The Summer 2016 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
Teenage calligrapher Sei Handa has become something of a celebrity at his high school, as students and teachers alike admire him. Apparently, no one ever told Handa about this, as the melancholy artist goes through life assuming that everyone hates him and is out to get him instead. Handa's gloomy misconceptions about his social status lead him to assume the worst whenever someone tries to get close to him, often with unintentionally hilarious results! Handa-kun is based on a 4-koma manga and can be found streaming on Funimation, Fridays at 8:30 PM EST.
How was the first episode?
If the secret to good comedy is timing, Handa-kun kicks off with some of the weirdest timing choices I've ever seen. Not "bad," mind you, just...weird. Whatever you might be expecting from a gag-based prequel to Barakamon, it probably wasn't "series of 4th-wall-shattering complaints from Handa's male admirers about the upcoming production, who then proceed to make their own anime and get sued by diomedéa, before receiving the real show in the mail, watching it, and then complaining about that too." Props for originality! But at the same time, this bizarre approach probably would have worked better later in the season, after we had a better idea of what Handa himself and his weird fanclub was like to begin with.
It's also sort of hard to say whether this show would be inviting to people who haven't seen Barakamon or not. On the one hand, no prior knowledge of that show is needed to get the very simple joke at the core of this gag series: Sei Handa is a talented hottie who is so beloved by the world but so insecure that he thinks everyone hates him instead. On the other hand, I'm not sure how much you would care about this central joke or the character himself if you weren't familiar with his college-age neuroses that drove the plot of Barakamon. My best guess is that you'll get Handa-kun's humor very easily without having met his future self before, you just might not connect to the character and therefore might not laugh as much.
But all these strange hiccups and left turns hardly matter when the show's comedy is so universal and sharply executed. The episode's initial meta-humor on fanboy culture and the difficulty of producing an anime lands even though we don't know the characters at hand yet, and once the real Handa-kun shows up to dominate the second half of the show, the grim joke will immediately resonate with anyone who's suffered feelings of social anxiety or artistic inferiority, without ever venturing into mean-spirited territory. The show made me laugh pretty hard throughout, but its speed and style of delivery is definitely love-it-or-hate-it wacky, right down to the occasionally grotesque side-character designs. I admire it for going too far too fast instead of holding back, even when it doesn't always work. The good news is that you'll definitely be able to tell if you want more of this weird-ass comedy based on its first episode alone, even if Handa-kun makes the mistake of trying to be two shows at once right out of the gate. Give it a shot and see if it sticks.
Handa-kun is a bit of a weird one. Based on a manga prequel to 2014's excellent Barakamon, it stars that show's Sei Handa back in his high school days. I'm all for more Barakamon, but given Barakamon's strengths, this prequel shouldn't work at all. That show succeeded based on two principle variables - the little girl named Naru who Handa befriends, and the ways Handa comes to terms with quarter-life career anxieties. A show about Handa in high school necessarily loses both of those strengths, meaning it becomes a real question what we're actually left with.
Well, it turns out what we're left with is an entirely different show. In contrast to Barakamon's mixture of comedy and slice of life, Handa is pretty strictly a gag comedy. The first half of this episode is one long meta joke, where the Handa Force club of Handa fans freak out about a Handa anime happening in the first place. That's a fair enough comic concept, but the show doesn't really do much with it - there are lots of overreactions and some occasional deadpan reactions from the group straight man, but no really punchy jokes. And all of that continues for a good ten minutes, meaning it's only at the halfway point that we start to have some idea of what the Handa-kun show will actually be like.
The show fortunately improves after that, as the introduction of Handa himself lets the anime debut its big central joke. The joke of this show is “what if Handa were a high school student as smooth and beloved as Sakamoto-kun, but he didn't realize it, and instead assumed everyone else was out to get him.” And so, as Handa's every action prompts shock and swooning from his classmates, Handa frets over cute girls potentially calling him out to beat him up.
That's a pretty okay joke, and the show gets reasonable mileage out of it. I also liked that in our brief trip outside of Handa's head, we learned that the friend of the girl who'd asked Handa out was just as insecure as he is. If the show's actually interested in messing around with young insecurity and social perceptions and whatnot, it might actually have some meat - but to be honest, I doubt the show is going in that direction. Sakamoto-kun seems like a more appropriate reference point for more than just Handa's aura - I'm guessing that, just like that show, Handa-kun will be riding on one or two central jokes from start to finish. If you find “everyone else thinks Handa is awesome, but Handa is super insecure” extremely funny as a concept, you might enjoy this ride - the show lacks much visual flourish, but it also doesn't waste too much time on any single version of its joke. But if that sounds like a repetitive drag, you can probably sit this one out.
I listed Barakamon as one of my five favorite shows of 2014, so its prequel Handa-kun comes into this season with a fairly high bar to clear. Perhaps it's a good thing, then, that this new series goes in a different direction instead of trying to compete directly with the original. This first episode spends a while spinning its wheels, but it's an absolute riot once it gets going. I don't think any other show this season has made me laugh as much as this one.
This episode's first half is effectively an inside joke aimed at the series itself. After learning that they've missed the airing of the first episode of Handa-kun, the show's supporting characters decide that they're going to make their own anime about Handa. It's the equivalent of blowing up the fourth wall with a truckload of dynamite, as the guys are complaining about missing the episode that they're currently appearing in. I tend to enjoy shows that display some comedic self-awareness, but this joke drags on for far too long. This is the kind of routine that works for a minute or two before the opening credits roll, so trying to drag it out longer than that just dilutes the humor.
As soon as we get to the meat of the series, Handa-kun goes from mildly amusing to genuinely funny. The central joke is that Handa assumes people hate him when most of his classmates and teachers admire him, and that premise of constant misunderstandings is played to perfection. Handa's doom-and-gloom inner monologues contrast beautifully with what's actually going on around him, and his attempts to resolve nonexistent conflicts lead to some fun twists and turns. The show's comedic timing is strong, and the visuals complement the humor nicely.
Handa-kun assumes that the audience is familiar with Barakamon, though I imagine at least some of the comedy would work even if a viewer came in fresh. Fans looking to make a return trip to Barakamon's relaxing countryside setting may be a little disappointed by the change in direction, but it's worth giving this episode a chance to find its footing. In terms of pure comedy, Handa-kun looks like an early contender for the top of the heap this season.
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