Prelude: https://artificialnightsky.wordpress.com/2019/10/18/chuunibyou-kei-retrospective/

Symphony of the Night

A force within me thirsts for a release from its chains of captivity. Bound by blood, we coexist within this flesh vessel. An unbreakable contract tightens like the noose around my neck. A second blood moon rises and the terror of another imperishable night encroaches upon my shattered mind. My fragmented memories reflect across my glinting glasses; my accursed blade has been called to be drawn- the goddess of defeat has come to try and claim my soul once again. The corrupted goddess tainted by her arousal of tragedy, and my life has become that of a plaything. But a puppet no longer I shall be, because her tears taste oh so sweet. My blade is drawn and my cloak billows in the wind. A cross dangled from the chain wrapped around my clenched fist. I shut off my emotions- I need not for human limitations anymore. I hear an organ playing its final anthem; this is my requiem. My blade refracted the light of the dimly lit room with ease. The enemies are numerous but the blood on my sword has yet to dry... In any case, my tendies are in the oven, so I really ought to be going now. This is my urban fantasy.


Chuunibyou-kei, or chuuni-kei for short, is an umbrella-term of sorts which attempts to categorize something intangible. My apparent coining of the term was an attempt to create a subgenre to place certain media into, since it is quite difficult to find them without a place to start or a word to describe them. I found most of the media I place into this category by complete chance. It started with me desiring to see this certain aesthetic play out in a visual form within anime, which was to reflect a certain sound within music that I was somewhat familiar with. "Chuunibyou" is a primarily Japanese term that exists solely to describe an observation made about a small demographic of young people. The term itself is quite literal in its naming; taking chuuni (中二), for second grade of junior high, and byou (病), meaning a sickness or condition. It is often translated as "8th grade syndrome" to correspond with the Japanese junior high grade, but doesn't carry the same meaning without context. That's because this is not something that is not given any credence, or even really mentioned, in the US or Europe. Though even without a basis for the claim, I would say that this is not even something all that common in Japan. There are cases I've observed where preteens and early teens will exhibit a certain affinity for "cool dark shit" so it is not exceptionally unusual despite my previous claims. Chuuni-kei is often defined by a focus on urban fantasy settings with a grim-dark self-serious tone, an "evil eye," and an emphasis on magic or magical battles. There is also a large emphasis placed on the aforementioned "cool" factor of attack and character, oftentimes relying on English, German or other European languages to patch-work a name that would be appealing to someone interested in these things. Think of the Igarashi Koji-era Castlevania titles and aesthetic. I see chuuni-kei as a self-propagating lie, however. Ijuin Hikaru[a] simply described his observation made of a certain group of youth and prescribed this supposed "condition" as chuunibyou. The etymology of the word itself highlights the incidental nature of the observation. After Ijuin’s coining of the term, it was used to retroactively describe an aesthetic within otaku media- often pandering towards a young teen audience, which coincided with the rising popularity of Dengeki Bunko and urban fantasy light novels.

Cyber-Daemon Magik Summons

To trace the roots of chuunibyou, we need to examine the stylistic evolution- or lack thereof, in light novels. There isn't really a specific rule set light novels need to play by so they vary greatly depending on the era. Some of the earliest light novels such as Lodoss or Slayers were glorified fanfiction stories penned by guys super into Dragon Quest and wanted to bring their long Dungeons and Dragons sessions to life. This brings me back to the claim that chuuni-kei media properties are usually relegated to otaku subcultures. The main reason is the inherent overlap between the otaku subculture and tangentially related escapist-based hobbies such as video games or tabletop role-playing games. Such interests were merged and inspired the first light novels, which could more aptly be called "pulp fiction." These were cheap fantasy novels written for people into role-playing games and wanted to read something "light" on commutes to the office or at night before bed. This is to be opposed to more dense fantasy novels which require more of a time investment. There is also a focus on young authors, anime-inspired illustrations, and an overall amateur feel to them.

