Barakamon is another one of those series that doesn’t seem to demand a whole lot of interpretation, though there are some subtler things going on here if you dig a bit deeper. It works either way, really – as a zany slice-of-life comedy about loveable rural eccentrics, a classic fish out of water tale. But there’s also a lot of quite thoughtful musing on things like artistic temperament and obsessive personalities. It’s a classic example of a show that appeals both to the heart and the mind.
What’s striking about Barakamon is that in literary terms, it’s like a playground built in a minefield. There are so many potential stumbling blocks it’s hard to list them all. There’s the ever-present threat of condescension towards its rural characters (and I use “characters” in more than one sense there). There’s the matter of rose-colored nostalgia glossing over the very real problems of life in places like the Gotou Islands. There’s the matter of kawaii overload with so many cute kids running around, especially the shamelessly cute female lead.
It’s a miracle, in a way, that Barakamon is able to nimbly dance around these explosives as well as it does. In manga form, at least, this is accomplished just about flawlessly – it remains to be seen if the same will be true of the anime over the long-term. Given voice and motion these eccentrics are that much more “colorful”, and Naru that much more hyper-cute. So far so good, but I can see where, for example, Naru might be a bit much to take for a full season. She works for now because she’s not cute in an affected way like so many anime little girls – she’s a real little girl, which is why the casting of a real little girl was so critical. But put yourself in Seishuu’s shoes and I think it’s easy to see how she might wear out her welcome in time, even so.
As I watch the anime I’m reminded once again of why anime is such a different animal than manga, and what works in one doesn’t necessarily work as well in another. I think it’s absolutely critical that the anime diversify itself as much as possible, which means casting a wider net in terms of focus. Presumably such a short adaptation is going to pick-and-choose material quite a bit, which means they can either spread the wealth more evenly across the cast (and it’s a very good cast) than the manga does, or focus even more heavily on Seishuu and Naru as a “couple”. I very much hope it’s the former as I think that will hold up much better over 12 episodes, though the fact that the anime has already skipped a very strong and important non-Naru chapter has me worried.
On that front, we get a few more faces introduced into the mix this week, starting with the village chief’s wife, who lectures her husband and son about why she’s so intent on cooking for “Sensei” every day. That son is high school senior Hiroshi (Uchimiya Kouki), who’s always been resolutely average and sees Sensei as an unpleasant reminder that there are exceptional people out there. The irony here is plain, of course – Sensei is wrestling with inadequacy and his confidence in his talent is shattered – and this is a classic example of where two characters can learn something about themselves through interacting with each other. The most interesting part of this interaction is when Hiroshi sees Seishuu’s room full of discarded calligraphy and concludes that this obsessive quality (which lands Seishuu in the island’s ancient hospital) is a form of genius in itself. Stay tuned for more on that theme.
We also meet the two teenaged girls who’ve been using what’s now Seishuu’s house as a “base” – Arai Tamako (Ookubo Rumi) and Yamamura Miwa (Furuki Nozomi). They’re the ones who’ve been teaching Naru the vast swathes of inappropriate language she constantly parrots back, which leads to some of the funniest material in the episode. Transplant a handsome young adult male from Tokyo into a backwater island town and it isn’t hard to see where this might be headed. In terms of plot, the episode centers on Seishuu driving himself into the hospital by working constantly and never sleeping (though being constantly interrupted might just be a factor too), and on a strange encounter with the old man in the next room that turns out to have been empty. The hospital episode didn’t happen this early in the story – and to be honest it lost a lot of impact because of everything that was skipped before it did.
On balance, this was not as strong as the premiere and there a couple of danger signs for me, as outlined above. Namely, that the anime is going to focus on Seishuu and Naru at the expense of the rest of the cast, and that it may feel compelled to shoehorn more conventional plot into the works than the manga does. Let Barakamon be Barakamon and you really can’t go wrong, but the alchemy is so exquisitely-balanced that I fear even minor changes may have far-reaching effects. It’s too early to be really worried, but I won’t deny I’m a bit more uncertain than I was last week.