Every season, there is one anime that stands above the rest. And for this past summer season, that anime is Barakamon.
Barakamon is the modern day story of Handa, a young professional calligrapher who punches an aged gallery owner in the face for criticizing his work. Because he so regrets this faux pas, Handa enters into a pseudo-self-exile to a rural island village, far from the hustle and bustle of his Tokyo life. He is obviously not happy with this change. However, he views it as a necessary and deserved punishment. After all, the reason he got so mad that he hit the gallery owner is obvious even to Handa: The criticism cut deep because it was true.
All his life Handa has been the golden child of the calligraphy world. With his father—a renowned master—responsible for training him, it's no surprise that Handa's technique is peerless. However, this also means he lacks a distinct style of his own—so much so that everyone seems to remark that his calligraphy looks just like what you'd see in a classroom kanji workbook.
Thus Handa learns the hard way what anyone who has had success early on has had to learn: What is treated as amazing when you are young is looked at far more critically when you become an adult. For years his art has been praised; but now Handa is forced to face that what he has been doing up until now won't be good enough from now on. And with this realization, his whole world comes crashing down. He doesn't know what to do to reclaim his past glory and feels more than a little frustrated and confused. And anyone who has gone from the world of a student to the world of a working adult can no doubt sympathize with his situation.
Thus, on a thematic level, Barakamon is about a man trying to discover who he is and what drives him. To Handa, this seems like an impossible task: Questing to find his own style is basically the same as being told to not be himself. But, of course, how can anyone be anyone other than themselves?
This is why the change of the setting to the island is so important. Without all the trappings of his Tokyo life, Handa is free to grow and change through his experiences on the island and through the various viewpoints of the people he encounters there. And nothing alters Handa's perception of the world quite like his everyday adventures with Naru.
Naru is a precocious first grade girl—a tomboy and a true free spirit. She is full of a captivating mix of childhood innocence and childhood wisdom with which she is able to cut to the heart of all Handa's problems—often without even meaning to. Brought to life by Suzuko Hara, an actual child actor, Naru is the heart and soul of the anime.
The interactions between Naru and Handa are the best part of the anime. The relationship that forms is somewhere between that of a parent and child and one of two best friends. Before Handa's arrival on the island, Naru seems to have led a lonelier life. While having friends and being generally looked out for by everyone in town, Naru's only real family is her elderly grandfather who works in the fields all day. But when Handa comes to the island, he instantly becomes the center of her world. Nearly every free moment she has she spends with him.
For Handa, Naru serves as his muse. Every major breakthrough or bit of inspiration Handa has is closely linked with Naru in some way. She truly sees into his heart in a way no other character—not even Handa himself—can.
From the pair of middle school girls who constantly invite themselves over to the head teacher who'd rather be fishing than teaching, the island is full of other colorful characters besides Naru. More often than not, they serve as the core of the fish-out-of-water comedy that is Handa's life on the island.
But never does the comedy seem anything less than innocent and heartfelt. The laughs never come from demonizing either the city or the country lifestyles. Rather, the jokes come from the collision of the two cultures. The other noteworthy funny bits come in the form of character-centric comedy—e.g., Naru believing she's more grown up than she is, one of the middle school girl's secret passion, or Handa's mother's severe empty nest syndrome.
While I have lived in Japan for nearly a decade and am well aware of what Japanese calligraphy is, I couldn't tell from looking if a work was done by a master or a grade schooler. In other words, I wouldn't know good calligraphy art if it bit me in the ass. However, my shortcomings in this area make Barakamon no less enjoyable. Even if you know nothing about calligraphy, the art Handa creates in the search for his own style is amazing—especially “Star.” If I could find a print of it, I'd hang it on my wall in a heartbeat.
Barakamon is an amazing anime. It succeeds as not only a lighthearted comedy but also an exploration of growing up and making a place for yourself in the world of adults. If you like slice-of-life, this is a must see; and even if you don't like it as a rule, this may be the exception that breaks that rule.
For a second option, check out the review over on TAY, our reader-run blog.
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