Thursday, April 26, 2007

Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, Chobits, Video Girl Ai, and Ai-Ren: Four views of artificial people

This is sort of a random-salad post about several manga that have a lot in common, even though they sometimes deal with very different themes: Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, Chobits, Ai-Ren, and Video Girl Ai. Three of the four could be classified as "magical girlfriend" stories, but both Ai-Ren and Video Girl Ai don't endow the 'girlfriend' with any actual magical/technological supernatural powers. Therefore, I'd have to say that neither really falls in the same category as, say, Ah My Goddess, for example.

No, what they really have in common is artificial people, to use a nice catchall Heinlein term (almost all females in this case - YKK has one artificial male). While exploring the psychology of why androids, etc in manga and anime are so often female might make a good post, I'm not going to do that one today. We'll lay some groundwork first.

Let's start with Video Girl Ai, by Katsura Masakazu which is probably the least complex of the four thematically. VGAi would normally be classified as a magical girlfriend story, but for the minor issue that the only really magical thing about female lead Amano Ai is that she was created in an alternate dimension to be an entertaining and confidence-building short-term romantic/sexual partner for inexperienced males. She's supposed to be relationship training wheels, if you will. But, in the usual nature of these plots, she ends up stuck in the real world, and with more real-world (and exasperating/inconvenient) attributes than the notional yamato nadeshiko (difficult to define in English - the traditional perfect Japanese woman/wife). This pic is from the OVA anime series, which is very well done. Whew: late update. I see that Justin Sevakis over at ANN has just named the OVA a "buried treasure." Boy do I feel old. There was a DVD release, but I've never seen one - I saw it in the fuzzy VHS days. Never heard the dub, although he says it's not bad. As usual, I like my whiskey straight, my coffee and tea black and my anime subbed, thanks.

Katsura's art starts off a little shaky, but improves rapidly through the volumes. I'd say that by the end of VGAi, Katsura is as good as anybody drawing manga today. He went on to do I''s, which looks better but is pretty tepid and not (in my opinion) worth reading. Since it's a shounen romance, there's lots of fanservice. This is from 1989, before character design became standardized with huge amounts of moe, random fan service, stereotypes (meganekko), etc, so the female character designs are within the realm of anatomical possibility, which is something I like. Overall, I give the art a good solid B+, which is way better than it needed to be to get the job done.

It does dip into deeper thematic waters once the obvious love-triangle stuff has been explored. Male lead Yuta has to come to terms with Ai both not being his notional perfect girlfriend and with her being an artificial creation not meant to make a permanent companion. Ai's makers try to 'take her home' on two separate occasions (because she's a 'defective product'), and Yuta has to appeal with logic, emotion, and lots of good old bloody, painful suffering to get her back. All of that said, it's easily the lightest of the four manga I'm discussing today, and makes a good introduction to shounen romances and magical girlfriend stories. Here's my conclusion from a discussion on about good romance manga:

Video Girl Ai will always have a special place in my manga affections. It was the first manga I ever read with my then-new girlfriend (who is now my wife). She had been exposed to a little anime, but knew nothing of manga. Evening cuddle-and-read-manga sessions quickly became a staple and VGAi was a perfect introduction. If Midori no Hibi had existed then, we would probably have read that instead; as it was, Ai did the job nicely. Katsura is sometimes wantonly cruel to his characters (see Zetman for a harsher example) but I don't think he dared to mess with VGAi too much.

It does end happily, but you might want to stop reading before Katsura trots out his brand extensions. He tries to extend the franchise of the (highly successful) manga by trotting out new lead characters after the Ai/Yuta arc wraps up. It doesn't work. The good news is that Ai and Yuta are left undisturbed, and their plot completes well.

On to Ai-Ren (愛人), which is the one I discovered most recently. Set in the medium-distant, post-apocalyptic future, Ai Ren is definitely not a shounen romance (even though the male lead is a shounen), and I'd have to say it fails qualification as a magical girlfriend story as well. Ai (the female lead) is a genetically engineered human meant for some unknown (probably military) purpose back in the bad old days, and now repurposed before activation to be a source of solace and hospice care giver for a terminally ill patient. Yes, the male lead (Ikuru) is the terminally ill patient. Ai seems to have no special powers (hence my claim that this isn't really a magical girlfriend story), and is doomed to a short lifespan once activated.

