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This is where I verbalize what chuuni means to me.

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The Heart of Chuuni


My previous blog posts were about analyzing common definitions and attitudes toward the word "chuuni" and the chuuni genre. I was establishing a baseline. But now it's time to delve into the essence.



Most VN fans have heard an "explanation" of the chuuni genre before.

"It's stuff like Dies irae"
"It's hotblooded and over-the-top action"
"It's about detailed settings with cool characters"
"It's edgy shit"
"It's a story with characters who act chuunibyou, except nobody tsukkomi's them"
"It's people with heterochromia or special powers and victim complexes"
"It's shounen for adults"

Whatever you may have heard, there's one thing I'm sure about: it's vague. Most people zero in on a specific element of chuuni that holds their attention or that they like about it, and say, "This is chuuni!"

In truth, though, chuuni is a broad genre that encompasses many literary mediums, many sources of appeal, many tropes, and many cases where the trope is hard to describe. People are expected to experience a lot of chuuni works, and experience a lot of references to "chuuni" within other Japanese works, and thus by cultural osmosis, form an abstract concept of what is "chuuni".

But do we really have to settle for that? Can't we precisely say what exactly is and isn't "chuuni", at least in spirit? I believe we can.

Let's throw out popular perceptions and attitudes, along with all the baggage associated with the word "chuunibyou" that formed the basis of the word chuuni. Let's move beyond the cultural background that has been established in my previous post, discard all preconceptions, and finally... approach the true heart of chuuni.




The Path to Chuuni

What follow are largely my own informed inferences. They lack evidence, because there's no easy way to prove a cultural trend. If anyone has an alternative theory, they're free to present it in the comments or their own blog post.

Early manga was expected to conform to the "common sense" of society. Or rather, there was little market for contrarian works.

Works that targeted the youth often centered around "heroes" who were expected to help maintain the peace of society, living according virtues such as kindness and mercy, and achieved success and peer recognition as a result. Works that targeted adults, on the other hand, might be more cynical, but they still revolved around adult protagonists who had conformed to society.

For a parallel outside Japan, look to Western comic book heroes like Superman, who stood tall amid the Comics Code Authority regulations. In fact, the style of early manga was significantly inspired by its Western counterpart.

But society doesn't stay the same forever. Decades passed, and people's sensibilities changed along with their attitudes.

...No one can possibly trace chuuni to its origin point, because there is no such thing. Throughout history, there have always been isolated elements within works of literature that speak to our chuuni hearts. Like, for a fairly "recent" example, everything about the style of Hiei from Yuu Yuu Hakusho. If there is an origin of chuuni as a genre, it occurred when those elements fused together. But what degree of fusion is necessary to birth a "genre"? The only point by which it's absolutely certain a "genre" had come into existence was the advent of Fate/stay night.




What We Desired

So, what is chuuni?

Chuuni is completely pointless from a practical standpoint; it just sounds cool. Chuuni-style nicknames, throwing in random German, or donning a scarf or a cape.

Chuuni doesn't serve to create a conflict, or add necessary depth in ways typical of fantasy stories. Rather, it serves to emphasize the special coolness of the lead character. Having a "unique infection", wrestling with madness, experiencing an "awakening", or possessing memories of a past life.

Chuuni depicts the "alternate truths" that contradict what others think and feel. A morality that is not subordinated. Killing to survive, references to the food chain, massacre as self-expression, or a rebellion against the natural order of a hypocritical "God".

Chuuni reveals the "hidden truths" about society that have scarred the people within it. Conspiracies, cover-ups, or human experimentation.

At the heart, chuuni is a celebration of the virtue of "chuuni" characters--and the chuuni fans who recognize them--as the true heroes of this world, in touch with a reality the masses can't conceive of, capable of facing harsh truths and shouldering emotional burdens that typical, mundane people would be overwhelmed by--because those people lack character, lack mental strength, and are emotionally weak, capable only of clinging to the foolish perceptions, beliefs, and morals espoused by society. I believe that everything that chuuni has become started from that.

