Content warning: discussion of sexual objectification, infantilization, groping, fictional age-gap relationships
Spoilers for the Chobits manga and anime
Before Siri and Alexa or movies like Her, the 2000 series Chobits introduced its viewers to an alternate present where highly advanced humanoid robots, called persocoms, serve the role of personal computers and cell phones. Chobits uses its post-humanist storytelling to ask questions about the highly personal relationships that humans can develop with something that looks human or shares human qualities, but can never exactly be human. Because the persocoms are almost all built to look like young women, it also creates a space to ask questions about gender roles in relationships and how those perceived as female can be literally objectified. At times, Chobits presents a very compelling and empowering narrative around love, personal choice, and sacrifice. Yet, simultaneously, Chobits fails to reckon with the very questions it raises.
The series is a CLAMP classic, with many of the visuals and themes we’d come to expect from the four-women team who penned and illustrated Cardcaptor Sakura and Magic Knights Rayearth. However, Chobits differs from the young-girl centered stories many expect when they think of CLAMP. Chobits has a teen male protagonist and the manga was serialized in the seinen Weekly Young Magazine. Because the target audience is adult men, the series features frank discussions about relationships, sex, and heartache. Although, this added maturity also leads to many visuals or gags based around fan service or, at times, more disturbing incidents of sexual objectification.
Although Chobits starts out following ronin student Hideki as he travels from his small hometown to Tokyo, the narrative eventually splits its perspective between him and the persocom he encounters named Chi. The movement of the plot and storyline is most affected by her as she struggles to find her place in a world she was suddenly thrust into. The show walks a thin line between celebrating Chi’s growth into a full person with sentience and agency while, at the same time, often objectifying her. Chi’s objectification sometimes robs her of the agency she is trying to achieve. Although the series features a strong cast of interesting female characters, it is told from the vantage point of an often titillating Male Gaze. This makes for a very complex viewing of a show rife with contradictions.
The series kicks off when Hideki spots Chi discarded in the trash on his way home from prep school. Knowing that he could never afford a persocom, he quickly rescues her, and brings her home. After searching for an on switch, he finally realizes that it’s located between her legs in her vaginal canal. This is played for comedy in the moment, but will become crucial to the rest of the plot and come up again and again, as it essentially serves as a reset button.
Reasonably disturbed, he activates the persocom who, upon reboot, can only utter the word which then becomes her name. Chi is presented as a blank slate: she does not speak Japanese, nor understand any of the cultural norms of the society around her, nor basic concepts ranging from going to school or earning money or more complicated human qualities like emotions, happiness, love or sadness.
Chi’s role is especially important since she is a Chobit, a special line of persocoms that have the potential to feel emotion and fall in love if a part of their programming is activated by finding someone who essentially is their soulmate. They can also imbue other persocoms with this ability—an element of their programming some view as a threat to society. Although love is a strong part of their programming, the Chobits still have the choice in who they choose to love.
The highly sophisticated AI of Persocoms predicts many of the questions we might one day have to ask about a machine that can imitate almost every idea of being human. Chi’s development from a broken-down computer to a persocom with layered goals and desires brings these concepts to fruition as we have to ask what makes her a machine and what makes us human.
Chi’s innocence and naivete is alternatively played for laughs or centered in scenes where she takes part in her own self-discovery. Early in the series, Hideki struggles with simple issues like being too embarrassed to buy Chi panties, explaining to her why she can’t imitate the women in the adult magazines strewn all over his apartment, or simply attempting to teach her to speak. As the series progresses, Chi asks Hideki to explain more complex concepts like happiness, love or why two people would hold hands as they walk down the street.
Chi is consistently curious about love and companionship as something latent in her programming tells her to seek out “the person meant only for her.” This search becomes a core belief for Chi that drives her to seek out knowledge and purpose through finding a job, reading, and attempting to make independent decisions.
As the viewer follows Chi’s character growth and genuinely heartfelt moments, however, we are consistently reminded that this anime was adapted from an ecchi-inflected manga for young men, and fanservice is never far away. To this point, however, Chobits can be analyzed through Laura Mulvey’s theory of the Male Gaze. Although the term has several meanings in colloquial conversation, it’s most useful in the analysis of Chobits if we consider it as the way that men look and women are looked at in media. Women are consistently an object being acted upon by the subject, who is assumed to be male.
The Male Gaze further refers to how women in ads, movies or television, were literally cut up into body parts with extreme attention paid to breasts, legs, or rear ends through camera angles or extreme zooms in 1960s and 70s film. While this explains the visuals of Chobits to no particular analytical end, it also invites the viewer to ask “whose story is this?” and brings forth some of the more troubling aspects of the series. Chi is the focus of much of the story, but the audience is not invited to share her perspective: we are mostly invited to look at her through the lens of “relatable everyman” protagonist Hideki.
As mentioned earlier, Chi comes into the story as a blank slate. Aside from the prime directive hidden deep in her now wiped programming to find a person meant only for her, she is essentially introduced as a child who understands nothing. Of course, Chi was also literally designed to be a stand-in for a child by her creators. CLAMP is no stranger to romantic age gaps. Popular series Cardcaptor Sakura casually depicts romances between students and teachers. and although Chi is not a child, she is sometimes presented as one. Chi does not understand many of the situations she is put in or that she puts herself in. Sometimes, it is humorous and an opportunity for Hideki to correct her. Other times, they are near-violent scenes that undermine Chi’s agency.
