Personifying and relating to neurodiversity in Love, Chuunibyou and Other Delusions

By: Carmen Antreasian June 8, 20220 Comments
Rikka and Yuta posing dramatically, back to back, dressed in cosplay of their fantasy characters. Rikka has a phone in one hand, taking a selfie of the two of them.

Spoilers for Love, Chuunibyou and Other Delusions

When I first watched Love, Chuunibyou and Other Delusions I had no idea what “chuunibyou” was, but the anime quickly made me think: I was definitely a chuunibyou as a kid! The term translates to “middle-schooler disease”, or more specifically “middle school 2nd year syndrome”, and refers to delusions of grandeur: thinking one has an alternate identity and power in another dimension that no one else has. 

Although characters in the anime refer to chuunibyou as a “sickness”, it is actually not considered a kind of mental illness. However, while not a form of mental divergence in and of itself, I contend that for neurodiverse kids, chuunibyou can be a coping mechanism. The anime shows this specifically through Rikka, who becomes chuunibyou shortly after her father dies and uses imaginary scenarios and alternate personas to cope with her PTSD. 

Even though Rikka’s antics are sometimes played for comedy, ultimately the series treats her with respect, and ends up acknowledging the healing power of what might be dismissed as “embarrassing” behavior. And even though Rikka and I do not have the same conditions, as a neurodiverse individual who experienced intense dissociation as a kid, I felt a connection with her and was warmed by her story.

Action shot of Rikka wielding a giant, many-pronged weapon. Bright, rainbow light is pulsing outwards from it, making a blast pattern on the ground in front of her.

Chuunibyou is not usually considered “cool”—in fact, making fun of characters who went through, or are currently going through, a chuunibyou phase, has become an anime comedy trope, with over-exaggerated edgy characters turning up in shows like Komi Can’t Communicate and Ouran High School Host Club. Those around them tend to see these characters as annoying, arrogant or just plain weird—it’s not uncommon to see subtitles convey the concept with words like “cringe.”

Often chuunibyou identify with an anime, manga or video game character, and there are deemed to be four iterations. It is most often seen as a melodramatic phase that people must “grow out of”. Kids adopt chuunibyou for different reasons, but regardless, as the narrator of Love, Chuunibyou and Other Delusions states, at its core chuunibyou is part of “this process called ‘self’ that cannot be avoided.”

A boy sitting on the floor of a bedroom, reading from a thick folder covered in colorful stickers. Next to him, a girl stands with her hands clutched over her face in embarrassment. Subtitle text reads: "I believe in this world, everyone knows there are white worlds and dark worlds..."

Rikka’s performance of and commitment to chuunibyou certainly resonated with me, as it reminded me of my own deep obsession with Sailor Moon when I was a little younger than her. I watched Sailor Moon on Toonami everyday. I checked out whatever Sailor Moon manga was at the library and held onto them as long as I could—I admit, I thought I was somehow mature for reading a book “backwards.”

I posed in all the pictures from my aunt’s wedding winking and doing Sailor Moon hand gestures when I was 11 or 12 years old. I even risked using our dial-up internet when I was home alone to brave the uncensored World Wide Web in search of pictures of Sailor Moon characters, which I would then print out and redraw. 

Most importantly, though, I was obsessed with the storyline. I loved the possibility that a seemingly average girl was also someone else, someone with access to knowledge outside the real world, and I felt that I could relate. As a kid with dissociation, Sailor Moon helped me believe that perhaps the me inside my mind, the distant me that watched the real-world me from afar, wasn’t just a depressed, isolated girl with headaches but someone magical. Rikka’s magical girl persona is what first drew me to Love, Chuunibyou and Other Delusions.

Rikka standing in front of Yuta, resting one hand against her brow with a serious expression. Subtitle text reads: My apologies. I used the language of the parallel world.

The series’ protagonist is Yuta, a high school boy and former chuunibyou. He is so utterly embarrassed by his chuunibyou past that he does everything he can to erase it, including transferring to a school outside his district in hopes that he can start anew. When Yuta is finally confident that his middle school phase is totally behind him, Rikka, a full blown chuunibyou, enters his life. She has the whole ensemble: an eyepatch allegedly concealing a magic eye, an elaborate “grimoire” of worldbuilding notes, and a host of fantasy catchphrases she uses day to day. She goes through life as if she is the heroine of a fantasy RPG. 