Definitely not a light shounen romance, despite the superficial similarities to Video Girl Ai. It originally ran 1999-2002 in Hakusensha's Young Animal, which is Seinen (and also serializes Futari Ecchi and Chocotto Sister). It's sad, of course. It's not, however, depressing. At least I didn't think so. In fact, it's one of the most life-affirming things I've ever read. The real themes are the universality and transcendent nature of love and that life, hope, and renewal spring eternally if only we're smart enough to get out of the way of them.

Character designs are simple but expressive, anatomy is adequately drawn, and the scenery is almost as good as Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou (more of this below). It's seinen, so it's pretty casual about nudity, but the casualness is always appropriate in context (the male lead is a teenager, and there's comic intent to his wild takes). The art meets my 'What Makes a Good Manga' requirement of being good enough to not get in the way of telling the story, and more than that we need not ask.

So if you're looking for a sad but life-affirming read that will make you want to hug your loved ones, look no further than Ai-Ren. Available completely scanslated from Solaris-SVU. At least one reader (Eureka, who put me onto the manga) claims it changed his life. Maybe it won't change yours, but it might just help you appreciate it more.

Here's some discussion between Eureka and me at about Ai-Ren and its comparability to some other mangas involving artificial people:

Originally Posted by Eureka
And Ai-ren is an amazing romance Seinen. I'm glad you're going to read it. Very tragic I'm sure I've already's the only manga to bring me to tears...but it's still THE greatest story of all time, and is mainly romance themed, but with alot of darker stuff in there as well.

I read most of Ai-Ren yesterday. Went home and hugged the wife and offspring more than usual. Finished it up today.

Evening manga reading last night was hurrying toward the conclusion of Chobits (which I'd read years ago but milady hadn't. She'd never seen CLAMP's work, and this struck me as their most-accessible and possibly least-annoying offering. There were some odd resonances for me between Ai-Ren and the themes of devotion and self-sacrifice in more-or-less humans in Chobits.

It may seem strange to say it, but Ai-Ren really felt like the personal side of Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou to me. The drawing style isn't dissimilar (that's pretty high praise in itself), and the themes (end of humanity, plot happens by the sea at the end of a disused road), and slice-of-life quality were very reminiscent for me. It wouldn't have seemed strange to me if Director Alpha had been working with the Sensee at the institute.

Meet Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou (Translates as "Log of a Yokohama Shopping Trip"). Very seinen - originally published in Kodansha's Afternoon monthly. And, unlike Ai-Ren, completely and utterly devoid of anything you could call fanservice. Here I am singing its praises further along in the compare-and-contrast-with Ai-Ren conversation:

I'll admit it - I'm a YKK fan. I completely understand the huge following the manga had in Japan among exhausted salarymen on their way home after a week of 12 hour workdays.

It's a sort of slice-of-life, plot-less, zen, post-apocalyptic episodic manga starring Hatsuseno Alpha, a type A7M2 robot (actually an android) who lives by herself and runs a cafe at the end of a disused road on a spit of land not terribly far from the mostly-submerged remains of current-day Yokohama. Alpha is an endearing and amusing character, and a bit of an innocent. Her relationships with humans and other robots are the glue that hold the manga together. Above is a screen shot from one of the OVAs done verbatim from the manga. It gets the feel better than anything else I could quickly find.

If you like lush scenery and just looking at pretty pictures, this is a manga for you. There are developments of both situation and character, and at times plot arcs go on for as long as a volume at a time in a loose sort of way, but don't expect to find out lots more detail next week on what happened last week. Chances are, however, that you will learn more about it at some point, but it might be two volumes from now.