Young people in society often experience alienation, or some kind of frustration with their inability to perfectly conform. Such people are often tempted by a certain wild idea, and think like this:

"I feel like shit because no one sees the world the same way as me. But even after I've let myself stew in this rotten emotion, I still can't make myself be just like everyone else... What if everyone else is actually deluded, and I'm correct? In that case, my perception is superior to others, and I'm aware of truths they aren't, AND I had the boldness to stick with my beliefs instead of delude myself and conform like the rest of them. Aren't I quite awesome?"

People who feel like this, even if it's just a slight inclination rather than full-blown chuunibyou, tend to admire and seek out characters and stories with a chuuni spirit.

When Fate/stay night came out, it was like a bomb went off. Fate hit just the right note with its moral complexity, the mystique of the rich world it depicted, a lawless secret world of the supernatural, ordinary people depicted as clueless sacrificial sheep, a male lead whose evolution is a condemnation of traditional moralistic leads, and so on. People with an inclination toward chuuni tropes flocked to it in droves, plus everyone else, because Fate/stay night was just that good.

That said, in the present day, what we (especially VN fans) call "chuuni" often refers more to famous tropes from chuuni works, and what those tropes have evolved into, and doesn't necessarily seek as its audience the sort of person I just described. But it's worth keeping in mind the origin of this genre.




More Human than Humans

I'll close with this wonderful piece of prose that truly captures the essence of chuuni.

They, who wandered and pursued that formless “humanness,”
who couldn’t see any significance in their existence outside of battle,
who, because of their hearts becoming akin to blades, didn’t know how to grasp any hands extended to them,
who never had anyone understand their beauty, and had no choice but to seclude themselves among each other,
who had no choice but to estrange themselves with fake smiles when with other people so they could maintain themselves,
who couldn’t pride themselves in anything but destruction,
who therefore were particularly cynical and were born with inhumane powers, and therefore were continuously called monsters, were, more than anyone and anything else, human.

-- Excerpt from "Psyren: Another Call 2" by Iwashiro Toshiaki, translated by himetsuri




I'm not entirely satisfied with this post, so I may revise it later.



Popular Views on What Defines the Chuuni Genre


In my last post, I talked about the most abstract way to understand chuuni (the term as it's used in the "coolness" sense). But at the end, I noted that most people narrow it down further. They say that certain works constitute a "genre".

And so, I intend to now gather my thoughts and talk about the major tropes and commonalities between works that people tend to identify, which have given rise to several different conceptions of the chuuni genre.

Most of these conceptions, although they approach things from subtly different directions, end up specifying the same works. So maybe to most of you guys, it's not that useful to carefully examine them. I find it interesting, so I'm doing it.


Chuuni As Language-Oriented

This is the most common way for non-chuuni fans, and some youthful fans of hotblooded works, to look at chuuni.

Simply put, this is the view that the heart of chuuni is in its over-the-top lines. Chuuni fans usually view the people who say these lines as extremely cool. And yet simultaneously, it's easy for non-chuuni fans to look at these lines and say, "That's so cheesy!" This duality, this contradiction, is what makes it so easy to point and say, "Prose is the heart of chuuni."

Language can be utilized in infinite ways, but in my view, the two major types here are "soliloquies/speeches" and "cultural allusion/deepness".

To start, what do you think of this quote from To Aru Majutsu no Index's Kamijou Touma?

"I was never fighting because I wanted to. It’s just that I always saw someone holding back tears in some horribly painful situation. Even if they cried and cried, no one would have complained, but they put up with it anyway. ...And I couldn’t allow it to go on. I clenched my fist like an idiot, charged in, and somehow resolved the incident. I didn’t do it to be thanked. I didn’t do it because I wanted anything in return. But overcoming those things increased the number of people around me. I began to think those connections with people had some kind of meaning!! And this is where it got me. I had everything taken from me."

