In CLAMP's series Chobits, the hottest technological device to hit Tokyo is a persocom. That is, a computer with an often eerie resemblance to a human being. They can walk and talk and hold down jobs. Sometimes they react in ways that make you wonder if they might actually have feelings too.
I first saw Chobits several years ago, when it was still pretty common to see cosplayers dressed as Chi, the central persocom in this story, at anime conventions. When the anime (English language dub) came up in my list of Netflix Instant recommendations last week, I re-watched it with curiosity. Has our world become more like the one depicted in Chobits? I’m still not sure.
Chobits is a product of the turn of the century. When this piece was made, we were moving away from dial-up Internet. DVD players were becoming more common, but you could still find VHS holdouts. Cell phones with cameras were coming into popularity. In 2013, Chobits is a nostalgic look at the future. You may wonder why setting up a video call is so complicated. You may think back to the days when playing a computer game with multiple people seemed novel. In some ways, the world of Chobits now lags behind our own reality. But, then again, in Chobits, everyone in the city seems to have a computer who looks like a real person. We still don’t have that.
Chobits starts out as a story about adapting to new surroundings. Hideki Motosuwa is in his late teens. Since he couldn’t get into college, he moves to the big city in order to take prep courses. When he arrives, he realizes that everyone in Tokyo has a persocom. Of course, Motosuwa wants one, but he can’t afford it. By chance, he stumbles upon a persocom that has been left out as trash. Motosuwa calls the persocom Chi, as that’s the only sound she makes.
In the beginning, it’s easy to see Chobits as an awkward guy-meets-cute robot sort of tale. Motosuwa and Chi have to learn how to live in their surroundings together. There are episodes involving Chi’s search for underwear and her first time at a bath. There are several moments where Chi casually stumbles upon Motosuwa’s porn stash. One might assume that this is one of those comedies where the humor centers around an archetypal helpless girl. That’s not really the case as Motosuwa is as incompetent as Chi. They have to rely on their pals– a classmate, a teacher, a teenage co-worker, an adolescent genius and their landlady– to help Motosuwa and Chi transition into city life and adulthood.
It takes a few episodes to get into Chobits. At some point, the series morphs from sci-fi comedy to sci-fi mystery. Chi’s origins come into question from the start, but they aren’t seriously explored until much later. This is where the anime gets really interesting. While the audience is trying to figure out whether or not Chi is one of the legendary super computers known as Chobits, the authors weave plenty of fodder for philosophical debate into the story.
At the core of the story is an exploration of how humans relate to technology. Crowd scenes freeze to spotlight human and persocom pairings. There are men arm-in-arm with computerized women and women cuddling up to computerized men. There are grown-ups escorting persocoms as though they are their children. The line between the real world and the virtual world is blurry.
(Possible spoilers.) Every now and again, the main plot takes a pause to pick up on the backstory of one of the characters. There’s the teacher whose marriage was destroyed when her husband became obsessed with his persocom. There’s the boy genius who built his persocom to resemble his deceased older sister. And there’s the pastry chef who married a persocom, only to suffer a devastating loss. Repeatedly, characters warn Motosuwa not to get to attached to Chi, to be careful of actually falling for someone who isn’t human.
Several years ago, around the time I first saw Chobits, I was hanging out with a friend who referred to a cell phone as a persocom. I laughed because it’s not everyday you hear people referencing CLAMP titles in ordinary conversation. Then I realized that my friend had a point. The smart phone is the best example of this. It doesn’t look human, but it is something that we take with us everywhere and something that holds the keys to human interaction. We socialize through our cell phones, but maybe we’re also socializing with the devices. Plenty of people, myself included, have no problem whipping out the phone while at a party. They have become part of our social circles. Once you start to think about this, Chobits starts to feel real. But, there’s a catch. This anime was released back in the early 2000s, before just about everyone held a smart phone. Chobits isn’t just a fun, intriguing anime. It’s prophetic.