Chobits: Volume 1 - Persocom Review
Created by the all-female Manga team CLAMP Chobits takes a familiar story and throws in a few twists along the way leaving us with something unique and bubbling over with charm. The basic setup involves 18 year old Hideki, a country boy looking forward to life in the big city where he plans to enter Tokyo University. Those plans are crushed however when seconds into the opening episode a rejection letter lands in his mailbox, and yes, Hideki is doomed to spend the next year as a Ronin undergoing prep school before he can begin University. So far, so Maison Ikkoku, so throw in a quaint little apartment building in the suburbs of Tokyo run by a beautiful young manageress whom Hideki instantly begins fantasising about and the equation is almost complete. The clincher here though is not so much the circumstances under which Hideki enters Tokyo and begins life in the big city, nor is it the trials he will undergo to woo the girl, for there isn't one, at least not yet, but the subtle take on technology and how it has become an integral part of our lives.
Set in present day Japan Chobits takes the concept of technology to the next level, where Personal Computers have become Persocoms, life-size PCs perfectly resembling humans that in-between taking your messages, arranging your schedule and accessing the internet are your own personal companion. They're also hideously expensive, so when Hideki happens upon a discarded Persocom unit when walking home one evening he can't believe his luck and, figuring he'll do some good for the environment, claims it as his and carries the Persocom home. After figuring out how to activate it his adventures begin, naming his new possession Chi as this is all she is able to say, her mind blank and ready for moulding as Hideki becomes her owner and teacher. And so, where previous forebears such as Maison Ikkoku and Love Hina examine complicated matters of the teenage heart as a young Ronin attempts to juggle education and romance, Chobits examines our growing obsession with technology as represented here by a beautiful young female Persocom.
Hideki is one of those familiar endearing lead characters, a young man with a healthy outlook on life and a good sense of purpose. Moving from his parent's farm in Hokkaido to living on his own in Tokyo the series not only follows his exploits with new found technology but also his struggles to make ends meet and keep up with his studies. Fortunately his polite manner and respect for those around him sees him walk into a job fairly quickly, finding work at a local Japanese pub where he also meets Yumi, a well endowed high school girl that adopts him as her senpai. Cute girls are everywhere and Hideki is a daydreamer, something that often leads to embarrassing situations almost as amusing as his imagination when it runs away with him, while his familiarity with wide open space and only farm animals for companion give him a plausible excuse for barking off at himself, proclaiming his inner thoughts for all those around him to hear usually leading to parents ushering their kids away from the insane man within the vicinity.
Chi, despite essentially being a blank canvas when she is first activated flows over with character from the very start. She possesses an animal magnetism, foregoing the use of words and putting across her thoughts and emotions through a series of expressions and physical acts. It’s almost as though she speaks another language, basically understanding what it is Hideki is saying but unable to respond in kind, so her body language is amplified both for the benefit of Hideki's understanding and that of the viewer. Of an incredibly sweet disposition she is somewhere between a pet and a child, seeking approval and mimicking her owners actions, exceptionally curious and absorbing information like a sponge. Every mannerism, every reaction, and the beautiful tone of Tanaka Rie's voice make it very easy to understand why Hideki becomes smitten by her, as Chi is a central character that wins your heart within moments.
The other central characters are all relatively two-dimensional at this stage (no pun intended), simply there for Hideki and Chi to interact with as their story is told. Shinbo is the same age as Hideki, living just down the hall he is also a ronin attending the same prep school. The two become fast friends sharing so much in common, with Shinbo's main purpose being that of a basic guide to Persocoms which Hideki knows nothing about. Sumomo is Shinbo's mobile Persocom, an ultra-cute compact model that walks and talks like a human but fits in your pocket. Bristling over with energy Sumomo is an example of how Persocom's come in all shapes and sizes while her reaction to Hideki shows just how human they can be. Rounding out the basic cast of characters are the manageress at the apartment block where Hideki and Shinbo reside, a soft spoken authority figure who is little more than a minor aside right now along with their prep school teacher. As slight as their involvement may be at this stage however, they are all identified as characters we’ll be seeing more of in the future.
I'm sure CLAMP sees all men as perverts, and though probably accurate in their assumptions you have to hand it to them when it comes to openly exploiting the fact. Hideki's dreams of owning a Persocom might involve using e-mail and other more traditional applications, but his overriding passion is that of porn, internet porn and lots of it. He's not alone, as he and Shinbo practically bond over their like-minds discussing the merits of Persocoms and porn. Nosebleeds are also a common occurrence in the Hideki residence, with his first Persocom encounter involving a beautiful young teenage girl semblance, completely naked of course bar the towel he rummages out. Where the traditional nosebleeds come into play however are Chi's interest in Hideki's porn magazines, as she flicks through them dressed in nothing but a towel which results in some beautifully timed turns to camera, muttering "Nice!" as blood floats marginally across his trajectory. The series revels in innuendo, as these personal computers not only represent every young man's dreams of accessing internet porn but happen to be modelled on the very images they seek. Given how real they are in every sense of the word, moral questions are raised the moment Chi is activated (no prizes for guessing where her 'On' switch is!) and something that Hideki struggles with constantly. He is a gentleman however, recognising Chi in her childlike state as a fellow person that he is becoming quickly attached too, never considering romantic entanglement but all too aware of her physical charms. This is something most obvious when Shinbo is first introduced to Chi, who for him is nothing more than a computer so when trying to identify her model number he goes looking in all manner of places leaving poor Hideki horrified at the injustice being done to the otherwise oblivious Chi.
