The manga collective Clamp’s SF manga Chobits(ちょびっツ Chobittsu) was published by Kodansha in Weekly Young Magazine from 2000 to 2002.
Hideki Motosuwa is a cram student by day, a worker by night, and poor all the time. He is far too poor to afford most of the luxuries and vices he sees others enjoy.
High on his wish list: a humanoid persocom, a highly advanced android that wealthier Japanese use for many tasks, online and otherwise. Hideki will never be able to afford his own persocom.
How fortunate for Hideki that what he at first mistook for a murdered woman is in fact a perfectly good persocom discarded like trash. Waste not, want not. The young man drags the attractive android back to his room and manages to turn it on.
Once activated, the android can only utter one word: “chi.” Hideki dubs his new property Chi. Chi doesn’t seem to have the usual persocom software installed, but the android shows a remarkable capacity for learning. In short order she has mastered language and is working on other skills.
An android without software should be a humanoid paperweight, incapable of action. The fact that Chi is active suggests that she does have software of some kind, even if it does not show up on a conventional system scan. Attempts to find and decipher her OS show that it exists, it’s encrypted, and that someone has gone to a lot of trouble to discourage close examination. Plug her into another machine and kiss that machine’s motherboard goodbye.
Chi’s entire focus is on serving her master. No surprise: that’s what personcoms are designed to do. As his friends repeatedly assert, there is no deeper significance to Chi’s actions, regardless of what Chi might say. Persocoms are machines; their behavior is entirely governed by their software. No matter how convincing the appearance of affection, in reality it’s all just a soulless emulation of human behavior. Chi is as capable of human feeling as a vacuum cleaner.
Except…. It’s possible that Chi is no mere persocom but a chobit, a true artificial intelligence. If so, then perhaps she could have a true interior life, and her claims to feel affection for its master might be based in reality.
If that is so, then Chi must be a very advanced model, not something one would find discarded on a trash heap. If she is a chobit, someone is probably looking for her. And in fact several people are.
All comic art is unrealistic, but I didn’t like the kind of unrealism offered by this manga. De gustibus …
Why would anyone make androids resembling young women? For exactly the reasons one would expect. In Chi’s case, for reasons revealed in its tragic backstory, Chi’s reboot switch is located in a hidden location that ensures its memories will be reset if Hideki ever tries to take advantage of a common persocom function. If Chi’s affections are real and if Hideki returns them, theirs will be a chaste love1.
Generally, when one talks about objectification in manga, it’s not in a literal sense. Chobitsoffers literal objectification: humanoid persocoms are convincing enough for human purposes. While male persocoms do exist, the focus in this manga is on female androids and their built-in need to do whatever their (generally male) owners want them to do. It’s not at all coincidental that persocom manufacturers shaped their compliant devices in the form of women, just as it isn’t coincidental that virtual assistants like Siri are given women’s voices. Someone’s fantasies are being stroked.
The development of persocoms (chobits or otherwise) seems to have been catastrophic for society. Persocoms are designed to be more attractive than humans and to conform to their owners’ preferences. As a result, a lot of humans have cast human relationships aside to focus entirely on their android companions. The series illustrates several tragic failure modes for this lifestyle. I would also guess that it can’t be doing good things for the Japanese birthrate.This manga was wildly popular in its day, but I found it off-putting. Yes,
there were all sorts of juicy secret plots swirling around Chi, but they
didn’t distract me from my dislike for the setting. Clamp, the collective,
is all women. I don’t think that they intended this manga to celebrate male
libido; I suspect that it is not coincidental that the romance between Hideki and
Chi is necessarily chaste. Still, this just did not sit right with me.
1: At least it will be if Hideki is unimaginative, so this may be an appropriate moment to mention his porn collection.