Monday Anime: Barakamon

No, that isn’t a Pokemon version of the U.S. President, though it could be. Barakamon is a little 2014 series from studio Kinema Citrus that took an unlikely premise, and did something unique and special with it. While it didn’t seem to generate much in the way of buzz, at least not from what I heard, it probably should have.

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No.

To be honest, I was surprised to learn this was a 2014 show. I didn’t recall hearing a single thing about it, which is even more surprising when you take into account that Funimation did the English dub. Usually, I’m up on pretty much everything they do over there.

When I went back and looked at the premise, it became pretty clear why the show had generated so little buzz. To call it a hard concept to sell, especially to Western audiences, would be a massive understatement. Barakamon is, to put it simply, utterly Japanese, and that tends to be confusing to Western audiences. Unless, of course, you’ve immersed yourself in Japanese culture, and even then, it can still be a bit difficult to grasp at times.

It probably didn’t help any that it came out at the same time as Tokyo Ghoul, Sword Art Online 2, Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun, Free!: Eternal Summer, and Space Dandy Season 2. That’s a lot of heavy hitters crowding in all at once, after all. So a show like Barakamon would easily get lost in the shuffle. Especially given the premise.

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In brief, Barakamon is about a hot up and coming calligraphy artist.

Hey, wake up! Just cause it mentions calligraphy is no reason to go to sleep! In Japan, calligraphy is a serious art form, ya know. I mean, I didn’t know that, but I do now, because I wanted to know if there were actually any hot up and coming calligraphy artists, and it turns out, that’s actually a thing.

God, I love you Japan.

Anyway, Seishu Handa is only 23 years old, and has already won numerous competitions and awards for his calligraphy, to the point he is something of a celebrity, and considered one of the hottest calligraphy artists in Japan. That is, until a gallery curator calls his work uninspired, and Seishu punches the old man in the face.

His father, a highly regarded calligraphy artist himself, banishes Seishu to a tiny rural village on the Goto Islands to get his head together before he brings any more embarrassment to the family. There, Seishu tries to get his mojo back, while dodging the oddball residents of the small town.

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As far as a series premise goes, that really isn’t the kind of thing that’s gonna grab a lot of eyeballs when Space Dandy and Tokyo Ghoul are screaming their way across the screens. Which is too bad, as Barakamon is possibly better than both of those put together.

Yes, I do like to commit anime heresy as often as I can. I’ll wait while you all grab your torches and pitchforks. In fact, I’ll even add fuel to the fire. Serial Experiments Lain is over rated.

I know. Scandalous! I think many people may have just gotten the vapors!

Are the anime snobs gone yet? Sweet. Let’s talk about Barakamon.

The first thing you really need to know about it is that it’s a comedy, and in that genre, it excels. The show has tons of snicker worthy moments, rivaled only by the ones that make you laugh out loud. Best of all, it does this with a natural ease, like it isn’t even trying. Every funny moment, every joke, every facial expression is done without ever feeling forced. Sight gags, misunderstandings, puns, and slapstick are woven together with perfect timing. It really is one of the funniest animes I’ve seen in a while, easily rivaling Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun, which was that seasons stand out comedy.

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Tied in to all the laughs, though, is a genuinely heart warming story of an artist struggling with his own creativity, plagued with self doubt and second guessing, and the community of people who gather around him to bolster him as he tries to figure out what his style as an artist is, and more importantly, if he has anything worth saying as a creative individual.

This is where I’m going to heap most of my praise on Barakamon, too. As a creative person myself, I instantly found Seishu a relatable character. Somewhat exaggerated for comedy purposes, yes, but not that much. I’ve said before that we writers are like puppies, constantly seeking affirmation. What I should really have said is that all creative people are like that, and this is something Barakamon understands, and holds dear.

The curator who criticized Seishu’s work did not do so from a place of malice, but because he saw great potential in the young man. Potential that was going to waste so long as he never challenged himself, which Seishu had no intention of doing. He had spent his life mastering the fundamentals, and was terrified of stepping beyond them, of finding his own voice and style, and embracing it fully.

