Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Chobits (manga, vol. 1) by CLAMP

This manga takes place sometime in the near future. Almost everyone has a persocom, a person-shaped computer. Hideki, a poor cram school student, would love to have a persocom of his own, but they're hideously expensive and the money he gets from his job is barely managing to keep him afloat. Luckily for Hideki, he finds a cute, abandoned persocom on a pile of garbage. He takes her home with him and figures out how to turn her on, but she seems to be a little broken - she can only say "chi." He decides to name her "Chi" and asks for his friend Shimbo's help in figuring out more about her and what's wrong with her. Shimbo eventually sends him to Minoru, a rich 12-year-old with several powerful persocoms. Minoru thinks Chi might be a chobit, a legendary persocom that can think for itself and isn't reliant on outside programming. There's no proof of this, of course, but Minoru promises to find out what he can. Plus, he and Hideki discover that Chi has self-teaching software installed, so she's not completely without software.

Not much later, Minoru meets with Hideki to show him a picture he was sent that appears to show Chi, only with lots of cables and things attached to her. Minoru doesn't know who sent this picture, and Hideki worries that her original owner may want her back. However, no one's come to take Chi away yet, and Chi tells Hideki that the picture is not a picture of her. At the end of the volume, Hideki's cram school teacher, Ms. Shimizu, shows up at his apartment. Although she smiles and seems cheerful, there's something wrong. She tells him she's planning on staying over with him (either that, or sleeping outside somewhere). Hideki's too nice to let her go out on her own, so they eat and drink together (Ms. Shimizu has an amazing tolerance for alcohol). She and Hideki spend time talking, and Hideki discovers that Ms. Shimizu is married, but things don't seem to be going well with her and her husband and it may be connected to persocoms.

Although Hideki is incredibly nice and occasionally a bit of a goofball, he's not as goofy and scattered as he is in the anime, one of the reasons I prefer the manga over the anime. This first volume makes it obvious how different the manga is from the anime - although many of the events of this first volume happen in the manga, some of them happen much later and play out in a different way. Plus, there are certain minor differences - for instance, after Hideki finds Chi, he uses a book about persocoms to figure out how to do some basic system checks, whereas anime Hideki is much more helpless and needs hand-holding for everything Chi-related.

I really like this series. The artwork is lovely and reminds me of Angelic Layer - I find the artwork in Chobits to be cleaner and clearer, however. Some readers may have problems with the persocoms, which can tend to be like servants who are completely devoted to their current master - this can be a bit grating, a feeling which gets worse when you notice that almost all the persocoms shown are female. Still, as obsessed as Hideki is with porn, and as much as he blushes over Chi's cuteness, he at least doesn't stoop to treating her like a little slave.

This is a short series, only 8 volumes long, so CLAMP doesn't have much time to do what they want to do with it. They do a pretty good job of setting things up in this first volume. They introduce Hideki, bring Chi into the picture, and give several examples of how Chi is special compared to other persocoms. The picture that may or may not be of Chi establishes the "Chi mystery" - who/what is Chi, where did she come from, why was she thrown away, and who was her owner?

The ongoing theme of human-persocom relationships is also brought up several times, without, in my opinion, coming across at repetitive. Minoru brings it up when he tells Hideki not to fall in love with Chi, no matter how cute and how human she seems. Minoru's own interestingly complex relationship with his persocom Yuzuki is hinted at. The theme comes up again when Hideki talks to Yumi, his high school-aged coworker, and she tells him that she used to have a guy-shaped persocom but that it made her sad. The theme comes up yet again when Hideki buys Chi a picture book, "A City With No People," which (although readers may not realize it yet) is about a persocom looking for someone "just for me." The first city the persocom is in appears to have no people, because they are all inside with other persocoms, who are more fun to be with than other human beings. Finally, Ms. Shimizu brings the theme up near the end of the volume, when she comments that so many people find persocoms more fun to be with than other people.

I think part of the reason why the theme doesn't really seem repetitive is because readers may not necessarily realize that all of these moments are part of the overall theme. Because I've read this series before, I understand what's behind everyone's comments, but all this first volume actually does is hint at characters' stories.

Overall, I enjoyed this first volume (even though some previous library user ripped out several pages worth of panels, argh). As is usual with Tokyopop titles, there are no extras.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (live action movie) - This film takes place in a future where humans have figured out how to build mechas (robots) that look like humans. These mechas are used and thrown away (or worse) when they are no longer wanted or needed. David is an artificial child, the first mecha to have real feelings. Monica adopts him as a substitute for her son, who is in cryo-stasis, but David is no longer necessary when her son is able to come home. Alone, David goes on a journey to find out how to become a real boy. This movie is a bit darker than Chobits, but it deals with some of the same issues. What makes a person a person? Can artificial people really love, and how do they/should they fit into the human world?
  • Absolute Boyfriend (manga) by Yuu Watase - Riiko is an energetic and nice girl who doesn't have any luck with guys. One day, a strange-looking salesman gives her the URL of a website that sells "love figures" (androids designed to be the perfect lovers). Riiko doesn't really believe any of it is real, but she orders one and signs up for a free trial anyway. The love figure, called Night, does arrive, but Riiko forgets to return him before the end of the trial. If she keeps him, she'll owe the company more money than she could ever pay, but, even if he's only a robot, she's starting to like him too much to give him up. Those who'd like another story featuring attractive robots might want to try this. Like Chobits, this series has romance and deals a little with the implications of falling in love with something non-living and man-made.
  • Body Electric (book) by Susan Squires - This is a very unusual romance novel - the main "male" in the story is an artificial intelligence program, and the main female is, emotionally, pretty unhealthy (which is part of what makes this story fairly dark in tone, and certainly darker than Chobits). Vic Barnhardt, a brilliant and troubled computer programmer, creates Jodie, an artificial intelligence program that she, at first, decides is female. She is shocked and outraged when Jodie finally breaks it to her that it considers itself to be male, but Vic eventually adjusts and her relationship with Jodie deepens even further. Eventually, in order to save Jodie from her boss, Vic must find him a body. This book starts off a bit slow, and Vic's emotional issues may bother some readers. Those who'd like another story dealing with the emotional relationships between humans and human-like computers/programs may want to try this.
  • Angelic Layer (manga) by CLAMP; Angelic Layer (anime TV series) - A 12-year-old girl named Misaki gets hooked on the game Angelic Layer, in which players battle it out with little dolls. Even though she's a newbie, Misaki becomes a strong competitor. She has no idea, however, that the game can give her more than just fun and excitement - Angelic Layer can bring her closer to her mother, a woman she hasn't seen in years. Those who'd like another series by CLAMP with similar artwork might want to try this. Angelic Layer turns up briefly in Chobits.

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