Romance is one of my favorite genres in both anime and manga. Doesn’t matter if it’s a cute, wholesome story about a perfect couple or a tragic tale full of drama, tense character development, and hard-earned love. I will absolutely devour it either way. This makes Video Girl Ai an especially interesting bit of anime history for me, as it popularized an entire trope: the
magical mechanical girlfriend.
There is always an element of wish-fulfillment to romance anime, which is especially obvious in the harem subgenre. While harem anime allow viewers to enviously imagine themselves attracting as many romantic partners as the protagonist, magical girlfriend/boyfriend anime thrive on a different flavor of degeneracy all together. What if the main character, preferably an easy stand-in for the audience, were to be granted a SPECIAL lover. One that is perfect, or at least far better than ordinary humans with their annoying flaws and personal desires.
Though competition was fierce, this idea was popularized a year before Video Girl Ai with the critically-acclaimed Oh My Goddess!. A series that perfectly encapsulated the trope. Keiichi is a friendly, normal guy who is granted a wish by a literal Goddess, which he uses to turn her into his girlfriend. They start living together and from the outset everything is immediately pleasant and warm, with only the occasional hiccups in their relationship that, ultimately, only serve to bring them closer together. It’s a funny romcom series, but also one that clearly plays on the audience’s yearning for such a strong and magical romance.
The mechanical girlfriend is a sub-subgenre of that, featuring the same premise of a love between a relatable main character and his non-human lover, but making that counterpart a machine, AI or other technological marvel. It has all the benefits of a normal magical girlfriend/boyfriend, but with the added wish-fulfillment of making them actually tailor-made for the main character.
Chi, Ai, Mimi, they were all specifically engineered for their purposes. The top scientists of their respective, fictional worlds created them with a specific goal in mind; in the case of I Dream of Mimi, literally with the programmed purpose of having preposterous amounts of sex. It’s the perfect counter to otherwise legitimate critiques of the trope. Of course Ai is impossibly beautiful. Somebody made her to be just like that so people would rent her videos. Of course Chi is unrelentingly supportive of Hideki. She’s a robot programmed to make her owner happy in any way possible.
That sounds pandering and exploitative, which it honestly kind of is. The idea of being able to create a person matching your exact image of a perfect partner and being able to engineer a flawless personality for them to match is a little creepy, but most of the good anime realize and use this. Chobits makes a big point out of exploring the various problems society and individuals encounter when people begin favoring their perfect machines over actual human relationships.
Chobits also explores what happens when these machine-people then break down or malfunction, which is the whole premise of Video Girl Ai. Its titular main character is a beautiful woman created for the express purpose of comforting and helping heartbroken viewers, but due to a broken video player she emerges in the real-world with a crass personality and her feminine features reduced. There is a lot more ground left to be explored here that future anime could tap into. What about a mechanical girlfriend show that addresses the risks of people creating machine versions of other people?
Anime in the mechanical girlfriend genre are admittedly rare, but they often end up being big hits when they do appear. 2015’s Plastic Memories was one of the most widely-discussed shows of its time and we’re overdue for the next big hit. Like any other genre, it has its trappings and easy appeals, but I also believe genuinely meaningful stories can be told through it.