Hands on the Wheel: Burnout and Sustaining Interest
After several busy months of school and work, I finally reconnected with a good friend of mine. When I was living in Kansas City, he was a constant companion, one of the few people I always felt at ease around, and a fellow anime fan with a large collection stretched across five neatly organized shelves. We connected through an anime forum, and originally organized all our meet-ups around cons or viewings of anime like Redline or Card Captor Sakura, but eventually we met simply for the pleasure of each other’s company. I moved several hours north for school, but now we converse over Skype about video games, life, and ponies. And eventually, after several days of talking about everything else, I finally thought to ask during a conversational lull, “So what anime are you watching right now?”
There’s a pause, and then a heavy sigh. “I’ll be honest,” he says, “I haven’t watched any anime in, oh, about,” another pause to calculate, “about fourteen months or so.”
“You haven’t watched any anime in over a year?” I was probably laying it on a bit thick there.
“Well, I might be lowballing it.”
This was a surprise. I remembered now that the topic hadn’t come up in any of our conversations for months, but I just hadn’t thought to ask. I follow my gut. “Well, I know of several anime you’ll enjoy.” This wasn’t a wise move either, and it took several attempts that were met with equal indifference for me to finally drop the subject for the night. Besides, now he was talking about this really interesting Minecraft mod that lets you write programs in the game, and save them on little digital floppy discs to share….
But it was still on my mind later. He wasn’t the first friend I met through anime who eventually lost interest in the hobby. My sister’s interest had also peaked several years ago, and now when I ask her about it, she calls it a “phase” and would like to try to get me to watch Doctor Who instead. Most of my friends watch it casually, but after a mental count, I cannot think of anyone who follows it as closely as I do. I have no one outside of the Internet to talk about how much I like the new season, or why Another was a good watch, or why Chihayafuru was such an affecting anime, or what Gundam I should check out after I finish Stardust Memory, or how Viki is a fascinating site. Most of them still like anime, but not that much. Twitter has become my main outlet for these kinds of topics for years, but it’s still a bit discouraging that it is now my only outlet. A fandom of one is not a fandom at all- it’s just a weird obsession. True, I can talk about that here and on Twitter, but it’s not the same as holding the same conversation with someone else from across the table in a restaurant. The lack of connection hurts.
It’s another reminder that anyone who starts calling themselves an anime fan probably won’t be doing so for long. There’s nothing wrong with that- changing interests is just part of life, and in fact, is what makes life so interesting. But there’s the struggle that happens when nothing you’re watching, you should be watching, that people promised watching would be enjoyable, can interest you. That’s painful to watch, and painful to go through. You want to cosplay as this character at next con, but you can’t get past the second episode. You’re the president of the anime club, but nothing your members suggested to watch over spring break is grabbing your attention, and you’d really rather finish playing Bayonetta. You’ve run a podcast, published for ten weeks straight, but now you’re out things to talk about because it has been three weeks since you started Clannad, and to be honest, you think it’s really boring and kind of dumb but you won’t tell anyone that because everyone says it’s so great. You’ll just put off finishing it, maybe do the podcast next week.
The best post I’ve seen about feeling “burnt out” was written by Milo, who was almost certainly writing to himself as well as anyone who happened to read it:
People talk about anime burnout a lot. What causes it, how to avoid it, etc. It’s most often discussed as a mild impediment that can be overcome with some handy dandy tips, the way people write about writer’s block. Follow these five instructions, and you’ll be back to marathoning 50-episode TV shows in no time!
Wrong! It boils down to this: people unwittingly watch anime they don’t really like, and the activity of watching anime loses its overall value as a result. It’s the opposite of the Aesop’s Fable where the Fox can’t get the grapes, so he lies to himself and says they’d taste bad. In this case, people force themselves to eat sour grapes, and respond to their displeasure by thinking they must be burnt out on grapes.
I’m of two minds about this topic. If anime just longer interests you, you should drop it. It doesn’t matter how deeply you self-identify as a fan, how many panels you run at cons or even if you’re the con chair. It’s better to just accept that you’re not interested, and move on. Struggling to maintain interest doesn’t work, especially if it’s in the name of finishing some mediocrity to chalk up another six hours of cartoons on your MAL, before moving on to another mediocrity that doesn’t interest you either. This isn’t something unique to anime, by the way- it happens in almost every fandom, but it seems to happen a lot more to anime fans. And no matter what the fandom, it isn’t healthy, and it’s a poor way to spend what little free time you have. In my experience, the life cycle of an anime fan, from self-identification to self-immolation, is about two to three years. Maybe longer if you’re younger and/or constantly plugged into the Internet. That seems to be true for the majority of the fandom- overall, we’re not getting older together. Our con numbers are buoyed by an influx of teenagers who will move on to something else soon.
But I’m catching a second argument in Milo’s post that I disagree with, and it’s a sentiment I’ve heard elsewhere. Watching anime for the sake of your self-identification as a fan, the argument goes, isn’t healthy. Which is true to the point I made in the last paragraph, but beyond that, it will get more complicated.
I think the real problem here is that “anime fan” is too general a term, and it does nothing to describe what someone might be interested in beyond “they like some cartoons that they’ve seen.” If you got “into anime” because you liked Cowboy Bebop, you’ll soon learn that there are only two or three anime remotely similar to it, and after that, it’s pretty iffy that something else will appeal to you. It’s probably more accurate to say you are a fan of high concept science-fiction fantasy cartoons, of which there are a fair number in anime, but not enough to sustain long term interest. If you’re a fan of Naruto, you might like Bleach or InuYasha, but beyond that, you’re probably not going to check out even respected elders of those boy’s cartoons like Fist of the North Star or Saint Seiya.
An anime fan should have interests as broad and general as anime itself. This doesn’t happen naturally, because I think we all start being interested in just one anime and wanting to find other cartoons like it. It’s an interest that has to be cultivated, and it comes from learning about the history of anime and animation, from reading and listening extensively to what anime other people liked and understanding why they liked it, and learning about who makes the anime you love. Interest like this cultivated, and comes from having an open mind and a lot of curiosity. And once you reach that point, when your to-watch list spans forty years of animation, when you enjoy things as vastly different as old shojou anime series and movies like Broken Blade, and can explain why, then being a fan and doing what comes naturally to you will often reward you. Many of my favorite moments as a fan have been watching something I didn’t think I’d like, before something clicked and I found a new way to appreciate my hobby.
Of course, this is more a reason that someone stays a fan than anything to do with burnout, and I suppose my advice is of limited interest to anyone who wants to watch anime, but I can’t seem to gin up the interest required. I’m sure there’s a variety of reasons for burnout that neither my post nor Milo’s have accounted for. But even then, it’s probably worth saying that a healthy attitude might make the difference between a hobby that occasionally feels like a trap, and something you will love for years.