Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be chuunibyou was very heaven!
—William Wordsworth (modified)
I never knew there was a label for this sort of thing. When I was in the eighth grade, inventing the worlds that my stories still inhabit, I thought I was just doing what every author—oh, how I loved that word “author” rather than “writer”!—did to create a fantasy novel. I approached the task matter-of-factly: drawing maps, like the one below. Making up nations, cities, forests, rivers, mountains, islands, letting my pencil—and my soul—trace the scraggly coastlines on the backs of French quizzes and notebook margins. Inventing histories and then, finally, characters who moved inside them. Apparently JRR Tolkien invented his languages before he wrote stories to go with them. I made up maps and wrote stories to give them life, because after all, I was following after his footsteps.
Once, I wrote a story about a desert kingdom named Andor, situated in the eastern part of the world I later called Imagria. It specialized, like the planet in Dune, in the spice trade, and it was ruled by an emperor named Sareth Darva Arakin Tanera III. Royal personages needed long names and numbers after them, right? Sareth Darva was me, more or less. SarethIII was my first email address, and my IM screen name—and still is. My college website had the address darva.net. My current website is still imagria.com, and my Tumblr is imagria.tumblr.com. Sareth Darva, amazingly for an adult king, was an anguished person given to profound thoughts like these:
Shadows . . . they fall down, slip into mental cracks in the grey corners of imagination – only rising again as the ghosts of haunted memory prance in cobwebbed corners – and the memories, oh the memories, broken and crying of glory days that have passed, they mock me now! Spirit of life, where are you? Oh, why did you murder my soul, leave me trapped behind forbidding walls with unhinged doors . . . Aversa, why have you forsaken me? Aversa help—
—“Mourning for Shadows,” c. 1995
I humiliate myself with these memories and words because, at last, the otaku of Japan have found a name to what afflicted me back then, at the age of fourteen in the eighth grade. The word is chuunibyou, eighth-grader syndrome, and I will raise my Sareth Darva to Dark Flame Master any day.
As those words and the short story it introduced show, I was a class A case.
Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai! (Chu2Koi) is perhaps the best comedy of this anime season. Not only does it have superb comic timing, which Kyoto Animation has excelled at since Full Metal Panic: Fumoffu, it takes what could have been a gimmicky, fetishistic concept and turns it into both comedic gold and a surprisingly insightful look into the teenage mind. The grandiosity, the insecurity, the terror of embarrassment: it’s all there. The show presents it empathetically, probably because the storytellers themselves were like that once, and probably still are.
In middle school, fantasy writing was all I had. I was more socially awkward than most. Girls called me ugly (well, with one exception). My math skills were subpar for an Asian: I had trouble grasping pre-algebra, something which frustrated my parents to no end. I was alienated from the kids in church youth group, too. Writing was my only talent and my refuge, and I wrote fantasy in the mode of Terry Brooks and David Eddings, my constant literary companions through the summers and the afternoons after school. I remember stacks of novels next to my bed, next to my chair at the public library. I set my ideas, and my soul, inside the Mead Five Star spiral bound notebooks I carried with me everywhere—to school, to church, even to restaurants and the houses of my parents’ friends. Inside them were story ideas, fragments of first drafts, and random journal-like musings about how lonely and painful it was to be me. Here’s one less embarrassing example, written before a youth group meeting as I watched everyone come in:
Trying to see people in action is difficult; moreso, concentration, especially as the irritating strains of “Chopsticks” and “Walking in Memphis” are poisoning the air with their discordant sound waves. What’s that? Beethoven’s Fur Elise? Not again. My fingers almost begin twitching in time to the 3/8 time, echoing all the memories of childhood piano lessons and my own fingers pressing wrong notes, like a dancer’s feet slipping and falling down on the stage.
We are all students sight reading off the page, trying our best to pick out melodies.
Listen: I’ve longed for someone like Rikka all my life. Her delusions were not far from mine, and she keeps them up because it’s increasingly obvious that she’s in a lot of pain too. KyoAni didn’t just do a great job making her moe—they made her fundamentally relatable. Unlike Yuuta, I had no intense desire to be “normal” and put it all behind me. I clung to my fantasy worlds and stories for as long as I could, even when the girl I had a crush on wondered what my writing had to do with Jesus, even when my first muse never finished reading my manuscript, even when I embarrassed myself on another girl’s yearbook page by referring to one of the stories I showed her long ago. (Siri: I’m sorry. Please forgive me.) I was melancholy and awkward, but I knew who I was: an author who would one day join the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Rikka, I know, would have understood. And there is nothing more a teenager wants than to be understood.
