How to Enjoy Chuunibyou Media

Mary sue is a loaded term, which is why when appropriate, chuunibyou seems like a much better alternative when describing TV anime; “chuunibyou” is sufficiently new and foreign enough that most people aren’t quite sure what it is yet. To the point, both terms address fundamental complaints in terms of realism and suspension of disbelief.

Of course, when we deal with anime, certain things are going to be taken as is. Realism in this context has to do with the way the audience engages the material. For instance, most of us attack late-night TV anime as character and drama pieces. We care about character development, and often times you see people try to approach even gag 4koma adaptations from that angle, resulting in a mismatch and the resulting 3rd party chagrin. When I watch Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood I watch for what’s happening to who and what plot is being unraveled and realized, and how are the good guys going about to do their thing as far as the hook goes. I don’t really care about the type of ammunition being used in the frozen environs versus the desert, or the type of socks the military issue to soldiers in those environments–but somehow I am suppose to care about the automail people wear, because it’s kind of an plot device. I guess I’m not suppose to sweat the small stuff.

With that in mind, let’s look at choir drama Tari Tari. In a recent episode, a petty thief was subdued by the power of costume play and hot-powered vocals. The marathon bike chase scene where the costumers chased, on foot, the biking thief that leads into the vocal performance probably did not help either the pursuers and the criminal. Still, we are suppose to believe that the guy on the bicycle is some how even more tired than the high school 3rd years in their tokusatsu outfits. When the second bar of the song kicked in, we are to believe the thief was mesmerized by Wien’s brave visage in front of the setting sun, in some way. Perhaps we can swallow that Sawa’s mother somehow had these outfits, that happens to fit these one-size-fits-all Japanese bodies (along with their one-size-fits-all character designs, maybe), along with the opportunity to make some money on the side. This is drama, we can chalk all that stuff up to coincidence, right? Just like how there’s a thief who’s pocketing something in public, during a public event, right? What’s Japan’s crime rate again?

I suppose it is much better to care about petty things like that, than where would Sawa ride Saburo around–there are not a lot of places around there to fit a fine animal like Saburo without running into people. It’s like the scenic shots across Enoshima, with the Choir And Sometimes Badminton Club running up and down the seaside mostly by themselves. It’s strange because it’s probably full of people if you ever visit Enoshima in real life. To Tari Tari’s credit, thankfully we don’t typically ask these kinds of questions, because we are preoccupied with Konatsu’s plight and the characterization of the group. That’s how we engage with Tari Tari.

But why would I ask these questions? Because I was thinking about it. This is the strange tension between going all Chitanda on something, versus checking your brain at the door and just enjoying something without asking too much questions. The former is great if you can get the audience engaged but you probably don’t want them to ask too many questions and poke through the thin veneer–a beautiful production may be reduced to its component gear-works. This is basically what has happened to SAO for me. This is why being too chuunibyou in the story is problematic. It makes the audience ask the wrong kind of questions.

A better example of this is actually Guilty Crown. In that case, the chuunibyou factor was not extreme, but it was enough, that when combined with its convoluted web of messy plot devices, conspiracies, and strange character dynamics, people have no choice but to engage with straight questions that GC’s flimsy web can’t handle. And once we see the underlying mechanics, we can’t help but to point out where it could’ve been better, because we all have seen it done better somewhere else.

On the flip side, you can see how a story like Hyouka can be very engaging without letting people know its ultimately chuunibyou underbelly. After all, it’s just a boy-meets-girl story where the boy feels like he holds all the cards, and the girl is at least kind enough to let him know about how she wants to approach the situation without outright manipulating him. The end result was a less-predictable life for the boy, a knock and a notch down from that specific, middle-school disease. [If you read my blog and you didn’t know Houtarou starts out in Hyouka with a Type A case of chuu2byou, well, now you know.] It’s very Japanese too in how the men have all the face, because the women are great people who save them.

As an aside, this is partly why I have a hard time watching shows like FMA and mainstream shounen stuff, because precisely I think too much, and those shows ultimately reveal their underbellies if you batter it enough for long enough (most things do). From experience, outside of One Piece, it’s probably never pleasant. I think there are shows that also target this specifically, to their benefit: Simoun comes to mind as a great example. I also think of certain meta shows like Seitokai no Ichizon as a way to both celebrate that problem and bring to catharsis that sort of frustration.

Lastly, I don’t have to explain about shows where that do require checking your brain at the door, right?

PS. I think I just used chuunibyou two different ways in my post, I hope you didn’t get confused.

13 Responses to “How to Enjoy Chuunibyou Media”

  • Alterego 9

    I think, the main difference between what “Mary Sue” would imply, and what you are trying to describe here as “chuunibyou”, (that is wish fulfillment, or escapism, if I understand it correctly)*, is that Mary Sue originally refers to an author transparently writing her own personal wish fulfillment in the story, that the audience can’t identify with, while well-written escapist media can try to appeal to more people.

