Of all the full-length anime I’m following this season, AOKANA: Four Rhythm Across the Blue is my least favorite. I don’t have a good explanation for why I kept watching after the first two episodes. But the plot did become somewhat interesting by the seventh episode. And in the eighth, the characters hit on a universal theme: fear of failure. Why dedicate yourself to a craft when you can’t be the best?
[Spoilers through Episode 8]
Aokana centers on a group of characters in a high school Flying Circus (FC) club. FC is a fictional sport that’s basically just a fancy game of tag played between two people, midair. Anti-gravity shoes keep the players in the air as they hit four poles—or hit each other, which is more fun to watch.
It’s based on a VN with Hinata Masaya as the MC, but we don’t get much insight into his character until later in the series. All we know at first is that he was once considered an FC prodigy, but he quit playing around the beginning of middle school. Even now, he’s only on the club as a second—someone who gives players instructions from the ground during the match. You could argue that it centers on Kurashina Asuka, since she’s the transfer student, and the audience naturally learns about things alongside her. After all, she’s completely new to FC, and the more proficient players are quickly interested in the way she approaches the game—kind of like a sports anime protagonist*. But so far, the most interesting conflict has revolved around Tobisawa Misaki.
Why play when you can’t win?
Misaki is the best player on the team, not counting Masaya, whose current abilities are unknown. She hits a wall after she loses to the accomplished Shindou during a tournament. Shindou doesn’t even play that seriously against her… but he does get serious against Asuka, a rookie. That’s two blows to Misaki’s pride. To make it worse, Shindou goes on to lose the tournament—that’s blow number three.
FC just isn’t fun anymore, so Misaki submits her club resignation. She doesn’t understand how people like Shindou and Asuka can keep enjoying FC when they’re completely beaten by much better players. Then Masaya comes to talk to her, and we finally learn why he quit FC.
“I think people instinctively get scared once they dedicate themselves to a craft,” he tells Misaki. “We fear failure. We fear losing. We fear running into someone better than us. The moment I started having these feelings, I stopped finding flying fun.” He goes onto explain that he was an FC prodigy, able to play on equal ground with adults. Then a beginner beat him, and he decided his talent had peaked, he would never get any better, and it was time to quit.
Hmm… running away and fear of failure. Haikyuu!! had a similar theme a couple episodes back. But those characters struggled with fear in a slightly different manner—they needed to learn to play boldly despite their weaknesses. As I wrote a month ago, once they learn they are unconditionally accepted, valued, and forgiven, they’re able to play without any more pressure than necessary.
In Aokana, Misaki and Masaya’s fear of failure is more obviously a pride problem. They aren’t well acquainted with weakness. In fact, they’re used to winning with ease, and being admired for it. So Misaki doesn’t understand why the weak Asuka gets excited about facing difficult opponents, or how she keeps her spirits up when she loses. She, like Masaya before her, doesn’t see the point of dedicating herself to FC if she’s just going to lose. Why play if you can’t be the best? Where’s the fun in that?
I can identify with that, to a point. I am a writer. I’ve been writing for fun in some capacity or another since I was thirteen, and I just graduated with my Creative Writing major. But since I’ve graduated, I’ve written very little except for blog posts and job-hunting documents. Part of it is my normal procrastination and motivation issues—it’s hard for me to do anything without accountability. Yet… I don’t think I can blame my executive dysfunction this time, at least not entirely. I’m reluctant to spend the time and energy writing a story that I might not even finish, let alone submit for publishing.
Like Masaya says, once I’ve dedicated myself to something—in my case, that’s been academics or writing—I get scared. When I meet someone better than me, I bristle inside. I don’t even know exactly what I’m afraid of. Perhaps I got attached to the title “smart one” during elementary school, and it became part of my identity, so I’m afraid of someone else taking that title from me. In high school and college, when an underclassmen entered a class and did at least as well as I did, if not better, I noticed a little jealousy spring up, much like the resentment I sense from Misaki toward Asuka. I admired the younger students, of course, and the jealousy faded to fondness and pride in associating with them, but that doesn’t make the initial jealousy any less ugly. Even now that I’m out of school, I’m anxious to hold onto the “Smart One” title in any crowd.
