For many people, being called a chuunibyou (中二病) is not a compliment. It suggests they suffer from a “syndrome” that makes them delusional and unable to accept reality for what it is. If some media is described as chuu2, then they’re describing certain elements that make the setting more grandiose than it should be. Words like “fantasy” appear in such descriptions.
Indeed, the more one hears about chuu2, the more one thinks it sounds like a personality disorder. It’s an abnormality, a disease that people are afflicted with. And they need to be cured of it. The critical language surrounding chuu2 tends to come from the lexicons from medicine and psychoanalysis. No wonder people look down on chuunibyou and think of it as a social and psychological problem comparable to the well-known hikikomori phenomena.
But before we fling ourselves onto our Freudian couches and diagnose this as some sort of “illness”, it may be useful to take it seriously and maybe see this not as a phenomena coming out of escapism but as a subject on thinking in a different light.
To Be Chuuni or Not to Be Chuuni, That Is the Blog Post’s Question
Chuunibyou, being a loanword from Japan, is often believed by the general anime community to describe a specific phenomena in Japan. The biggest contributor to this understanding is the Kyoto Animation work, Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai! (中二病でも恋がしたい!/Love, Chuunibyou & Other Delusions!).
Rikka’s character design embodies the ultimate stereotypical chuu2 girl. She has an eyepatch covering her right eye. Her typical school uniform, which is already black, makes her look like the goth gf that we all wanted. Yet, the late Ikeda has designed her to be cute and energetic as well. In the anime, she moves around like a pupper, makes ridiculous cute faces, and in the end bawls like a baby. And if she takes off her eyepatch, she reveals her golden eye that holds a significant amount of chuu2 energy. Because the first season of the anime was somewhat popular and likely to be many people’s introduction to chuu2, Rikka has become the de facto mascot for chuunibyou characters.
There’s nothing wrong with that as long as people remember there are other characters who are chuu2 too. But that never happens. Instead, Chu2koi is the only work people know of when it comes to chuunibyou themes. This is of course not the fault of the viewers who are just enjoying some silly KyoAni sakuga. However, there remains a lack of information as to what chuu2 means even if Rikka does present a caricature of these characters.
It may be worth remembering why Rikka is a stereotype in the first place. Eyepatches and a singular golden eye are the key visual motifs that the staff has decided upon in designing Rikka. If we look through Japanese media, there are going to be plenty of examples of characters having these motifs in one way or another.
Eyepatches, for example, are cool. They make us think of pirates sailing the seven seas, but people don’t wear eyepatches for just cosmetic reasons. These characters may have scars or have lost an eye during a battle. Although at first glance a disability, the loss of an eye may signify that the character is not deluded by visual illusions. They can rely on their other senses, which are implied to be honed and surpassing ordinary humans. The most famous example from mythology is of the Norse god Odin; he became Punished Odin when he traded one of his eyes to drink from the Well of Urðr. This sacrifice gave him an incredible amount of knowledge and made him into an omniscient figure.
In the case of golden eyes, the Steampunk Series by Sakurai Hikaru features characters with heterochromia, a difference in coloration between the two irises. Characters with golden eyes are always entering into a fantastical and dreamy underworld while trying to keep up with their ordinary lives in the dreary and ordinary steampunk cities. In games like Shikkoku no Sharnoth ~What a beautiful Tomorrow~ (漆黒のシャルノス ~What a beautiful tomorrow~), the protagonists find themselves in an underworld populated by the Elder Gods of the Cthulhu Mythos because they have some kind of affinity with the golden eye. Creatures and events in the underworld affect and parallel scenes in the regular world in mysterious ways. What the golden eye actually means remains unknown, besides being affected by the advent of steam technology. Yet, those who hold the burden of the golden eyes must use their insight to penetrate the lies and uncover the truth.
The obsession over eyes in fiction doesn’t stop there. We can examine the common motif of a “magical eye” and ask why creators are interested in exploring the connections between visual perception, knowledge, and impact on people’s surroundings. It’s impossible not to be inspired by mythologies and religions that play with eyes for example. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the concept of a “third eye” born from the mind is taken seriously. Those who possess it through meditation are enlightened. In Christianity, the Eye of Providence oversees all because it is the eye of God; it is best observed on the US one-dollar bill. As for more modern and fictional examples, the Nasuverse has the Mystic Eyes of Perception, first introduced in Tsukihime, which reveal the weak points of enemies. Code Geass has Lelouch’s purple eye that can hypnotize people to follow his orders no matter the cost. Mihoko from the gayest mahjong anime and manga Saki reveals her blue eye when she wants to get gay and serious in the game. And of course, let’s not forget Undertale, which has everyone’s favorite Smash character who reveals his right eye and wants us to have a bad time.
