You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

Not gonna lie, this was kind of a mistake. I have been hanging onto my high school Chobits mangas out of sheer nostalgia, but then last month I got it into my head that a series reread was in order, and long story short I am now thinking about unhauling my high school Chobits mangas because adulthood sucks all the joy out of everything. Not that they were perfect even when I was in high school, but goddammit. If I have a similar reaction when I reread Azumanga Daioh (Kiyohiko Azuma), I’m going to cry. (This isn’t too likely because I love Azumanga Daioh beyond all reason, and I remember it better than I remembered Chobits. But I’m not discounting the possibility.)

Set in the year 2026 (so in the next three years we should start seeing persocoms, amirite?), Chobits imagines a future Japan in which humanoid computers known as persocoms have become an integral part of everyday life. They were first created by Ichiro Mihara, based on the data he gathered from his Angelic Layer research, and have since taken over the personal electronics market. There are all kinds of problems with this, such as the blurring divide between humans and robots, but the biggest issue is the prevalence of persocoms in every aspect of life, frequently in professional roles that have the potential to cripple society. Additionally, there are rumors of a line of persocoms known colloquially as Chobits, which are supposed to be completely artificial intelligences capable of making decisions and thinking for themselves without the need for specific programming.

In reality, the Chobits aren’t quite that dire. “Chobi” (ちょび) means “little,” and is used by Mihara to describe anything he finds hopelessly small and cute. “Chobitsu” (ちょびツ), or “chobits” when romanized, is the pluralized form of “chobi,” coined by Mihara to get around the persocom password system. The word is extra special to him because the letters in “chobits” are also included in the name of his wife, Chitose Hibiya, for whose sake he created two persocom daughters, Freya and Elda, when it became clear that they would not be able to have biological children. “Chobits” became a pet name and doesn’t have any particular meaning, but the rumors of an all-powerful AI may have sprung from the special program built into Elda, which is capable of disabling the individual recognition system of every persocom in the world. Though the program was powerful enough to attract the attention of government-controlled persocoms Zima and Dita during its trial run, it was not intended for daily use: rather, it was a fail-safe that would only kick in if Freya and Elda were unable to find a partner who genuinely loved them, known among their family as a “someone just for me.”

Mihara’s original idea was to create a robot that was capable of loving and being loved, i.e., to erase the line between humans and artificial intelligences. More broadly, he wanted to create a robot that could find true happiness, and programmed his daughters with this end goal in mind. Unfortunately, his good intentions backfired when Freya chose him as her someone just for her, the secret stress of which caused her to completely crash. Not wanting to follow in her sister’s footsteps, Elda asked their mother to reset her and leave her out in the world for a stranger to find. Thus, she is in a garbage bin when struggle-prone nineteen-year-old Hideki Motosuwa stumbles across her. At the point that he finds her, Hideki has flunked his college entrance exams. His irate parents packed him off to cram school in Tokyo and cut his allowance, so he doesn’t have money for a persocom and is in fact tech-illiterate. As a low-level izakaya employee, he works seven days a week, lives in a tiny apartment, has never had a girlfriend, and is perpetually broke, possibly because he keeps spending his money on porn. Finding Elda in the trash seems like a godsend, and he takes her home and boots her up, and names her “Chi,” which is the only thing she is able to say.

Hideki’s unexpected windfall turns into a low-grade nightmare when he realizes that Chi has no data, or none that he can access, on top of which she reboots completely without language, memory, or any other kind of knowledge. He is assisted by his friend Hiromu Shimbo and twelve-year-old whiz kid Minoru Kokubunji, but, though both are far more tech-savvy than Hideki, neither of them is able to learn much, except that Chi is capable of crashing every persocom that tries to find her tech specs. With no user’s guide to help him, Hideki wades into the task of teaching Chi about the world around them, but finds his efforts complicated by his growing feelings for her as much as by his crush on his coworker, Yumi Omura. His progress is secretly monitored by his landlady, Ms. Hibiya, who frequently provides him with meals and girls’ clothes without disclosing the nature of her relationship with Chi; and, though he doesn’t know it, Zima and Dita are a constant threat, hovering in the outskirts of his life and waiting to see if Chi’s program will activate.

While Chi begins to search for her someone just for her, aided by Freya’s spirit and a series of illustrated books titled A City with No People, Hideki begins to question the nature of his relationship with her. As a tech-illiterate outsider, he has the opportunity to observe a range of relationships between his friends and their persocoms: Shimbo falls in love with their cram school teacher, Takako Shimizu, but she is unable to commit because her husband fell in love with their persocom, destroying her trust in men; Minoru becomes emotionally attached to his most powerful persocom, Yuzuki, whom he modeled after his late sister; Yumi falls in love with baker Hiroyasu Ueda, and vice versa, but their budding relationship hits the fan when she learns that he was married to a persocom who was also named Yumi. Despite all the misunderstandings and dramatic entanglements – and there are many of those – Hideki and Chi manage to help their friends resolve their troubles, growing closer all the while.

Meanwhile, Zima and Dita quietly comb the city for Chi, and finally find her when she chooses Hideki as her someone just for her, unintentionally activating her program and throwing Tokyo into chaos. As the local persocoms shut down and the city’s infrastructure begins to crumble, Freya takes over Chi’s body in order to talk to Hideki about the birds and the bees. Chi’s power switch is in a very personal spot, meaning that penetrative sex would completely reboot her and wipe out all her memories of Hideki. Though his virginity has been mocked throughout the series, Hideki accepts Chi exactly as she is, acknowledging that he will never be able to sleep with her but also assuring Freya that this isn’t a deal-breaker. Satisfied, Freya shuts down her program, ending the chaos and returning Chi to her body. The sun shines, the birds sing, the persocoms and the damaged infrastructure go back to normal, and Hideki and Chi embark upon their life together, watched over – as always – by Ms. Hibiya.