Look at it this way. Imagine a hypothetical writer who has mastered the art of writing. He produces a technically perfect manuscript in all ways. Grammar, punctuation, plot, even characters. Yet, it lacks any passion. While everything is technically perfect, there’s no heart in it, no joy. It’s dry and hard to get invested in, because while every character serves a purpose, they don’t feel like people you can connect with. That’s basically where Seishu is. Technically, he’s perfect, but he has no passion, no love, and no emotional investment. In order to grow as an artist, and as a person, he has to let all of that go, and find what drives him.

Which is what the show is really about. Stepping outside our comfort zones, and embracing the new and different. As a writer, that’s something I really do relate to, perhaps far easier than most. As a human being, I’d like to hope that’s something we can all relate to, but then I see a Trump rally, and realize that nope. Some people really can’t.

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Still no.

This narrative is what forms the backbone of the story, as Seishu struggles to find not just his own style, but what motivate him as an artist. It’s a good story, too. If you are a creative person, you’ll get it. If you aren’t, then it will help you understand creative people better. We are fraught with self doubt, and constantly seek to be acknowledged, in order to support our own beliefs that what we do has merit. We live in a constant state of arrogance that our work is great, and fear that our work is worthless. It’s a tiring emotional state to be in all the time, and watching Seishu deal with it was incredibly validating, mostly just because it serves as a reminder that it really isn’t just me. All creatives are the same, and for the first time, it feels, somebody got that, and assured us that we’re okay, so long as we love what we do.

That, in the end, is the only thing we really need. Awards, accolades, and all of that is just gravy. Doing what we love, and loving every moment of doing it, is all the justification we need to do it. Barakamon is, in many ways, a love letter to creative people, telling them they are gonna be okay.

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It’s also really damn funny, and much of the heavy lifting on the comedy front comes from the townsfolk that Seishu finds himself surrounded by. They are far from being depicted as simple minded, too, which is really nice. They are all complex individuals with their own hopes, fears, wants and desires. As much as Seishu learns how to embrace his passion and slow down, they learn from him as well, making Barakamon different from the usual city boy in the country story.

The biggest back and forth is with Naru, a six year old girl that lives with her grandfather. It’s hinted that she was either abandoned by her parents, or they have died, but the show never really delves into that. Instead, it focuses on her hyperactive crash into Seishu’s ordered life. At first coming off like every annoying brat you’ve ever met, it doesn’t take long for Naru to become the ray of sunshine you didn’t know you were missing. Her antics are always funny, always coming from a place of good intentions, and above all else, absolutely will make you love her. She is the active ingredient in Seishu’s passive existence, shaking up his world, and challenging him to see everything from a new perspective. In return, he gives her something she has been lacking, obviously for a long time. A role model, a parental figure, and someone who comes to actively put her best interests above their own. It has an impact on her, as well, and the bond they form is endearing, without being sappy.

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Likewise, the teenage son of the village elder, Hiroshi, has a wonderful give and take relationship with Seishu. At first reluctant to get to know the aloof artist, Hiroshi soon comes to be inspired by Seishu. When we meet him, Hiroshi is struggling to find himself, to do well in school, and figure out what he even wants from life. Soon after meeting Seishu, Hiroshi sees the amount of effort Seishu puts into his calligraphy, and comes to realize that his problems in life begin with his own lack of motivation. He’s half assed his way through everything, yet complains about the results. Ashamed of his own inability to take charge of himself, Hiroshi begins to change his ways. In return, he often cooks for Seishu, who is incapable of taking care of himself on that front, and struggles to even boil water.

A lot of Seishu’s struggles on that front go back to his pampered upbringing. With his parents always focusing on his career as a calligrapher, Seishu never learned how to take care of himself, or even how to be a social person. In many ways, Hiroshi is the opposite, being very self reliant and socially outgoing, and the two end up leaning on each other, and teaching each other their strengths.

Another great character is Tama, a teenage girl that Seishu ends up being friends with that has a strong desire to become a manga artist. Since they both work in ink, they bond over this, but like Seishu, Tama is a bit socially awkward, and usually follows the lead of her best friend, Miwa. At least until she starts talking about manga, when she suddenly becomes an extremely passionate person with a lot of views on what makes a good manga. Namely, lots of violence, blood and gore. This, in her mind, is the only pure form of manga, as it embraces the nihilism of life, and prepares readers for how hopeless everything is.

