I'm a fan. It's cute and charming, but at the same time it's addressing material complicated enough that there are going to be audience members who simply reject one or both of the protagonists, or else are openly hostile to what the anime's saying. Give me more!
Firstly, the franchise. It's not a big one, but there's enough that I'll be splitting this up into various different reviews. We have:
- (a) the original light novel series (2011+), which I have no current plans to read. Three released so far, I believe.
- (b) Season one of the TV series (12 episodes, 2012), adapting the first novel, but with some fundamental changes. I'm pleased and impressed that they spent an entire season just on one novel, by the way, although that said even here there are a couple of places where the narrative jumps forward significantly between episodes.
- (c) "Lite" (2012), a series of six 6-minute internet episodes.
- (d) A thirteenth OVA episode (2013), which is the kind of thing I usually shove in with the main series review, but on reflection it would often be better to give these bonus afterwords their own reviews.
- (e) A 2013 animated movie.
- (f) "Heart Throb", season two of the TV series (twelve episodes, 2014).
- (g) "Heart Throb Lite" (2014), another six-part series of internet mini-episodes.
The show's premise is that it's about schoolchildren with "chuunibyou", which translates as "the illness caused by being in the second year of junior high". This isn't something made up for this anime, by the way. It's a real Japanese word. It's basically "being a teenager", but in an embarrassing rather than rebellious way. Chuunibyou suffers aren't cool. It's basically everything you did when you were fourteen that will later make you want to crawl into a hole and die, when eventually you develop self-awareness. Unexpectedly meeting someone who remembers what you were like in those days might trigger the urge to kill, especially if you're in company and this old friend is talkative.
This show's chuunibyou are particularly extreme. Rikka believes that her right eye has magical powers and that she's living in a world of fantasy battles. All her dialogue is delivered as if you're about to be attacked by goblins. She's reality-resistant enough that her classmates can't actually follow her and so mostly just filter it out.
There's also a boy, Yuuta, who used to be like that, but got better. He called himself the Dark Flame Master. Now he just wants to be normal... but unfortunately Rikka knows about those delusions, thinks they're cool and uses them as his identity in everyday conversation.
This is interesting, I think. It's about identity and people's coping strategies for an unwelcome world. For a while, the show's treatment of all this is light and funny, but eventually we realise that Rikka is shielding herself from pain. Glimpses of this drip-drip into earlier episodes, mind you. We'll glimpse the loneliness of Rikka's life and wonder if she's even aware of this, given her delusions.
The show's also tackling the idea of what it means to be normal. Which is better, to be honestly bonkers or to be in cringing denial about what you used to be and instead just trying to conform to a template called "normality"? What would the latter be, anyway? Who's to say that your notions of it are accurate, or that reshaping yourself into the perceived image of others is desirable in the first place? If all you've done is construct a sympathetic-looking fake personality that you put up for public consumption, is that really much healthier? Of course conforming to society's expectations might be useful in various ways (e.g. if looking for a job or a girlfriend) and the post-chuunibyou embarrassment is likely to be a healthy, sensible reaction, but that's what makes this such an interesting topic for discussion.
Reality is reality. Denial of reality is likely to be bad, but then again so is crushing people into a shape of your choosing rather than theirs, using "reality" as one of many weapons to wield in your argument. Would to do so be helping them? It might be, after all. It's not a simple question.
Anyway, Yuuta and Rikka are clearly soulmates, despite Yuuta's hostility to all that nonsense. He understands her, although incompletely. If really, really pushed, he can even talk her language. Everyone else in their class assumes they're boyfriend and girlfriend and is being supportive, which is funny. (They're lovely classmates, by the way. Would that we could all be so lucky as to have had kind classmates like that.) There's also a normal girl Yuuta likes, but with her he turns into a typical tongue-tied boy. With Rikka, he's both relaxed and annoyed, so they're completely natural together. It's as if they're eight-year-olds.
Adding romance into the mix could really complicate matters. Would Rikka even be capable of it? This is eventually answered, but we then hit the follow-up issue of how good Rikka is at processing her feelings. Hell, she's not great even at understanding them.
I like the cast, although obviously Rikka and Yuuta are the main two. Other characters reflect other aspects of the main theme, sometimes effectively with more than one character in the same person. Lots of these people are original to the anime, incidentally. Rikka's blackmailing, unsympathetic elder sister, Touka? Anime-only. This seems scarcely believable to me. It feels strange to imagine a version of this story without Touka.
I also like minor supporting characters like the sweetly ruthless teacher, who seems like a cutie pie until you listen to what she's capable of saying.
I disliked the opening title sequence. The editing's subtly too fast, to the point of being faintly uncomfortable to watch, and the male gaze is off-putting. (I became less critical once I'd got to know the cast and knew everyone I was looking at.) On the other hand, though, the show itself avoids fanservice and panty shots even from Dekomori, despite the fact that she's super-energetic, completely nuts, falls all over the place and wears short skirts.
Rikka's eyepatch is a great bit of character design, incidentally. It's memorable.
I really like this show. I enjoy the fact that it must be easy to find yourself cheering for the opposite of the show's moral. (It's possible to cure chuunibyou. If you find the right way to push, it's even quite easy. The question is whether that would be doing the right thing.) I like how the cast are exploring the themes, with normal people quite often being more dysfunctional than the nutters. Rikka's very likeable. It's impossible to imagine her meaning anyone any harm, although that's partly because that would require too much engagement with reality. It's also easy to sympathise with Yuuta, even though he's prone to pre-emptive cringes and to being jarringly blunt to Rikka. Look at him in the early episodes. A girl he likes or a complete fruitcake? Which is the one he's going to end up with?
It's friendly and funny, e.g. Rikka's attempts to satisfy the teacher's requirement in ep.3 that their club have a fifth member. "What about our invisible friend over there?" "I have another personality inside me." I also loved the animation going inside Rikka's head, showing us fireballs and magical battles. Most important for me, though, are the later developments when the show starts peeling back the surface and digging past the comedy.
"Blast reality. Burst it all into shreds. VANISHMENT... THIS WORLD!!!"
(Banishment? Vanishment? Could be either...)