Even if you're haven't read Index, it's not hard to form an impression of the situation from these words. Saving people is cool. Especially if they're someone who doesn't dare to hope to be saved--when there's zero social obligation to do so, the action is all the more meaningful. But it's not like what's driving you is some inner urge to save others, either--you have a free spirited attitude and don't have to give a shit about what anyone wants you to do. And as a result of saving people repeatedly, you became super popular, completely not of your own will of course. But wait, someone took that all away from you, and you became a tragic hero! See what I mean? It's cool, but it's also cheesy, depending on how you look at it.

That's an example of what I'll call, for convenience, a chuuni soliloquy. Of course, it's not a literal soliloquy in that people DO respond to it (or rather, they can) but it's also a bit of a soliloquy in that... it doesn't matter if they do, does it? Touma's speech stands on its own.

Single sentences or lines can also have this same sort of quality, but I think it's easier to make a distinction about it when the length is at the level of a mini-speech. After all, cheesy lines appear in countless shounen manga, but very few people would put all those manga on the same level as Jojo or Hellsing.

Next, what do you think of this quote? If you haven't heard it before, you've been living in a cave.

"I am the Bone of my Sword
Steel is my Body and Fire is my Blood.
I have created over a Thousand Blades,
Unknown to Death,
Nor known to Life.
Have withstood Pain to create many Weapons
Yet those Hands will never hold Anything.
So, as I Pray--
Unlimited Blade Works"

The way to sum up this kind of language is that it's DEEP. It references life and death, pain (you know that suffering is cool, right?), the angst of not being able to hold anything (angst is a type of suffering), evokes the image of fire in one's blood, and so on.

It doesn't clearly state any ideas. It's poetic, or maybe literally poetry. It involves references to themes that are deep (like death, eternity, justice, and so on), cultural elements that are consider deep (like Alice in Wonderland, the Cthulhu mythos, Norse mythology and Ragnarok, Shinto, and so on), or kanji and foreign lingo that are associated with deepness (like English furigana, 眼/絶/紅蓮, random German, rondo/requiem, and so on). It may exist as an aspect of the writer's narrative prose, or within incantations.




Chuuni as Trope-Oriented

In a way, people who view chuuni as a matter of language just have to worry about the quantity. The question is whether a work has "enough" chuuni-ish lines to be chuuni. There's no answer to that question, of course.

In contrast, if you think of chuuni as about its trope, then the question is quality. That is, is the trope itself chuuni enough? Is there a single trope that makes something chuuni, or is it a combination of tropes? Or perhaps some abstract aspect of the way the tropes are presented that makes them chuuni?

When it comes to chuuni, this is where opinions are most diverse. I'm going to go over two major approaches that I'll call the ability battle view and the Fate primacy view.

By the way, both of these views are connected more to "jakigan-kei" chuuni (which basically refers to admiring special powers) than other types like "DQN-kei" (which basically refers to admiring yankees). In other words, they're narrower in scope than language-oriented views of the chuuni genre.


The Ability Battle View

Like "chuuni as language", this is a view of chuuni that people cynical of it often hold. They view chuuni as merely a subset of the ability battle genre ("inou battle mono").

To clarify, what's translated as "ability" (inou) specifically refers to superhuman abilities.

The ability battle genre has existed long before the word chuuni was used to refer to works of fiction. Furthermore, most examples of chuuni works could also be considered to be about ability battles. Which is no surprise, because powerful characters who are viewed as cool or admirable tend to have supernatural powers that facilitate hotblooded action scenes. So as a result, people tend to say, "Isn't chuuni just about ability battles?"

It's true that a large part of the appeal of many prominent chuuni works centers around ability battles. Similarly, there's no easily specified element of such chuuni works that makes it necessary to call them chuuni works instead of ability battle works. And so, this view exists.




The Fate Primacy View

I'm extremely far from an expert on Fate/stay night, but I can't avoid talking about it in the context of chuuni.

