Death and the Maiden

source: Pixiv

We occupy a rather unique niche on this world in that we’re the only ones blessed with the capability of pondering our own finitude. It grants us the perspective of reckoning with our mortality, a bitter balm for the weight of knowledge.

In J.C. Staff’s adaptation of Key’s visual novel Little Busters!, we learn that the character of Komari Kamikita is dealing with the trauma of losing her older brother. She regresses to a more immature state, as she flatly refuses to acknowledge what has happened.

In Kyoto Animation’s adaptation of the light novel Chuunibyou Demo Koi ga Shitai!, we learn that the character of Rikka Takanashi is dealing with the trauma of losing her father. She regresses to a more immature state, as she flatly refuses to acknowledge what has happened.

They’re both romantically interested in the main character, and the narrative now shifts to one where they have to confront what plagues them with the help of the objects of their affection. Dealing with death is a commonality found across many mediums, but why does it earn our scorn in certain instances, and our adulation in others?

It’s simple: there’s a realism, an affection, a measure of respect, that Chuunibyou! affords to its Rikka that Little Busters! doesn’t spare for its Komari. In lampooning the delusions of pre-teens, Chuunibyou! simultaneously slips us and its characters a note that says, “Don’t worry; I love you.” This affection is what disarms us, and allows us to look upon Rikka with the sympathy to see her story through to the end. From the beginning, we saw a girl indulgent in her ideations and unafraid to act out her fantasies; her charm being lost on neither the audience nor the male lead, she leads a cadre of students into a club that facilitates her creativity.

But it’s a creative energy born from a denial of the harsh reality beset on her. Her indulging in fantasies is suddenly re-contextualized into her escaping reality, and we as the audience can understand why. Believing in the impossible is her grieving.

Komari from Little Busters! isn’t afforded the same care for her character. From the outset she is barely a character to begin with, as opposed to an option. The suffering and grief she feels for her deceased older brother is written in such a way that it conjures feelings of convenience from the perspective of the story, instead of what informs her actions or motivates her. She has no conscious memory of her deceased brother, but the audience learns through third-party exposition that she regresses into a childlike state whenever she confronts death in any form; never mind that she volunteers her time at a retirement home where death is no stranger. This infantilization is also laced with an uncomfortable sexuality that plays at incestuous tones, so any sympathy the audience is meant to accrue for her is overshadowed by a strong male gaze. Komari wilts at the notion of death, and has suffered personality regression more than once. She’s amnesiatic towards a moment in her life that is cause of these regressions, and lemmingly presses forward to illuminate them regardless of the consequence of their reveal. This happens again, and again, and again. It culminates in a character of astounding naïveté, simultaneously infantilized and sexualized, while her problems are trivialized.

Never once in her existence are we convinced that she has any agency of her own, and we are told the male lead is the only person who can help her. Because these aren’t problems for her to overcome, they are problems for the male lead to solve.

If there is one bit of kudos I can extend to Little Busters! over Chuunibyou!, it’s that the former saw fit to have Komari’s brother warn her of his impending death. In Chuunibyou!, Rikka’s father couldn’t bring himself to tell his youngest about his mortality, and thus shuffled off in a manner that proved to be both immature, and chaotic to Rikka’s development. The plaudits for Little Busters! end there, as that story development doesn’t translate into believable characterization for Komari. Whereas the narrative shortcut that is Rikka’s father not preparing his youngest also results in the explanation of why Rikka’s older sister is so stern and humorless. She had to grow up quickly and act like a parent.

With Rikka’s mother running away from her responsibilities after losing her husband, Chuunibyou! not only has an opportunity to examine the fallout that neglectful parentage has on a sensitive and creative child, but also an opportunity for characters to ruminate on their mortality and why they act out so. Rikka denies what happened as best she can, but the mask slips every so often and we see her sullenness unchecked. To know our end is to know our temporality, and to know that is to know how we meet it. Komari was never given a chance to truly understand what occurred, but Rikka can still come to terms.

source: Pixiv

8 Comments

Filed under Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai, Editorials

8 responses to “Death and the Maiden

  1. fencedude

    So much this. The comparison is very apt, and one I had not actually thought of (I don’t exactly spend much time thinking about Little Busters). Again I wonder how KyoAni would have handled LitBus, could they have let Komari’s story be so…facile? Whatever, thats not the discussion we should be having.
    What I actually find most interesting in this is Touka. You mentioned it in passing, but I really, really want to know what she was like when she was younger, and what sort of games she played with Rikka. Considering how their “battles” go, I would not be surprised if Touka was more than just a bit Chuuni in her day. I hope the show goes into this a bit next time.

