Folks will remember that two years ago I reviewed the first volume of Barakamon and really liked it. Spoilers: the series is still charming as hell and it's still one of my ongoing favorites. So naturally when I heard that Yen Press was releasing a prequel series, I had to check it out.
HANDA-KUN, by Satsuki Yoshino. First published in 2013 and first published in North America in 2016.
Long before Sei Handa went to Goto Island, he was a calligraphy-obsessed high school student. His classmates think that Sei's aloof air makes him a cool guy. What they don't know is that he's actually incredibly negative and insecure and perceives all the attention as mockery and gossip. Sei is so oblivious to the truth that he manages to stumble his way through love confessions, school council elections, popular guys and class punks.
By all accounts, I should love Handa-Kun. I love the original series and was all too ready to see Yoshino bring her particular combination of heartwarming and hilarity to Sei Handa's high school years. So why didn't I laugh once while reading this?
The premise is perfectly fine. Yes, it's completely ludicrous, but that's the entire point. It's the punchline to every gag. No matter what sort of social danger he might face, Sei is determined to misinterpret it like a teenaged calligraphy-writing Eeyore. It's a great opportunity to turn a lot of bog-standard high school story set-ups into ridiculous farces. There's just a couple of problems with that: the characters aren't terribly interesting and the punchline is always the same One of the great charms of Barakamon is the wide cast of characters. They're more than just goofy yokels, even from the beginning. They have relationships and foibles all their own. Sei's classmates don't really have that. They're mostly a bunch of pompous buffoons and lovesick girls who are dumb enough to interpret Sei's weirdness as nobility and awesomeness. Sei also suffers in comparison. Sure, he's still pretty neurotic by the events of Barakamon, but he's also proud, curious, and even caring (albeit reluctantly). We don't get to see any of those sides of him in Handa-Kun, which means that he's literally a one-note joke. It doesn't matter how many people Yoshino makes him deal with if the end result is always the same, and that's what ultimately undermines both the humor and the story itself.
At least the quality of the art remained the same. The character designs have a nice variety of normal, cute-looking folks with the weirder, goofier ones. There are loads of ridiculous reaction faces to go around. Yoshino also uses a lot more visual gags than she does in Barakamon. Sei in particular likes to imagine all sorts of dark auras and glass walls around himself in his darker moods. The composition is a little weird. The closest analogue I can think of is Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun. While it doesn't hold itself to the 4-koma formula in the same way that series does, it does use the same series of four long, rectangular panels versus a more varied and typical page set-up. The craziest the paneling gets is when it opens up into a full-page image for introductions and the ultimate punchlines. Yoshino uses the space well, though. She not only adds in plenty of background jokes, but also some nicely drawn actual backgrounds. At the very least, she actually draws her characters outside of school, which means that already it's more visually interesting than the vast majority of school-based comedies.
Aside from the usual translation notes, the back covers feature a cameo from Miwa, Tomo, and Naru. Of course, being a prequel means that the first two are all of 7 years old and Naru is literally a baby. Still, the little omake strips with them were some of the funniest bits in the book, as well as a reminder of the series I would prefer to be reading.
Handa-Kun is by no means a lazy tie-in, but it lacks the variety and depth of the series that spawned it. Unless you absolutely must know more about Sei Handa, I wouldn't bother.
This series is published by Yen Press. This series is complete in Japan with 7 volumes available. 4 volumes are currently available and all are currently in print. The series is also available in e-book form and in chapter form via Yen Press's digital app.
Want a chance to win a $25 RightStuf gift certificate to buy manga like this one? All you have to do is leave a comment here to enter this year's Annual Holiday Giveaway!