Rikka is so ingrained in chuunibyou that she has no idea how strange it is to the outside world, and Yuta is the only one who can really communicate with her because he understands the chuunibyou world—he “speaks her language.” As the mediator between chuunibyou world and reality, Yuta wrestles with his acceptance of Rikka’s imaginary games. He cannot decide whether or not to allow Rikka to continue her behavior or try to get her to “snap out of it,” as her family wishes he would. Ultimately, Yuta comes to understand Rikka’s chuunibyou as something that helps her cope with her PTSD and embraces his own chuunibyou to help her heal. 

Having Yuta as the main character rather than Rikka allows the audience to experience both chuunibyou and reality, as his lens is situated between the two. We see Rikka’s fantasy version of events juxtaposed with her chuunibyou performance in reality. We enter Rikka’s inner world with her as she says, “be destroyed, real…blow up, synapses”.  We become immersed, as she takes off her eyepatch, yells “Vanishment this World!” and transforms into Wicked Lord Shingan, her chuunibyou persona. We see Rikka fighting her sister in a sparkly galaxy with massive weapons that give off powerful energy. 

Rikka and her sister facing off against a stark black backdrop, each holding massive fantasy weapons

…Then suddenly we snap back into the real world. We see that in reality, Rikka is jumping around hitting her sister with a frilly umbrella and yelling odd attack names in English, while her sister stands there impatiently holding a ladle rather than an eight-foot-tall weapon. 

From outside Rikka’s chuunibyou world, she looks like she’s putting on a show, but she is not performing in the sense that she is doing this for other people to watch. Rikka really believes that she’s a magical girl in an alternate reality. This juxtaposition shows us why chuunibyou is embarrassing for those who have outgrown it. These scenes make me laugh as I imagine what other kids saw on the playground when me and my first Sailor Moon obsessed, chuunibyou friend yelled strange phrases at the sky, danced in circles, did silly hand gestures and pointed wands at thin air to annihilate seemingly nothing. 

The reality of Rikka's imagined world: Rikka and her sister standing awkwardly in a park, Rikka jabbing at the older girl with her umbrella

Rikka’s sister Toka constantly refers to Rikka as “delusional,” a word that usually has a negative connotation. Although her sister’s use of “delusional” may be negative, I don’t think the anime depicts Rikka’s chuunibyou world in a mocking or demeaning way. The anime doesn’t force us to think of chuunibyou as necessarily embarrassing—through its various characters’ feelings of having been chuunibyou, it lets us decide how we feel about it for ourselves. It also shows us why kids find chuunibyou appealing, especially neurodiverse kids like Rikka. Through its affectionate portrayal of Rikka’s magical girl geekiness, the series ends up being an affectionate portrayal of neurodiversity, too. 

Rikka’s chuunibyou begins after the death of her father. She has trouble processing and accepting this traumatic event and shuts down, retreating into a fantasy. Unable to deal with heartbreaking reality, Rikka finds comfort in a world with distinct rules and roles: her imaginary landscape, where she knows how the magic works, and where she is Wicked Lord Shingan rather than a grieving, helpless girl.

What makes Rikka read as a neurodiverse character is not necessarily her unusual mourning process through chuunibyou but her inability to accept and process her father’s death, her mind building imaginative walls to protect itself. Turning to chuunibyou gives her permission to believe that “reality” isn’t just what others perceive it to be, that there are different forms of what is “real”. 

The back of Rikka's head as she stares out over water, glittering blue from the reflections of city lights

The links between Rikka’s chunnibyou and her trauma response become clearer when seen in contrast to other characters. Yuta’s chunnibyou was a creative outlet he found cool, and he “grew out of it” in a more typical manner. Rikka’s friend and chuunibyou “follower” Dekomori is just as into chuunibyou as Rikka, but she clearly knows that it’s not real.

Dekomori knows the boundary between reality and fantasy and actively chooses fantasy, while Rikka chooses fantasy and actively erases reality to the point where she is not even conscious that the two are different. Even when Rikka tries to quit chuunibyou and cleans her room to get rid of her chuunibyou things, she cannot tell the difference between what is and is not part of the imagined world. Rikka’s fantasy is her conscious reality. 

