I Couldn’t Think of an Ink Based Pun – Anime Critique: Barakamon

Barakamonv1Title: Barakamon
Format: TV series
Genre: comedy, slice of life
Series Creator: Satsuki Yoshino
Series Director: Masaki Tachibana
Studio: Kinema Citrus
Series length: 12
Original Airing dates: July 6 – September 27, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


Synopsis:

Seishu Handa is a pro calligrapher, despite his young age. When the elderly curator of an exhibition criticizes his calligraphy for being too unoriginal (“like a copybook”), Handa gets angry and punches the curator. In the wake of this faux pas, his father sends him off for a retreat on Goto Island, near Kyushu. There, he meets the colourful villagers, interacts with them, and begins to learn.


Review:

Barakamon more or less follows the typical Japanese reaction comedy formula. You have one or two baka (idiot) style characters, saying or doing outrageous things whilst the straight man reacts, either with vocal outrage or a burst of slapstick violence. Barakamon doesn’t attempt to break this mould in terms of routine but it honestly doesn’t have to. This is because it’s also a situational comedy as well as a fish out of water story. Yet all of these cliched comedy tropes do nothing to detract from the actual humour within the series.

How I feel when trying to write reviews in public.
How I feel when trying to write reviews in public.

That is because the comedy is based in the location as well as the fairly unique characters or usurpation of trope. With Handa-sensei (called so because he’s master of a skill, not really a teacher) acting as both straight-man & foil to his own embarrassment created punchline. He’s an excellent dichotomy between the confident artist & the neurotic self-critic. Unable to control his impulses & always pushed to his limit by those around him -especially the tomboyish 6 year old Naru, one of the locals of the island he finds himself living on after his exile from Tokyo.

This form of comedy thrives on an ensemble cast, each existing to provide a contrast to the protagonists or set up punchlines for others to trip over -usually in the form of an outlandish reaction or over the top verbal outburst. The humour has to be fast paced & the reactions to extreme for the situation, so the series is filled with both quick punch jokes or slow boil scenarios -both of which work exceptionally well.

Naru: the face of fun.
Naru: the face of fun.

Yet, as mentioned in the first line of the previous paragraph, it is the characters that surround Handa-sensei. Primary to this group is Naru, the aforementioned little tomboy, who instantly latches onto Handa-sensei because he’s entirely new to the island. Most of her humour is derived from her either trying to get his attention or trying to cheer him up when he makes himself depressed over his lack of progress -both of which usually results in him getting physically injured or scared by her. Despite his outward antagonism towards the little girl, he shows genuine concern for her & plays along. Partially out of concern for her but mostly because he spend all of his childhood practising his calligraphy he never got to play like other children.

There are other characters too, who had to the humour or Handa-sensei’s frustration -like the mischievous girls Miwa & Tamako- or take on the role of straightman to the lunacy around them -such as Hiroshi & Tamako’s younger brother, Akihiko. Out of the four, Miwa & Tamako get the most screentime, since Handa-sensei’s house used to be where they secretly hung out & they are unwilling to let that go. Whilst Miwa does more on screen, I personally found Tamako a lot funnier as a character. She wants to become a manga artist, drawing brutal Shonen stories. She’s also drawn to BL/yaoi manga but denies this since she doesn’t want to be labelled as a fujoshi, or Rotten Woman, but is always imagining Handa-sensei being in love with Hiroshi because Hiroshi cooks for the calligrapher in exchange for some lessons. This usually leads to Tamako having huge outbursts at Handa-sensei whilst trying to subconsciously pair them up.

Fujoshi fury unleashed!
Fujoshi fury unleashed!

The series isn’t all frenetic sight gags & slapstick. In between the heavy paced comedy the series gets to show off some beautiful visuals, the ocean & landscapes of the island -all of which go to inspire Handa-sensei in finding his new unique style. Like so many other series this season, the visuals for so many incidental details are topnotch. The sparkle of the sun upon the sea, the dappled shade as light filters through the leaves. They’re not as great as in say Glasslips but they are pretty speccy to look at. Naru’s varied expressions are also adorable, even when they’re referencing some other obscure (in the West at least) works.

