NOTE: This is a rewrite of something I did many years ago.
Barakamon is an easily endearing show. It’s a series brimming with warmth and passion, one that even people who don’t watch anime could easily get drawn into. It’s easy to gush over stories like these as a creator of any kind. One that connects with how many of us feel, brimming with self-doubt and constantly trying to get in touch with why we do what we do. Barakamon doesn’t always nail the full extent of these ideas, but it’s an immensely charming work that makes some wonderful statements.
Barakamon follows Handa Seishuu, a young calligrapher who finds himself on a rural Japanese island trying to rediscover his passion for calligraphy. Along this journey he meets an energetic little girl named Naru Kotoishi. Together with the other free spirits of the island, Naru helps Handa discover his creative identity, and what it means to value the people around him.
The first episode tells its own story, one which the rest of the series builds from. Handa is sent to live on a humble little island after stubbornly refusing to take criticism for his calligraphy. Actually, he didn’t just refuse to take criticism. He punched an art director in the face and refused to apologise. Handa takes his rigid style very seriously, even if his obsession with fundamentals quashes his ability to create anything personal.
On this middle of nowhere island Handa struggles understand a word of the local dialect. He realises he’s not in Tokyo anymore; surrounded by vast stretches of countryside, chirping cicadas, and old-fashioned houses with old-fashioned appliances. For the viewer it creates a glowing atmosphere that’s easy to get comfortable with, but for Handa it’s a scary new world.
Handa tries to concentrate on his calligraphy, but he’s still deflated from having his art criticised by the director. As a creator even the most well-meaning criticism can be upsetting, especially when you feel a part of you exists in what you’ve made. In its best moments Barakamon reflects on that self-conscious creative instinct with a fair bit of grace, using the upbeat slice of life moments to show Handa’s struggles play out in everyday life.
Eventually we’re introduced to Naru, the careless youth who changes Handa’s world. Naru takes a look at his calligraphy and says “it’s just how [her] teacher writes at school”. Being told this so bluntly starts to make him reflect. By being afraid of taking risks, Handa lacks a sense of himself in his creations.
Later in the day Naru tries to climb a flood wall to see the sunset. It’s a cloudy day, so Handa doubts he’ll even see a sunset and refuses to follow her. Naru responds by telling him that he “ain’t gonna’ know unless [he] climb[s] up [himself]”. Handa ends up following her, and he sees the gorgeous sunset she promised. Naru is a symbol for the creative spirit, and the rewards of trying new things. It’s through her that Handa learns both those things.
When Handa returns to his dingy little house he becomes overwhelmed, splattering his canvas with the character for ‘fun’ in a wild flurry of inspiration. Afterwards he makes a phone call to his friend, Takao. He admits he was wrong for what he did, but says he isn’t ready to personally apologise to the director. Handa learned a valuable lesson, but he still has a ways to go and he knows it.
Of course, bursts of inspiration don’t always last. And when faced with the struggle of continuing to create Handa is stumped. The person he is when he’s inspired and the person he is when he’s not seem like two different people to him. Handa tries to fill that void with intense hard work, but that ultimately leads to him collapsing and being hospitalised. After an encounter with a friendly ghost at the hospital Handa is deeply inspired, and immediately tries to go back to his calligraphy. Of course, having just been hospitalised, he’s forced to stay in bed. Inspiration doesn’t wait for when it’s most convenient, and creativity is always an endless balance of the passion to do things and the means to get it done.
Then there’s the struggle of dealing with failure. Once again Handa takes it badly when he comes second place in a calligraphy exhibition. Runner-up isn’t too bad, and others seem to agree. But to Handa, it’s complete and utter failure. Sometimes creators hold themselves to absurd standards, and struggle to accept the bumps in the road. From there, one failure snowballs into a complete loss of self-esteem for Handa.
Handa finds himself dragged along to a mochi catching festival by Naru, a new concept to him as a city dweller. He has no success and starts to consider giving up, both at the mochi grabbing and at his calligraphy. Despite that he pushes on when an elderly villager tells him “You won’t see any opportunities from below if you’re looking above your head all the time”. Creative success isn’t a mechanical process where effort goes in and results come out the other end. You stumble and make mistakes, and it’s only when you accept those mistakes that you can move on and become better.
Barakamon is a series with a lot of gag scenes, for better and for worse. One thing I like is Naru. She’s silly and adorable and continually funny. Moreover, her gestures are animated with all the fun and energy of a hyperactive kid. All of this helps to elevate every gag she’s a part of.