I want to examine light novels to get a better grasp at where these types of stories began. Vampire Hunter D is probably one of the earliest examples of a "chuunibyou" work, with a grimdark fantasy setting, badass vampire slaying protagonist, pseudo-intellectual themes, and absolutely filled to the brim with excessive amounts of purple prose. These would later go on to influence modern light novels to varying degrees. Though I think the most influential light novel during the early era, and arguably the first true "modern" light novel, is Boogiepop wa Warawanai by Kadono Kouhei. The Boogiepop series relies less so on dense writing and instead focuses on delivering interesting social commentary regarding contemporary problems currently faced in Japan. Due to the nature of the topics discussed, it was popular among young people who felt equally lost directionless during the height of the Lost Decade. The series incorporates a dark urban fantasy setting with a strong stylistic flair inspired by pop-culture and music enjoyed by the author. It was considerably more "light" than Vampire Hunter D in terms of actual readability, but did not compromise its aesthetic. More contemporary light novels in the early 21st century such as To Aru Majutsu no Index or Shakugan no Shana included influence from the early days of light novels with the urban fantasy setting and strong stylistic flair. The most important light novel to emerge from this era was the aforementioned Index series, which is perhaps the catalyst for chuunibyou culture as we know it.

To Aru Majutsu no Index laid the groundwork by establishing a series to spearhead the modern chuuni movement within fiction during these very early days. It might have existed before, but when I think of Dengeki Bunko, I think of Index. I mean, this light novel has everything- urban fantasy setting, a fictional Japanese city, superpowered espers, conceptual powers, the Catholic Church, sealed powers, magical incantations, an incredibly powerful elder dragon, chains on people's clothing, and over-designed Hot Topic-looking badass characters. The series' goal to marry magic with technology comes into fruition here by showcasing a template for modern light novels to follow. Think of your favorite chuuni character in an anime and imagine what shows/books they are into, and what music they likely listen to while they make poorly-drawn pentagrams on their bedroom floor- that is the aesthetic we're going for. Though it's hard to explain in brief, but hopefully you get the idea.

We can also examone how small doujin circles bolstered the growth of the movement due to inherently catering towards niche interest groups since they are not necessarily trying to make a profit. So they instead just made things they liked with the sales that are an added benefit. Examples of these doujin chuuni-kei works are the Fate Stay/Night and Dies Irae visual novels, or the various music circles that formed around the Touhou-arrangement scene. It was around this time that a little doujin circle called TYPE-MOON released their visual novel Fate/Stay Night. Despite being conceptualized and penned much earlier, series writer Kinoko Nasu stated that it was based on drafts from high school story ideas. Early drafts of the game's first two arcs, Fate and Unlimited Blade Works, were completed by December 2001 and showcased in that year's Winter Comiket. The full game ended up releasing in 2004 during the perfect time due to the growing popularity of urban fantasy stories in otaku media. Fate/Stay Night is a genre-defining chuunibyou work that includes many of the same things that made Index so important, but perhaps escalated them to greater heights. For instance, a familiar urban fantasy setting in a fictional Japanese city, supercharged mages, the Catholic Church, magical incantations, heroic figures and battles on an epic scale. Nasu has stated that he was influenced by Yamada Furtaro's 1967 novel Makai Tensho[b] which incorporates elements of resurrecting heroic historical spirits. I personally think the general premise and tone of Fate seem somewhat similar to the Megami Tensei video game series, which was based on Nishitani Aya's novel series Digital Devil Story. This game series incorporates elements of philosophy, battles of ideology, and summoning powerful demons based on history and religion. Fate differs in many ways beyond that initial premise, but the surface-level similarities likely will draw fans on one towards the other, but I digress.

