Back of the Envelope: Chuunibyou and the Stand Alone Complex

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much in common between Chu2koi Ren and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.

Does this count?

Does this count?

Or at second glance.



While there might not be much in the way of concrete parallels, however, I do think that they share something in common. Which is that Chu2koi has become the progenitor of one of the main ideas of the GitS series: that of the Stand Alone Complex.

Like Froggykun, I too think that Chu2koi Ren is not a pointless sequel, and for many of the same reasons. Way back when I first started this blog (has it really been over a year now?), I wrote up a post about Chu2koi where I talked about confusing the character type/trope/style (chu2) with the underlying causes/symptoms/message (in that case, concerning Rikka’s problems accepting her father’s death). To me, this was actually a pretty cool thing KyoAni had done, and led to a very honest portrayal of chuunibyou as well as quite a good romance.

This hasn’t necessarily been the way chuunibyou has been received, however. As Froggykun noted:

I thought it [Chuunibyou] was too concerned with glorifying chuunibyou than it was with understanding it, and I see a lot of anime since then have interpreted the message that way whether it was intended or not. Chuunibyou has become just another character trope in anime, stripped of all of its context. It’s become a symbol of dorky coolness, much like the modern understanding of geekhood itself. I’m rather ambivalent about this kind of portrayal because there are problems with escapism, and placing stock in one’s imagination shouldn’t necessarily mean cursing reality.

This type of thing is a perfect example of what GitS:SAC was all about.

Stand Alone Complexes (SACs) are largely self-descriptive. They “Stand Alone”, and they tend to be a “Complex” (as in the noun describing a core pattern of emotions, ideas, etc. organized around a common theme, as well as a complicated collection of related things, parts, units, etc.). The “Stand Alone” part has to do with how they form. SACs form as something “separate” from what was once  a connected whole. They are defined as they become divorced from their original contexts. For example, a SAC might form for a piece of literature over time if it continually is interpreted without taking the contexts around which it was created into account. Over time this alternate interpretation becomes normal, in that the work of literature is transformed into something entirely different from what it was. A real-life example of such a thing might be Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is often interpreted in Freudian contexts even though it preceded Freudian thought entirely.

The “Complex” portion has mostly to do with the newly formed “Stand Alone” concept. It’s meaning is two-fold. First, it’s meant to evoke the idea of a “syndrome” or “social condition”, because such complexes usually arise due to and/or in response to social desires, and thus can be seen as some sort of “disease”. The second is that the process by which a fully-formed SAC forms is a lot like a “complex” – filled with many complicated parts that all combine in a way to make a cohesive whole. Both of these come together to create the SAC, which not only “stands on its own” and is most often quite complex, but also serves as a type of core unit that can be analyzed on its own.

To continue the above example of Hamlet, anyone can easily partake in the “stand alone” portion by just (mis?)interpreting the text in certain ways. This type of thinking is actually quite common, with ideas/philosophies like THE AUTHOR IS DEAD or CLOSE READING ALL DAY EVERY DAY encouraging such behavior. However, this isn’t a complex – merely an isolated series of incidents. The only way it becomes a fully-formed SAC is if such techniques are applied so often that they become standard for interpretation. Readers are brought up in this newer tradition, and thus the ideas it originally spawned become not only fully entrenched but canon. As you can imagine, postmodernist thought (which drives these types of practices) is prime ground to spawn these SACs.

This isn’t necessarily the most interesting application of it though. In GitS:SAC, we see a much more interesting application of this idea. Namely, such complexes can arise naturally even if the original object/act never existed in the first place, as it does with the Laughing Man. All that is required is the illusion that it might have occured (at least to some). Then, such mistaken beliefs can achieve critical mass until they take on a life of their own. The end result can also be viewed in a much more sociological light. Instead of simply leading to a new interpretative structure, such a SAC can manifest as a full-blown social phenomenon, such as copycat behavior. As this behavior is predicated on some initial belief, it can even have a net effect of purpose, even with “purposeless” individual actions and no real overarching goal.  In it’s most interesting/terrifying form, a SAC can be akin to mass hysteria over nothing…yet ends up causing an overall change in social structure.

And thus, enter the world of memes...

Internet memes provide extremely interesting ways to look at SACs.

Although it might be a bit of a stretch, I think such a concept is a good description of what’s happened with the chuunibyou character type after Chu2koi. Looking back at Froggykun’s statement, we find a lot of similar features:

I thought it [Chuunibyou] was too concerned with glorifying chuunibyou than it was with understanding it, and I see a lot of anime since then have interpreted the message that way whether it was intended or not. Chuunibyou has become just another character trope in anime, stripped of all of its context. It’s become a symbol of dorky coolness, much like the modern understanding of geekhood itself.

