For many of us, our daily lives are brimming with technology that would have filled the pages of science fiction novels a century ago. I step outside to do a couple of errands and find myself surrounded by people with their faces stuck to the screens of their smart phones, texting fifteen friends from across the country at once, checking up on the latest news, getting directions, or maybe even jotting something down for their next blog post. As for me, I’ll let you in on a little secret; I’m technologically slow and hardly touch those sleek smart phones. However, even I rarely go a day without booting up ye olde laptop. With our world so intricately connected to technology that seems to advance overnight, it’s easy to wonder what the future holds in regards to technology. What would you think, though, if computers suddenly were made to look and act human?
In Chobits, a manga created by the famous all female team of manga artists called CLAMP, the streets are full not of people walking with smart phones in hand but instead stroll together with computers barely distinguishable from humans. They smile, talk, and interact like normal people yet can do everything a high-powered computer can do. Everyone has one–except the protagonist of the series, 19-year-old Hideki, who can only dream of these so-called “persocoms” as he works and studies to get into college. That is, until one day when he just happens across one that’s been wiped of all its memory and thrown in the trash. While Hideki celebrates his amazing fortune, he begins to realize that his persocom, Chi, may not be an ordinary persocom. So, why would someone throw away something this incredible? And how is Hideki going to keep in mind that Chi is only a machine when she seems so human?
Four volumes in on my rereading of Chobits, I find myself confronted with a mix of shallow fan service and deep discussion, a feminist’s nightmare and smorgasbord of cuteness. I have yet to pick up an uncomplicated work by CLAMP, but this has my head spinning a bit so, let me break down what I like and what I don’t thus far:
To begin with, the premise of Chobits is somewhat troublesome for me. CLAMP is not the first to tackle human-like computers, but this story in particular is giving me flashbacks to Stepford Wives, a sci-fi/horror movie from the 70’s in which real women are slowly replaced by robots who are “perfect;” they’re obedient, beautiful, loyal, and don’t have those pesky things called real emotion and the ability to think for themselves. While there are male persocoms in Chobits, so far I have only seen glimpses of them and most of the depictions focus on female persocoms like Chi. At the beginning of the series, Hideki even describes how persocoms are “beautiful, obedient…perfection” and “softer, prettier” than real women, mirroring the disturbing concept of Stepford Wives. Yet unlike Stepford Wives, this isn’t explored as an embodying of extremely old-fashioned gender norms and, to top it off, the female persocoms are often portrayed in a sexual way: dressed in sexy outfits like kinky maid costumes, “on” switches conveniently placed in what would be a woman’s private parts, etc. Chi’s ignorant, baby-like manner is exploited constantly in the first few volumes in which she copies what she sees in Hideki’s porn magazines and more. Oh, did I mention Chi is supposed to resemble a 15 or 16-year-old girl? In short, there’s a lot of cringe-worthy content half way through the series.
There has been some discussion about the moral dilemma of persocoms. Hideki begins to wonder why people made computers that seemed so human and how they should be treated. Do they feel emotions and thoughts like people or does it only seem that way because they were programmed to be human-like? How should they be treated? Some people actually fall in love with their persocoms and even marry them, leaving other people to feel as if they’re being replaced by perfect beings they could never truly compete with. It’s moments in which more psychological aspects are explored when Chobits manages to stand above the usual manga filled with fan service. It makes you stop and think. Even Chi, although far from being a three-dimensional character since she’s little more than a cute, innocent female character touched with a hint of sadness, has moments of depth as she wonders if anyone will love her for real, as more than a fancy machine.
Unfortunately, so far the deeper aspects of Chobits aren’t dominate enough to outweigh my complaints at this point in the series. It’s too bad since the artwork is gorgeous! Anyway, I’m sure my problems with Chobits won’t bother some people nearly as much as me, but if the hair on the back of your neck is standing on end just reading about the, shall we say, questionable points of this story, you may want to stick around to read my review on the last half of Chobits and find out if it gets any better from a feminist stand point.