Zen and the circle of life form primary themes. In this, it's rather like Ai-Ren. As a person, Alpha is more like the Sensee character in Ai-Ren, both in her position of being much longer-lived than the humans around her, and also in being a child of humanity, but not human. She has her own life and her own path, and while she walks with humans, their path is not really hers.

I think that on one level it can be read as a response to Asimov's "Bicentennial Man." (cf also the painfully bad Robin Williams movie) in which Alpha shows that a robot need not desire to become human to have a happy life, and need not shun humanity to that end either.

If you like the journey more than the arrival, you'll like YKK. If you're always in a hurry to see what happens next chapter, you probably won't like YKK.

It ended last year and is completely scanslated, best by and There's a torrent floating around of the whole thing, I think. You can read individual chapters at Never licensed in the US - the comic-book fanboys can't stand something with no fanservice, no plot, and no violence. For the rest of us, it's like a quiet cup of tea, and as welcome on busy days. Yes, I'm a fan. I've re-read the whole series twice, and have read some chapters at least five times, just because I picked up at some point and started reading again. It's like that. Enjoy.

And that brings us to Chobits, which I've extensively covered in another blog entry (spoiler at link). Described briefly, it's a seinen magical girlfriend story with an android as the female lead. In this, it sounds a lot like Boku no Marie, but it has a couple of huge differences: First, it was done by CLAMP, which is an all-women manga author collective, so you can rest assured that no female role will be thin-as-cardboard here (they do a fine job with all the male characters as well). Likewise, if you expect that a bunch of women doing a seinen/shounen magical girlfriend comic romance are going to tweak the reader's expectations of the genre, you're right. Second, it jumps straight into the ethics and philosophy of having an android as a loved one. I think it makes an excellent book-end for Asimov's Robot Stories and, in some ways, I think it paints a much more realistic portrait of what existence for a sufficiently heuristic android might entail in some possible futures.

The art is...almost too good in some places. The sample page is male lead Hideki explaining practical capitalism to Chii (she's holding her first paycheck). Yes, Chii generally looks like that. Yes, you should go brush your teeth now before they fall out from the cuteness. Note how easily the narrative flows, how there are no unnecessary words (isn't Hideki's wordless surprise take great?), and how just-plain-good the panel and page design are. This is a typical page which I chose mostly because it has Chii in some detail along with Hideki and no real spoilers. The mechanics are uniformly excellent. Page design and panel design always work well. We're told late in the story that 'Chobi' (plural Chobits) is a word coined by the androids' creator to describe something impossibly cute. Chii pretty much defined the chibi-moe heroine when she appeared in 2001, and I don't think she's been outdone since. There's some fanservice, but it's both contextually appropriate and plot developing. If I were assigning letter grades, for art, I'd give Chobits an honest A - maybe even an A+. This is one of a small list of manga I'd love to see printed on larger paper in an art-book format with marginal annotations, like what Christopher Tolkien has done with the drafts of his father's books.

The more I look at this manga, the more I admire how deliberately it is plotted. Every event that occurs has some specific place in the larger plot, and everything in the plot relates back to the themes of the story. With Chobits, it's best to assume that you're seeing something for a specific reason - even if it seems unrelated to the plot at the moment. Don't worry, it'll all make sense later on, and finding out how and why is part of the fun.

The anime is also well done. Skip the English Dub - Crispin Freeman is totally unconvincing as Hideki the Hokkaido farmboy. The Seyuu who did the part originally is the same guy who did Kyon in Haruhi and Yuuichi in Kanon 2006, and he's a good fit for the part. Tanaka Rie does her usual amazing job with Chii (even after having heard both, it's still hard to believe she plays Hiro in Hataraki Man). It's not exactly the same story as the manga, and discards some of the subtler themes, but overall it does a good job of treating the complexity found in the story given the limitations of family viewing and 26 1/2 hour episodes. I'd recommend reading the manga first, if you want to watch the anime. Your preconceptions from the anime might prevent you from seeing some of the subtexts in the manga, but you won't miss any of the fun in the anime if you've read the manga first.

So there you have it, four stories involving artificial people in four very different situations. They're all worth your time. Enjoy.

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