Yes, Rikka would have understood. She would have said it was cool.
Rikka forms a club, a place where she, Dekomori, Yuuta, and—reluctantly—Nibutani can be themselves, or at least learn to be more comfortable being themselves. They are fantasists too, each and every one, going even further than I ever did and actually viewing the entire world through the lens of their self-created world. What’s interesting to me is how, unlike my solitary self, they all created the world together: Rikka, Dekomori, and Nibutani. Their play and their imaginations inhabited the same space and they shared their joy together, collected in their “Scripture,” the Mabinogion written by Nibutani as Mori Summer. Through their imagination, the entire world becomes enchanted: silly fights with the sister become epic battles with giant weapons cutting arcs through the air. A magic circle really is more than just blinking Christmas lights and cloud of exploded flour.
There is a poignancy to Rikka and Dekomori’s use of these “special effects”: deep down, they know it’s a fantasy. They know that it’s their minds that are elevating that field into the boundary between worlds. Unlike Nibutani and Yuuta, who struggle with this fact and wish to live in the “real world,” they cling to their world, and cannot understand why their counterparts refuse to do the same. The real world is banal and full of loneliness, where the number of contacts on your cell phone can be counted on one hand. It is not full of people with cool names like Dark Flame Master or Black Raison d’Être. Perhaps more profoundly, it is not a world with clear quests and missions in life: to find the Deep Horizon. To bring the Ring to Mount Doom. What, exactly, is so great about being “normal”?
It makes me wonder whether being chuunibyou is something that should even be grown out of. Especially if we want to continue to have a life of play and imagination, to have enough child-like joy to give your full concentration to those other worlds.
It’s been almost 18 years since I was Sareth Darva. His name still continues in several online accounts—IM, Skype, and Steam—and while I haven’t written a story about him or his kingdom for a long time, the world he inhabited still lives on in one of my current novel projects, A Pattern of Light. Which itself is a reworking of my very first novel, Sanctuary, written between 1995-1998. Written during peak chuunibyou.
This much is true: I am still living off the imaginative capital of my chuunibyou years. Almost everything I’ve done recently is rooted in things invented between 1995-1999, settings, concepts, and characters I have returned to time and time again. My notebooks back then were thick and mostly full. The other day, I discovered 2/3 of an entire novel outline that I had completely forgotten about, written in the year 2000.
I have come up with few genuinely new ideas or settings since. I no longer carry a spiral notebook with me everywhere; the notebook tradition tapered off sometime around 2007. When I think about restarting it, I seem to forget and stop doing it. I’m not sure why I do. The days have been long and difficult lately, and filled with many other things.
During a church retreat in the year 1999—perhaps the most fertile year of all, the year I nearly filled an entire 5 subject notebook with ideas, poems, and drafts—I was sitting under a tree by myself with my notebook. Watching some of the youth group kids throw around a frisbee, feeling alone and apart, I wrote a poem:
are playing under the sun, voices
crying chaos through the air.
I’m one of them. I try
my shoes on for the dancing lesson
(all free, under the sun), stepping
on grass, caterpillars, and ants unbeknownst
thrown into the wheel of life. I see her smile
from far away, saying ‘Catch!’ I dash
but tumble backwards, landing on the grass, watching
the ball flying through the air, out of time,
not falling but migrating to its birthplace.
—“Coming of Age”, 5/24/1999 (original handwritten draft here)
I don’t remember who I had in mind with the “her” in the poem. Maybe it wasn’t someone in particular, but rather an eternal Form of a Muse who’d pull me back from mundanity and let me catch the vision of that other, invented world. Someone who’d remind me it wasn’t always bad to be a child. Someone, maybe, like Rikka.
That “to be continued” is hope: the hope that imagination never dies. That stories never end. That you can be chuunibyou 4 life.
Now excuse me—I have a novel to write. I’m behind, but I’ll catch up.