Seishuu Handa, an up-and-coming calligrapher and lifelong perfectionist, has become accustomed to acclaim for his impeccable skill as an artist, but when the director of an exhibition accuses his work of lacking personal touch and being derivative of classic calligraphy, he loses his temper and punches the old man out. To cool down, and to take some time away from the calligraphy scene and his overbearing father (also a calligrapher), he travels to Goto Island, near Kyushu. He learns right away that the denizens of this rural and remote island won't necessarily leave him to quiet solitude, as a tomboyish little girl named Naru quickly begins to pester him, but his time on the island still might give him what he needs to advance as an artist and even grow a bit as a person.
Barakamon has to be one of the most pun-prone titles one could possibly pick for an anime series, for it lends itself wonderfully to jokes about Pokemon and similar "monster" franchises, President Barack Obama, and erotic manga intended for gay men. The show itself, for me, was also one of the best and biggest surprises of 2014, a year whose anime pickings were mostly divided between series I'd been looking forward to and series I had absolutely no interest in (justifiably, in most cases). Barakamon is both a calligrapher's bildungsroman that laughs at its own self-important aspects and comes out all the better for it and a comedy that draws on the personalities of a cast for whom it works tirelessly to endear to the audience; while a handful of missteps near the very end mar the experience, that's barely a drop in a series that I otherwise loved for start to finish.
Now, Handa himself is certainly not always easy to love, but that's a big part of the show's charm. He's uptight and high-strung, being quick to get annoyed at distractions as minor as the antics of children, and when we see him punch the director, we instinctively cringe at seeing the behavior of a hothead and an asshole. At the same time, it's possible to understand the anger and frustration behind this, even if his response to it is that which we would hope to avoid. Any artist, or indeed, anybody who has devoted oneself to a meticulous pursuit, can understand the aggravation of the inability to accomplish one's life's task, in spite of one's endless efforts, and in my experience as a cellist, there has been nothing more dismaying than feeling or being told that one's work is empty of soul. Thus Handa, more so than many of anime's endless frustrated protagonists, is empathetic because of his difficulties as an artist and those of dealing with his chronic anger management issues. Seiyu Daisuke Ono, whom I've previously mostly seen voicing tragic anti-heroes full of angst (such as Kazuma from Kaze no Stigma), makes something of a breakthrough here: as a frustrated character whose hope lies not in having other people fix his life and abate his anger but in fixing it for himself. His ignoble traits may sometimes re-emerge, for even the kids, for example, are keen to point out that he can sometimes be even more immature than they, and yet he grows tremendously by the end, and largely of his own volition.
Of note in Barakamon is the myriad of relationships Handa develops with the island's inhabitants, particularly Naru, who is adorably voiced by Suzuko Hara (a child herself), and indeed, one aspect I really loved about this series was how much the kids in the show felt like kids, for better and for worse. The rambunctious and loudmouthed Naru, who follows Handa around yelling and screaming and finds new passages into his house no matter how many times he closes a window or boards up a hole, is probably his worst nightmare. And yet when he sees the unfettered joy in her antics, such as happily running around in the midst of a mochi-catching contest regardless of whether she even catches any, he starts to consider how he's made himself so miserable, which is one of the first step he takes towards keeping his perfectionism in check. What's even nicer is how Naru, whose parents are absent for unclear reasons, begins to see Handa as something of a father-playmate figure, which is something that he does eventually begin to pick up on, and which makes for an absolutely adorable relationship. Indeed, Naru and the other kids are some of the show's funnest characters, and some of their rambunctious and occasionally vulgar antics, such as the scene in which one boy "butt jabs" Handa as a greeting, make for the show's funniest scenes.
I quickly grew to love the rest of the cast, too. There's Miwa, a tomboyish middle school student who acts as a sort of laid-back and unofficial guide to the island, and who ropes Handa into sticky situation after sticky situation, such as enlisting him into calligraphing the name of her dad's ship on its hull, as well as her friend Tamako, whose hidden obsession with yaoi and constant fear of being discovered as such make for a one-track joke, but a funny one that isn't overused. Shows such as Barakamon always run the risk of idealizing the inhabitants of rural areas for the protagonist's purpose, but that isn't really the case here, which I appreciated. While surrounding Handa with people more laid-back than he is (which isn't saying much) does do good for him, there's not much of an overarching personality type among them, and they do feel like real people, as if the mangaka had herself spent an extended period time on an island such as this. Indeed, the detail in the character designs and the backgrounds feels like something drawn from memory or at least a very thorough imagination, making the island feel like a real place and adding so much to the show as a result. It's also a testament to the show's character-building ability that so much of the humor befits the characters so well. In the aforementioned boat-painting scene, for example, it makes so much sense that Miwa, who's like a child trickster who never grew out of her habit (and who frequently gives Naru advice on how to bother Handa and other adults), would rope Handa into something he thinks he can't handle, that he'd act in such a flustered and panicked way upon suddenly having to deal with a medium he wasn't familiar with, and that Naru and the other kids would show up and start interfering with his "serious" thought process, only for their antics (in this case, getting their ink-covered hands all over the hull) to provide him with the impetus he needs to break out of perfectionist mode.
And that's really the charm of Barakamon: it's funny, the characters are a lot of fun to watch, and it all underpins a show that is consistently about the evolution of one's artistic process. It never ceases to remind the audience what Handa is actually trying to accomplish on the island, and just as human life is a string of experiences that may teach us far more than we realize, his time on the island does that for his calligraphy, even though it isn't always made explicit to him or to the audience. Absurdly funny scenes, such as his painting on the walls as a means of distracting himself, become cathartic once the calligraphy he produces becomes the first he's ever felt emotion towards, while a scene of his suddenly needing to have his ink and paper in spite of being hospitalized is hysterical and yet so representative of those moments in which an artist feels inspiration and suddenly can do nothing until he or she puts their work on paper. In a lesser show, this aspect might be shoved aside at the expense of antics about nothing, or turned into an overbearing plot element laden with soliloquizing and self-important moments of realization. Yet without seeming preachy or over-generalized, Barakamon makes a story about an artist pursuing something of a niche art form (and one that few Americans are familiar with) into something that has application for any artist, and which draws on the specifics of one particular artist and his life experiences, including the absurd ones, to do so. Barakamon is so good because it captures the funny and serious aspects of life together in a way few shows do, and because it does such a good job of it.
In spite of my praise, Barakamon isn't the perfect show; near the end, it rushes towards what feels like a forced conclusion (given that the manga is ongoing) while introducing the only character I actively disliked, Handa's mother, who does little besides physically assault her son to stop him from going back to Goto after he returns to the mainland for an exhibition. I thought a long time about the degree of damage these missteps did to the show, and I ultimately decided that while they feel a bit out of place, they don't change my opinion: that Barakamon might just have been my favorite show of 2014. There's a scene in the OP in which Naru starts to slide Handa's door in order to come into his house, and while there's nothing sad about this, I cried just about every time. It was because I was that happy to be seeing these characters again each time a new episode started.
A rushed conclusion and a few unnecessary last-minute additions to the cast don't stop this show from being funny and touching, nor from being a personal favorite of mine. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: Barakamon features a good number of vulgar jokes (if not very explicit ones), and one of the characters spends basically all of her screentime obsessing about yaoi manga (and shipping her friends). One aspect that some may find troubling, meanwhile, is that the kids and Handa sometimes inflict (mild) acts of slapstick violence on each other (a la Crayon Shin-Chan); this strikes me as a very Japanese brand of humor.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital Source (Japanese with English subtitles)
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Barakamon © 2014 Satsuki Yoshino/SQUARE ENIX
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