Sunday, April 15, 2007

Manga for the Canon?

Teck-Loh at Mangaforums started a thread asking for nominations of manga for a hypothetical literary canon of manga worthy of study. I'd been thinking along these lines as well - American Comic books and pulp novels get (probably more than) their share of scholarship these days, and are the subject of a number of term papers, dissertations, and thesises. Frankly, if Spiderman or HP Lovecraft is worthy of academic study, a number of manga are far more so. One manga that leapt immediately to mind because I'd re-read it recently was Chobits by CLAMP. Here, revised and expanded as usual, is my attempt at an argument for including Chobits in such a canon:

Chobits definitely qualifies. Features in common with other great literature:

1. Can be read on multiple levels: Magical girlfriend story, Polemic on the nature of being and personhood, story about the different forms love can take between two people.

1a. That Chobits is, in its first aspect, a magical girlfriend story isn't really likely to be an issue of contention. It meets all the criteria in any definition I can name and is, in fact, cited as an example in the Wikipedia article.

1b. The polemical nature of Chobits is subtle, but I think the case can be made that it has one. Chii's existence as an android (referred to as a 'persocon,' a portmanteau of 'Personal Computer,' in the story) is accepted as fact, as are the rights of self expression that humans enjoy in Chobits' Tokyo. However Chii's right to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of hapiness' is an issue of constant questioning, discussion, and dramatic importance. In the world of Chobits, persocons legally are chattel property of their masters. Having been built and programmed with the specific purpose of serving humanity in mind, they generally seem to be content with this arrangement, like the self-aware robots encountered in Asimov's robot stories. It is apparent that there will be no "rise of the machines" in this world. They are, however, at the mercy of their masters in every aspect of their existence including its continuation and the continuity and violability of their memory.

As in the Asimov stories, different types of persocons have varying levels of self-awareness and complexity of intellect. The reader is presented with examples of this variation: Dita, Zima and Chii are very heuristic and self-aware, capable of abstract philosophical reasoning, and display emotional responses stated to be different, but apparently indistinguishable from human ones. Yuzuki and Kotoko are likewise self-aware, and exhibit some apparent emotional responses, but are not shown to display the ability to radically alter their own behaviors (programming) in response to environmental changes in the way that Dita, Zima and Chii do. Sumomo and Yumi (through Ueda's recollections) have much more limited abilities of reasoning and abstraction and apparently no behaviors not explicitly programmed.

The ability of a persocon to exercise apparent free will varies with its complexity; all the persocons except Sumomo and Yumi are shown doing so, sometimes to the surprise and/or dismay of their human owners. In one notable example, Kotoko publicly exposes her owner's theft of Chii, indicating Kotoko's displeasure with his actions. While it is made clear in the story that she is incapable of lying because of her programming, she volunteers the damaging information unasked, which certainly is in excess of the requirements of any such truthfulness-enforcement algorithm. The stated existence of such an algorithm is interesting in itself: Persocons as complex as Yuzuki and Kotoko are apparently normally capable of lying independently as they determine the occasion warrants. That Kotoko's owner felt it necessary to install such a program is suggestive.

So, having created robots that can modify their own programming in response to their environment, feel emotions, and lie, we're presented with the simple reality of cybernetic personhood. The question, then, is do these cybernetic people have the right, or even the ability to be happy in this world created by and for humans? The most complex persocons demonstrate the ability to feel romantic love for humans or other persocons. Why they might do this is not explored; it is presented as a fait accompli.

The question central to Chobits' plot is: are humans capable of accepting this love for what it is and is not and reciprocate it in kind, or are all human-loving persocons doomed to suffer unrequited love? An elaborate back-story of the creation of Chii and her twin sister as surrogate children by the inventor of android persocons is presented. The unhappy ending of Chii/Elda's sister Freya's story illustrates the nature of the problem: A persocon capable of feeling intense emotion can, in the Chobits universe, have its 'heart' broken, just as can happen to a human. Having loved unwisely and too well, Freya pines away and eventually dies, and Chii carries a download of Freya's consciousness within her as an internal protector and mentor.

Here's where we get to the polemic. Asimov's robot stories present us with robots that are only happy as long as they do not too closely approximate humanity in appearance and cognitive power. In Asimov's world, Humans don't want lifelike androids, and robots are happiest, safest, and most useful when they are strongly distinct from and more limited than humanity. Probably the best example of this is in the story, "The Bicentennial Man" (an acknowledged part of the SF canon), in which the protagonist yearns to be ever more human, changing his appearance and mannerisms over a more than a century of existence to more closely approximate humanity. Eventually he petitions the human government for recognition as a human and is denied, because of his immortality. His solution is to poison himself slowly to death, and thus he completes his metamorphosis into the desired human state at the expense of his continued existence.

In Chobits, however, Chii and her fellow persocons don't want to be human, and neither state nor exhibit any indication of yearning for greater humanity. They just want to be loved for what they are and are not by those whom they love. They are also not assumed to be immortal - accidents, component failures, and planned obsolescence all limit their runtime. This difference is crucial: in a very real sense, CLAMP is asking why an android would be unhappy with its existence as Asimov did, but proposes a completely different answer (and a much happier outcome) than Asimov's.

