Saturday, July 25, 2015

I Love Anime: Chobits

I caught the first three episodes of Chobits at last year’s Anime Expo and thought, “Cool! It’s like Maison Ikkoku with a robot!” As in Maison Ikkoku, the main character, Hideki, is a na├»ve young underachiever who moves into a boarding house in the city to study for his university entrance exams. Also like Maison Ikkoku, there is an attractive building manager for Hideki to crush on and a couple other potential romantic interests to complicate his life in the form of his teacher and a teenaged coworker. The (literal) device separating Maison Ikkoku and Chobits is the prevalence of persocoms, sexy girlbots with Smartphone capabilities. Which, I guess would make them Androids?
One night, Hideki finds an abandoned persocom in the trash and takes her home and activates her. It turns out her memory has been wiped and all she can say is “chi.” Hideki names her Chi and in the process of teaching and caring for her finds out that she is a chobits model persocom, thought to be an urban legend, capable of learning, free will and emotions.
The thing about Chobits is that it keeps changing its mind as to what it wants to be. Is it a cute, sexy rom-com or dark social commentary or a cyber-conspiracy thriller? One minute it’s all hijinks and wacky misunderstandings, the next Chi has wandered off with a sleazy stranger and ends up the newest attraction in a robo-peepshow.
The series flirts with the social implications of a world where programmable girlbots are as easy to come by as cell phones but shies away from exploring them in any depth. (There are also boybots, but these are only seen occasionally in the background in city scenes accompanying their female owners.) One character’s husband left her for a persocom. Another customized his persocom to look like his older sister who died. Another character actually married his persocom and tells the heartbreaking story of how she developed and unfixable memory fault and remembered less and less as her memory became more corrupted until all that was left of her was her factory defaults, much like losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s. His anguish was real, but the question was left unresolved whether she loved him back or was just programmed to. Chobits dances around the edges of the rabbit hole and shyly peeks in, but can’t bring itself to take the plunge.
As the series wound down to the last few episodes, I still couldn’t tell whether it was going for robot revolution or weak-ass Cinderella story. Overall, Chobits is a decent anime with some funny moments and interesting characters. (Hideki’s a pretty bland repressed anime male protagonist type who’s obsessed with sex but would most likely get a nosebleed and pass out at the sight of a woman’s bare shoulder.) It teases around the edges of some deep questions—about love, about objectification, about how society views women now, and even about how society may view AIs in the future—but ultimately sticks to the shallow end.

“Oh, hey, we came for the cyber-conspiracy thriller. Um, was there something we were supposed to do?”