Of course, she’s also struggling to deny her own yaoi fangirl nature, and instantly starts shipping Seishu and Hiroshi, to hilarious effect. Rather than being jokes made at the expense of homosexuality, though, the humor is in Tama’s refusal to accept that this is something she enjoys, as it clashes with her perception of herself as a serious and pure artist of manga. The show itself makes no comment on yaoi beyond Tama’s conflicted nature over it, which is both entirely of her own making, and completely in her own head.

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There is an interesting meta narrative involved, though, that is certainly worth talking about. To be specific, it is how people actively refuse to acknowledge things they enjoy, because they think they aren’t suppose to enjoy it. Tama’s love of yaoi is neither good or bad, it just is. Her struggle comes from wanting to be seen as serious, and being afraid that liking yaoi will make her be taken less seriously. This is a bit pointed when it comes to anime, as we all know there are things “respectable” fans enjoy, and things they do not, which brings me back around to comment about Serial Experiments Lain.

It is considered one of the best anime ever, and I can see why. It’s well written, well directed, and interesting. Personally, I found it to be dull and full of condescending navel gazing. I can see why it is adored, while still not enjoying it myself. That doesn’t change the fact that just saying so instantly marks me as someone whose opinion has no merit, however, because I do not hold to the consensus agreement that it is one of the greatest things ever. Anime fandom in general can be really bad about this kind of thing, and knowing that gives Tama’s struggle a lot more weight, while at the same time being a strong criticism of that very thing.

And here you thought Barakamon was just gonna be funny adventures with a calligrapher.

As a series, between the laughs and exploration of art, Barakamon is also a sly critique of Japanese pop culture, and by extension, the accepted norms of anime and manga. It is also a critique of us, anime lovers, and openly challenges us to question if the things we hold as good and bad are really our opinions, or the ones we hold in order to be taken seriously as fans of the medium.

Probably the best example of this is the routine beach episode. Yes, Barakamon has a beach episode, and it is a glorious deconstruction of expected norms. Everything that beach episodes do is called on the carpet in a clever, witty manner that never feels malicious, or condescending, but succeeds with a deft hand at making the viewer question just when we accepted all these norms in the first place, and why. All without ever being blunt about, I might add.

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This is probably one of the strongest aspects of Barakamon, actually. None of the criticism it levels is ever blatant, ham fisted, or strong armed into the story. It’s just there, feeling more like a natural byproduct of the story itself than anything. That, my friends, is brilliant writing.

As if all of that weren’t enough, it also challenges the viewer to see the art of calligraphy from a new perspective. It does this in the single most effective way possible, too. By making it art. Beautiful art, at that. This is probably the one area where Barakamon reaches out to the world the most strongly. Calligraphy is a big deal in Japan, but most of the rest of the world doesn’t think about it much, if at all. Once you see what a real artist can do, however, you’ll never see calligraphy the same way again, and the show may well make you fall in love with art, if you didn’t already have an appreciation for it to begin with.

Personally, I am a decent writer, but I can’t draw a stick figure without it looking like it has some very severe birth defects. So, that kind of art has always been a bit beyond me. I understand things about it, and there are artists who’s work I love, but the actual concepts and styles are something I don’t have much understanding of. For example, the idea of drawing negative space. While I understand the idea behind it, it’s never struck me as something that had any real merit in art.

Barakamon certainly changed my tune on that. I get it now. The artistry in working in the negative space can produce work that is breathtaking, profound, and meaningful. Even if you dismiss everything else I’ve said, take that to heart. This show taught me a new appreciation for art that I didn’t have before, and that is something really impressive. I now cringe at the idea that I once called working in the negative space a waste of time, because I now see what it really means.

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It’s worth noting that all of the calligraphy for the show was done by an actual master calligrapher, as well. Ungai Hara, a highly regarded and respected calligrapher, was kind enough to help the animators with the show, and the work done is certainly eye catching. It’s easy to see why Hara-sensei’s work is so highly regarded. It also lends an air of authenticity to the work, and the struggles of Seishu as he tries to define himself in the field.

