Hideki Motosuwa is an eighteen-year-old farmboy, inexperienced in the ways of the world and trying to get into university. Fresh-faced and wet behind the ears, he finds himself an apartment in Tokyo and a part-time job which provides just enough money to keep body and soul together. Of course there are all kinds of other things Hideki would like, such as a persocom (personal computer). In the world of Chobits, computers aren't grey boxes but instead androids in human form, usually that of an attractive girl. Unfortunately Hideki can't afford anything so expensive.
Then one day he finds one lying in the rubbish. Boggling, he takes it home and names it Chi, but that's only the beginning of his problems. What kind of relationship should a human have with hardware? Hideki may be the world's least suitable candidate for exploring such issues, but he might also be ideal for Chi.
Chobits is a fresh take on the Magical Girlfriend genre from the girls at CLAMP. Anything they do is likely to be interesting and this is no exception. For obvious reasons their output tends to be more shoujo-oriented, but they're not afraid of playing with violence or fanservice (X or Miyuki-Chan in Wonderland respectively). Here they take a genre that at its worst can leave you feeling slimy, and create from it a story with wit, thematic depth and unusual perspectives.
The show's thematic engine lies in women who are objects. In a genre that's always at risk of objectifying women, here it's been made literal. Chi may not be a sex object, even if some men might see her that way, but she's still essentially a jumped-up laptop. This lets CLAMP explicitly address the disturbing side of these shows, deliberately creating a Creepiness Factor in romantic attraction between men and machines. They take it to different levels, too. We see the question from various sides, hearing the stories of all sorts of people. There's the Blade Runner question of "Is an android a person?", but that's not even the half of it.
The show also touches implicitly on issues of virginity and sex, again from an unusual point of view for this genre. People find themselves having feelings they shouldn't be feeling, often with serious consequences. Chi herself is looking for "the one who is right for me" and unsuitable men who try to interfere with her will soon regret it, but she's incapable of sexual intercourse. What's between her legs is an on-switch. (No, not like that. Get your minds out of the gutter.) Nevertheless the presentation can be ambiguous, with at least one scene that pushes the thematic subtext so far that it practically drips from the screen. On this level it's arguably a slightly bittersweet ending. Chi tells Hideki that there are human things she can't do, but with a little imagination I'm sure they could find, ahem, variants they could do together.
I've discussed at length the themes of Chobits, but it's time to backtrack. There's a deeper side to this show if you look for it, but fundamentally it's a charming light comedy with lovely characters and some slightly perverted jokes. Chi herself is awesome. When Hideki finds her lying out in the trash, she has no memory, no detectable operating system and a one-word vocabulary: "chi". Once brought home, she proves to be an idiot savant, endlessly fascinated by the simplest things and capable of accidentally getting Hideki arrested. I haven't laughed so hard in years as I did at episode four. Hideki wants to buy knickers for Chi but he's worried about looking like a pervert. Fortunately Chi can help! Uh, right. Not the best idea there, guys. She acts less like a fantasy girlfriend than an overgrown toddler, with the attention span of a MTV-watching crack addict and the judgement of a baked potato. She always does her best, though.
Hideki isn't the personality-free zone that one expects from the protagonists of this genre either, perhaps because the manga's creators were women. He's a clueless country lad with an unfortunate habit of saying his internal thoughts out loud and a porn habit that provides some of the show's best laughs. However when it comes to real girls (human or Persocom) he's a blushing gentleman. For once you can actually see why women might like him!
The supporting characters are all interesting, but my favourite was Sumomo. I couldn't get enough of her. Imagine a pink-clad monkey, equipped with whistles, flags and party poppers to emphasise the importance of her every happy announcement... except when she's trembling in fear from strange neighbours or passing animals. Better still, late in the show's run she acquires a grumpy playmate (like her only sixteen centimetres tall) to drive up the wall.
This show can be top-notch comedy fluff when it wants to be, but once the plot starts unfolding it changes pace into a more heavyweight show. The characterisation is strong, with depth, surprises and female characters who are actual people instead of fawning fantasies. It's light-hearted and cute, perhaps to make up for the low fanservice levels, but it can get surprisingly serious. Arguably it's less adorable than Hand Maid May or the Oh My Goddess OVA, but that's because it has a brain. Compare the Chobits stance on persocom-human relationships with the demented revelation in Hand Maid May episode 11, for instance.
Incidentally this show is also good for anyone learning the language, since that's just what Chi herself is doing, though "chi" always remains her favourite word. As a further aside, CLAMP love linking their different shows. Chobits is set in the Angelic Layer universe, although the anime did its best to remove the links that were explicit in the manga. Throwaway manga cameos also link Chobits with Cardcaptor Sakura, XXXHolic, Tsubasa: RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE and Kobato, although some or all of these are probably alternate versions.
This show is charming, thoughtful and often very funny. Impressive.