This dive into the occult, the spiritual, and the mystical should show us something obvious: the interest in magical eyes is not a phenomena unique to modern Japanese media. We aren’t just interested in making cool imagery of eyes either. There is always something meaningful behind these magical eyes. While the motivations behind and approaches taken within these many works and tracts are varied and different, they all point towards one common assumption: our normal eyesight isn’t always great.
We are often deceived by mirages because our eyes are not equipped with the ability to distinguish illusions and reality. From afar, a realistic painting in an art gallery may look like a photograph or even the real thing. Perspective is key to how artists become illusionists; by toying with the vanishing point, they can make a flat canvas painting look like a passage into a city.
Now in the present, where most of us live in brightly-lit cities, we also commonly have difficulties seeing in the dark. Technologies like night goggles can help us overcome this, but they can only go so far. If the batteries drop dead in the middle of the night, we are left alone in the dark. In survival horror games, technology also sometimes allows the player to distinguish enemies that act human-like from the people they need to rescue. Without it, you may be shooting human survivors. Even with 20/20 vision, there is always this concern that our eyesight is never enough to see through the metaphorical fog.
That’s why there seems to be a need in fiction, especially the speculative kind, for the characters to have superhuman eyesight. This particular eyesight should equip the characters (and players in video games) with the visual knowledge to crush the facade and reveal the truth.
Thus, the visual motifs surrounding the eyes of chuunibyou characters are actually not that of delusions as Chu2koi‘s English title suggests. They are instead expressions of a want, a need to know more than what normal eyesight can give the characters. Usually, these characters have pasts that become a source of their trauma. Because of how much the past has fucked them over, they have become anxious about the present and the future. Something must be wrong with them or/and the world around them. The reality they are taught by parents and teachers to see makes little sense to them. It’s too banal, too soulless, too despair-inducing. They want an alternate reality because the world they are living in is crushingly depressing. They perceive that there is no such thing as a meaningful life in this world. Therefore, the ideal world that they seek out comes not from delusions of grandeur but disillusionment with the current state of affairs.
This is the distress which people unfairly caricature as “escapism”.
This Blog Post Got Into a Proverbial Car Crash Because Kastel’s Driving in Euro Truck Simulator 2 Was So Bad and the Blog Post’s Imouto Prayed For an Isekaimission (ルビ: Isekai Intermission)
All this talk of an “ideal world” might make us think of a certain trend. If we follow this line of thought, it will lead us to the biggest fad in contemporary Japanese fiction: isekai (異世界) fiction, specifically the modern kind, narou-kei (なろう系). It is beneficial for this blog post to have an isekai interlude (an isekailude, if you will), even if it may be treading charted territories.
Although controversial works like Shield Hero are currently in the spotlight over sexism, it is worth taking a step back and thinking about why people are so invested in these works. The idea that a character is transported into another world is not new. As Makkusu’s classic post on isekai fiction suggests, there are similarities between Western fiction (Alice in Wonderland, Strangers in a Stranger Land) and Japanese ones.
But we can go further into history and see the connections between isekai and colonization. In The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View by Ellen Meiksins Wood, colonization in history has always meant the monopolization of goods and trade routes. But the advent of capitalism in England caused many people to lose their land and their means of production; they now had to buy their way into the market in order to live. In other words, they would be forced to sell their labor to landlords and tenants in order to buy food. According to Wood, this market-dependence is a significant component of capitalism. People are forced to buy into the market, even if they don’t have money. When England finally tried its hand at colonization in places like the Americas, people who owned no property were compelled to move to the “New World” and make a living there.
New living means new adventures, new fantasies, and new possibilities. Narratives of settling down like The Pilgrim’s Progress were poignant to the contemporary public (and in our times, they have become the cursed required reading material in today’s high schools). Travel narratives and adventure fiction were popular as hell and these images remain prescient in movies like the Indiana Jones tetralogy. The people in these stories hunt for treasure in exotic landscapes and meet friends and enemies of all kinds. Traveling or living abroad, a luxury for the very privileged few, has become an affordable experience — it is just encased in a book or an anime series.
