Of course, no CLAMP month these days can go by without featuring one of the many classics Dark Horse Comics picked up in the stead of Tokyopop, and today's review is no exception to that.
CHOBITS (Chobittsu), by CLAMP. First published in 2001, and first published in North America in 2002.
Persocoms are the latest technological craze. They are walking computers shaped like beautiful people (mostly women), and it seems that everyone in Tokyo has one...well, everyone but Hideki Motosuwa. He's a poor cram school student from the countryside who barely makes ends meet as is, but he dreams of getting a Persocom for practical purposes ('practical purposes' meaning 'Internet porn'). Hideki's luck seemingly turns for the best when he finds a Persocom put out amongst the evening trash, but his lucky find is not all that she seems. His new Persocom is seemingly unable to perform the slightest task on her own and is unable to say anything but "Chii." Hideki now has to focus on teaching Chii about the world all while he works on finding out her origins, which may be tied to an urban legend about the Chobits, Persocoms that are capable of genuine emotion and thought.
So what happens when everyone's favorite all-woman manga team tries to tackle the male-oriented world of magical girlfriend manga? Well, like so many of their previous works, they flip some of the old clichés on their head, insert a bit of humor, and build their story around a unconventional love story. Mind you, all of this isn't obvious from the outset. After all, Chobits stars a spastic, horny young guy who is down on his luck who happens to be surrounded by a gaggle of beautiful women, whose actions in turn only make him more awkward. How is this any different from the others?
First and foremost, it flips the idea of the perfect magical girlfriend on its head. Hideki thinks that by getting a Persocom he could solve all his troubles. He could have the status symbol item of the moment, have a sentient sex doll to stand in for the perfect girlfriend, and he could at long last stop perceiving himself as a failure compared to his peers. Of course, Chii is anything but the perfect girlfriend, there to service all of Hideki's needs. If anything, Hideki has to service her needs because she is essentially like a child. She has to be taught to do just about everything - to speak, to dress herself, and how to function in the wider world. Like a child, she readily imitates anything that Hideki does. This becomes what is easily the funniest running gag in the volume, as Chii is often imitating Hideki's every moment to perfection as he freaks out over whatever issue has come his way. Still, Chii and Hideki's oddly parental relationship makes for an interesting bit of role reversal in a genre that tends to stay firmly entrenched in traditional gender roles, even if it makes Hideki's growing affection for her more than a little weird. Sure, he's aware that it's weird because he's human and she's a computer, a fact which gets drilled into his head more than once, but it becomes rapidly apparent that their relationship occupies a weird place between parent/child and innocent romance.
That same sense of subversion can be found in the rest of the female cast. At first it seems that Hideki has his choice of women in tradionally fetish roles - sexy landlord, sexy teacher, and sexy coworker. In any other story, all of these women would pose some degree of romantic interest in our leading man. Here, though, that applies only to one out of those three women. Chibiya (the landlord) is more of a motherly figure to both Hideki and Chii. Shizuma-sensei (the teacher) does end up drunk and half-clothed at Hideki's place due to circumstance, but even then neither of them makes any sort of move. Only Yuna (the coworker) has any actual romantic interest in Hideki, and even there she's shown to be less than keen on the concept of Persocoms. While none of these characters get a lot of screentime or deep development in the first volume, they are shown to have lives and thoughts outside of Hideki, a fact that makes them more interesting than their equivalents in similar manga.
Chobits has a lot going on for it story-wise. It's got a great sense of humor, which can't be said for most magical girlfriend manga. On the other hand, much more effort is put towards the jokes than "boy falls into boobs" or "boy gets nosebleed from girl being sexy." A lot of it stems more from Chii's innocent misunderstandings of everyday life and having no conversational filter. It also tends to follow a lot of the usual story beats for such romances (boy meets girl, brings her home, buys her clothes, etc.), but by flipping a lot of the typical character roles and dynamics on their head CLAMP has breathed some life into this dull genre.
While the character designs here couldn't be mistaken for anything but CLAMP characters, they bear a stronger resemblance to the simpler forms of Angelic Layer or Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles than their previous shoujo works. Another notable difference here is that this is one of the few CLAMP works with male-oriented fanservice. They've never been short on manservice, what with all the pretty bishies who sometimes touch and pose in homoerotic ways, but Chii ends up flashing more than her fair share of cleavage and suggestive poses. This can even be found in the otherwise lovely and delicate splash art, where Chii is the sole focus. Of course, in context this suggestiveness is more than a bit awkward, considering her child-like nature.
The page composition here is rather restrained, which is surprising considering how often Hideki likes to fill his panels full of gasps, tears, and flailing. While CLAMP does take advantage of the background for some additional jokes, they don't draw a lot of backgrounds and add a lot of screentone. That restraint can even be found in those previously mentioned pieces of color artwork. The color palatte there tends to be restrained to a lot of delicate pastels and flowery, natural settings. It's an interestingly shoujo-esque affectation for what is meant to be a seinen work, but I suspect that that same flail helps to explain why this series appeals just as much to CLAMP's traditionally female audience as it does to the guys who normally read magical girlfriend manga.
Chobits succeeds where so many magical girlfriend series fail because it's willing to subvert a lot of the usual tropes to create a narrative that embraces some of the weirdness within. It also finds a way to combine seinen cheesecake with shoujo prettiness to create artwork that appeals to a wider audience. Even those who are normally wary of such premises should give this series a chance.
This series was previous published by Tokyopop and is currently published by Dark Horse. This series is complete in 5 volumes. The single volumes from Tokyopop are out of print, but the 2 omnibus releases from Dark Horse are currently in print.
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