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.