What makes narou-kei significantly different from past trends in isekai and other related fiction comes from the attitude taken towards settling down. In older (and therefore not narou-kei) works like Twelve Kingdoms, the fantastical settings are dystopian and crude. Characters have the urge to return home à la The Wizard of Oz. But in the likes of Re:Zero and Mushoku Tensei, there is the possibility that the protagonist can live in this fantasy world and even benefit from this new livelihood of theirs. There will be troubles ahead, of course, but the pros outweigh the cons. They don’t have to depend on the bleak prospects of the Japanese labor market nor lead meaningless salaryman lives; they can be the heroes of their own stories in the new world.
There is much to be said about how this results in the worrying implications of colonization. Slavery, now a common sight in isekai fiction, has been romanticized and even justified as long as the “owner” is a good dude. The protagonists have incorporated themselves into the system because their skills that are useless in their “real worlds” happen to be useful in this fantastical world. It’s impossible to avoid nodding to tweets about how isekai fiction has contributed to the normalization of patriarchal structures.
But that colonialist desire, while morally reprehensible as a variant of chuunibyou, does point to the anxieties festered by the displacement of the Japanese public. In Precarious Japan, Anne Allison points to how the constant deregulations of the labor market and privatization of national systems have contributed to the insecurity experienced by many Japanese people. Welfare, only available to people who have slaved enough hours for corporations or a select few elderly, is now a myth. The youth have two choices after their BAs: depend on exploitative corporations or freelance forever. The pressure to do well in their lives despite the obstacles can cause people to shut down and become recluses (hence, hikikomori). This desire to overcome everything and become superhuman has been translated by creators who live in these situations into ridiculously naive novels about salarymen beating the stock market and, of course, narou-kei isekai fiction itself.
The pursuit of a meaningful life in a new world is revealing when we think about how skills are discussed in narou-kei works. The conversion of useless knowledge into something useful is very appealing to readers. Although not a narou-kei work, Muv-Luv Alternative presents the clearest example of this idea: the protagonist is a Virtual-On enthusiast and realizes piloting a mecha is just like playing the video game; this gives him an upper hand and increases the possibility of saving the alternate world from aliens.
In this sense, I don’t see the desire to be useful in an alternate world as inherently wrong. While the colonialist implications persist and cannot be denied, it is an oversimplification to call this a mere delusion. It stems from the anxieties of people confronted by the insecurities of today’s capitalist systems. Of course they would desire to live in a different world. Narou-kei fiction constantly features its protagonists dying from something. The immediate impact of a collision with a truck will hurt, but at least it ends their pathetic lives in the “normal” world. That’s the literal definition of a blessing in disguise. Having the ability to seek a new and totally different livelihood in the isekai setting is a bonus for some of these protagonists.
This sympathy only extends to the reasons why people may engage in these fictions, but it doesn’t excuse the blatant misogyny and imperialist themes. These desires can be decoupled from the more problematic aspects of narou-kei and explored through something tamer and more creative.
After the Isekaimission, The Blog Post’s Imouto is Disgusted by Isekai Trends and Decides to Continue Praying For a Better Afterlife For the Blog Post; Kastel’s Truck Took the Wrong Turn and Entered Through a Wormhole Toll and Rammed Into the Blog Post Who Was a Level 99 King, Their Soul Reincarnating Into a Shrine Maiden in the Setting of Touhou, Gensokyo!
Enter Gensokyo, a world filled with shrine maidens, youkai, and danmaku patterns. Redirecting our truck drivers to the setting of the Touhou games may be a peculiar choice, but it’s where many fans can live out their chuu2 desires without falling into the trappings of narou-kei isekai fiction.
But first, we need to talk about ZUN, the creator of Touhou. He enjoys creating old-school arcade games with beautifully crafted danmaku patterns. He has little interest in following trends and is most vehemently against franchising his works, only reluctantly allowing soshage adaptations of his works rather recently. Most interestingly, he remains too stubborn to branch out of the dying shoot ’em up genre with the exception of a few fighting games. In a time when soshage rules all and shmups are outdated curiosities, ZUN cares little about how ancient his thinking might be. He just wants to make the games he likes to play.
The Touhou games themselves feature few traits in accordance with what video game storytelling should be. They are mainly focused on the gameplay and the music. The sparse dialog there is contributes to the atmosphere Gensokyo has, rather than fleshing out a riveting plot. In fact, it’s actually not uncommon to find Touhou fans who don’t like the gameplay much either. His games are a niche, even if they are famous thanks to viral memes.