Chuunibyou for Rikka, then, is more than a form of distraction that she finds cool but an avenue through which she can create a fantasy that protects her from her grief and trauma. Her coping mechanism not only reframes events so that her father is not dead, but offers her the power fantasy of rescuing him. However, Rikka is searching for something that can never be found. Even  in her fantasy, Rikka faces what she calls the Invisible Boundary Line, beyond which she believes her father exists. More than a location, it’s actually her manifestation of the boundary between life and death, between reality and fantasy. Rikka is not as “delusional” as her sister says, and the Boundary Line represents the painful knowledge that even this imagined world where she finds safety and power has limits. 

Rikka and Dekomori battling in the imagined fantasy world, their leaping forms silhouetted against a bright, blue toned full moon

The most ironic, yet sweetest, reveal of the series is that Yuta’s chunnibyou was the model for Rikka’s. We witness the advent of Rikka’s chuunibyou from her perspective shortly after her father’s death, as she watches Yuta’s chuunibyou and fashions hers after his. This aspect of emulating another’s chuunibyou (and passing it along to others) is something I also experienced. Eventually I was no longer in the same class or even the same city as the girl who introduced me to Sailor Moon, but that did not hinder my obsession. 

I traded playing a magical girl in an alternate reality at recess for sitting alone on a picnic table at the back of the field, drawing pictures of Sailor Moon characters and writing fan fiction. A few of the girls in my class actually thought it was cool and joined me, but one particular girl, who had transferred into my class from another state, followed me in becoming totally obsessed with Sailor Moon. She was like my Dekomori, and I was no longer alone. I again had someone with whom I could transform and enter into chuunibyou world, even if that world was nothing more than a half-finished basement.

Rikka and Dekomori in real life, planting their hands together in front of a wire fence. Subtitle text reads: The space-time portal shall now open!

Unlike Rikka, my chuunibyou ended before high school. I started dating, hung out with older kids and stopped believing I was a magical girl. As my brain continued to develop, so did my experiences with neurodiversity. Dissociation turned into depression, which then became ‘psychotic depression’, which finally revealed itself as bipolar disorder. As my dissociation dissipated, so did my chuunibyou. I no longer needed it. My chuunibyou follower and friend, however, was not on the same high school journey as me. On my 15th birthday, she gave me a small tin lockbox and inside were folded strips of paper, each with the name of a person I had kissed. It was a symbol that we had gone our separate ways and had moved on from our chuunibyou phase. 

Rikka and I both used chuunibyou to cope with feeling detached from the world. For Rikka, as it was for me, friendship and solidarity were huge parts of the process—the feeling of not being alone, of sharing the world with someone, of being part of a team. When she goes to live with her grandparents, she is forced to deny her chuunibyou, cutting her off from her coping mechanism and the friends that were helping her in the name of “growing up” and “becoming normal”. 

Yuta, having spent the early episodes of the series cringing at Rikka’s antics, finally realizes the importance of Rikka’s quest and the role these “delusions” play in helping her heal. Yuta and Rikka’s friends all come together and carry out a plan to rescue Rikka from her grandparents’ home. Yuta takes Rikka to the beach, where he uses his chuunibyou to create a world in which the Invisible Boundary Line resides. Rikka finally confronts the accomplishment of her mission. In her final act of healing, she yells “goodbye, Papa!” and the magic of the Invisible Boundary Line whips past her and disappears.

Rikka tearfully calling out into the darkness. Subtitle text reads: Goodbye, Papa!

Chuunibyou is necessary for Rikka to deal with her PTSD until she can finally accept her father’s death. That doesn’t mean that Rikka’s PTSD is gone, but she takes an important step in her healing process. However silly chuunibyou looks to those on the outside to those who don’t believe in delusions of having another persona with magical powers in an alternate world, it is not “irresponsible”, as Rikka’s sister says, to allow kids to live out a chuunibyou fantasy. One kid’s chuunibyou may be an annoying phase to those around them that will become an embarrassing memory later in their life, but for others, chuunibyou can be a very helpful way of coping. I felt detached from my physical self as a kid, but when I “transformed”, I truly inhabited the body of that magical girl I believed I was. 

For kids like me who experience dissociation, we enter these worlds beyond our own to not have to think about who we are in the real world. Chuunibyou gave me an alternative way of being so that I didn’t have to stare down at that boring little me in reality from deep inside the depths of my mind. And if “humans are all chuunibyou for life”, then we should celebrate these memories and experiences rather than cringe away from them.

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