Fate/stay night is a lengthy and complicated work with a multitude of tropes and themes, and it's impossible to say exactly what all its charm points are. However, no one can deny its massive mainstream appeal, as by far the most successful visual novel of all time, which led the way for the Nasuverse to completely dominate otaku culture, dwarfing even Index.

I'm not sure exactly how to describe what I call the Fate primacy view, because I could approach it from many different angles. You could say that Fate is so popular that it has simply permeated itself into the public consciousness and rewritten what it means to be chuuni. You could say that it redefined chuuni by virtue of its influence on other writers which has spanned for more than a decade. You could say that it's simply so GOOD that it must have nailed what it means to be chuuni.

The bottom line is that one could easily hold the view that a work is chuuni to the extent it copies Fate/stay night.

Of course, this is a very narrow view. It marginalizes relatively bright and happy stories like Bleach and Kyou Kare Ore Wa. However, in exchange for that narrowing, you could say that the remaining few stories are "higher quality" on average, in that they're very obviously chuuni.

On a side note, some people might have more of a Dies irae primacy view. Dies irae has become very loved (at least, among its fans--its mainstream appeal can never match Fate's, though it perhaps comes closest) and many people perhaps view it as more definitively "chuuni" than its primary influence.

In any case, this view reveres tropes and story elements from Fate/stay night which have proven popular like battle royales, human sacrifice and massacres, ability battles conducted in secret, justice and morality, tragic childhoods, magical rituals, magical contracts, the Catholic church, and serial killers.

Unlike the ability battle view where people will just outright say it ("Isn't chuuni just about ability battles?"), people who hold a so-called Fate primacy view rarely ever verbalize, "I want my chuuni to be exactly like Fate/stay night!" They may not have even ever experienced Fate/stay night. That's why I said you can approach this from different angles. It's not really a "view" so much as a near-inevitability in our Fate-dominated otaku culture.

Also, note that when it comes to jakigan-kei chuunibyou as depicted in otaku media, its associated delusions are easier to formulate when they're closer to reality, such as isekai situations or urban fantasy. Fate/stay night, as an urban fantasy that depicts an ordinary student discovering a hidden world that covertly affects the public, is the sort of scenario that exemplifies such delusions.




Whew, I covered it all. After taking care of the basic definitions, I wanted to outline other people's views before talking about my own feelings, which are what I actually care about 'cause I'm the center of the universe FYI.


The Chuuni and Chuunibyou FAQ (自称)


Because I wanted to settle the basics first.


Q. What is chuunibyou?

A.  "Chuunibyou" (中二病) is a Japanese word that literally means middle [school] second [year] syndrome. But it's not an actual medical syndrome. It refers to certain behavior.

So what exactly does it mean? That depends on who you ask.

The person to coin it, radio host Ijuuin Hikaru, defined it more or less as the foolish behavior of second year middle school students, in the context of school life.

But the term quickly spread and took on a life of its own. Pixiv's wiki has one popular definition: "a colloquial term intended to poke fun at the behavioral tendencies of pubescent kids stemming from their self-absorption and psychological complexes".

...Personally, I don't like Pixiv's definition. It's too condescending, focusing on psychoanalyzing behavior rather than accurately cataloging what it consists of. I realize that it's hard to pin down what exactly chuunibyou is, so it's tempting to take a step back, vaguely reference a few psychological terms, and declare that sufficient. But that's NOT sufficient, and here's why.

This term has long since passed the point when it was just a casual way to talk about how silly kids can be. It's been fully embraced by otaku culture. In other words, "chuunibyou" behavior--in terms of what it stems from, how it's expressed, how others should react to it, what its appeals are, what tropes it connects to, and so on--has been deconstructed and re-evaluated a thousand times over.

