Chobits is usually one of the more divisive of CLAMP’s series. Mankind’s interactions with the advanced technology of the setting has the potential to spark important philosophical (as well as moral) debate. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to appreciate the finer details of the plot as many find the story of Chobits, that is to say, the romance, distasteful. Part of this has to do with CLAMP’s target audience. Despite their often attributed ability to appeal to both genders, CLAMP has often been classified as a Shoujo manga circle, writing with the intention of appealing to girls. Chobits marked an experiment for the group with the intention that the work be classified as seinen, meant to appeal to young men. Because of this departure from their traditional market/genre, I believe many fans of the group were alienated by the content and progression of the plot, and some of the questions raised by the work may be overshadowed by the antipathy it garners.
It was only recently that I came to the realization that what first appears to be one of the most tasteless and tacky love stories can also be viewed as a commentary on the visual novel genre, harem romance stories, the mythical magical girlfriend, and seinen romance as a whole.
CLAMP themselves waste no time setting Chobits up according to standard visual novel cliches: The protagonist is a young adult male, a ronin (he failed to get accepted into college), has lived a sheltered life in the country away from such luxuries as computers and the big city of Tokyo. He has no girlfriend, and is very vocal about his sexual frustration (he’s a virgin). Basically, he’s a bit of a loser, and he fits the mold perfectly for the protagonist of most visual novels and seinen romance stories. He’s remarkable only for the fact of being unremarkable, and on paper, the only trait he has going for him is you can say he’s a nice guy (though as the manga itself is quick to point out, not the guy who gets the girl).
These are common traits for a seinen protagonist because often these stories are marketed towards users that view themselves in much the same way: as being hapless, unfortunatate or lacking redeeming qualities to put it bluntly. Such stories offer a world and a narrative where they, stepping into the shoes of a main character, can suddenly have a complete reversal of fortune, giving them the chance to experience a life different from the one they perceive in the real world. One where perhaps a chance event or encounter can enable them to be successful and have a pretty, doting girlfriend (or a selection of the to choose from). It’s a genre primarily made up of wish-fulfillment.
Okay, so we have an unremarkable protagonist, but there’s always a catalyst that sets him on the journey that changes his fortunes from bad to good. Often, this happens with the chance meeting of a magical girlfriend archetype. Maybe she’s just a spunky and free-spirited classmate he happens to run into (usually quite literally) on the way to school, maybe she’s an alien from outer space and he’s just the first native human being she happens to encounter. Or maybe she’s a discarded robot set out with the trash.
Hideki, being poor, and by this point shown to be envious of those fortunate enough to own persocoms, doesn’t let the opportunity slip by, and he hurries to take his new possession home. Possession is also a common theme in seinen romance: in the popular Ah! My Goddess!, a young college student binds a goddess to him with a wish to the goddess hotline. (Ah! My Goddess! isn’t harem romance to my knowledge, but it is wish-fulfillment.)
Hideki at this point only thinks of Chi as a machine, albeit a cute one (the one you’re destined for is never who you first suspect, is it?), and so he’s already picturing the things he can do with Chi. Email, chat, web browsing, but mostly porno websites. (and if he knew a little more about persocoms and their standard capabilities, he might have been expecting to lose his virginity as well)
He appears initially to be entirely self-serving. He gleefully thinks on his good luck and conjures up references to figures like Doraemon, a character from a popular Japanese children’s cartoon that typically starts adventures and bestows gifts to a particularly unlucky Japanese boy. “It’s like a story”, he thinks to himself. And it seems like it really might be: the persocom he picked up for free from the garbage is repeatedly hinted at being a legendary persocom… one of the Chobits series, which is rumored to have programming so advanced it faithfully recreates real human emotions, technology on a level we can only dream about today.
A magical girlfriend that can do things no ordinary human girl can do? An ageless robot body in the form of a cute young girl? Real human emotions? And you own her?! I don’t doubt that many young men don’t have to look very deep to know this situation is a dream come true in more than one aspect.
