Episodes 1-8

by Nick Creamer,

I wasn't really expecting to like Barakamon as much as I do - in fact, it wasn't initially on my radar at all. Anime slice of life doesn't tend to connect with me, largely because I don't feel like they're generally reflective of any actual life I could imagine. And “stuck-up calligraphy artist learns to love life from a little girl and some charming country folk” isn't exactly the freshest of premises. But the greater part of art is execution, and so far, Barakamon's stellar execution has made it one of my favorite shows of the season.

Slice of life shows tend to (unsurprisingly) hang on their characters - if a show is more focused on spending time with people than rushing through a strict narrative, they've gotta be people you'd want to spend time with. Barakamon excels on this front, and both of its leads are a joy to visit. On the one hand, errant calligrapher Handa Seishuu is a wonderfully realized young adult, whose overt grumpiness is constantly undercut by his clear passion for life and love of self-expression. And on the other, “village scamp” Naru is pretty much exuberance incarnate. I'm not much of a kid person myself, but Naru really makes me reconsider - her strong personality, deftly animated energy, and endearing vocal performance (some great work by an actual child actress) lend life to any scene she inhabits. She's one of those characters that can make a show all by themselves.

Most episodes so far have taken the form of roughly two half-episode skits, generally concerning Handa exploring some element of the country life he's been thrust into, or possibly the country life he's been thrust into exploring Handa. There's very little of the referential and repetitive humor that drags down so many anime comedies - the humor emerges from the base natures of the characters' personalities, giving it a vitality and distinctiveness while also endearing you to the cast. That's not to say all the humor lands, of course - there still are some occasional stale anime gags (such as when the two high-school age girls pulled a “that sounds lewd” misunderstanding bit), and there's only so much life in the “I don't want to be a fujoshi” jokes that more or less comprise one character's entire personality. But most of the time, the humor is very grounded and human, something certainly aided by the show's excellent pacing and visual aesthetics.

The first episode of Barakamon featured consistent, absurdly good animation, and though that feat hasn't really been repeated since, the show is still a visual treat. Characters move like people - they're emotive without moving into caricature, and the sense of “kid-ness” Naru gives off is greatly assisted by the show being smart enough to constantly animate her racing in circles and hanging off people's shoulders. This also helps the jokes, too - many of the gags work simply because these are funny, endearing people to watch in motion, and the show's endless arsenal of silly faces doesn't hurt either. And beyond both comedy and naturalism of movement, many of the show's best shots are reserved for moments illustrating what Barakamon is really about - the nature of artistic expression, and the joy of life.

Handa's calligraphy isn't just a meaningless detail of Barakamon's premise. His artistic struggles, both internal and external, form the greater part of the show's overt conflicts. He begins the series as a paragon of the “fundamentals,” and is constantly chided (or, even worse, praised) for producing art that seems like something a teacher would make. Art that is reflective of training, but not life. Art that has no soul.

That's not a very nice criticism to hear! That doesn't exactly excuse Handa responding by punching out a respected art critic, but his frustration is understandable, and that remains the case all through Barakamon's run. Each episode offers a new challenge of the artistic process, empathetically illustrating the difficulties all creators face while also poking holes in the “tortured artist” image through Handa's petty, endearing embracing of it. One week it'll be “the terror of the blank canvas” - Handa faces the challenge of painting a name on a new boat, a conflict defused by Naru splattering the canvas with her own handprints. The next, it'll be “the challenge of accepting your idols are just ordinary people,” when Handa is visited by an ambitious young rival. Nearly every episode offers a tangible question of the artistic process, and counters with an expression of life-seizing on the part of Handa and the people he's growing close to. These conflicts add a depth and focus to the show while also offering plenty of fodder for jokes, and serve to illustrate Handa Seishuu as one of the most well-rounded and endearing characters of the season. They are what make Barakamon great.

So that's where we're at so far! I'm greatly enjoying the show, and look forward to exploring whatever our remaining episodes have to offer. I'll likely be spending a fair bit of these posts gushing over whatever new art lesson each episode provides, so, uh, bear with me on that one.

Rating: B+

Barakamon is currently streaming on Funimation.

Nick writes about anime, storytelling, and the meaning of life at Wrong Every Time.

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