If all of that gushing about how great this show is wasn’t enough, let me tell you about the music. It’s fantastic. The opening theme song, “Rashisa”, performed by the band, inexplicably named, Super Beaver, is very catchy and hard to get out of your head. The visuals paired to it are inviting and make you want to check the show out far better than the series synopsis ever could.

But seriously. Super Beaver. Japan, I love you, but sometimes I feel like we need to talk about what’s appropriate.

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The closing theme, “Innocence” by NoisyCell is just beautiful, and the visuals are freaking art. Like, for real. The entire closing credit sequence, the mixing of the music and imagery, is a work of art. It’s stunning.

The inbetween music is from Kenji Kawai, who crafted the music for the original Ghost In The Shell film, Fate/Stay Night, Eden of the East, and of course, the unforgettable horror trip, Higurashi, among many, many other projects he’s worked on. Here, he delivers gentle music that never overwhelms a scene, just enhancing it, and moves from silly to tense, to uplifting with great ease. It’s a pleasant soundtrack that perfectly matches the show, and that is always a nice thing to hear.

In terms of animation, Barakamon is solid, if not groundbreaking in most areas. The backgrounds are well done, the animation is smooth and fluid, while being pleasant to look at. The calligraphy is the real star and stand out, and many of the scenes where Seishu is giving in to his passion and just going nuts on the canvas are amazing.

Probably the biggest drawback to the whole show is the character designs. While they aren’t bad, and each character has an easily identifiable look that makes them stand out from each other, they would blend in to most other anime, and with the exception of Naru, I’d be hard pressed to pick them out of a line up. This is fine, however, as the character designs come second to the excellent story being told, and while they may not be anything new and exciting we’ve never seen before, they work just fine for Barakamon. In all honesty, as long as I can tell the characters apart when I’m watching, that’s all I really expect.

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In terms of the plot, there isn’t really much of one beyond what I’ve already talked about. There is one thing Barakamon does that I really liked, though. It avoids unnecessary drama. Probably the biggest dramatic moment in the show is Seishu trying to decide what he wants his future to hold in the final couple of episodes. Beyond that, Barakamon totally avoids the road so many slice of life, and even comedy series, end up taking. There is no last minute shoe horned in drama just for the sake of having it.

There’s plenty of room for drama, mind you. What happened to Naru’s parents, for example. Or the fact that both Tama and Miwa seem to have a thing for Hiroshi. Then there’s Seishu’s own rival, Kosuke, who both wants to see Seishu excel, but wants to surpass him at the same time. Basically, there’s room for drama at every turn, but the series decides not to tread that old ground. Since it was often making such well crafted criticisms of genre cliches, it isn’t surprising that, in the end, instead of some last minute dramatic moment, the show would stick with the gentle, easy storytelling method that had served it so well, and have Seishu face a simple choice about what came next in his life. More than anything, that was a fitting way to wrap up the plot at that point. No drama needed.

There’s a lot to like about Barakamon, and at every turn, Kinema Citrus and original manga creator Satsuki Yoshino knew where to draw the line, where to go, and just how to get there with both a critical eye towards the mediums they work in, and a love for it at the same time. It has worked out well for them, too, as Barakamon is a perfectly balanced series that puts the life back in slice of life.

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Oh, God dammit!
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2 thoughts on “Monday Anime: Barakamon

  1. I kind of enjoyed watching this but as I’m not much for slice of life or comedy it isn’t one of my favourite anime ever. That said, it’s kind of sweet and the story works and the characters are kind of interesting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. 🙂 Usually, I’m not a big fan of slice of life, either, and really, I do think this one works well just because they avoided shoving a dramatic plot twist in at the end. Life, after all, isn’t always about the dramatic moments. It’s about the small ones that slowly change us over time. Barakamon got that, so I give it a lot of leeway.

      I’m a huge fan of comedy, on the other hand, and this was easily one of the best I’ve ever seen.

      Really, though, it’s big strength lies in that clever wit at deconstructing anime and manga cliches, and the love it showcases for art. More than anything, that’s what made me genuinely enjoy this one. It’s not every day you see an anime so willing to poke holes in anime conventions, all while espousing admiration for another art form that is even more uniquely Japanese.

      Just so damn clever.

      Liked by 1 person

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