Translation/Adaptation: Krista Shipley, Karie Shipley
Lettering: Lys Blakeslee
Take one hotshot young calligrapher from Tokyo and put him in a fishing village with a bunch of quirky locals and what do you get? It’s called Barakamon, and it’s great.
Urban life: it’s so stressful. So rote. So competitive. Everyone is crammed together, but no one really knows anybody. Proximity conversely creates distance. Life in a village would be so much better. Serene. Simpler. Full of creative possibilities. Out there, there’s room for the mind to wander and the spirit to grow.
Don’t tell me you haven’t heard that cliché. The idyllic virtues of small towns have been extolled across media from Victorian literature to Superman. Manga is not immune to this trend either. One of the most popular “slice of life” manga in recent years is Silver Spoon, a story about a farming high school by Hiromu Arakawa of Fullmetal Alchemist fame. (If you haven’t read it, you should!)
With all of this in mind, I set my expectations for Barakamon pretty low. I’m not saying that there aren’t benefits to small town life—I’ve lived in both small towns and big cities in the US, so I can see some of the pluses and minuses of both—but as with many common tropes, it’s easy to fall into stereotypes. Here’s what I braced myself for: “simple-minded” and uncultured local residents out of touch with the modern world but with deep-seated wisdom; a too-cool city slicker who knows nothing about where food comes from nor how to care for himself; hijinks based on this dynamic.
Luckily—for me and for the manga—I read the first four volumes, and now I’m a bit peeved that I’ll have to wait until June to read the fifth. Barakamon has me hook, line, and sinker.
That being said, I pretty much got what I expected from Volume 1. Seishuu Handa, our protagonist, is a calligrapher who takes himself a bit too seriously—so seriously, in fact, that he punches a calligraphy master for calling his work pedantic. Clearly, someone needs a time out. Fortunately for Seishuu, there’s a house waiting for him on a small island in the Gotou Archipelago off the western edge of Kyūshū, Japan’s southernmost large island. The sea air and quiet island life is surely just what he needs to chill out and bring his inner self to light through his art form. Unfortunately, peace and quiet isn’t as easy to come by as all that, especially when he attracts the attention of the naturally curious (Seishuu would say “nosy”) locals. Particularly when he’s immediately adopted by Naru, an energetic schoolkid with a ton of questions and unending spunk.
Like a lot of manga, Barakamon takes a bit of time to really hit its stride. If I were reviewing this based on Volume 1 alone, my response would probably be “meh.” The local islanders are so random and strange and Seishuu is so clueless that I wasn’t sure where it was going or why I was reading it. Slapstick comedy, rudimentary introductions to bugs and fishing and children … I wasn’t sure this was the manga for me. Plus, to give the English dialogue a sense of the island dialect, the translators chose to use a lot pseudo-Southern US phrases. For instance, they use “Ah” instead of “I” and leave the “g” off of “-ing,” and that’s a personal pet peeve of mine.
But I persevered. Volume 2 is better than Volume 1. During Volume 3, I was laughing out loud at the jokes. Volume 4 was over much too quickly, as I devoured it in a scant 90 minutes.
What’s been so engaging? Let’s start with the art, because it’s good. Yoshino’s style is approachable and clear, and the characters are distinctly individual without resorting to routinely overemphasized features. The environment and backgrounds are rendered nicely with the right amount of detail. The panel layouts are dynamic but easy to follow. All in all, it doesn’t particularly stand out—until it does. There are a couple of scenes in each volume that are absolute knockouts: ocean views, Seishuu’s calligraphy studio, an evening with friends, a typhoon. In Volume 4, there’s a scene set in a cemetery during Obon that is simply stunning. As Seishuu and Naru watch, islanders in elaborate ceremonial dress perform a chankoko (Buddhist prayer dance); the scene is lovingly rendered. Consider reading Volume 4 for this scene alone, truly.
Then there’s the supplemental material. A lot of manga have it, but few use it as well as they do in Barakamon. In a scant three pages at the back of the book, they cram in some excellent translation notes as well as contextual information on the culture and dialect of Gotou. I was somewhat mollified to discover that there are sound reasons behind the stylistic choice to render the islanders’ speech like Southern American English. Well, okay then. By the end of Volume 2, I actually wasn’t even noticing the dialect anymore, I was just reading the dialogue. As it turns out, Yoshino is from Goto, and “approximately 80% of Barakamon was based on personal experience” (p. 191, Barakamon, Vol. 2). Also, the author’s mother was the dialect assistant for the manga. No wonder the unique culture of the island is portrayed so naturally and intimately.
So, good art: check. Good context: check. When we’re talking about stories I like, though, I’m really all about the characters. If they’re not real—if they don’t grow, change, or evolve—then I lose interest pretty darn quickly.
Barakamon succeeds here, too. While Seishuu and the islanders start out as stereotypes, Satsuki Yoshino carefully and sensitively increases their depth of character. Not only do we learn why Seishuu suffers from artists’ block and watch him chip away at it, but piece by piece we learn more about other villages: Naru, her grandfather, Seishuu’s landlord, the two tough middle school girls who invade Seishuu’s home, the school principal, the shopkeep, and the village chief. Whether it’s a small scene or a large scene, each character is given a chance to shine.
Best of all, the side characters don’t just disappear after one shining moment; they continue to interact with Seishuu and the other main characters. The islanders aren’t just props for Seishuu’s growth; they’re fully fleshed out individuals with their own problems, motivations, quirks, and goals. Barakamon isn’t really the story of one man’s search for self-enlightenment—it’s the story of a community, and that’s something I can really appreciate.