Midnight Contract on a Starless Night

To get a better understanding of what exactly is "chuuni-kei" let's examine music for a moment. Chuuni-kei within music is more so an inspiration and a visual element over a defined sound. Though these groups tend to share the same admiration of rock and metal arrangements. I call this "Gothic Lolita-core," or, music that Gokou Ruri would undoubtedly listen to. That is, music by a self-proclaimed "emotionally dissonant" teenager who likes vampires, dark clothes, and draws magic circles in their school notebook. I am unsure where or when this "Gothic Lolita[c]" music movement began, and if it was strictly speaking a "Japanese" thing, or if it was a Japanese re-interpretation of other Western acts. I would wager that it was the latter since that is likely the case due to the popularity of other "goth" artists like The Cure, Siouxsie and The Banshees or possibly Nico. Though this is mostly speculation because I don't have hard facts about the aforementioned group's popularity within Japan. I do know that the gothic lolita fashion movement gained popularity during the late 90's and early 00's within Japan largely due to the visual-kei group Malice Mizer, and their guitarist Mana[d]. He would go on to establish a clothing brand called Moi-même-Moitié[e] in 1999 and is largely considered to be the most important driving force for the movement. Prior to this, other similar "lighter" movements such as otome-kei[f] and lolita fashion were around, but due to the popularity of the group Malice Mizer as well as other visual-kei artists during their explosive popularity in the 1990's, the "darker" gothic lolita style became more widely known. Malice Mizer didn't necessarily create chuuni-kei music, though they did make music influenced by darkwave and gothic rock later in the band's run. However, the general attitude and aesthetic of the group was centered on androgyny and elegance- both core tenets of the aristocratic fashion movement[g]. I guess it's an off-shoot of the lolita fashion style just like gothic lolita but is not really that popular it seems. This style mostly consists of LARPing as a Japanese-appropriated middle-to-upper-class European person around the 19th century. In fact, Mana of Malice Mizer described his fashion brand more specifically as "Elegant Gothic Aristocrat." However, aristocratic fashion is heavily influenced by gothic lolita and the two are likely indistinguishable to the untrained eye, so I'll avoid any further needless muddying of the waters. Returning to Malice Mizer, they made music that appealed to the demographic of chuunibyou people. The album Bara no Seidou (薔薇の聖堂) is perhaps the closest we ever saw to true "Gothic Lolita-core" music in the early days. It incorporated baroque, gothic and neoclassical darkwave elements making it the perfect BGM to play while you ponder heartbreak in a lonely cathedral.

Bands that perform chuuni-kei music seem to be taking inspiration from these visual-kei bands while performing power metal or symphonic metal, but with very little to do with gothic rock in general. However, they will often fall under any other rock or metal-adjacent genres of music. There are a few alt-idol groups as well who might adopt this aesthetic amongst the members, though I would hesitate before associating them with the chuunibyou aesthetic. I will elaborate more on this in a bit. I can say for certain that these bands perform music that falls into the scope of the "gothic lolita," and what I called the "chuunibyou-kei" subculture. As outlined previously, chuuni-kei is defined by the grimdark urban fantasy settings and an overly self-serious tone. There is also a large emphasis placed on the "coolness" or "epic" factor of attack and character design. I likened this style to the Igarashi Koji-era Castlevania titles and because of the bishounen character designs by Kojima Ayami, and European setting with gothic architecture. Kojima's style to me seems to be influenced by both Yoshitaka Amano and 70's-80's shoujo manga- similar to the Year 24 Group[h]'s aesthetic. This is why I tend to not count alt-idol groups, since at their core, they still want to appeal to the "kawaii" factor by placing attractive young girls at the forefront of their appearance. My only reservation is that some groups might include a tomboy or "cool" member, though mostly with the intention to make an "ouji-sama" character and not necessarily to reflect the group's overall appearance. There are also caveats could potentially be like Kanzaki Ranko (神崎蘭子) or Ninomiya Asuka (二宮飛鳥) from iDOLM@STER. As solo artists their lyrics employ chuuni-kei elements such as Kanzaki-san's Rosenberg Engel[i]. Though I'd argue they are more so adopting the gothic lolita style as an inspiration. To clarify a bit, gothic lolita is largely unrelated to chuunibyou since you could be exclusively one or the other. However, some people tend to enjoy the LARP aspect of the gothic lolita or elegant aristocrat, and once they start to incorporate the visual elements of their style into their personality, it becomes chuunibyou. It's like if a woman was an office lady for her day job and only acted the part of a gothic lolita on the weekends when she got together with her friends for an elegant tea party. It's only once she starts actually believing (or wanting to believe) she might be a descendant of a vampire and have a sealed power within her eye that it becomes chuuni. It's a bit of a gray-area in an already complex web of self-imposed rules to define an already dubious aesthetic guideline. So for the sake of simplicity, idols will be categorized differently.

