Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
BD+DVD - The Complete Series
When it comes to the art of calligraphy, you won't find a more promising young prodigy than Seishu Handa, who's already winning national exhibitions at the age of 23. But even an artist this accomplished can't please everybody, and when a respected curator calls his calligraphy pedestrian pabulum that belongs in a textbook, Handa's neuroses get the best of him and he punches the old man right in the face. (Then he foot-flings his shoe at the guy's butt after he's toppled over from the blow. Yikes.) As punishment for this public embarrassment, Handa's incredibly stern father sends him away to a small island near Kyushu to cool his head and focus on improving his work.
Adapting to life in such a rural area initially ramps poor Handa's anxiety up to record highs, but he starts to find peace again as he gets to know the laid-back locals, especially a rambunctious little girl named Naru who doesn't seem to be afraid of anything! But even as the inspiration to create takes hold of him once again, Handa worries that the carefree calligraphy he creates on the island won't be the same when he's forced to confront his critics again in Tokyo.
Common wisdom regarding critics is often contradictory. "Everyone's a critic," but at the same time, "no one loves a critic." It might seem like madness at first, but it makes more sense when you consider that the creative process itself is contradictory too. After all, creating art is hard enough without everybody telling you what they think of it, whether you like it or not. But if no one responded to your art, you might not want to create it at all. This is the trap poor Seishu Handa finds himself in when he gets his first deeply upsetting criticism, and it's the very worst kind any artist can receive: his work isn't bad, it's just plain forgettable.
Handa is enraged because he's poured his entire life into studying calligraphy. He sacrificed all the childhood fun, teenage escapades, and adulthood leisure time his peers enjoyed in the pursuit of perfecting his calligraphy, only for some grumpy old man whose opinions everyone cares about to tell him that his work is too perfect, like an assembly-line printout. He's poured all the gratification he could have gotten from other human connections into the gratification he gets from reactions to his work, so it doesn't take much more than a "meh" to completely crush his spirit.
Barakamon means "easygoing guy," the absolute least accurate word to describe its protagonist, but in another clever contradiction, Handa is the greatest thing about this extremely memorable anime. In a medium full of baffling mad geniuses or casually talented teens, it's rare to see such a relatable neurotic artist like Handa, whose struggles should speak to anybody who's ever questioned just "how good" they are at their life's passion and how much that reputation matters to them. Eternally haunted by imposter syndrome, Handa seems to find himself climbing an impossible mountain of artistic ambition, where he's missing out on life by pouring all his effort into his art, but also burning himself out by churning out pieces that all blur together until he starts feeling unable to recognize them as his own. His emotionally constipated father only drives him further into letting his work consume him, and his mother makes up the difference by trying too hard to baby him from the world. His only friend is his art dealer, who hassles Handa as much as he supports him. Handa's a mess, but he's such a great detailed picture of a mess that he speaks to the strength of his own creator as an artist, being able to characterize their own complex feelings so well.
The solution to Handa's woes is much simpler, but no less enjoyable. Of course, this tortured artist has to go to an island with the world's most chill country folk who teach him to loosen up and enjoy life, and at first, the whole setup rings of sappy clichés. However, Barakamon staves off the potential treacle by giving its island setting a complex sense of character and atmosphere all its own. The villagers may be unbelievably nice and accommodating, but that's just what the hyper-introverted Handa needs to start coming out of his shell, and nice neighbors don't make life in the backwoods automatically easy. There are long sweaty hikes for supplies and broken old utilities and hordes of icky stinkbugs to interrupt Handa's inspiration quest, forcing him to improvise when both daily life and calligraphy don't go as planned. Sometimes his work comes out flawed, gimmicky, or spur-of-the-moment, and he has to learn that all those things are okay too.
Handa's journey isn't just about embracing life and growing as an artist through new experiences, but also learning that if his art grows in weird directions and even fewer people understand or like it than before, he's still grown as a person, and that's much more important. When one of Handa's biggest fanboys (who recently beat him in a competition) follows him to the island and starts criticizing the more experimental work he's been doing there, Handa lets loose an outburst that proves he still cares too much about other people's approval of his work. "First I win a competition, and they tell me my work is boring! Then I make something interesting, and I lose! What do you want? I don't know what I'm supposed to do anymore." Over time, Handa realizes that he loves even the less palatable work he's been doing on the island more than anything he ever made in Tokyo, and not just the pieces he's been submitting to exhibitions. He taught a couple middle-school girls calligraphy. He christened the side of an old man's boat. He remade the patron heading for a worn-down shrine and even got to add his name.
None of those creations will be seen in a gallery, but they're all still part of Handa's art, and they had just as great of an emotional impact on not only himself, but the people he gave them to. It's a clever twist on the "burned-out artist gets inspired by a vacation amongst the simple folk" formula that acknowledges that the peak of an artist's work is not the peak of their life as a person. Handa might not be making the best art either before or after he goes to the island, but he's making his best art, and he'll keep on making it as long as he never stops embracing life.
But honestly, all this serious exploration of what it means to be an artist might be burying the lede when it comes to Barakamon. First and foremost, this show is a comedy, and it spends most of its run trying to make you laugh your butt off. There are tons of wild takes, quirky characters, wacky misunderstandings, and silly slapstick right from the start of the show, when Handa lands his sucker punch on the curator in fluidly-animated, thrice-repeated, glorious slow motion. This turns out to be a fluke for poor Handa, because most of the show's jokes are at his expense instead, thanks to the incorrigibly spunky six-year old Naru who can't get enough of pestering him. Despite its tender insights, there really isn't a moment of drama in this show that isn't underscored with humor, making it breezy to watch for nearly all ages and interests despite its potentially esoteric subject matter (Japanese calligraphy). The flipside to this is that Handa's journey can also feel incredibly cheesy, since there's never a dour moment that can't be smoothed over with gorgeous scenery or a goofy punchline. Still, if your mushiness tolerance is just slightly above average, Barakamon's balance of chuckles and insight is extremely endearing, buoyed by terrific art, animation, and an all-star cast of Japanese seiyuu from Daisuke Ono at the peak of his comic delivery to a large cast of village kids played entirely by real child actors, a welcome rarity for anime.
The English language track is also a rewarding option, even if the kids are played by voice actresses rather than actual children, and some of the bumpkin dialect jokes ring differently in translation. (The dub indulges in regional accents and slang when they're needed for a joke, but doesn't otherwise, which is probably best to keep the dialogue from being too distracting even if it feels less authentic.) Robert McCollum's imposing gravelly tone creates a great comedic contrast when paired with Handa's exasperated demeanor, and Alison Viktorin makes for a painfully adorable Naru. The Japanese track has a few natural advantages over the English dub, but you definitely can't go wrong with either preference. Extras are limited to the usual clean theme songs, trailers, and a pair of dub commentaries. On the note of audio, Barakamon's musical score is definitely the most disappointing thing about it, with its two great j-rock theme songs undercut by the show's basic, forgettable, and sometimes repetitive in-show soundtrack. Oh well. As Handa himself might learn, art can be wildly inspired on some levels and completely lackluster in others, but even deeply flawed art is worth making.
Barakamon isn't deeply flawed, but its low-key slightness made it an easy-to-miss gem amongst the bigger and louder titles of each passing anime season. Whether it's the lovely production design, gleeful sense of humor, or thoughtful meditations on how even "mediocre" art can affect creators, critics, and patrons alike, there's a little something special about this deceptively simple show for folks of all strokes.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : C+
+ Great sense of humor and atmosphere, heartening insights into an artist's growth, exuberant art and animation, top-tier Japanese cast that uses real child voice actors
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