The difference between man and machine isn’t a new thing to question, especially in an industry born from Astro Boy. Yet when Chobits was initially published it brought something amazing with it.
Back in the late 80’s a group of yaoi-obsessed friends came together to create a comic. Influenced by ancient mythology, the group weaved a tragic tale of a genderless child from the heavens. It followed the classic formula of gathering a party and overthrowing an evil king, with some twists. Now, the story itself is not so important, but this little description tells us everything we need to know about the artist group known as CLAMP.
CLAMP are creators of average tales that become twists of common ideas. Works such as Man of Many Faces, Cardcaptor Sakura, and The One I Love challenged common convention while embracing society’s take on love. There is a beauty to everything CLAMP creates, and I’m not talking about the artwork. CLAMP share the beauty of the forbidden. Love and happiness across race and gender.
Of all CLAMP’s work, the one I find the most notable is not Cardcaptor Sakura or Chobits.
It’s Angelic Layer.
Angelic Layer (1999 – 2001) was set in a world where a new line of dolls took over the market. These dolls had the unique feature of sharing telepathic links with the owner, meaning if you had a doll, you could control it with your mind. It was at first impression a story for young kids, designed to sell toys and other junk. Released alongside similarly themed hits such as Digimon, Beyblade and Medabots, CLAMP’s new story fit with the crowd almost too well. What made Angelic Layer different was… Well, it was CLAMP. It betrayed expectations by commenting on society. The dolls within this world could help the disabled, they could help people learn to identify with something they weren’t always comfortable with, and they could become the closest thing to a human possible… without being alive.
Chobits (2000 – 2002) followed in an expected fashion. If Angelic Layer told of how the animate can project humanity onto the inanimate, then Chobits would ask of you, when does this projection of humanity become real?
Chobits brings us to a world where humanoid computers roam the world. These androids help with daily tasks and integrate into society naturally. As with anything in the world, people begin to lust for them. This is a concept that has existed as a popular idea in mainstream media since Metropolis in 1927, and has been done numerous times, but we know that CLAMP won’t settle for retelling the told. So how does this story of artificial life create some originality with such an old formula?
It talks about the forbidden in a way no one has before.
The most infamous scene of the Chobits anime comes at the start. A shutdown AI is found in the trash, and some dude picks her up and tries to fix her. He quickly realizes that there is no power switch… in conventional places. The switch to boot the AI up lies within a crevice between a pair of legs. Most viewers laugh this moment away with a “oh anime…” but this scene is seriously the smartest thing Chobits does. Smarter than the discussions of love between various kinds of people, or talk about the objectification of women, or questions of what computers can and can’t do.
By putting a switch in such a place, you give the AI morals and a sense of the “forbidden.” If someone touches that place, you’ll shutdown and lose all function. People can’t touch there. Humans can relate to this while projecting their own idea of “forbidden.”
There are scifi books and shows that give the AI within the story a knowledge of sex, or the capability of learning about it. These computers can know of humanity’s strange illogical apprehension to the topic, and of love, and of anything about emotion… but they can’t learn it. They can’t learn to feel as a human does. However, what they do have, like all living things, is the will to survive. If you tap into that will, you humanize the artificial. CLAMP, by intention or by chance, created a household title of both the anime and manga fandom with such a simple revelation.
I could spend a lot of time talking about CLAMP, Chobits, or any of their works, and it was incredibly hard to not go off on a tangent in this post. Hopefully I managed to keep it concise despite the lengthy backstory of the group. This was as much about Chobits as it was about CLAMP and the common.