So besides the hardcore shmup elements, what is appealing about Touhou and how does it connect to the chuu2 desires found in isekai fiction and elsewhere?
The answer is actually quite simple: ZUN allows people to explore the setting of Gensokyo themselves.
While there are official games and manga depicting the setting and lore of Gensokyo, the setting remains flexible and there are possibilities for doujinshi creators to develop it in unique directions. The official work introduces interesting relationship dynamics that can be made into some interesting fanfiction. More importantly, ZUN’s loose restrictions on Touhou as an intellectual property not only gives creators permission to explore the setting to their hearts’ desire, but they can even sell their fanworks in places like Comiket.
Because of this freedom, the doujinshi scene in Touhou isn’t just about making porn of your favorite characters forever. Creators can make MOTHER 2/EarthBound parodies of Touhou lore or make a popular series of Super Robot Wars-inspired games featuring animated cutscenes. There’s even a Touhou work inspired by Shikkoku no Sharnoth. Hell, one of my high school memories is of me playing a game called Touhou Soccer 2, a Captain Tsubasa-inspired work. The popular belief outside Japan that doujins are synonymous with porn is not at all true in the case of Touhou!
Without the fear of overstating it, I can say ZUN is notable for single-handedly creating a subculture. It reminds me of subcultural spaces like VIPRPG where creators are free to play with assets both stolen and taken from default RPG Maker and make something new. But what makes Touhou utterly interesting and unique on this front is that its fan activity is all legal. You could rearrange ZUN’s arrangements into jazz compositions without much worry as long as proper credit is given.
Exploring the setting of Gensokyo thus presents the possibilities to express one’s chuu2 desires. The games are jumping-off points for creators and readers to envision something new and potentially meaningful to them. What do the various religious clashes mean in the games? What about the divisions between humans and youkai? Can there be a substantial and secular connection between deities and their mediums? What if youkai are actually cute and lovable beings you can hang out with? There is no such thing as impractical or useless pondering, only stones left unturned. All of these questions are not only valid but affirming for the creators and readers who want to know about them.
And that is the magic of subcultural spaces like Touhou. No one is allowed to judge others for pursuing niche interests and taboos can be interrogated within these safe spaces. Touhou allows people to be chuu2 without a hint of irony. In another sense, it’s possible to say that people who engage with Touhou are journeying to something new and mystical in these stories — an isekai to the spiritual world, if you will.
(On that front, I must mention that this post is deeply influenced by the powerful and personal essay written by Amy Star on how Touhou has changed her life.)
On a CD jacket to one of his OSTs, Zun himself ponders about the very concept of chuunibyou. A deeper connection to the mindset is expounded by him here. While he recognizes the stereotypical chanting found in chuu2 fiction as chuu2, that’s not really the point of being chuunibyou. Those words, amusing as they may be, have an important subtextual meaning to them. He continues and presents to us what I believe to be the ultimate conclusion on what it means to be chuu2:
The true essence of chuunibyou is the heat of the will to live.
It is the explosion of one’s creative imagination.
Resisting against the cold and lifeless society, chuunibyou brandishes both purity and creativity into battle.
Chuunibyou is a rebellious attitude that we can take to guard ourselves against the cynical travails of “adult” society. To be chuu2 is to remind oneself that you are a unique individual who refuses to be absorbed into the bitter “adult” world. The real world or the mainstream is horrible because it oppresses people and makes them servile, whether through capitalism or other exploitative structures. “Realism” or the pretension of being “realistic about things” is the defeatist attitude that surrounds many “adults”. Being “unrealistic” on the other hand suggests that someone is “out of their mind”. Hence, the denigration of chuu2 as some sort of mental illness that must be cured. But that doesn’t need to be the case. We can resist; that is our will to live against the grain of this cold society. Resisting these pressures has to become an imaginative act, to idealize what a better world could be. That is the essence of what it means to be chuunibyou. To idealize, beyond what is permissible according to the “adults” of society, is what allows us to attain the heat of the will to live. It lets us melt the cold chains of society stopping us from searching for these dreams.
ZUN ends with his thoughts with a simple goal: if he could remain chuu2 till the end of his life, he could partake in his favorite hobby of drinking sake and appreciate it as the meaning of his life.