That looks pretty similar to a SAC to me.* As does this post, for that matter.

*This is probably a complete stretch, but would it be feasible to start viewing tropes and their presence in the anime industry as SACs? And the anime industry itself as simply a meta-structural complex composed of (and dependent on) the creation and interaction of boatloads of SACs? I’m not sure it’s actually meaningful, but it seems like an interesting train of thought, and might be a nice way to switch from viewing tropes as some fundamental building block/element of media to a more active sociological phenomenon.

4 responses to “Back of the Envelope: Chuunibyou and the Stand Alone Complex

  1. I think what makes chuunibyou’s induction into the otaku database so fascinating is that it’s literally happening right before our eyes. With most of the other tropes I’m personally familiar with through anime, their basic concepts were around long before I became exposed to the medium, even if they’re continually reimagined in fresh ways to this day. I’m not saying the chuunibyou archetype was invented by Chuunibyou Demo Koi ga Shitai! (off the top of my head, Kobato from Haganai and Kuroneko from OreImo came earlier) but I feel it’s an archetype that’s found its roots directly in the LN generation of anime history. And to me that makes a lot of sense, considering the geek culture around LNs and how the otaku identity is interpreted.

    About chuunibyou being stripped of its context and perhaps misinterpreted, that brings to mind a great essay about Neon Genesis Evangelion I read recently:

    If Chuunibyou Demo Koi ga Shitai! has it bad because the nuance of its message is misunderstood, imagine how poor Hideaki Anno must feel having the entire point of his show ripped to shreds by the fanboys who were only interested in fetishising the characters. No wonder he came up with Evangelion 3.0 lol.

    • That Eva article was fucking brilliant. And pretty much is everything this post could possibly have implicated, but like 1000x better. Thanks for the link!

      I completely agree – the creation and assimilation of the chuunibyou archetype into the otaku database is really cool to observe. Really goes to show just how spontaneous and…I can’t think of a better word than “slippery” or “gooey”…process this can be. It definitely is one that has its roots in the LN generation, and I think is a good representation (thematically/metaphorically) of the self-aware-meta-yet-apologetically-escapist-kinda-sorta environment in which it was spawned.

  2. Pingback: 12 Days of Anime Day 7 / Back of the Envelope: Offensive vs. Defensive Meta-ness | Chromatic Aberration Everywhere·

  3. Huh….I never thought I’d read something comparing GitS (pretty much my favorite franchise ever) and Chuunibyou and actually….agree haha. It’s definitely an interesting point though. It never really seemed to me like Chu2koi was meant to glorify chuunibyou, more portraying it as a defense mechanism that should eventually be grown out of (if I were slightly less mentally tired I think there could be an interesting discussion there regarding just how fast that should occur, and the degree to which one should take someone else’s chuunibyou seriously as symptoms of a real psychological distress, almost akin to a child’s form of PTSD). Although Rikka never leaves her chuunibyou behind, over the course of the first season it morphs from a more serious form of self-delusion into something more of an innocuous kids fantasy (immersive role play, or something like that?). In the second season as well, there seems to be a nuance between chuunibyou as a fun childhood fantasy and as a defense mechanism each time Rikka or Satone exhibit signs of depression.

    Maybe it’s just because I haven’t been watching the right things, but I haven’t noticed chuunibyou becoming a recurring trope….yet (I also keep forgetting that it’s already 3 years old because I watched it around the time when season 2 came out, so my timelines might be a bit mixed up). The only example I can think of with a major chuunibyou character that hasn’t already been mentioned is Oregairu. Although now that I think of it, that character does feel a bit trope-y. It’s probably made more pronounced by the fact that Oregairu tries to be very deconstructive, where it either inverts or intentionally over-emphasizes the trope-y-ness of the other characters…the “bad girl” trope who actually just wants to protect her brother and the “trap” character who…actually just becomes more and more absurdly trap (I swear he got the sparkliest animation out of anyone in that show) immediately come to mind. Even the show name, which translates to “My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong As I Expected” hurls that deconstructive intent in your face. Against all that, the chuunibyou character….is kind of “just a chuunibyou character.” He ends up being a trope who exists purely for comedic value as an occasional sidekick and foil to the overwhelmingly cynical main.

    I wonder if chuunibyou, due to that stand alone complex interpretation, is becoming more like otaku as a term; originally describing an undesirable (and generally looked down upon) trait which is slowly being “reclaimed” as a point of geek pride, often perpetuated by those who failed to recognize the context in the first place, hence the quotes around reclaimed. I mean, can you really reclaim a term if you missed out on the negative connotations in the first place?

    I think I had a point to all this, but I’ve kinda lost track of my own thoughts. Oops. Hopefully it makes as much sense to you as it did in my head. And I just noticed you wrote this over a year ago. Oops again…

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