“Today, I continue to search for the one for me. The person that will like me because I am who I am. The person who will continue to like me, even if I cannot grant dreams. … If he can’t like me for being me, then he is not the one for me.”
In my final semester of undergrad at Vanderbilt University, I had the pleasure of taking a course called “Explorations of Japanese Animation.” Far from the easy-A exercise in senioritis it may sound like, it was in fact directly relevant both to my degree, as a Film Studies minor, and my own personal interests, for although I had long been fascinated with animation (even producing several animated shorts myself), my knowledge had previously been restricted to the Western tradition. Through the class I became well-acquainted with many celebrated anime classics, including such deeply symbolic works as Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, Princess Mononoke, and Madoka Magica.
The one that most captivated me, however, was a more obscure and seemingly much less profound series: Chobits, a cheerful love story between a human man and a female “persocom,” a type of humanoid robot designed as an artificial companion. Though covered only in passing, as a supposedly typical example of the “magical girlfriend” genre of anime, the single episode we watched in class proved so weirdly enchanting that I ended up watching the entire series on my own over the next couple of weeks. Now, I am not generally a fan of either romantic comedies (which I find inane and formulaic) or stories about machines (which usually feel cold and harsh), but for whatever reason I fell in love with Chobits.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of obvious things to like about the series. Its exploration of artificial intelligence and the philosophical implications thereof is subtle but thought-provoking, while its delightfully risqué sense of humor belies a much darker sexual subtext rich for psychoanalytic mining (in fact, scholar Thomas Lamarre has devoted three whole chapters of his book The Anime Machine to Chobits‘ treatment of fetishism, sexual trauma, and gendered gaze). Intellectual and psychological depth aside, it’s also simply great fun to watch, for its bright animation, catchy music, and upbeat sugary tone. Chii, the show’s playful, kitten-eared robotic heroine, is so ridiculously adorable as to make the show worth watching for her sake alone.
What’s most surprising isn’t that I liked Chobits, but that months after the class had ended, it continued to stand out in my mind. It came up again and again in conversations, and in times of emotional distress I found that thinking of it gave me comfort. It took watching the whole series a second time to realize why it struck such a powerful chord: Chobits isn’t really about robots at all. It’s about people.
Persocoms, I realized, are a metaphor for our fantasies of the perfect companion, the Platonic ideals we envision of our perfect friend, lover, or family member. Like Pygmalion’s mythical bride, sculpted from stone and brought to life, persocoms embody these fantasy ideals and make them real, fitting perfectly into their owners’ lives and satisfying every need and desire without conflict or complaint. Although in real life persocoms do not (yet?) exist, this does not stop us from projecting our fantasies onto other people, and so attempting to mold them in the image of our ideal companion.
In addition to their idealized social function, persocoms also serve the more obviously utilitarian role of computers, used for such purposes as checking e-mail, surfing the web, and downloading pornography. When, in real-world relationships, we measure other people’s value by how well they reflect our own fantasies, we assign them a utilitarian function as well, and so similarly objectify them.
(This should not be taken to mean that we should expect nothing of others in real life, for all healthy relationships entail certain mutual responsibilities, but simply that we must be wary lest the value we place on other people revolves mainly around their fulfillment of perceived obligations)
The “defective” persocom Chii, whom the show’s male protagonist Motosuwa Hideki finds abandoned in a trash heap, symbolizes the breakdown of such ideals when reality fails to conform to our fantasies. At first Chii appears to be a dream come true for Hideki, who just moments earlier is shown longing for both a girlfriend and a computer. But as it turns out, her memory has been wiped and her programming locked, while the location of her reset button between her legs renders her incapable of sexual intercourse. Measured against Hideki’s hopeful expectations of her, Chii is useless in his life. But moved by Chii’s expression of apparent fear at being discarded again, he nonetheless chooses to keep her, marking the beginning of his journey toward another, more enlightened way of relating to others: not as objects to satisfy one’s own needs and wants, but as complex individuals to be loved as they are in themselves, for whatever they have to offer.
Initially the amnesiac Chii, like other persocoms, is wholly dependent on her “owner” for her sense of identity. However, Hideki’s inability to simply install data or program her personality to his liking, instead having to teach her concepts and skills as one might a child, introduces a degree of uncertainty in her process of self-development unavailable to other persocoms. Over time she thus grows as a distinct individual in her own right, rather than simply a reflection of Hideki’s fantasies. Chii’s evolution from an object to a subject coincides with Hideki’s process of learning to value others as fellow persons, rather than as mere objects of fantasy.
While Chii is strongly implied to have true emotions and a will of her own, supported by evidence that she may be a “chobits,” a line of mysterious super-powered persocoms rumored to possess independent minds, the true extent of her sentience remains unknowable to the show’s human characters up to the final episode. When Hideki begins to have romantic feelings for her, he long delays acting on his emotions for this reason, doubtful as to her ability to reciprocate. Significantly, Chii is shown wrestling with similar doubts as to whether Hideki is “the one just for me… the one who will continue to love me, even if I cannot grant dreams.” That is, whether Hideki can love her for the individual she has become, despite her limited functionality as a machine designed for wish-fulfillment.
Though by this point in the series Hideki has long since transcended his initial expectations of Chii, both have now become vulnerable to one of the most powerful, and dangerous, fantasy ideals of all: that of “true love.” When we imagine another person to be the “one just for me,” we come to measure them against a particularly lofty set of expectations: that they embody all the traits we most desire in a lover, and that they will feel the same affection for us (and usually only us) as we do for them, for the remainder of both of our lives. The realization that our lover does not meet such expectations can be extremely painful, and in the midst of heartbreak it becomes easy to overlook the intrinsic value of the relationship apart from such ideals: the other person’s uniqueness as an individual, their actual feelings for us (which, though different, may not necessarily be any less real or powerful than our own), or the joy found in having spent time together at all. Paradoxically, the ideal of “true love” can actually prevent us from truly loving others as they are in themselves.