Our first hint at what the title refers to comes with episode two after Shinbo recommends Hideki take Chi to see a computer expert, someone who makes custom Persocoms and might be able to help identify the make and model of Chi. The diminutive and obscenely young Kokubunji is a character you'll only find in someone's imagination, a rich young boy who surrounds himself with Persocom companions dressed in a way that gives rise to all manner of questions. Kokubunji has wisdom beyond his years however and imparts some general information on Persocoms, confirming that Chi has self-learning software installed meaning Hideki can teach her to become more functional. Before this however we learn of an urban legend passed around the internet, speaking of a series of Persocoms known as "Chobits", custom made units of extraordinary power and design that they are able to work sans operating system or programs, essentially the perfect example of artificial intelligence. This gives the series a hint of mystery, suggesting there is far more to Chi than her cute appearance and basic functions currently suggest.
Although the learning process is initially quite slow great progress has been made by the final episode of this volume with Chi now fairly adept at basic communication, able to perform tasks she is given and with a little help from Sumomo save Hideki any further embarrassment. You see, beyond setting up the characters and introducing some mystery to the proceedings this volume also begins the misadventures of Chi, who thanks to the apartment manager has a basic wardrobe but is lacking in underwear. Forgetting the wonder of convenience stores Hideki has been making a scene outside the local lingerie store for the past few days, bottling it at the last minute until Shinbo gives him the idea of sending Chi out to buy her own underwear. With Sumomo acting as navigator and some basic instructions at hand, they set out on their way for an eventful journey which is hampered by Hideki's example of underwear and Chi’s innate desire for curiosity. It seems his magazine collection wasn't the best example to use, leading to Chi making numerous diversions along the way while Hideki obsesses over his new found Persocom out on her own, disrupting class, embarrassing himself in front of his cute teacher before going on to make matters worse at the local store later that day.
First airing on Japanese networks back in 2002 Chobits is blessed with some gorgeous character design and crisp bold animation courtesy of the wonderful staff at Madhouse Production Studio. Better known in the west for their high profile work on Satoshi Kon's Tokyo Godfathers and Rintarô's Metropolis their work in the TV realm has always been worth keeping an eye on and Chobits is no different. The ace here is the design of Chi, a female figure who expertly borders the realms of male fantasy and everyday beauty appropriate to a Persocom, something that plays into the varying mindset of the confused Hideki. Her simple bold features, petite figure and flowing blonde hair make Chi a character you're not likely to forget while the animation in these early episodes capturing her as she mimics her environment, learning as she spends more time with Hideki, really is a joy and something that works with her limited range of expressions. The other characters are equally well defined and very suited to their personalities, with another Persocom warranting the most praise. Sumomo really is just the sweetest thing, overflowing with character her miniature size is more than made up for by her exaggerated actions. The quality of animation is to be commended, though like most series produced for television the use of camera angles and specific animation styles are what impress the most. Budget is always limited so rather than waste it all with the level of animation you would expect from a theatrical feature extra effort goes into the staging of scenes with many different styles employed. These range from well chosen angles used to enhance a scene to the very different methods of animation, the most memorable being the frequently used computer graphics style for Hideki's many fantasies that play out in his head. Chobits is a very tech aware series and the bold graphic style of animation used for these sequences is one such example, alongside the animation used in the opening titles and the mid-episode pause.
With only a check disc in hand I can't comment on the final packaging, though the choice of artwork is to be commended, a very beautiful piece taken directly from the Volume 1 Japanese DVD release. The menu and disc were put together by Madman, the Australian anime powerhouse who chose an appropriate Mac OS style theme for the menu with mouse clicks to match your selections.
Picture and Sound
Presented in 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen I have already expressed how much I appreciate the animation featured in the series, and am happy to say that it mostly looks just wonderful here on DVD. In normal viewing circumstances I really could not find any faults, the animation is lush with detail and colours beautifully delineated while typical compression issues such as edge enhancement or aliasing nowhere to be seen. Moving to a PC monitor setup some minor issues could be detected, that of digital banding (an unfortunate by-product of modern animation techniques), some minor blocking on colours as scenes fade-in and out, and a few issues as a result of the NTSC>PAL conversion seen on the majority of PAL anime TV releases.
For your listening pleasure are Japanese and English Dolby Surround audio tracks complete with optional English subtitles. The Japanese track is my personal preference, with the voice actors suiting their roles down to the ground from the softly spoken Tanaka Rie doing a fine job with the developing character of Chi and Sugita Tomokazu impressing as Hideki with his confident voice and ability to snap into overdrive at a moments notice. Kumai Motoko is also worthy of a mention, bringing a seemingly endless level of energy to the overblown antics of Sumomo. In terms of the actual sound mixes both impress with clear dialogue and strong separation across the front channels while rear speaker action also managed to stir with some well directed sound effects and background noise throughout.
The English subtitles are presented in a clear yellow font with black outline, offering a literal translation of both dialogue and signs with no timing or spelling errors to speak of. A signs only track is also available to compliment the English dub. There was one small glitch worth pointing out, that of a signs translation of the job sheet Hideki obtains in Episode 3 where the subtitles were a ghastly black colour instead of the intended yellow.
Somewhat disappointing considering how recent and high profile the series is, all we find here is the credit-less opening, an artwork gallery consisting of stills from the episodes integrated into the menu system quite poorly resulting in pictures about one third the screen size, and trailers for Trigun and Gungrave. The credit-less opening is certainly a welcome bonus thanks to the wonderful design and catchy theme song but is also fairly standard on anime releases leaving the extras basic at best.
Chobits opens with a strong set of episodes that emphasise the relationship between the central figures of Hideki and Chi, looking at the issues both will face over the course of the series with plenty of comedy and subtle hints at mystery included for good measure. The DVD is short on extras but does a fine job of presenting this beautifully animated series for viewers to enjoy.