Glenn Hough (gallyangel) is a nonpracticing futurist, an anime and manga otaku, and is almost obsessive about finishing several of the lists tracked on WWEnd. In this series on SF Manga Glenn will provide an overview of the medium and the place of science fiction within it.
Imagine, for a moment, a group of lady doujinshi artists. Imagine them hurrying from their train to the comicfest doujinshi sales halls, in the very early morning, the summer heat already starting to rise. It is the mid 80ies and there are eleven or twelve of them in their circle. Imagine them having the fun of shopping through the packed doujinshi isles, stopping to chat and exclaim over the precious fan work they find. They do this in shifts so they can sell their own work as well. Imagine their doujinshi getting into the hands of the right person. Imagine the right conversation with the right person in the manga industry. Imagine rejection before a second chance with a different work.
By the time we get to their first published professional work in 1989, the group is now seven. By 1993 that amateur doujinshi group of a dozen or so has shrunk to four. Those four are collectively known as Clamp, who have secured for themselves the reputation of being one of the current Manga Gods of Japan.
In English alone, Clamp has 25 published series or one shots. That’s 150 volumes of work that’s been published in English. 150 toukubons! At an average of 175 pages each… that’s 26,250 pages folks. Imagine what those numbers must look like at home in Japan.
So, what can I include in my little series by this super group? They’ve done mecha magical fantasy, psychic powers, spiritual powers, demons and angels, fantasy, dimensional hopping on a spiritual quest, vampires, magical girl, and old world Kyoto spiritual power wars, just to rattle off a few genres or motifs. Chobits is about the only thing in the pure SF vein that Clamp’s produced. Chobits it has to be then.
Tokyopop has this to say about Chobits, Volume One:
Hideki is your typical 20-year-old slacker. He didn’t get into college straight out of high school, so he’s working a dead-end job, can’t find a girlfriend, and is perpetually broke. If only he had a persocom – a humanoid robot – to keep him company, perhaps things wouldn’t be so bad. The problem with persocoms is they are incredibly expensive, and it would take Hideki a lifetime to afford one. Then, one day Hideki finds a particularly cute female persocom dumped in a pile of trash, so he decides to take her home. As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure…
The cocktail that Clamp is making for us includes the base ingredient of a Japan that’s just the day after tomorrow. The main SF element is android technology which is way ahead of the current level. Add a dash of Clamp humor, slice-of-life in a more comedic vein, and the subtleties of the female perspective. Mix.
At first the flavor is of comedy. The self proclaimed country bumpkin techno-neophyte finds a persocom in the garbage. This persocom is so powerful that when real techno wizards daisy-chain their own custom persocoms together in an effort to understand Chi, their collective computing power is no match for her. Chi is the name Hideki gives his persocom; it’s the only thing she can initially say.
It’s at this point that sight gags and prat falls predominate, but this is just the opening hook for the shallows of the story. There are deeper waters and deeper questions ahead. In other hands, heterosexual males for instance, this manga would go XXX hentai in half a heart beat. But the steady hand of four women have something else in mind. Chobits is a fairy tale that does not shy away from a sensuous side, but love, true love in a chaste, fairy tale like way, is the heart of Chobits.
Chobits is a manga where emotional tenor and character arc are crucial factors for driving a simply story of discovery and rediscovery. Chi starts out as a completely wiped persocom. No memory. No skills. Nothing but the ability to learn. She’s a blank slate, with something buried deep within her programming: her mission to find that “someone just for me”. Quite the task since she has to reforge a self and relearn a whole society around her. Hideki’s road of discovery is just as deeply rooted. From thinking of Chi as this piece of exceptionally cool hardware he found, an appliance, he must learn to see Chi as a person to be loved. Both have long journeys.
With typical Clamp humor and layering, the larger and deeper questions are presented as subtext. The question of social acceptance of a human/persocom relationship. Where is the sentience threshold of personhood? The raising of equality issues between the two races. The effects of persocoms on human society itself: is to large of a segment of the population drifting away from human companionship to persocom companionship? These type of questions are all buried in the background, coloring the action, but never distracting from the main show between Hideki and Chi. How can a human girl, or boy, compete with the perfection of a persocom when it comes to companionship? If you build a custom persocom to replace a deceased loved one, when do you stop loving the persocom as a replacement and start to love them for themselves? Can one love a persocom and then move on to love a human women?
Very close to the end, Clamp sums it up for us: “To Be In Love and Beloved Back…It’s Bliss. Unrequited Love…Constant Agony.”
Since I’ve mentioned both the start and the end, it’s the journey which is the most important part for this SF love story. This is handled with a deftness only Clamp could accomplish. From the style of Chi’s clothes, to the cast of secondary characters and how they help both Chi’s and Hideki’s emotional journey, to all the little surprises which make the journey one worth taking, Clamp again proves they are one of the current Manga Gods of Japan.
Finding Chobits is not a problem. The manga was initially offered to the USA market by our departed friends over at Tokyopop. Ebay always seems to have a few complete sets for sale, at a reasonable price. The reason it’s a reasonable price is that our friends at Dark Horse have picked up the rights and reprinted Chobits in omnibus format. And if you’re in a position where you can only afford a free copy, check out mangatraders.com or mangapanda.com.