What I didn’t like as much is Barakamon’s tendency to dip into, well, anime comedy. Barakamon is a truly funny series, but sometimes it falls into crude material. Gags like Hiroshi’s mother loudly expressing unfulfilled maternal desires are as tepid as they are sorta’ gross. It’s strange that such a good-natured series finds joy in poking fun at aging women for their desirability. It’s an unfortunate thing that comes with the territory of anime, but I feel it’s well below a series like Barakamon.
Entering the second act of sorts, Barakamon settles on being part silly slice-of-life and part earnest reflection on creativity. Half an episode dedicated to gags like Handa’s tragic cat allergies, and the other half dedicated to revelations like the courage to be express vulnerability in art. One of the high points is episode seven. It’s not much more than a quiet reflection on Handa’s growth thus far, but the way it grows organically from the quirky characters shows Barakamon at its best.
When everyone works together to catch a high-grade fish they fail, and they fail miserably. Handa and the others don’t cry, and they don’t pity themselves. In fact, they laugh out loud. We see Handa’s growth in his ability to accept the roadblocks, whether in creativity or in everyday life. Being able to stumble and learn and laugh at things is profoundly human, and a valuable lesson in life and creativity.
As the final act comes together, the story threads come together gracefully. Handa has come to appreciate the people on this humble island, and they’ve come to appreciate Handa. With that comes a poignant reminder that it can’t last forever. Eventually Handa will have to say goodbye, and it’s going to hurt. Naru most of all will feel lonely, with no one else to be there for her after the death of her grandmother. The most Handa can do is be there for Naru while he can, just as her grandmother would want.
Handa finds himself being taken to the village shrine, where he’s given the honour of repainting a plaque in honour of the people who founded it. The people of the islands love Handa as much as he loves them, and they’re not afraid to show it. Despite all this, Handa has come to the inevitable farewell, spending his last night creating more wonderful memories at a festival. Over this final stretch, I started to appreciate the simple presence of Barakamon’s characters and places as much as its ideas. These are people I want to meet and a place I want to go, and that makes parting more emotional.
Handa starts to get anxious as he prepares his final work for the exhibiton. He wonders whether he’s done enough. The Handa we began with would’ve cracked under the pressure, but the one we have by this point is stronger. He knows that fumbling over the question of whether he’s doing enough won’t help, and so he briefly settles down. But he can’t shake it entirely.
When Handa returns to Tokyo it comes with a tense atmosphere. With his anxieties at their peak, he’s come to meet the director for the first time since he laid hands on him. As always, he finds excuses to not have confidence in his work; an all too common an experience as any sort of creator. Barakamon once again manages to capture that feeling in a way that’s funny and resonant as he rambles about how he thinks it’s too good to call his own.
When the director comes, Handa shows great humility and bows in apology for what he did. Handa has grown to the extent the director is astonished by his politeness. Unfortunately, as the director is looking at his work, Handa cracks and splatters iced tea on it and says that it was just an experiment. Barakamon immediately follows this up with a big emotional payoff: the director finally praises Handa for his work, and tells him how much he’s matured as an artist. Handa’s mistake slightly muddies this moment, but his profound character growth shines through.
Barakamon stumbles in some of its final moments, delving into more bad anime comedy. Handa wants to go back to the island, but his mother doesn’t want that. This is played as a joke, with wall to wall insipid anime faces and dramatic overreactions. Despite that, it manages to hit all the important character beats, with Handa’s father telling him to make that choice for himself and the mother changing her mind when she sees the joy he’s brought to some of those island folks’ lives. Handa’s choice is to come back to the island, and to continue living with the people who’ve given him so much.
Thankfully, Barakamon reaches its conclusion with smooth sailing after that point. Handa looks out at the sea just as he did in the first episode, this time seeing its beauty instead of lamenting. And then in typical charming Barakamon fashion, Naru welcomes him back with a devastating tackle. When asked about how he did in the exhibition, he simply answers that he was happy with his result. When the pressure is off Handa sees that it doesn’t matter whether he succeeded. It matters that he wants to keep getting better. It matters that he cherishes the people and experiences that inspire him.
Barakamon isn’t the most ambitious anime about creative identity I’ve seen (that honour would go to Shirobako). But Barakamon nails its core points and does it in its own distinct and special way. It knows what it means to be a creator, and it knows what it means to grow as a creator. More than that, Barakamon just feels good to be with. It’s a heart-warming story about fun people, brimming with emotional sincerity. I think we could do with more stories like that.
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