At the moment, in niche-interest media communities, there is a lot being said about how it is now cool to outwardly display fandom, and endless debates about whether games and comics are now “cool” and “mainstream” pastimes. This is reflected in the media with series like Sword Art Online and BTOOM in Japan, and with the rise in a sort of idol culture in the West surrounding figureheads in the video game world. What a lot of this does is present a very idealised picture of these communities which appear bewildering and at times pathetic to outsiders. As a result, the comedy Chuunibyou… is particularly timely in how it focuses on the image of such subcultures both from those within them and those looking in on them.
The series begins with a definition of the Japanese slang term chuunibyou, defined as a sort of self-importance that early secondary school children and young teens come into where they essentially let the media they consume define their lives; drinking coffee because their idols do, imagining themselves as the protagonists of superhero stories, believing in the occult or conspiracy theories and so on. The term, literally translated, calls this an illness; it describes the period from the perspective of someone who has grown out of it and regrets it. As a result, it is the perfect setup for a comedy; rather than idealising this state of being immature and deluded, it pokes fun at the ridiculous ways young people act and presents a more mature way of behaving (not necessarily eschewing pastimes, simply changing one’s consuming habits) as desirable. The premise of the series is that a schoolboy who in the past was chuunibyou is trying too hard to change his life and avoid all links to his past interests. He meets a girl who still is immature, and the two look set to ultimately mend each others’ flaws in standard comic style.
Ultimately, this is not much different to the much-maligned Tonari No Kaibutsu-Kun. Two opposites attract and in so doing moderate each others’ behaviour into a happy medium. Yet it comes at a time in which this immature behaviour is being presented as the “acceptable” side in comedies; most situation comedies now present their interactions as favouring the immature, manic characters – the socially transgressive ones. Conforming is seen as boring and breaking down the conformist, staid character into a carefree wacky one is the “aim” of the series. It is here that Chuunibyou… differs interestingly; it accepts in its use of the term chuunibyou that this behaviour is not ideal, but at the same time in presenting the main character as trying too hard to hide has nerdy past shows that the response is not to completely eschew it. The manic female lead, with her unnecessary eye-patch, collection of random objects, penchant for kidnapping cats and so on isn’t portrayed as an ideal figure but instead as an equally flawed one. Her conduct is embarrassing rather than endearing, yet it is not depicted maliciously.
So in terms of the general depiction of an idealised “geek culture” in the media, the down-to-earth gentle mockery of Chuunibyou… is a nice contrast. In terms of recent popular anime, it becomes even more interesting. The recent series Sword Art Online, adapted from an extensive series of young adult novels, received praise for its initially accurate depiction of a computer game’s mechanics and the attitudes of game players (resenting those with an unfair advantage, playing ultra-competitively and so on). However, its depiction of its protagonist’s development – and indeed many of its supporting cast – was not in keeping with the depiction of game players that accompanied it. It fell in its need to tell a traditional fantasy story and adhere to the tropes of the wider fantasy adventure genre into the trap of undermining its interesting aspects (the idea that suddenly gamers had to account for the consequences of traditional online gaming behaviour, challenging the disconnect between anonymous online behaviour and in-person conduct). In downplaying this aspect, it arguably lost some of its power; it told a more coherent narrative in itself, but ignored the thematic aspects in a way which turned its more traditional hero’s journey into a kind of Tron-esque wish fulfilment; the computer geek enters the computer and fights his way out.
Wish-fulfilment fantasies in this way say something about how a subculture wants to see itself; ultimately, being based on a series of young adult novels which are as much about telling a fantasy story as exploring the nuances of a story about computer gamers’ attitudes, it is not going to be the place for commentary on an outsiders’ view of a subculture. A comedy based on those outsider attitudes, on the other hand, says more about the wider view of that subculture. Gamer fantasies exploring the virtual world as a place for outsiders to excel are set against the reality of being that outsider in Chuunibyou; while its jokes would be funny at any time, and relatable to anyone who has been the awkward outsider, it is particularly timely now as an idealised presentation is becoming more prevalent. I thoroughly enjoyed the two episodes of Chuunibyou I watched because it showed how ridiculous and presumptuous young people can be; I could relate well to it and yet its depiction was not malicious, or intended to simply mock – but to provide a grounded, non-fantastical alternative view wrapped in gentle comedy.
The focus is not on saying that the pastimes of people who are chuunibyou are wastes of time, or presenting a negative stereotype of game players. One thing the series will not do is serve as lazy confirmation bias for people who think video games, or comics, are the preserve solely of immature people, or are inherently childish. Similarly, it is not a defense of being immature as yet; the female lead does not as some might expect bludgeon the protagonist with immaturity until he relapses. It is a series about the necessary compromise between being serious and “mature” and being immature – what it reflects on is how people who have been chuunibyou might react by going too far the other way and hating fun and escapism because they have seen how empty it is to define oneself by it. If anything, while it is at times embarrassing to watch, it serves as a reminder that people can change and that one can like something without being part of a fandom.