Of course a common feature, and indeed the sole distinguishing characteristic of the “harem” genre is that it features multiple women who may serve as a match for the hero, and Chobits once again has that covered in the most cliche manner CLAMP could think of, relying on handful of the most overused “types” of women common to the seinen genre. You have the bubbly high school kohai Yumi, the mature and sexy teacher Shimizu-sensei, and the cute, doting young landlady Chitose Hibiya. Upon first meeting each of these women, Hideki’s mind races with the possibilities of a life with each of them. And for their part, the girls are each suprisngly tolerant of Hideki’s perverse habits. Yumi, prompted by his staring, casually gives out her bra size without hesitation. Shimizu-sensei dismisses his pornography as him being a boy after all (I guess boys are all seen as being sex-crazed in Japan?), and Hibiya constantly overlooks his audibly perverse inner monologue.
Indeed, the story itself actually seems to endorse each of these women as a potential match for Hideki with a number of events between that seem to deepen his relationship with each of them. Yumi takes the initiative to invite Hideki out on a date, Miss Shimizu shows up out of the blue to stay the night, and Hibiya… well she’s just a doting landlady, giving Hideki perhaps more attention than is usual of her guests. It’s easy to see why Hideki might get the wrong impression.
Outside the unexceptional cast filled with Seinen romance tropes, the rest of the story remains faithful to standard form: the “comedy” of this romantic comedy comes primarily from awkward ero situations and Hideki’s over-the-top reactions. There’s plenty of fanservice and straight-up soft-core pornography. The outfits Chi and the other persocoms take on often titillate with nearly exposed panty shots and Minoru’s vast collection of persocoms exclusively wear maid uniforms. In the anime, entire filler episodes were added devoted exclusively to panties and a trip to the beach that somehow manages to include the show’s entire cast of available women (in swim suits of course), disconnected though they might be.
So CLAMP spent a good chunk of Chobits setting up a cast and characters that would fit right into any seinen romance, and I think a lot of people, especially when drawing from CLAMP’s audience would be put off by that. There’s a notable lack of any strong female characters like Sakura, Hokuto, or Misaki. (That isn’t to imply the females are necessarily weak, but all of them seem to start the series slightly broken, suffering deep emotional scars) Instead we get to see a cast of stereotypes focusing on a main character that hasn’t really earned the attention he gets. It all seems incredibly un-CLAMP and indeed the traditionally shoujo group hadn’t really tried to market itself to a male audience until that point. It seems natural to assume that their established primarily female audience might lose interest or even be offended and denounce Chobits for its the content. I might have been included with CLAMP’s alienated fan base if CLAMP didn’t work to tear down and undermine the stereotypical seinen romance narrative they had created as quickly as (and even before) they had built it.
Things get off to a rocky start for Hideki right from the first time he activates Chi, as he quickly realizes there was a reason he found her in the garbage. The magical girlfriend-figure he had pictured is disappointingly incapable of the tasks he had planned for it, and initially can only mimic his movements and speak only “chi”. This is in stark contrast to the goddesses from Ah! My Goddess! who can magically procure an empty house the size of a small mansion when the protagonist of that series is evicted from his dormitory. Chi on the other hand seems unable to even connect to the internet, and is rarely or never seen to consciously do anything remotely computer like, as you never see her being used as Hideki originally intended: as a tool, able to open the way to the wonders of the internet and computers. Instead, she behaves closer to that of an ordinary human girl, reading and learning from picture books rather than the internet, which should be readily available to any persocom. In fact, there are a lot of things Chi seems unable to do as a computer, though eventually she’s perfectly able to learn the same way any human being can, and can even achieve some level of independence from Hideki, taking on a job and responsibilities apart from him. Even there, as a human being, she is limited, and a crucial capability of both human and persocom is denied to her… that is, the ability to have sex.
It seemed as though Hideki might have gotten a dud when it came to his legendary persocom: rather than stumbling onto a super human devoted to making him happy, he instead finds himself with a burden and responsibilities he is not sure he can afford, quite litterally. Even Chi’s being a legendary Chobit turns out to be irrelevant or a disappointment in the context of human relationships: her “legendary programming” able to replicate human thought patterns and emotions on par with a real human being is nothing but a myth, and her only real magical feature, the ability to affect other persocoms has no practical applications in the realm of a relationship.