Conclusion: The Blog Post Finally Reaches the Gates of Heaven and St. Peter Greets Them and Asks If They Led a Meaningful Life to Which the Blog Post Answered, “I Have Lived Many Lives — Some Embarrassing and Diabolic, Others Fruitful and Beautiful — But I Remain Convinced That the Worlds I’ve Been In Can Be Better and I Want My Imouto to Live in One Such World That Can Accept Her For Who She is and Not Face the Same Problems for Being Different and Unique”, and Smiled at the Very End of Their Life
The search for a meaning of life is absurd. The most rational conclusion — and possibly what society intends us to believe in — is to say the pursuit is fictional and therefore a waste of time. It’s impossible to disagree if we look into the histories of philosophies and literature.
Despite knowing how fruitless the endless attempts to find this imaginary thing will be, we continue. Why? Why don’t we just settle down and find a nice corner in the office and bang out some spreadsheets? Even those who do find a way to settle down sometimes think about hobbies and see them “pursuits” that make them happy.
These things are inconceivably irrational.
Likewise, the expression “will to live” is silly when you think about it. What is this “will”? Living is something we all do. The expression suggests that those who lack it may not be living. What makes “living” in this context different from other ordinary conceptions of living?
These are, well, chuu2 questions. We are trained by society to see them as delusions and unrealistic modes of thinking. The minute we begin to ponder about what we can do with our lives and steer them toward a different direction, we’re imagining something society doesn’t want us to do.
To imagine ourselves living different lives is a form of resistance against the situations society has placed us in. We don’t need to be a Dark Flame Master, an isekai protagonist, or a shrine maiden in Gensokyo; we can just imagine the paths we could take if we followed our dreams to create video games, to write books, to star in a theatrical production, to direct a movie, to design clothes, to save people, to teach children, to tell someone we love them, or to make someone happy. There’s no need for time travel or isekai mechanics. We can imagine the endless possibilities by ourselves.
They are objectively speaking a waste of time. Yet, the will to live — the pursuit for a meaningful life, that could be us just dreaming a way to live out our fantasies.
That is what it means to be chuunibyou.
Addendum: The Blog Post’s Imouto Got to Live in the World They Wanted
Besides the multiple examples I have given in writing about chuunibyou fiction, I think it may be beneficial to point out other examples I wanted to bring in but didn’t find a spot for. Think of this as a “further reading” section.
This post was originally going to compare the different approaches Chu2koi and AURA ~魔竜院光牙最後の闘い~ take towards chuu2 with a Touhou interlude. AURA, written by Tanaka Romeo of CROSS+CHANNEL fame, is a romantic comedy with a premise strangely similar to Chu2koi. Unlike Chu2koi, AURA actually doesn’t think chuu2 is particularly funny; it’s serious and deals with its themes much better. Honestly, I sorta wonder if Chu2koi is a homage to AURA because of this. Oh well. I recommend this work to people who are interested in the themes of Chu2koi but want them to be done better.
Another work I considered adding to the post was the Shin Megami Tensei franchise because it is a good representative of old chuu2 works. Old chuu2 works tend to be quite different in tone to the newer ones. It’s possible to describe the degree of difference in how they approach the occult. But well, I did write about that in another post and discuss how the imagination is developed differently there.
Something that came up while writing the conclusion was the, uh, Pokemon games. I’m not really the right person to write much about Pokemon, but there could be some :thinkingemoji: done regarding the hilarious lore ghost-type Pokemons have and what they do to the setting and the story. I quite like the implication that Pokemons are likely to be reincarnated humans — it’s quite Metal.
I’m also quite enamored with tabletop RPGs because the culture around them forces people to put on their thinking caps and imagine creative solutions to creative scenarios. Some creators I love like Sakurai are inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos TRPGs they play. The whole character creation and even the lore surrounding the events are so chuu2!
Funnily enough, I’m genuinely surprised by myself that I’ve somehow not mentioned one ounce of shinhonkaku mystery fiction. I love that shit. ZUN apparently enjoys reading mysteries and I guess I’ve forgotten to include that. The themes are superbly chuu2 because it asks what it means to be a genius and all. I write a lot about shinhonkaku in general, but Zaregoto is what I would’ve mentioned to general audiences in this post.
Also, Riverdale. Because why not.
This post is too long now, so I will give one last example for further reading. All my tweets and articles are chuu2, bye.