    It’s the difference between “Why does the story keep telling me how awesome this person is? Oh, yeah, because the author has an inferiority complex!” and “Holy shit, I want to be that character”.

    * Note: I know what Choonibyou means, I’m just not sure if you intended to use it with this particular intent here.

    • omo

      You have a point in terms of how originally Mary Sue refers to the author. I guess I think of the term, operationally, as divorced from the author (ie., it’s not fanfiction) but nonetheless is wish fulfillment in a certain way.

      In a very broad sense wish fulfillment in fiction is just about depicting a wishful situation. But where we go from there is what the difference is. I wrote what I worte partly because I think that, often times, we simply label “bad fantasy fulfillment” as Mary Sue, but never really explain what constitutes bad-ness.

      In the example you raised in the second paragraph, for example, I think it illustrates this non-explaining-of-bad-ness to a degree. How is Shoe chuunibyou but not actually in a situation where we wish to be in that situation? I mean, personally, “I want to be that character” almost always reminds me of “because the author has a []complex!” It’s like, light and darkness, yo. Perhaps not “author” but the author may be simply preying on it (which is more likely the case for non-fanfics).

  • dm00

    And here I thought Satoshi, with his (not obsessive enough) databasement was the one most at risk of chuunibyou. Oreki seems too lazy for the prototaku obsessions and imagined limelight that I thought made up part of middle-school disease, I would think. But, I was introduced to the term chuunibyou by Steins; Gate, so maybe I picked up on the wrong set of symptoms.

  • Stef

    I’m not sure how you made the jump from chuunibyou to realism concerns. How does escapism make people question the internal logic of a show?

  • Cytrus

    I see your points in the post, but I think there’s very little connection between the terms “mary sue” and “chuunibyou”. To begin with, the first one was always about fiction and the creative process behind it, whereas the latter refers to attitudes and beliefs of real individuals (which can, in turn, be related to and portrayed in fiction).


    • omo

      I think there’s a fairly large overlap between the two when it comes to fiction. Of course, by themselves they could mean different things entirely.

  • jpmeyer

    At this point, I’ve seen 5 different definitions for “Mary Sue”

    1) An author self-insert
    2) A reader self-insert
    3) An annoyingly perfect character
    4) A character that negatively warps the story around their presence
    5) A female character that someone hates because misogyny

    Chuunibyou stuff can be eyerolling because of being silly or immature, but I think it only gets really annoying in an instance like Sword Art Online where there’s a great hook for the story but instead all we ever get is how AW3S0M3 the main character’s +37 swords are.

    Then compare that to something like DRRRRRR where the story is free-flowing and enjoyable enough that there isn’t really a reason to start contemplating the hows and whys of all the chuunibyou aspects of the main trio.

  • Praestlin

    I find myself confused by the Chuu2 v. wish-fulfillment distinction here. If, as some say, Chuu2’s main usage among some folks is as an alternative term for “mary sue”, what’s proper Chuu2 as the other usage, i.e. middle-school-grade self-delusion.

    For that matter, wth is middle-school self-delusion anyway? Kids play-acting Jedi? Are vampire goths in HS and occult maniacs being Chuu2 (which I hear is basically the premise of the new KyoAni joint).

    If possible, could you enlighten me re: this in the context of Accel World, which you (and some others) remarked as being “way too chuu2”? I haven’t seen SAO or Hyouka.

    • omo

      If those words confuse you, maybe we shouldn’t use it. I think the term chuunibyou has a place because ultimately it deals with the sort of youthful naivete that you actually see a lot of in anime and manga, given its high school or middle school protagonists and modeled ideals (both people and ideas) in those stories. The idea of justice or some kind of absolute [insert something] often represent that sort of thought in those stories.

      Wish-fulfillment here is true both in a per se sense and in a meta sense. For example, a common wish in anime is “I want to grow up” and usually that particular wish is portrayed as a form of wishful thinking that gets undermined in terms of the story–it’s better to be yourself, for example, so we see the little kid who is now an adult screw things up and things don’t go the way he initially imagined.

      The same thing does not quite happen, for example, in SAO. In fact it’s pretty much the story of some kid who wanted to grow up (except in this case, kick ass and chew gum in an online game), did so magically, and actually got an adult experience in the process. That’s just per se wish fulfillment. There’s a great hook in terms of how people in SAO can live and die by the game and have this massive conspiracy to provide medical care for the players over the duration that they’re trying to beat the game.

      I think if you want to look closer at how SAO is chuu2 in a way that is kind of bad, and how some other stuff isn’t, a good comparison is Cathrine (the game). There are a lot of similarities in the plot hooks between the two, but one is clearly grounded in some more mature and uniform perspective on how life and relationships work versus something that’s so fantastic that it’s hard to buy in.

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