With the illusion of the powerful wish granting girlfriend shattered, CLAMP then proceeds to move through the list of other potential candidates in Hideki’s would-be harem and systematically remove them as potential matches. The cute young kohai with the big boobs that invited you out that one time in a maybe date? She’s been hung up on her old boyfriend since long before we came into the story. The sultry teacher that stayed over at your place in her underwear late that one night? A married woman having an affair running away from the pressures of her relationships. The doting land lady? Well, hooking up with Hideki was the last thing on her mind.
The side characters in Hideki’s harem may not have stood out initially as being incredibly liberated or strong (they’re actually all kind of broken really) like CLAMP’s other notable characters, but they (both the characters and CLAMP) deserve recognition for having a life/story/purpose outside of competing for the affections of Hideki, while traditionally interest in the protagonist is all consuming for the harem in seinen romance. Likewise, Hideki deserves some credit for his demeanor in the rejection of his fantasies. When he found out the truth of Yumi and Ueda’s past, he spoke up in the defense of the people he knew to be good, honest and kind. He listened without judgement to the confessions of an adulterer, and showed genuine regret that he was unable to lend his friend more support when he became involved with her. And he was happy, rather than bitter that these people found happiness, despite the fact that once he imagined himself playing a more active part. Lots of characters are described as being “nice guys”: Hideki is the only one in my opinion to ever take true ownership of that title in a story like this.
With the standard narrative built-up only to be summarily torn down, the universe seems to have delivered a grim shot of reality to Hideki. That persocom he found in the garbage really was broken, and yet it was also something that could become very special to him if he puts in the work required (which is true of anything really). The idea of a legendary persocom (the magical girlfriend stand-in) is in actuallity a myth, just as the idea is a myth in real life. The concept of a machine with real emotions is actually just wish-fulfillment, in a cold allusion to reality and the entire market of wish-fulfillment. It isn’t real, and exists only in the minds of those who desire and dream of such things.
But while Chi may not be a magical persocom, she is still a persocom: beatiful, ageless, and capable of many things an ordinary woman (or man. also could be a man) just can’t do or compete with. But CLAMP even here dismisses the magical girlfriend myth with their repeated insistence that there are just the same some things that only a real flesh-and-blood human being can do that persocom just can’t. Supporting this, persocoms, once portrayed as being almost superhuman, also have their vulnerabilities revealed and discussed in length. They can be easily manipulated through their programming, their cherished memories can be erased with a few computer commands, and just like human beings, they can break beyond repair and die. As an interesting side-note, these problems are also very real ailments that can afflict human beings, and thus by making persocoms imperfect, they are shown to be more like human beings than ever before, with the similarities running far beyond our shared humanoid features.
The women in his life he was focusing in on as it turned out all had lives of their own, and really never gave Hideki a second thought, if they gave him any thought as a potential match at all. What’s more astounding is that CLAMP perfectly mirrors real life when they reveal to both the reader and Hideki that he doesn’t necessarily know everything that’s going on around him. The story doesn’t stop being told just because Hideki isn’t around, and indeed it was being told even before he entered into the picture. Before even the first chapter of Chobits. And while the story follows Hideki, Shimbo, his best friend lucky enough to gain the eye of his teacher, is in the middle of his own story, and in contrast to standard form, doesn’t exist merely to root for Hideki on the sidelines: he has his own cares and his own concerns, and like the people around you in real life he can choose not to enlighten you to them. Chobits drives home the message perhaps the best in any of CLAMP’s work that you are not special. Your story is not the only one that his being told, and everybody is dealing with their own issues that may be every bit or more frustrating than your own.
This is the exact opposite of the message communicated by a visual novel where you can win anybody or anything based solely on the effort you put in and the knowledge you possess. Of course there is some truth to this world view as well, but a visual novel system exaggerates the amount of control a person has over his own life and the universe: there will always be some things you just can’t do. A visual novel also cannot take into account the fact that other people are living their own stories right along side you. Perhaps a true Chobits visual novel would be massively multi-player (and be called “real life, but with persocoms”, except that’s not very catchy).