I wish the story made more sense than it does. There’s a lot of gobbledygook about robots finding happiness and love and the shifting definitions of these two admittedly abstract concepts, but it’s not really clear why this is important enough to justify an infrastructure-obliterating program when it is also acknowledged that the persocoms do not have emotions and cannot act outside of their programming. Happiness is an emotion. If a persocom does not have emotions, then it does not have the capacity for happiness. Yet at the same time, both Chi and Freya display clear emotions that don’t seem to have been entirely intentional on Mihara’s part. Their more serious emotions are linked to physical pain, and they cannot control either their happiness or their sadness or anything in between, the way they should be able to if their emotions are merely programmed reactions to real-time events. So which is it? Do they feel, or don’t they? You can’t have it both ways. And if they are not capable of genuine emotion, then why do they need to find love? (And as long as I’m nitpicking the ‘coms, why do they never seem to run out of battery?)

While Mihara’s intention was to design the persocoms as fully realized human companions, I am on the side that says humans and robots should not mix, particularly not if one of those robots happens to be endowed with a program that is somehow capable of causing physical damage in the event that the love of her life rejects her. I can accept that Chi’s power might be such that it can fry the local electrical systems and shut down every persocom within range, but the absence of the maintenance ‘coms should not automatically rupture the water main. I am similarly puzzled by the creepy emphasis on virginity, though I suppose putting the power switch in such a private place was meant to ensure that Chi’s future partner was actually in love with her and not just looking to get lucky. Or maybe it was designed as a protection against rape, or maybe it was merely a memory-wiping mechanism to prevent her from remembering any such assault. I have to admit it has been effective, at least as regards Chi finding a partner who wants more than a one-night stand. On the other hand, this does make me wonder about the whole “someone just for me” thing, which honestly seems more like imprinting than genuine love. It’s impossible to say whether Freya or Chi made a conscious choice when they both chose the literal first men that they saw. While Chi does go out into the world and she does interact with other men than Hideki, none of them is ever considered as a potential partner. She is attached to Hideki from the moment she opens her eyes in his apartment, and she never looks at anyone else.

As for the rest of the characters, the men are bland – except for Hideki, who for some reason takes it extraordinarily personally when Shimbo elopes with Ms. Shimizu – and the women are mostly ineffectual. Chi is the most fully realized character; she is sweet and silly and affectionate, and capable of quite a range of emotions that, per the terms of her own creators, should not actually be possible. The rest of the women are a frivolous disappointment. We don’t see too much of Ms. Shimizu, who spends most of her time running away from Shimbo. Ms. Hibiya is a genius scientist whose main role is to watch Chi sadly through a computer screen while spouting throwaway dialogue along the lines of “Golly, I wonder who sent that map?” Yumi always seems to be in tears. I realize this is a particularly heartless take, but my tolerance for Yumi is zero. (Yeah, yeah, teenager, hormones, whatever. No, I was not in any way superior at seventeen. That does nothing for my tolerance levels.) I have absolutely no patience for people, real or imagined, who deliberately put themselves into situations that will make them sad and then cry about the results. And I am sorry for the pain Yumi is going through, which is absolutely not a joke, but at the same time I have no sympathy when the extremely obvious solution is to not lurk around spying on everything Ueda does. Her actual role, when she’s not bursting into tears, is so small that I think she could’ve been cut out of the story without affecting the plot. She feels less like a planned character and more like a side character whose role was expanded to fill in more pages.

All of this adds up to one very clear impression, which is that I don’t think CLAMP really had a plan when they sat down to write this manga. They repeat themselves so much that my strongest feeling is that they made things up as they went along and didn’t even bother with an outline. I can just imagine one of them saying, “God, I’m bored. Let’s have Chi get kidnapped.” (Look, I’ve been there. But it’s also not a great way to write a story, especially one that is supposed to be a nuanced portrait of a society struggling to find the line between humans and machines.) The result is a lumpy story that doesn’t really know what to believe, much less what to preach to its audience beyond a vague assertion that human/robot relationships – or robot/robot, as case may be – are valid. That’s fair enough, but the tone of the series is odd when a wholesome, consent-based romance is set beside a character like Minoru, who surrounds himself with adult female persocoms dressed in black maid-like outfits designed to show off their assets. We can argue about whether any persocom is capable of giving genuine consent, but that’s going to make my head hurt and there are 100% persocoms that are getting boned by their owners, and I don’t know how I feel about that, so I won’t get into it. (And also the possibility of human/robot sex raises all kinds of pervy but practical questions, which I don’t want to ask.) Either way, the series needed to be either all cute or all kink, because this dichotomy isn’t working.

Overall, I would say the series is cute, and its vision of computer technology is intriguing, if not exactly watertight. (I stand by my opinion that humans and robots should be separate. But would I buy one of the little laptops and carry her around in my bag? Absolutely.) I still like the character designs, or at least I like Freya and Chi and their GothLoli vibe. If I shut down my brain, it’s just a sweet story about a boy and a girl who fall in love and agree to a non-physical committed relationship, and I can’t really argue with that. Unfortunately, the gratuitous kinkiness of other aspects of the story are jarring rather than amusing. The characters are mostly uninteresting and/or irritating, and the world feels like it’s held together with duct tape. At this point I’m mostly just glad that it’s over. Not that I’m generally in the habit of telling other people how to run their own projects, but this is one case where it really would’ve benefited from just a little more planning.