And now, I judge whether or not it’s worthwhile to invest in other things based on my success. It was fine to write for fun when I was a kid, I think, but I have other hobbies now, and I shouldn’t spend my energy on something that might not serve me or anyone else well. Besides, how can I start writing fiction again when my reading habits have become spotty? I’ve met other writers, ones who are more dedicated than me, who can stick to a writing schedule and sacrifice grades during NaNoWriMo… I’m not sure I want to dedicate myself to a craft when others are so much better at keeping their spirits in it. It’s become more difficult. Besides, I’m more experienced with non-fiction now, thanks to all this blogging. When I blog, I have a clear audience and purpose. People tell me I’m good at this. And it’s hard to fail too miserably.
But, like Masaya says, it’s hard to run away. I’m no longer sure I’m meant to write fiction, but I don’t feel right without it. I used to tell myself stories at night, but without any daytime brainstorming, I have no new ideas with which to lull myself to sleep. And I’m starting to realize that it’s not enough for me to analyze and edit other people’s stories. I’m acting like Masaya. Unlike him, I didn’t have a single quitting moment, but that doesn’t change the fact that, by my inaction, I’ve relegated myself to the sideline, to apply for editing jobs, write about anime, and give feedback as requested by my writer friends. That’s all good, and I will continue it, but I need to get back to my own writing, too.
Maybe I’ll never be a published novelist. Maybe I will be, but I won’t be a very admired one, and I’ll never be able to quit my day job. Maybe I’ll figure out that I really do prefer to write non-fiction. But it would be a shame to ignore part of my gifting, just like it’s a shame for Masaya to ignore part of his.
As I write this, I realize it sounds familiar. I wrote something similar on my old blog almost three years ago, when I was watching Space Brothers. I realized:
I talked about being a good steward of God’s money, but I pushed aside stewarding the other gifts He gave me. I said it would be lazy to focus on an unrealistic dream instead of challenging my weaknesses in practical fields… and ignored how lazy I was about fostering my ability to write, research, or problem solve.
Since writing that post, I’ve grown a lot… but I’ve also backslid. I’ve used job hunting and blogging as an excuse not to read and write fiction, and I know it’s partially because I’m not the best, and because I have almost no chance at being the best. Even just among my creative writing classmates, others are better at me when it comes to dedicating themselves to their craft.
Obviously, like Masaya and Misaki, I have a pride problem. And I don’t think the answer to the problem is so easy as learning to have fun despite adversity. (I know I can do that: writing a screenplay in a single semester was one of the most agonizing and enjoyable experiences of my academic career.) Instead, it’s a matter of purpose. Why do I have the gifts—that is, the talents and interests—I have? Because God made me this way. And what is my purpose with them? To glorify God, not myself. He gave me these talents to use, not to hide away for fear of losing them. (I’m reminded of the parable about the three servants.) Maybe I don’t see how exactly he’ll use my love for the written word to glorify himself. But if I don’t continue to develop that part of me, I have a feeling I’ll miss out on a lot, and others might miss out, too.
We’re made to dream big, like I said on my old blog, but those big dreams are not for our sake alone. They’re a part of God’s greater story. He won’t fail to achieve glory just because we fail. And if we follow Christ, we’ll share a glory with him that’s beyond what we could possibly achieve for ourselves.
So why hold back? I think we fear looking foolish for dedicating our time and energy to something only to fail. And I think we put our identity in what we dedicate our time to. How do we overcome that? I think it’s a daily dedication of ourselves not to our gifts, which God has given us, but to God himself. I don’t know how this will play out for me. But I’m learning to trust God by using the opportunities and gifts he’s given me, knowing he’ll take care of the rest.
Have you caught yourself holding back from something you enjoy—maybe even something you’re pretty good at—because you’re not as good at it as others?