I thought I'd take it easy and watch something fun. Cute anime robo-babes, dorky anime guy with a good heart, entertaining although unlikely drama and the skilled CLAMP studio handling the style and story. How could it possibly go wrong?
The story begins with a young guy talking about his future. He's become used to talking aloud, because since he's out in the green fields of Hokkaido, with cows as his only company, who's there to care? He's going to break out of this bucolic existence, go to a cool Tokyo college and perhaps even find a female to be his partner. Well that's certainly his plan, but a failing mark means he's instead going to be a penniless ronin (failed student) going to cram school for next years entrance exams.
In Tokyo he also receives another surprise. It seems almost everyone has a beautiful and charming companion, even if they're not always human. They're Persocon's, the worlds most unlikely internet appliance, humanoid robots that are capable of running sophisticated AI programs and constantly attached to the internet. But of course they're well outside the budget of a poor ronin, why he'd have to find one dumped in the rubbish like that cute blond one over there. There must be something wrong with her, certainly he doesn't have and can't afford software for her, but it seems that Chii (as he names her) might not be your typical persocon.... the fact she's operating without a program, writing her own identity as she goes along, being a good clue.
Like I said in the opening text, how could you go wrong? Naive farmboy proves to have a true and empathic heart. Extremely cute robo-babe is completely innocent and goes through a sort of compressed childhood. Throw in some other characters, some drama, perhaps even a secret origin (like say the legendary chobits persocons who are rumored to be fully intelligent) and a healthy serve of romance as the two mains act out the anime equivalent of the pinocchio story. It's familiar, it's well known to appeal to the anime market, and CLAMP definitely have the skill to do it well and add some extra depth in the process.
So the main question is how did they screw up so badly? because this anime is just a real mess of disconnected and half baked elements. The lead, Hideki, is perhaps one of the least likeable leading characters ever. He's frankly incompetent, pathetic and has chilling little hentai fantasies which he speaks out aloud. Chii is not only much cuter, she's also more intelligent and capable than he is. She's a bit of a dead loss as a character though because she's basically an amnesiac child. She has no past, no life and a quite simple outlook. Between the two of them, in terms of actions, there is very little in the way of romantic tension. Which of course rips the heart out of the story.
Hideki is also surrounded by some other attractive women, because just one female is never enough. There's the buxom high school girl ("They're E-cups" she tells him), the cute apartment manager and the cute cram school teacher. Each of them are far more tolerant of him than he has any reason to deserve. Ultimately however all of them have their own, completely independent, romantic stories... and none of them really involve him. They're also stories ultimately based on self doubt and weakness, which being negatives are fairly destructive to the light environment is seems to be going for. I did like the cram school teacher story though... in fact I would rather have seen that story in full than wasted the time on the featured story.
The first two thirds of the series seems to be going nowhere, and taking it's time at that. Light episodes featuring either Hideki's klutzy nature or Chii's childlike innocence. There's even a recap episode at 9 and 16'ish to remind us that nothing of much interest has happened. It's really not that well written, almost as if the writer wasn't sure what to do with the material. Then it basically moves into drama mode and we get to follow the other side-stories and move towards a conclusion which is decent but nothing terribly special, and a let down after the hints and clues we've received.
Making enjoyment harder are the sort of ecchi bits that are dropped into the story with the subtlety of bombs. Chii having an on switch in a rather private place, it being explored again when she is kidnapped for a peep show, constant jokes on Hideki's porn, the mandatory swimsuit episode with the full female cast. Not to mention chii's clothing becoming more revealing as we go along. It's all rather yuck, especially the visions into Hideki's fantasies which are presented very coldly and make him an extremely unlikeable character. It also seemed to me his physical depiction, especially his eyes, was designed to make him unlikeable... which is pretty odd.
Perhaps the most serious flaw, from my perspective, is that the story relies on the concept of the "other", how something not entirely human can fit into human society. But we never get any sense of limitation from Chii (and Yuzuki) in terms of their intelligence. They're both a hell of a lot smarter than Hideki, that's for sure. Nor do they seem to have physical limits, they run off solar energy and are almost physically indistinguishable from humans. We are after all reminded on multiple occasions that Chii is warm, and soft, and barring one obvious mechanical addition we would never spot her as being anything other than human.
In short she's so human that forming romantic bonds just doesn't feel odd enough to make the drama work. I'm minded to create the "Turing test for anime robo-babes", paraphrasing the work of Alan M. Turing on his test for machine intelligence. It basically states that if the android is intelligent and human enough that you can become emotionally attached to it then there is nothing actually wrong with doing so, because it has become indistinguishable from humanity. In fact the more pressing question is why Chii bothers with Hideki! likewise the other persocon related stories revolve more around human weakness than anything else.
Frankly the story and events are weak, cold and disconnected. There is little warmth and a lot of the content is pretty poor. The conclusion, and the story, grows erratically and has lots of gaps in its logic. I've seen worse, but this was nothing special, and coming from CLAMP who I know have much better abilities than this, it's ultimately disappointing.
Of course the question then is why is the damn thing so popular? One possibility is that many of the fans spring from the Chobits manga, which apparently is far superior. In fact the suggestion was that this anime was made while the manga was still unfinished. If so this really helps explain the story weaknesses in this anime. A more likely one is that Chii is sufficiently cute, and innocent, that none of the male fans actually care about much else. I wouldn't even be surprised if a lot of people are fans only from seeing artwork of Chii (yes, she is very cute). I can understand this, but the fact that Chii is effectively `empty' just sort of chills me. As a several month old child with a precocious intelligence and an adult body I guess she is the ultimate lolicon figure, for those who like that sort of thing.
It's reasonably produced of course. Clamp have a nice sense of visual design, good animation and solid production values which assures it looks rather nice. Chii looks great, Sumomo (a pocket sized persocon) is filled with genki energy, and between the two of them there's lots of cute to go around. Lots of hair (chi has veritable wings of hair), and some rather gothic styling is hidden into the story. Moves well, it's interesting to see some elements of domestic life, music and incidental sound are strong. In fact it's more a shame that this great production was wasted on such an average script.
Rather average ronin (failed student) finds cute anime robo-babe on a rubbish heap. She seems to be filled with limitless potential and distinct romantic possibilities not to mention pretty cute. However a confused, sometimes boring and sometimes cold, story means that nothing much comes out of it. Indeed the most interesting stories happen on the periphery.
Most of the reviews seem to be partial. I'll wait for more people to see the full thing, because I didn't think the first episodes were that indicative of what was to come.