Early in the series, Chi seeks out a job to support Hideki and ends up being solicited by a man who runs an online peepshow. Before Hideki can rescue her in the nick of time, she is groped and fondled between her legs. This scene is not only a violation of Chi’s burgeoning personhood, but a very risk to her life if her reset button is pressed. Whenever Chi’s reset button is almost pressed, it activates a type of panic button which summons the embedded data of her sister Chobit Freya, whom Chi downloaded into her own harddrive before Freya’s factory reset. Because Freya only appears during moments of high stress or emergency, she is only able to give Chi passing advice.
Although Freya is present to help Chi protect herself, the purpose of the scene serves more to explore Chi’s programming rather than address the danger she was put in. Later, Chi is kidnapped by Yoshiyuki Kojima, an obsessive tech enthusiast. She is similarly groped and fondled before Freya is summoned to defend her, making these as much opportunities to display humiliation or danger-based fanservice as character development.
Although Chi is able to fight back and Yoshiyuki faces Hideki’s anger in ensuing scenes, he is allowed to reintegrate himself back into the community due to his tech prowess. Of course, Chi is still a machine, but her literally being an object in-text does not excuse the narrative from objectifying her. Chi is moving through the world with similar struggles as a human woman and faces many of the challenges of a woman as she comes into a type of personhood. Although at times, Chi is objectified by a character that is framed as an antagonist like the peep show manager or Yoshiyuki, at other times it is the audience themselves that are placed in the role of the male gaze.
This creates an uncomfortable imbalance between moments when Chi’s objectification is clearly condemned by the narrative and moments when it is simply titillating fan service. Scenes like these can be troubling to the larger narrative of Chi’s self-discovery when they are not properly reckoned with, or only serve to showcase her mysterious programming rather than acknowledge her victimization or explore her personal response.
Viewers also have to consider that, despite the fact that Chi grows into a capable and more independent persocom, Hideki is all she knows. While Hideki is framed as a character dedicated to helping Chi in her search for selfhood, he’s also a stand-in for a reader fantasy of being able to groom a perfect girlfriend who comes with no pesky pre-existing opinions and must rely on her boyfriend completely. The romantic aspect of the story is, of course, that she found “the person meant only for her.” However, much of Chi’s love is an obsession with Hideki based on constant sacrifice. And while sacrifice may very well be a part of love, it often seems one-sided between female persocoms and their male companions.
With the exception of several male-shaped persocoms rendered in crowd shots, a majority of the persocoms we see, and every persocom with a speaking role, is female-shaped. The people who own persocoms are considered their “owners” or “masters,” which immediately relegates most persocoms into a servant dynamic with their owners. Although some persocoms like Chi transition out of this dynamic into something more equitable, the series still creates a system where almost solely stereotypically adult-female-bodied persocoms are commonly seen in subservient roles to men and boys.
This dynamic seems to carry over even between persocoms and humans that have those more intimate relationships. In the final episodes of the series, Chi even advises fellow persocom Yuzuki that it is okay to potentially crash her harddrive if it means helping Minoru, whose sister she was modeled after. Despite their brother-sister relationship, Yuzuki is still essentially Minoru’s maid. Chi’s entire existence was not only to be a daughter to her creator Chitose, but a sister to Freya—another Chobit series persocom who died because she fell in love with Chitose’s husband, but could not have the relationship she desired.
The heartbreak of not being able to form a romantic relationship with Chitose’s husband causes her to shut down, despite the fact she has a sister and mother who loves her. There is even a tertiary plot between Hideki’s boss Hiroyusa Ueda and his persocom Yumi, which he married but tragically lost after she pushed him out of the way of a moving car. Even as the characters in the story decide that humans can love persocoms and vice versa, the willingness to sacrifice oneself for that love seems to be the onus of the female persocoms.
Despite the questionable place of female persocoms and Chi’s role in the story, Chobits contains powerful messages about loyalty to one another and love. What is most remarkable is the the relationships between adults, or adult presenting persocoms, that explore the idea of developing romantic relationships without typical sexual relationships. Every relationship between humans and persocoms is not neccesarily sexual at all; Minoru’s relationship with Yuzuki is not sexual at all and Chi and Freya once knew parental love from their creators.
The Chobits series of persocoms struggle with the fact that they can’t have what they perceive to be full relationships with the humans they love because they cannot have sexual intercourse, due to the placement of their reset button. The reset button proves to be tangled inextricably with this question of sexual objectification: if someone has penetrative sex with a Chobit, their drive will be wiped and they will essentially lose their humanity, reduced to an object.
However, the story’s resolution sidesteps this problem. It does not make the one thing persocoms cannot do a prerequisite for achieving a loving, romantic companionship between Chi and Hideki, and Hideki accepts Chi knowing he might never be able to have penetrative sex with her as the anime leaves this far more ambiguous than the manga. Although this resolution leaves the question open as to what exactly physical intimacy means to Chobits and their human companions, it still invites the viewer to consider relationships outside of their most common assumption.
Despite the fact that Chi was objectified and had her agency threatened throughout the series, she finds a love not predicated on sex that allows them both to retain autonomy and balance in the relationship. This does not undo the previous, troubling aspects of the story because they aren’t fully addressed; this is still a series full of contradictions.
However, the ending provides the viewer something to sit with by presenting an alternate model of a successful relationship to the mainstream, and finding a heartfelt, if messy, answer to its questions about what makes humans human. Chobits is ultimately a love story with valuable lessons, but a flawed one nonetheless. Twenty years after the manga’s completion, in an evolving landscape of narratives about AI and romance, it deserves revisiting.