This is obviously a critical long weekend for the Summer 2014 anime season, with several of the series I was placing my highest expectations in making their debuts. That’s a nervous time – while schedules usually have one or two surprises, generally speaking the really elite shows that make or break a season come from that select few that stand out going in. As a result when one of them disappoints it’s a real blow. So far so good – both Tokyo Ghoul and Aldnoah.Zero lived up to their hype. So how about Barakamon?
Truth be told, if I’d had to pick only one new show this season I was allowed to watch, Barakamon would have been it. The reason? Quite simply, this was the one show on the schedule that really seemed to have the most realistic potential for greatness (I’d rank Zankyou no Terror second). It’s a seinen (though published in the nominally shounen Gangan Online trust me, it’s seinen), the most reliable demographic source of great anime. It has a very capable director, and is based on a manga I’ve read enough of to know that it’s superb – smart, nicely balanced between sincerity and edginess, lovingly drawn. And it features music by one of the true geniuses of the industry, Kawai Kenji (who like director Tachibana Masaki worked on Seirei no Moribito). There was just an awful lot of reason for optimism.
And it’s justified, thank goodness. The only way, really, that Kinema Citrus could screw up a with material this good is to, well – screw up. And they didn’t. Barakamon gets it – the anime captures the look, tone and mood if the manga almost perfectly, and Kawai’s soundtrack is unsurprisingly perfect. It wasn’t an absolutely transcendent premiere, a game-changer – just an excellent one. But it was faithful to the introductory chapters of the manga, and the best parts of the source material are still to come. We’re only getting 12 episodes here and I can pretty much guarantee there’s no hope of more, so of course a key question will be how Tachibana-sensei chooses to adapt the material. But Barakamon is effective enough as an episodic story that I don’t think this is an insurmountable problem.
This is a series that aspires to that simple/profound ideal that I hold in such high regard. It’s the story of a young calligrapher named Handa Seishuu (Ono Daisuke) who wins a prize for his work, only to be cruelly mocked by the famous senior colleague who manages the exhibition hall as derivative and “copybook”. The public attack is classless and humiliating, but Seishuu’s overreaction is a disaster – he punches the man (who’s over 60 and walks with a cane) flush in the jaw. Naturally this is a huge disaster in the insular and protocol-driven world of shodou, and Seishuu’s father sends him to a small island in the Gotou chain in Kyushu to cool his jets and learn a few life’s lessons.
We’ve certainly seen the fish-out-of-water premise plenty of times – the city boy forced to adapt to rural life with all the associated culture shocks that brings. But rarely will you see it done with as much unpretentious cleverness as it is here. Kinema Citrus has wisely chosen to cast the village children mostly with real children, a huge boost to the authenticity level, and foremost in importance is Kotoishi Naru (Hara Suzuko), the bratty “village scamp” and granddaughter of the old-timer who ends up giving Seishuu a lift back from the airport (partway, anyway) on his hauler. When Seishuu finally arrives at the old house that’s been rented for him, he finds a pile of boxes with a delivery driver who won’t carry them inside and a house full of uninvited guests, both two and four-legged – including Naru and the village chief, Kido Yuujirou (Sugino Tanuki).
There would normally be a good number of risks associated with this sort of material – it could be overly cute, or preachy, or condescending towards the villagers, or unpleasantly steeped in nostalgia for an idyllic country life that sounds better in theory than it is in practice. Happily Barakamon artfully dodges all those traps. No denying Naru is cute, but she’s funny more than anything – it’s hard to resist laughing when she starts off by calling Seishuu “Junon Boy” (Junon Boy is an annual boys beauty contest in Junon, a magazine akin to a Japanese Seventeen). And Seishuu himself is an edgy sort of guy – we find out soon enough that the real reason he reacted so violently to the gallery manager is that the man was right (even little Naru can spot the textbook nature of Seishuu’s shodou). When Naru pisses him off and he yells at her, she’s the one to apologize to him because she was the one bothering him – and when she pisses him off afterwards by saying his writing was “just like the copybook” he promptly pushes her into the ocean, not bothering to check if she’s able to swim.
There’s a definite hard edge here – a vital shot of vinegar to cut through the overall richness of the recipe. Country life is very different from city life – privacy is not a priority and people consider your business their business, but that also means when someone new is in town, it’s their job to help them settle in. Part of the story is Seishuu adjusting to that, and part of it the lessons he and the locals can teach each other. But there’s another, subtler component of Barakamon, and that’s a very thoughtful musing on the nature of the artistic temperament and what it means to be a perfectionist. Shodou by its very nature is the perfect vehicle for that sort of contemplation, which isn’t a huge part of the first episode but is hinted at.
All in all there’s a tremendous amount of interest and appeal in this story, and if it doesn’t wind up being one of the two or three best series of the season (at worst) it’ll be a big upset. Barakamon is a series that appeals to both the head and the heart – one that delivers easy-access enjoyment while still challenging and respecting the audience and its characters. Frankly, it’s the sort of anime that I’m always surprised to see getting produced in this day and age – and always worried that I won’t see the likes of again. The message to take away from that is to make sure and appreciate this sort of show for the rare gem and endangered species that it is.
ED: “Innocence” by NoisyCell