First Impressions – Barakamon

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Another heavy hitter steps up to the plate…

OP: “Rashisa (らしさ)” by SUPER BEAVER

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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.

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ED: “Innocence” by NoisyCell

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10 comments

  1. S

    I thought that Naru's voice was absolutely perfect! I'm sick of listening to adults trying to be children by what appears to be huffing helium. I'd be interested to know how old she actually is because she is sure is doing the character justice.

  2. t

    it's one of those rare simple shows that moves your heart and also presents a lot of perspective for life to anyone.
    I really like the adaptation so far. it's totally fits. as you said – it's hard to screw it up because..it's so good and simple – a combination of lovely interactions. there is a lot of sense in characters' behavior. whether you pick Naru, Hanada or one of the elders shown there.

    Barakamon is really good and simple. all you need to do is sit back and make a smile as Naru does (:

  3. S

    To me it felt like something that is perilously easy to screw up. Everything about the plot, including living up to people's expectation is like balancing on the edge of a knife. But it managed to pull it off, seemingly effortlessly. And that suggests some real professionals at work.

    Great stuff so far, I love the kid. The teacher will play a big role, I'm guessing. I thought it would be a female teacher though

  4. D

    As someone who didn't pay much attention to this before it aired, this show was a nice surprise. You're right in saying that it avoids all the pitfalls these kinds of shows can have. Instead, it just present a comforting and funny tale that is basically slice-of-life at its best. It's genuinely funny (helped by good comedic timing), I've already got a feel for its characters (especially our flawed protagonist) and it nails the atmosphere. Having the kids played by actual child actors definitely helps the feel too. Hell, in some ways, this show kind of reminds me of what an adaptation of Yotsubato! would probably feel like.

    The 20-something minutes flew by, which is always a good sign. Definitely going to follow this one.

  5. w

    Bit of healing, bit of cuteness, relaxed atmosphere, hilarious slightly edgy comedy and a chance for strong character development? It's entirely possible that the Barakamon anime was created entirely for my benefit, because it's drawn up almost exactly to my tastes. I'll definitely be looking forward to this every week. Probably just below Aldnoah Zero as my favourite première so far.

  6. R

    This is my most anticipated show of the season, and it delivered.

    I'm drawn to character-driven shows, and Barakamon is pretty much the only character-driven show that jumps out and mixes well with Tokyo Ghoul and Zankyou no Terror in my basket. Seishuu, to me, is pretty spoiled, arrogant, and hot-tempered — not a very likeable main character — but it will be nice to see how he changes and that applies to his calligraphy skills and style. By the way, I love calligraphy. I don't understand it well enough, but my eyes are always drawn to a piece of calligraphy — be it Japanese or Chinese. It's the embodiment of art, culture, emotions, philosophy, and history — all expressed on a scroll of paper. I guess this is another reason for picking this show as my most anticipated. I will be joining the ride with you, Enzo, for the coming weeks, and thanks :-).

  7. k

    "Butt jap! you were wide open" 😀

  8. c

    this is the one i enjoyed the most up till now(ao haru ride and Zankyou haven't aired yet though)……….the summer season is promising!! I wonder which one of them will turn out to be the gem in the lot……..

  9. H

    I cheered when Seishuu smacked that geezer goddammit. Sorry, but he was a total wanker!
    Charming episode though, definitely one of the strongest of the week so far.

  10. m

    I loved how Naru isn't the obnoxious "i can get away with anything cos I'm a kid" stereotype. And she's so much fun. Looking forward to more.

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