It’s a universal fact that everyone is at least a little bit embarrassed by what they did when they were thirteen. Was it a misguided and poetic emo phase? An overzealous leap into fandom, including indulgent fanfic or fanart? An all-consuming desire to be seen as mature in your tastes that ended up just making you look pretentious? Whatever it is, despite how much this passion consumed you at the time, you’d be happy if no one ever brought it up ever again—that’s how much it makes you cringe.
There’s a Japanese word for this: chunibyo, loosely translating to “eighth-grader syndrome”, the stage of life where a sense of self-importance and newfound independence combines with passion, imagination, and a desire to be seen as special, whether that manifests as a pretentious geek phase or believing you have magic powers. It’s this phenomenon that is the core of Love, Chunibyo, and Other Delusions—a show that begins as a wacky comedy about high school embarrassment and ends up punching you (or at least, this reviewer) in the gut with a poignant story about grief and growing up.
Minor spoilers after the jump!
Our protagonist Yuta had a serious case of chunibyo that he’s desperate to leave behind as he moves into high school. The show begins with him sorting through and packing away all of his old cosplay gear, fake weapons, and detailed hand-drawn character sheets about his OC Dark Flame Master, an extremely powerful and dangerous magic user who Yuta roleplayed as in everyday life. Yuta bangs his head against the wall just looking at his old stuff, nearly sick with embarrassment as he remembers his middle school days as an overdramatic geeky outcast, and resolves to start afresh as he enters his first year of high school (tenth grade in the Japanese school system). Things seem to be going okay until he runs into a classmate who’s clearly still locked in her chunibyo phase. As if the second-hand embarrassment wasn’t enough, Yuta soon discovers that she knows all about his Dark Flame Master persona—and, worst of all, she thinks it’s really cool.
This classmate is his neighbor Rikka, who always wears an eyepatch to contain/conceal the “cursed eye” that is the source of her “powers”, organizes her bedroom “according to the laws of astrology”, and shouts fighting game-esque attack names when she opens her umbrella. Yuta wants nothing to do with her, but the two inevitably end up stuck together when the plot and their homeroom teacher intervenes, and they soon form a begrudging, slapstick sort of “I find you very annoying but also endearing” friendship. This deepens as Yuta learns more about Rikka’s tragic past and realizes that her chunibyo is a coping mechanism, forcing him to see this supposedly cringe-worthy habit in a new light, and understand the positive affects imagination and nerdy passion can have in a person’s life.
Yuta and Rikka are natural foils to each other: Yuta is rushing to grow up, and Rikka is refusing to grow up, and both their attitudes stem from bottled-up feelings and denial about their own emotional pasts. The audience learns, in what initially is set up to be the fun and harmless beach episode but ended up damn near making me cry, that Rikka’s father died when she was young, and she entered her chunibyo phase instead of processing her grief. Her older sister, sometimes violently, tries to force her to face reality, but Rikka just avoids this and sinks deeper into her fantasy world—demonstrated nicely by how the arguments with her sister play out on screen as over-the-top magical anime battles.
Yuta initially agrees that this is an unhealthy and unrealistic way to live, and this combined with his disdain for that brand of geekiness has him telling Rikka to snap out of it. As the series goes on, however, he realizes that Rikka’s “stupid” and “embarrassing” hobbies and persona have helped her make sense of and enjoy the world again when it was left so confusing and empty after her father’s death. Sure, magic isn’t real, but the sense of happiness and involvement Rikka (and her younger, equally chunibyo-affected best friend) feels are very real. What’s wrong with a little imaginative fun, if it makes a sad world a happier place?
Possibly because this series is produced by the same studio that brought us K-On!, it feels the need to muddle this poignant message about loss and maturity with adorable high school anime shenanigans, often rendering it “cute girls doing cute things, embarrassing nerd edition” as the studio tries hard to stick to their established brand. That said, at least it’s not bogged down by fan service, though I still can’t shake off the discomfiting knowledge that the animators clearly want you to see Rikka as love interest material as well as naïve and childlike (yech). Chunibyo introduces one-note cutesy side characters (like the girl whose hobby is napping) and comedic and over-the-top cutesy side plots (like the story of the boy who falls in love with the napping girl), but most of the time these don’t interfere too much with the serious and heartfelt character plot at the center of the show.
You could even say that padding the series out with fluffy comedy allows the serious moments to hit harder—and Chunibyo manages this switch, most of the time, without giving you mood whiplash. It maintains a strong narrative and thematic thread throughout all of its silliness that comes satisfyingly to a head in the climax of the story, and somehow this squishy comedy about cute geeky girls with embarrassing hobbies ended up ripping my heart out.
So, look, we’re all embarrassed by what we did when we were thirteen—let’s accept that. But let’s also step back and accept how much fun we had, how much those ludicrous hobbies meant to us, and how they made us the people we are today be that in small ways or significant ones. Yuta finds himself asking if there’s anything really wrong with being passionate about things, and realizes that perhaps by blindly pursuing the image of what a “normal high school student” was, he was simply diving into a new delusion. Chunibyo tells a story about how it’s okay to be yourself and love what you love, perfectly demonstrating the full spectrum of teenaged fandom, from cringe-worthiness to life-affirming power. It’s a very relatable and sincere story, nestled in among all that whacky comedy and geeky references, and ultimately a kind story that expresses the power of geekdom… even if it’s embarrassing sometimes.
Read more from Alex at her blog, The Afictionado!