There was something powerfully cute about Love, Chunibyo, and Other Delusions.
It’s about kids with delusions of having super powers (yeah, chunibyo), which puts them on the extreme end of the spectrum that includes things like identifying with magical or powerful characters, playing RPGs, and doing cosplay, and since I do all those things I can relate.
It’s also a first-love story, sweet like many first-love stories, between Yuka and Rikka. Like any good first-love stories it evokes emotions most of us remember from our own first loves, and together they go through the ups-and-downs of first love. I like the way their relationship worked through, and maybe someday I’ll look at them as a pair.
But I thought Yuta was a pretty normal boy. Rikka, on the other hand, is an interesting character.
Both of them demonstrated the delusion that is chunibyo in middle school, but now they are in high school, so they are around fifteen years old. Yuta wants to leave his life as “Dark Flame Master” behind; he wants to fit in with his peers. In fact, at the start, he fears his classmates will learn about his chunibyo, and make him into an outsider/loser again. He shuns that element of his history.
But Rikka’s got it BAD. For whatever reason, she prefers the world of her delusion to the real world. That’s clear in a middle of the show, when she is forced to abandon the trappings of her delusion. She becomes depressed, slouched with her head down and her voice subdued, barely functioning. Frankly, at that moment, she is like an addict in withdrawal, or like a little girl completely lost.
Rikka NEEDS chunibyo.
That’s what makes her an interesting character. The show WORKS. It’s pretty darned good, in fact. But it can’t work unless Rikka works as a character. If she doesn’t, none of the rest of it makes any sense. Rikka obviously NEEDS chunibyo despite the fact it means she only really lives in a fantasy world, and that need has to make sense.
If you go to the old brains-body-personality breakdown, it jumps at you: Rikka has a problematic personality. She’s a sweet young woman, so that’s not it. She’s a little literal, but a sense of humor is not a requirement.
Okay, I’ll stop teasing you. It becomes really obvious really fast that Rikka’s problem is she has no self-esteem. None at all. When she is not a powerful witch, so far as she is concerned she is nothing.
To make this work she has to come by this honestly, and those reasons are buried in her portrayal. There are lots of good reasons why a young woman at a vulnerable age like Rikka would conclude that she had no value, and she’s got a bunch of them:
She’s from a broken home
Rikka’s father died before the series started, when she was about twelve. (His death coincides with the start of her delusions.) By the time we meet her she has almost no contact with her mother, and lives with an older sister, Toka, and of course, being a teenager, Rikka rebels against Toka’s attempts to keep her under control. Plus Toka wants to be a world-class chef, so there’s not much time for Rikka. She has no grounding and no guidance. No affection, either.
She’s a poor student
Being a poor student, she would be chided by her teachers, and be routinely reminded of her failures. Trust me, as a long-time student and professor, being constantly reminded of one’s inadequacies is not associated with the sense of success. (They tell us these days not to grade using red ink, since it looks like someone bled on the page. Truth. I bleep you not.)
She’s a klutz
Right? Rikka has trouble walking, let alone walking and chewing gum at the same time. That cuts her off from one other way of achieving more regular social success in school: sports. She would not be an asset to any team, be the kid picked last in gym, and so on. She’s not a nerd and not a jock, and in fact she’s terribly bad in both those roles.
That age is about when kids reach their final growth spurts, and Rikka is tiny. Yuta towers over her, and he’s not an especially tall young man. Toka is taller than all of them. Plus Rikka is also a skinny girl, and noticeably small-busted at a time in life when young women are sensitive about their breasts. And her friends are no help at all. When she is bathing with them, one of them specifically says, “Talk about itty-bitty.”
Someone needed a shot in the chops for that crack!
She’s in love and unsure whether the boy loves her back
That gets into some serious self-referential stuff. “I love him but how could he possibly love me?” That drives a nasty feedback loop that does her esteem no good at all, either.
See the problem? Where does Rikka look in her life to see herself as good?
In her fantasies.
That’s it, right? In her fantasies she has POWERZ. She is strong, swift, beautiful, able to overcome obstacles and evil monsters.
The magic word is “agency,” the sense that one can control one’s fortunes. In the real world Rikka has NO agency, none. She’s not strong enough, she’s not smart enough, she’s not (in her mind, not Yuta’s) pretty enough, she’s not loved enough. The place where Rikka can be a winner is in her imagination.
And that’s what makes Love, Chunibyo, and Other Fantasies work. Yuta wants to leave chunibyo behind, but he also loves Rikka. Rikka CAN’T leave chunibyo behind, but she also loves Yuta. That’s the tension at the heart of the show, and that tension works because you can see – the writers and animators have shown us – how little she has without chunibyo. And he doesn’t want it. But they have to find a way to stay together.
And Rikka seems to know that. When Yuta tries to manipulate her using his character – play-pretending chunibyo – she rebels. She makes him meet her in her fantasies, makes him deal with her at that level because that’s the only level that works for her.
And when he does, it is troo luv 4 evah. Fade to black. End of show. And it works.
I can’t imagine what happens to Rikka beyond the context of the series. What she really needs is years of therapy, but in a lot of Japanese media there’s a sort of underlying context that if a person is having mental problems, they can solve them by gutting it out, so to speak. But what Rikka would need is a second source of agency, one she can use instead of chunibyo, and it’s hard to see where she would find one.
Oh, I’ve got it: she can be a writer! That would work, right? She’s got a fabulous imagination! If she could bear getting a lot of rejection slips she could make it work.
Trust me, that’s a big if…
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.