1c. If read casually, Chobits seems to spend a lot of ink wandering around the point. Many peripheral characters are introduced, a number of side and back stories are developed, and, in many cases, these side stories and characters marginally advance the principal Chii-Hideki plot if at all. There's always a common thread, though: All the side stories illustrate different ways humans and persocons can love each other in all the possible permutations. CLAMP carefully presents us with a spectrum of love relationships and their consequences: Hideki's classmate and friend Shinbo elopes with their married cram school teacher, who is a 'persocon widow,' having been completely displaced in her husband's affections by a persocon. Ueda the baker married his persocon assistant and was bereaved when she ceased to be after a hard disk failure. He later falls in love with Hideki's coworker, and after much misunderstanding between them, eventually forms a second love relationship. The love between Hibiya and Chii's creator was so great that Hibiya does not even consider another romantic relationship after his death. Minoru, after observing Hideki's honest affection for Chii and being surprised by his own emotional reaction to Yuzuki nearly being destroyed when she tried too hard to fulfill his wishes unasked, re-evaluates his desire and ability to love her and decides he does and should. Zima and Dita (both persocons) have their own relationship which Zima acknowledges to be only definable by the word love. Kotoko and her owner have a dysfunctional relationship: she, like the cram school teacher, is also a 'persocon widow' in spite of being a persocon herself. Her owner discovers that while she may not be a woman scorned, she is quite capable of expressing her displeasure in ways that cause him discomfort.

The reader is presented with these different relationship models so that he, and presumably Hideki, can see that humans just love, and if persocons are built able to love then they will as well. Sometimes humans love each other, sometimes humans love persocons, sometimes persocons love other persocons. It's all presented as a set of attainable possible outcomes, along with the cautionary tales of Ueda dealing with planned obsolescence in the case of his persocon wife and Kotoko finding that being owned by your person is not a good thing if his affections are fickle (perhaps this is a cautionary tale more for Chii than Hideki).

Underpinning and reinforcing the 'real world' examples of relationships is the story-within-a-story comic book written for Chii's benefit by Hibiya, later revealed to be her mother in a very real sense. It explores the abstract philosophy of romantic love between humans and androids, and keeps the theme of love being what it is and unboundable by societal convention in the reader's mind through the entire story.

2. Since it's manga, we should care if the art is up to the story. Chobits' art definitely qualifies. CLAMP tried very hard to get a particular look into the manga, and did a good job with page layout and panel design as well. Initially, I thought the uber-moe foofy-dress-and panty shots character designs for Chii were the usual gratuitious fanservice, until I realized that they're a necessary part of the plot. If Chii weren't desirable as a romantic/sexual partner, then there wouldn't be any conflict for Hideki to deal with in just keeping her around as an appliance. Chii must be romantically appealing or there is no problem for the story, and CLAMP go well past the minimum requirement on this score. All the characters are drawn distinctly, the backgrounds are clear and distinct as well, an page and frame design are exemplary. The reader always knows where something is happening, who is speaking, and what is happening.

3. It avoids the common conventions (and pitfalls) of the genre.

3a. Chii is constantly trying hard (and generally succeeding) in understanding this new world she's living in. Like Midori in Midori no Hibi, she's not a doll, but a person, and her personhood is never a question to the reader, because we see her internal dialogs with her dead sister. It is, however, very much a question to Hideki. She's definitely not just a foil for Hideki to gaze at longingly - she has her own life to live, her own questions to answer, and woe betide the persocon owners of the world if she doesn't like the answer to one of them.

3b. Hideki, for his part, also avoids the conventions of the genre. He's not plain-looking, an irredeemably bad student, clumsy, helpless, effeminate , or wearing ugly glasses (like Keitaro in Love Hina). He's not a loser. Presumably he can get dates as well as most guys. He's from the countryside, so isn't quite up to speed on life in the big city, but this give him a fresh perspective on life with persocons as much as it makes him a bit of an innocent yokel in other matters. He's got farmboy good looks, and has a definite potential love interest in a (very human, very female) coworker in the early chapters. This is important, too. It points out, as with the parallel stories of the Ueda the baker and Hideki's friend Minoru, that Hideki doesn't choose Chii because she's the only romantic option he has.

3c. The supporting characters are all sufficiently well-developed. Even the bookshop owner seems to be credible for his few panels of exposure.


I think that, in a lot of ways, Chobits is a response to the arguments put forward in Asimov's "The Bicentennial Man" (a recognized classic of science fiction holding its own place in the SF canon). In "The Bicentennial Man," Andrew, the robot protagonist, ultimately can only find meaning and self-definition by denying his robotic nature completely and choosing to look, live, and die like a human. Note: The horrible Robin Williams movie is not an adequate substitute for the Asimov story.

Chobits takes a very similar premise and goes the opposite direction. Chii is decidedly a person, but she's not a human, and doesn't want to be one. Much of the story is about the right and wrong of deciding just what is the place of a person who isn't a human in a human society.

Chobits's message is universalistic: Love is what it is, and it can not be defined or limited by societal convention (CF William Shakespeare, among others). Ultimately, it takes Alan Turing's side in the debate of man-vs-machine: If a machine is substantially indistinguishable from a person you must treat it as one, and you (and your society's conventions and laws) must accept that it may well want to do what people do.

And that is why I say Chobits belongs in any canon of manga.

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