In the Name of Art: Academic burnout in Blue Period

By: Olivia "Livi" Burke March 16, 20220 Comments
Closeup of a teenaged boy with an anguished expression, reaching forward to swipe across the camera with a paint brush

It’s a familiar image: a library full of students in the middle of the night, pulling all-nighters as they study for final exams and finish projects that are worth a high percentage of their grade. Jokes about living on coffee, not having slept in days, and starting to see colors and shapes, are traded around campus. The fact that finals season—and school in general—is a time of exhaustion and panic, is taken as a given.

The detriment these behaviors have on the student’s physical and mental well being, often referred to by the catch-all term “academic burnout,” can be easy to overlook. While the media has had a hand in normalizing these behaviors, stories are starting to crop up that examine the issue critically. Blue Period is an excellent study in the behavior that leads to burnout and the consequences that follow. 

Blue Period is the story of high schooler Yatora as he struggles to enter art school and the creative industry. Yatora is not initially interested in art at all: in episode one, he has friends and a comfortable routine of drinking and watching sports. He’s happy, though occasionally troubled by the fact that he doesn’t have anything he’s especially passionate about. This is true until he walks past a beautiful painting in the high school’s art classroom. 

A boy standing in front of a large canvas painted with an elegant, powerful portrait of a lady

It’s like love at first sight. He’s frozen and can’t stop looking, and that experience sparks not just an appreciation for art but a desire to make art as well. He goes from not having a care in the world to dedicating every single second he has outside of school to becoming the best artist he can be. The “passion” he felt like his life was missing suddenly seems to exist in spades, guaranteeing happiness so long as he works hard and gives it his all. Yatora completely engrosses himself in his projects, oftentimes to the point where he burns himself out both mentally and physically—which the series is not shy about depicting. 

The negative result of this kind of self-destructive behavior is commonly discussed under that umbrella of academic burnout, defined as a negative emotional, physical, and mental reaction to prolonged study that results in exhaustion, frustration, lack of motivation and reduced ability in school. Burnout can apply to students at all levels of study, though may be particularly pronounced during high-pressure time periods like final exams, or in particularly high-pressure environments like prestigious schools or universities.

Through Yatora and his classmates, the toll that academic burnout can take on an artist becomes clear. Yatora initially thinks of his upperclassman Maru as naturally talented, only to quickly acknowledge how disrespectful that is to the amount of hard work she puts in. The series then peels that admiration back one layer further to look at the toll of that hard work: when Maru is creating her art, she is known to focus so much that she goes days without sleeping.

The entire cast is touched by this issue in some way. The late nights filled with sore hands and sweat running down Yatora’s arms and back, followed by mornings where he is so tired he can barely keep his head up, are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how much these kids are willing to run themselves down in the name of creating great art. 

Fellow student Maki comes from a family of very talented artists and feels pressured to measure up to them, particularly her older sister. In the case of both Maru and Maki, it’s clear to see how they have been encouraged to equate their own productivity and creations with their own self-worth. This creates a cycle of self-loathing and frustration that is often tied into burnout: they push themselves to create because they associate creation with their own self-image, which burns them out, which ruins their ability to create, negatively impacting their self-image.

The vicious cycle spins around and is difficult to escape without taking some distance from the work that caused the burnout in the first place. Stepping back from work is often not seen as a viable option by the student, whether for emotional reasons such as those issues of self-worth, or for financial reasons such as scholarship requirements.

Two students standing face to face, one carrying a large canvas under her arm

Blue Period talks about burnout, but it is not just about students: it is about art students specifically, allowing for an interplay of academic burnout and creative burnout that is relevant to the anime and manga industry itself. The physical and mental symptoms of burnout we see in these characters are similar to those that have also caused many beloved mangaka to retire. Togashi Yoshihiro’s beloved shounen series Hunter x Hunter remains unfinished due to his ongoing health problems, which he developed from dedicating so much time and energy to his work. He developed back pain from sitting in a chair for hours on end which became so severe that he is now bedridden and can’t even sit in a chair or use the restroom without help. 

The most recent tragic example is the creator of Berserk, Miura Kentaro. The medieval Europe-inspired fantasy series is known as one of the best-selling manga series of all time, as well as one of the longest running. Miura unfortunately passed away in 2021 at only 54 due to health problems tied to his work. He had what is referred to as acute aortic dissection, a rare medical condition that is tied to hypertension and extreme stress from the intense schedules he was forced to work under. Even though Miura often took breaks between publishing chapters, he still suffered from the long hours he put into creating his work. In the world of anime, it is tragically common to hear about animators working themselves to sickness or death in order to meet punishing production schedules.

Stories of creators like Miura and Togashi are signs of a very tragic and dangerous problem in the anime and manga industry, creators being overworked in the name of making a great piece of art.  Blue Period’s portrayal of physical exhaustion and the symptoms of mental and physical stress are all very reminiscent of how real artists and writers experience being worn out from creating their life’s work. 

Closeup of a teenaged boy with an anguished expression, reaching forward to swipe across the camera with a paint brush

Since the characters in Blue Period are both students and artists, they struggle with trying to constantly produce not just high quality art but art that is unique each and every time. Not only are they pushing themselves to their limits to  keep their good grades up, but also to produce different pieces of art that impress the teachers and judges every single time they are presented to them. Their productivity and creativity are, again, tied into their self-worth and their progression.

As Yatora’s story advances throughout the first five volumes of Blue Period, however, his mentors and friends do remind him to take care of himself while creating his art. His high school art teacher often reminds him how important it is to focus less on perfection and more on simply enjoying the act of making art, including that there are many fulfilling ways to create art in a variety of professional fields or even as a hobby—Yatora needn’t achieve a single ideal of what an “artist” is to be a success. This is something he struggles with in the beginning, but eventually he learns to find a balance between having proper technique and keeping himself from overdoing it. 

At first Yatora sees the other students push themselves and believes that this is simply what it takes to be an artist. He wants to keep up with the best so pushing himself to his limit is what he does. With Yatora positioned as the newcomer to this world, the story can show how easy it is to internalize the “push yourself for perfection” model, and how normalized it is to lose sleep, injure yourself, and live under immense stress in these environments. Mentor figures like the teachers provide a voice of reason and a counterargument to this lifestyle. Blue Period sets the stage for a discussion of burnout and its dangers, and the importance of self-care amidst these expressions of passion.

About the Author : Olivia "Livi" Burke

Olivia "Livi" Burke is an activist, writer, and big-time fan of all things related to anime and manga. Some of her favorite anime are My Hero Academia, Hunter x Hunter, Assassination Classroom, and of course, Fruits Basket. When she isn't writing or watching anime, she enjoys trying out new recipes in the kitchen or playing with her dog, Hamilton. She can be found on Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok.

Read more articles from Olivia "Livi" Burke

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