I do notice a trend of groups that are, or have been once, affiliated with the Touhou doujin music scene making chuuni-kei music. More generally speaking, most of these groups started off or currently still are doujin circles due to how niche this style of music tends to be. Doujin ongaku is self-published music released by small groups called "circles" usually at fan conventions like Comiket, M3, Reitaisai, or a number of other smaller events. The doujin format allows for many artists to experiment with different sounds to follow their vision and avoid legal scrutiny. It's similar to how doujin game developers are able to cater towards very niche interest groups due to most games being made as passion projects. It's not about the profits, it's all about making cool music. There is a large number of metal and symphonic metal within the scene and it is very common to see metal arrangements of Touhou songs. This harkens back to the visual-kei and symphonic metal influence that chuuni-kei music tends to have. Such is the case with the mchuuni-kei visual novel, Dies Irae- itself being the ultimate form of everything chuuni-kei stands for. The soundtrack contains lots of symphonic metal and orchestral arrangements that can be described with nothing short of "epic." The aforementioned Touhou arrangements from bands like Demetori, Undead Corporation or Unlucky Morpheus incorporate a similar sound signature. Moreover, many elements of the Touhou franchise are appealing to those who are chuuni-aligned, so to speak. Specifically, the gothic lolita inspired outfits of the characters, the general "cool" factor for its naming conventions, complex or uncommon kanji readings, and the ambiguity of the magical elements. The supernatural aspects of Gensokyo are based on Japanese folklore mixed with a bit of mythology and popular-culture. Many Japanese folktales come to life as a result and it's fun to trace the roots of ZUN's inspirations.

Heavy is the head that wears the fedora

Generally speaking, modern chuuni-kei is defined by its aesthetic and common set of traits more so than thematic elements. But I don't like how the definition that can be derived from my implication that "all chuuni-kei works are like Index" since that makes them more so defined by their similarities to Index ("Index-likes" if you will) rather than chuun-kei. This is similar to the term "Metroidvania" which is a vague term that is used to describe a certain game design philosophy and style, but implies that all these are glorified Metroid or Castlevania fan games. Returning to Index and Fate, can we say that these series are retroactively chuuni-kei because of the elements the author's chose to include, or are they chuuni-kei because the people who enjoy them are usually chuuni? These works are often described simply as "edgy" as we say in the West. Uttering the word evokes flashbacks of Hybrid Theory bootleg CD's, black Tripp pants, MySpace Blingee'ed profile pictures and Hot Topic misadventures; all in cuts of manic dutch angles like a 2000's nu-metal music video. Are all Linkin Park enjoyers edgelord teenagers? Not necessarily, but the likelihood is high (though now the demographic are in their late-20's and early 30's). I guess my point is that chuuni-kei, and for that matter, the chuunibyou phenomenon, is hinging purely on an anecdotal analysis from a limited data set and only recontextualized after the patterns were seen. Additionally, chuuni-kei isn't limited to purely a Japanese phenomenon nor is it limited to affecting young people. Chuuni-kei cannot be understood by seeing the aforementioned elements shared between Index or Fate. Saying something can only be part of a certain aesthetic is because it's like the last thing that came out is not indicative of all of the style. You have to "feel it." Unlike a more defined movement like cyberpunk or even Harajuku-kei, "chuunibyou" is describing a more ambiguous aesthetic element like "gothic-lite"- mall-goth, if you will. Is "goth" defined by black lipstick and dark clothes or is it defined by thematic elements? The key difference between true-goth and mall-goth is that the latter is presumed to be a poseur by the former for not "appreciating" the aesthetic in the same way they do. I guess it appears that I am defending the plight of the mall-goth, but "true-goth" is not the sum of its parts- they represent something greater than the whole. I respect their group's feeble attempts to retain a sense of authenticity within their subculture that can be likened to that of the Ideological Warrior. But I can also acknowledge the mall-goth's "girls just want to have fun" attitude. The chuunibyou is the kid at the conbini with a hoodie and jeans in the summertime. They carry a replica katana with them and draw ink-pentagrams on the back of their hand in class. They write a soliloquy of Fading Reality and the Nausea induced by the world they inhabit. I was some of those things and still carry those memories with me. I used to be haunted by my 黒歴史 but now I revel in it. My newfound appreciation for Evanescence's 2003 album "Fallen" is indicative of that. What I used to love became a joke- I went along with the laughter, but before long I couldn't hide my true emotions. Now I relish in the grime of 2000's "alternative metal" with a sword in my sheath and a fedora adorning my crown.