The coup de grace though comes with Chobits‘ simple yet powerful ending when Hideki is confronted with the reality that there are some things Chi just can’t (and for all we know, never will be able to) do. Not just procreation, but sex itself, which has been a driving motivation throughout Chobits. While Hideki hasn’t exactly been on the prowl looking to lose his virginity through the series, it’s safe to say he’s always been self-conscious of his status as a virgin. The universe itself sees fit to remind him with the casual acceptance and reactions in the face of sexuality displayed by the people around him, and the gentle teasing Hideki endures by his friends Shimbo and Minoru (of all people! How can someone as young as Minoru be more sexually mature as someone as old as Hideki? Actually I might have some theories) More evidence is seen in the number of times pornography makes an appearance in the story. Porno websites dominates his fantasies of the advantages of owning a persocom, and it’s clear he has a sizable collection erotic magazines. And it must be a sexually liberated world when Manager Ueda can casually relay the story of his marriage to a persocom, and the fact that there are many people that, yes, have gone so far as to have sex with their persocoms.
Thus to be confronted with the reality that in order to be with Chi, he will never be able to be “with” Chi is a major revelation, especially given that human persocom relations aren’t really that unheard of at all. The very real possibility exists that Hideki will die a virgin, never getting to experience one of life’s greatest pleasures to be shared by two people in love. Sex has always played a large role in a seinen romances, and yet Hideki, the supposed protagonist of such a story, is being asked to live a life of abstinence. In my opinion it’s a marvelous way to draw a distinction between Chobits and other romantic comedies in the genre, and even Chobits‘ own early story, in order to show just how much the story has evolved.
I could not comfortably bring this essay to a proper close if I didn’t mention the inherent contradictions in my ideas, the most prominent of which come to light from two official Chobits sources (regardless of whatever input CLAMP had in their production). The first is the anime, which has a vastly different ending from the manga. In the anime, key plot details are changed, which fundamentally alter who/what Chi is, even if her personality remains the same. The anime Chi really is a legendary and powerful persocom, with programming advanced enough to faithfully recreate the complexity of human emotions. This new Chi completely undermines my theory that CLAMP intended to undermine the myth of the magical girlfriend by making their own character incredibly ordinary and even defective compared to other persocoms.
Furthermore, anime Chi and Hideki then undergo a trial where Chi has her memory erased, yet is able to recover the deleted data somehow through the power of the love she and Hideki feel for each other, with little in the way of a technical explanation given: it’s just a miracle of love! What’s more, after this, Chi proceeds to update every other persocom in existence so that they might all share the advanced programming she posesses. And so while the message of the manga seems to reinforce the complexity and complications of real life, the anime reinforces the myths and ideals of the magical girlfriends and that miracles do exist and all you need is love and everything will be happy in the end. Fluffy, traditional shoujo ideals, but something CLAMP has always shied away from (and been stronger for, in my opinion)
The other element that undermines my ideas is the existence of a licenced Chobits visual novel, completely typical for the genre. The user is free to pursue and win other women outside of Chi in exactly the way I have been alluding to throughout my essay.
I have reservations about declaring CLAMP set out with Chobits to debunk these visual novel universes and their tropes. From what I have glimpsed of the group and their unique way of creating, it’s impossible to say what their goal was in its creation. It may be that their intent was more innocent: to bring a touch of shoujo to the seinen market. Chobits just may have been the unique product spawned by this fusion. On the other hand, if they might possibly have had no involvement with the visual novel and the changes to the anime (as has been suggested to me), it could be that I have glimpsed a small part of their intentions in creating Chobits. I understand why the story might put off their traditionally female dominated audience, but I do believe plot itself (and not just the philosophical questions it brings up) has serious merit to it, and I hope that my ideas may help to redeem the series in the eyes of others.
I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts, and unknownusername for taking the time to give me input while I was writing this.
To submit your contributions to the CLAMP MMF for inclusion in this month’s archive, please send your links by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter to @mbeasi. If you would like your contribution(s) to be hosted at Manga Bookshelf, please email them to Melinda, along with any included images.