoil the romance. Love it or hate it, it's a strangely compelling work, a story that remains haunting long after the last volume is back on the shelf.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
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