Here's my personal definition, that I believe to be more modern: chuunibyou is a personality trait that refers to behavior supposedly commonly seen in many second year middle school students. That behavior consists of a person acting or speaking so as to emulate what they consider the cool or admirable demeanor of characters within stories. Furthermore, that behavior is starkly mismatched with what a layman would perceive to be a rational behavioral foundation for that person, resulting in others viewing their behavior as peculiar. The person in question either doesn't notice or doesn't care about the mismatch.

Let's run through a couple of quick examples and break them down in terms of character, emulated demeanor, and perception of mismatch.

  • Person considers a character in a light novel who speaks mysteriously to be cool. Adopts mysterious phrasings, even when talking about mundane things. This is viewed as pointless by others, because there is no benefit to speaking cryptically about mundane things.
  • Person considers a character in a manga who has a dragon sealed in his right arm to be cool. Inks a dragon tattoo onto their arm, and covertly shows it off to others, as an approximation of that character's demeanor. This is viewed as silly by others, because the ink on their arm does not actually materially benefit them or affect their life in any way.
  • Person considers a character in an anime who possesses a cursed katana that unleashes it power when an incantation is recited to be cool. Buys a katana prop, occasionally carrying it around, and muttering a personally written incantation occasionally, as a way to mimic the feeling of being that character. This is viewed as silly by others, because the katana prop has no supernatural properties that would respond to an incantation.
  • Person considers a super-strong delinquent or a heroic vigilante in a story to be cool. Begins to dress like and use the slang of a delinquent, act like a tough fighter despite have no real knowledge of martial arts beyond a few tidbits, and occasionally spout rhetoric about justice or strength, out of a desire to emulate those characters. This is viewed as silly or awkward by others, mostly because the person in question can't actually fight and because the lines they spoke about justice and strength just came off as pretentious.

Note that I narrowed my definition of chuunibyou in order to make it better match otaku culture. The broader and popular definition of chuunibyou includes people who aren't inspired by stories, such as hipsters. Lastly, I'll note that chuunibyou can be shortened to just chuuni.




Q. Aren't people like Hiei from Yuu Yuu Hakusho and Gilgamesh from Fate/stay night also called "chuunibyou"? But they're not delusional middle school students--they actually have special powers.

A. Yes, and no. This ties back to what I said about how the term chuunibyou has expanded. You can call them chuunibyou if you want, but for clarity, it may be better to call them "chuuni". I'll explain why in the next section.




Q. What is chuuni?

A. Remember how I said that otaku culture has changed the term chuunibyou? I already went over the fact that Ijuuin Hikaru's initial meaning was essentially abandoned, and gave my personal definition for chuunibyou in the context of otaku culture.

Well, to put it simply, the word chuunibyou ended up having ANOTHER meaning, on top of the more traditional one that describes a behavior. Also, in order to make that other type of chuunibyou distinct from the traditional one, people ended up typically shortening it to just "chuuni".

The heart of "chuunibyou" is its source, the "coolness" that makes people behave in a chuunibyou way. And as discerning otaku, people quickly wanted a way to refer to that "coolness". THAT is "chuuni". The "byou" (syndrome) part is cut off the end, so the shortened version of the word fits this meaning well.

Stated more formally, the broadest possible definition of chuuni is any story or story element (whether a character or trope) that inspires, or could inspire, a person to behave in a chuunibyou way. In other words, it's whatever a second year middle school student would view as cool or enviable.

HOWEVER, people haven't been content with such a broad definition of chuuni. There are many informal, narrower trope-oriented definitions. I say "informal" because few people try to provide any exact list of what tropes are "sufficiently" chuuni. But you can be sure that different people have different perceptions of the word chuuni. More on that in later posts, potentially.

Finally, I'll note that as I said earlier, the traditional definition of chuunibyou is also occasionally shortened to chuuni. As a matter of fact, neither "chuuni" nor "chuunibyou" is exclusive to any specific meaning, which can admittedly make things confusing.




That's all the questions I can think to pose to myself currently. Maybe I'll come up with more later and add them.


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