As we start wrapping things up for our holiday reviews, let's shift our focus to some warm and fuzzy slice-of-life manga. We'll start with the one that's all about small towns, cute kids, and...calligraphy?
BARAKAMON, by Satsuki Yoshino. First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2014.
Handa Seishuu is a bright young professional calligrapher, but he's also got something of a temper. He needs to get away for a while because he punched his boss for calling Handa's art workmanlike. So he heads off to an island on the far western coast of Japan, where he can hopefully get away from the world and find some new inspiration. What Handa finds there is anything but peace and quiet, though. He soon becomes the talk of the small town, as well as the focus for the curious and hyperactive little girl Naru. While relaxing may now be out of the question, Handa is slowly coming around to small town living and small town people.
This is a premise we've all seen before. Some high-falutin' city person comes to the country for some contrived reason, and said person ends up having a lot of fish-out-water moments as they have hilarious encounters with the backwards locals. In the end, though, the city person comes to love the community and chooses to stay. While it's too early to say if Barakamon will follow this formula to its end, it builds upon this formula to create something that's wonderfully charming.
While Handa is technically our lead, it becomes clear from early on that Naru becomes the breakout character, and that's a fact that could be potentially distressing. After all, manga tends to idealize small children in the same way that most forms of media tend to do. They turn them into cute little performing monkeys, there to act charming and perfect and adorable, but not like a real child. Naru definitely does not have that problem. To be honest, Naru is kind of a brat. She's always butting in, climbing on things, repeating all the bad words she's not supposed to hear, and generally hanging off of Handa at every opportunity she gets. While she gets a lot of screentime in the course of the volume, Yoshino never wears out her welcome with the reader (the same cannot be said for Handa). She's cute, she's hilarious, but she never takes either quality to the extremes of obnoxiousness. After all, she's not all that much different from the other villagers. Oh sure, they're obvious a little more mature and understanding about Handa and his issues, but they still take every opportunity to barge in his door, ask naïve questions, spread gossip, and cosset him like a small child, and it's all played for gentle good humor.
This sounds like it could become a little cruel towards Handa, but it ultimately works because Handa himself is allowed to be less than perfect and more than a little silly himself. He's a competent calligrapher, but he's bad at taking criticism, a sore loser, and doesn't really exert himself beyond what is necessary. He's not exactly a good person. Hell, if anything he's kind of an immature jerk. Knowing that, the jokes that the rest of the cast make at his expense feel less like bullying and more like bringing a buffoon back down to earth. He does make strides as a person as the story goes on. He proves himself more than adept at handling the village kids, and he does start to warm a little to the other villagers when he sees how far out of their way they'll go to make him comfortable. He even starts to find real inspiration in his work. There's a sequence early on where a day out with Naru inspires an athletic bout of artistic inspiration, ending with "fun" writ large, the brushstrokes full of the energy Handa expended and experience. Slowly but surely, the churlishness is melting from his heart and mind, and while it's not an instant transformation it's still a little heartwarming.
In some ways, this series reminds me of Kiyohiko Azuma's Yotsuba &!. Both share a casual and humorous tone, along with a focus on the smaller, quainter things in life in conjunction with an adorable, quirky little girl. That's where the similarities end, though. Barakamon is faster, snappier, more verbal, and less whimsical than that series. While it does capture some of the charms of small town life and adorable little kids, it doesn't idealize them either. So while Barakamon may be built on a familiar formula, it still manages to find its own comedic voice.
While the artwork has a certain charm about it, it's also clear that this is Yoshino's first proper manga series. The character designs are pleasant enough to look at and have a lot of variety in size, shape, and age, but they're also kind of stiff and the mouths are rather flappy. Naru tends to be drawn in a style that verges upon super-deformed, as her eyes bug into blank circles and her focus is fixed upon whatever shiny new thing caught her attention. The backgrounds are suitably well-drawn and homey, but perspectives and shading tend to be rather flat. Still, it's always easy to follow and Yoshino is fond of layering in jokes in the background, usually in the form of Naru running around doing things. Overall, like's Handa's calligraphy the artwork is a little rough around the edges but still good looking enough to get the job done.
The charm and humor of the story go a long way towards smoothing out what few, minor issues can be found in the art. As long as it never looses its slightly snarky spirit or overplays the trump card it has in Naru, I can see this becoming a must-read along the same line as Yotsuba&!.
This series is published by Yen Press. This series is ongoing in Japan, with 10 volumes available so far. 2 volumes have been published, and both are currently in print.
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