In addition to the central focus on Chii and Hideki, Chobits also explores these same themes in a variety of other contexts as well. We learn the sad story of Mrs. Shimizu, whose husband has become so consumed by his fantasy relationship with a persocom as to abandon his actual relationship with his wife. We encounter the child genius Minoru and his persocom Yuzuki, custom built as a surrogate for his deceased sister, but who still cannot replace her in his heart, transforming her from an object of fantasy to one of resentment.
We also meet Dragonfly, an infamous computer hacker obsessed with proving that Chii is in fact a chobits. Ironically, his mad desire to demonstrate that Chii is a sentient subject leads him to such cruelly objectifying actions as kidnapping, forcibly analyzing, and even attempting to rape her (provoking a violent, and fortunately successful, defense from Chii). As Hideki frantically searches for Chii following her abduction, he begins to wonder whether his love and concern for her are inappropriate, since if she’s really just a normal persocom rather than a chobits, then she supposedly cannot feel emotion or suffer.
It is at this point that Hideki learns the tragic backstory of Ueda, a local baker and Chii’s employer, whose tale of having married his persocom Yumi foreshadows one possible worst-case scenario should Hideki act on his feelings for Chii. Though initially Ueda’s marriage was a dream come true for him, things took a turn for the nightmarish when a hardware malfunction began to erode Yumi’s memory, until eventually she could recall only brief fragments of their life together. But given the option of replacing her hard drive, and thereby erasing the last traces of who she had become, Ueda refrained. He had come to value her intrinsically, as if she were a person, rather than as a mere object of fantasy. In the end Yumi “died” sacrificing herself on his behalf, pushing him out of the way of an oncoming truck but being crushed herself in the process. As a broken machine, unable even by this point to recall her husband’s name, such an act of self-sacrifice should have been impossible. Like Chii, it would seem that Yumi, through being treated as if a person, in her last moments attained a degree of personhood of her own.
Despite Ueda’s heartbreak, and his inability to ever truly know if Yumi’s sacrifice was an act of love or merely a glitch in her programming, he does not regret the time spent with his wife. “She was a persocom and not a living creature,” he tells Hideki, “but to me, she had died. She couldn’t remember anything anymore, couldn’t feel anything. But I still remember her. Her face, her voice, her actions, the good times and the bad times. I couldn’t forget about any of that. You feel the same way, right, Mr. Motosuwa? If Chii were to face trying times, you wouldn’t forget, right? … Then it wouldn’t be for nothing. Even if they were to erase it from the hard disk. As long as you remember.”
For Ueda, none of the potential pitfalls of relationships – the other person’s flaws, the risk of unreciprocated feelings, or their often fleeting impermanence – negate their true value, if one can learn to appreciate them in the here and now, for whatever they have to offer in the time that they last. Later on, Ueda begins another relationship with a human woman, also named Yumi. Despite his enduring affection for his deceased wife, and the new Yumi’s shared name with her, he vows to love his new partner on her own terms, for her own sake. “I thought I’d never be able to fall in love again,” he tells the human Yumi when she expresses doubts. “Especially not a persocom again. But you know, even if you were a persocom, I think I still would have fallen in love with you.” It is Ueda’s words and example that ultimately inspire Hideki to act on his feelings for Chii, despite the very real dangers they illustrate.
Chii’s own epiphany comes in the show’s final episode, whose action hinges on her fateful decision to delete herself, having decided that she would rather not exist than endure the pain of heartbreak should Hideki turn out not to be the one just for her. We learn that this is not the first time Chii has suffered the pain of broken fantasies. Although her memory was wiped prior to the first episode, she remains haunted by the experiences of her sister Freya, who despite being created as the perfect daughter for a childless couple, instead fell in love with the man meant to be her father. Knowing that she could never transcend the limits of the fantasy she was designed to embody, Freya chose to destroy herself instead, but not before Chii uploaded her memories into her own digital subconscious, so making them her own. Though I cannot reveal whether or not, or how, Chii manages to make her peace with these traumatic memories without spoiling the ending, I am not ashamed to admit that the final resolution brought me to tears of both joy and sorrow. But the spirit of Chii’s realization – that love can flourish apart from one’s expectations of “true love,” without the need for permanence or perfection – is expressed in the following internal dialogue:
“Is this your happiness?” Freya asks, still alive as a projection in Chii’s mind.
“My happiness is right here,” Chii replies.
“Even if it’s painful? Even if it makes your heart ache?”
“Even then, I want to be with him.”
Much of my enduring fascination with Chobits lies in its resonance with my own psychological journey over the past two years, which have seen multiple painful and traumatic romantic involvements. A major turning point for me, prior to watching the series, came upon reading the words of Han Yu, a 9th century Chinese poet and scholar, who defines the Confucian spiritual ideal of ren, or humaneness, as “loving largely:” that is, accepting others in their entirety as complex persons, without expectations as to what they should be for our sake. Watching and re-watching Chobits, and following Chii’s and Hideki’s journeys of “loving largely,” has helped me to make sense of my own experiences, and to interpret and better apply Han Yu’s teaching in my own life. Although striving to love largely has not necessarily reduced the pain of heartbreak, or provided solutions to all the difficult problems posed by specific relationships, it has proven invaluable in learning to endure them, cultivate forgiveness for past injuries, and forge new relationships less burdened by painful memories of the past. I therefore recommend Chobits to all those who have undergone similar situations to my own, or suffered the heartache caused whenever one’s ideals of the perfect relationship become broken by the difficult realities of life.