  2. I’d just like to note that spoiler warnings would have been appreciated O_o
    Great blog though. kthxbye.

  3. You definitely nailed it when you brought up Chuunibyou’s unique level of reverence for both its characters and its themes. While the show does happen to casually mock the characters every once in a while, the characters and the dilemmas they go through each have a surprisingly high level of authenticity to them which makes them relatable to the audience, something that Little Busters! definitely lacks.

    Regardless, I’d say that the biggest difference between Komari’s and Rikka’s situations is the permanence of their problems. A common criticism of CLANNAD (and many other visual novel adaptations) is that after each character goes through their individual route, they tend to fade into side-characters. While Chuunibyou gravitates around the crew’s childlike behavior, Komari’s phase is just another tiny arc in Little Busters! story. It’s hardly important to the grand scheme of the story, and hell, it’s not even remotely memorable. And that’s what makes it so disappointing; knowing that a story about feelings of abandonment, loneliness, and denial after the death of a family member is ultimately just another short side-story for Little Buster!’s ever-growing showcase of crying heroines. It’s an arc about abandonment whose ultimate fate is to be abandoned. To be honest, that alone makes a bit sad, if only just a tiny bit.

  4. lifesongsoa

    The thing with VN adaptations is that each arc needs to be able to stand on it’s own. That said it’s also the strength of the medium as one blunder doesn’t ruin the whole show. Because of that I don’t want to give up on Little Busters just yet. Also, in the visual novel itself Komari feels a lot more ‘real’, and her story comes off as poetic; however, you can’t rush poetry, and that is exactly what JC did with this route.

    This comparison is very apt especially consider that Tatsuya Ishihara is the director for Kanon, Clannad, Air, and is currently doing Chuuni. My first thoughts after watching Chuuni 7 were that it felt more Key like than Little Busters.

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  7. joshspeagle

    I think fencedude said it better than me, but I also thought this was a really great description of why Chu2Koi succeeds while Little Busters! totally falls flat. I was worried that somewhere between Air and Little Busters! I’d somehow just become extremely jaded towards anything Key-esque, but it seems it’s more the problem with the actual story/character itself than the medium or style (although that probably is a contributing factor).

  8. I think we need to be clear on the differences between two aspects of storytelling here, these being:
    1) the narrative content of the stories: in this case the “facts” behind each character, and what exactly makes them appealing
    2) the way the abovementioned narrative content is portrayed in the anime format (and how, consequently, we as viewers end up viewing the story)

    Presentation-wise, we can all agree Chu2Koi is a success while LB! is a failure. But if we remove such issues from our consideration, I think you’re being a bit harsh on Komari here. At the end of the day, I gave her credit for her undeniable optimism. Sure, it may be borne out of denial, but so is the creativity of Rikka (and possibly many other “mad geniuses” IRL). This is the optimism that not only helped her bring her so-called sunshine to that old peoples’ home she visits, but also precisely what attracted the despondent Riki to her, and through it inspired him to seek happiness for both himself and others. Of course, this is very slavishly portrayed in the anime – tacked on carelessly, almost! – but at the end of the day it’s all about how we as an audience actually perceived the end-product, and I guess I’m annoyed that Komari’s pluses were fleshed out so haphazardly.

    The other thing, isn’t it a bit premature to start calling her out for “incest” just at the presence of Takuya’s “strong male gaze” in her memories? I can’t find a shred of evidence that might suggest relations between them outside of a normal sibling relationship and indeed, you have to wonder how Rikka’s memories of her relationship with her dad would need to be visualised if you didn’t want it to imply undertones of an Oedipal complex! That said I admit that thought never did cross my mind for Rikka; while Komari’s did have me constantly yelling “BROCON!!” at the screen….Still, I think that’s purely because romance anime/VNs seem to feature “sibling relations” a lot more than Oedipus-complex type things, so yet again, it comes back to the question of the audience’s perception – which in this case is often skewed by their diet of shows thus far!

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