Kids sure do grow up quickly these days.
Kids sure do grow up quickly these days.

If I were to critique (which I am doing anyway) one major drawback of the series, it is that it doesn’t really break any new ground & a few themes & characters are introduced a touch late. Mainly Handa-sensei’s overprotective mother, Emi, who resorts to outbursts of physical violence (beating her fists up & down) whenever she gets frustrated. Her husband & son naturally are able to shrug these off but Handa-sensei’s best friend & manager, Kawafuji Takao, is unable to do so -copping a real & humorous beating from her when he makes fun of her overprotective nature. Kawafuji himself is a well rendered foil for Handa-sensei’s demanding ego & neurosis but similar finds himself out of his depth when he ventures to the island to see his friend. There was a lot of potential for more original humour & ideas there but it all fell back into basic ideas of community & belonging. With Handa-sensei coming to feel that the island is the only place that he can truly be happy because everyone accepts him for who he is, not because of his prodigious talent as a calligrapher.

In the end, this is a very fun, sweet & silly series that, despite not breaking any new ground, is definitely worth the time to watch. It has a playful sense of humour that uses good callbacks to earlier gags, especially in the post credit coda scenes. It is visual exceptionalness beats any drawbacks that the plot might have. Plus it doesn’t have many gags that are restricted to limited cultural & media references that only the most hardcore cultural otaku would get. A great series to watch when you want a sweet pick-me-up or just to laugh your manboobs off with.

Basking in work well done. Or he had a wank. One or the other.
Basking in work well done. Or he had a wank. One or the other.
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Twists, Turns & Curves but not Confusing – Anime Review: ⌈K⌋

k-anime_oTitle: ⌈K⌋ (K Project, King Project, Kings)
Format: anime series
Genre: supernatural, fantasy, action, comedy
Series Creator: GoRa
Series Director: Shingo Suzuki
Studio: GoHands
Series length: 13 eps
Original Airing dates: October 5, 2012 – December 28, 2012
Reviewed format: blu-ray
Distributer: Madman


Synopsis:

Yashiro Isana has lived a relatively ordinary, simple life. He lives in the technologically-advanced Shizume City and attends Ashinaka High School, a notable high school that is located on an island just outside the areas. Yashiro is friendly with everyone. Nothing ever seems wrong about him, except perhaps his habit of forgetting where his school-issued PDA is. However, nothing normal has been happening since the recent murder of Tatara Totsuka, prominent member of the infamous HOMRA. No one knows who exactly killed him but the man responsible bears an uncanny, identical appearance to Yashiro. Seeking vengeance, the Red Clansmen of HOMRA set out to get Yashiro and kill him. Everyone suspects that Yashiro is the murderer. Isana Yashiro was not the person who killed Tatara Totsuka but yet another mysterious character is pulling the strings behind the curtains, a person who is quite dangerous and powerful.


Review:

Two years ago I came to this mysterious series through nothing but an action based trailer but ⌈K⌋ quickly became one of my favourite anime series of the past decade.

The primary reason for this is because it mentally challenged me & kept me guessing as to what happened before we entered the narrative & what actually is going on. To me, this is a rarity because I’m so well versed in narratives that I often guess what will happen from gleaming tiny bits of information & whilst I figured out a lot of what was meant to be happening, it still cleverly kept me engaged & wanting to know more & more until the true unfurling of the background of things. This series is by no means perfect -which will be addressed later- but narratively speaking it is exceptionally clever & fairly original in many ways.

One reason as to why is because you are drip feed information & clues that are more easily picked up in later viewings. Nothing is deliberately obscured or confusing, there is a strong internal logic within the series, even if it is not always apparent at first glance. There rules & exceptions are set forth along with the draw backs of power & what lies outside of the defined Clans & Domains (& that which isn’t explained in the series is later explained in the various manga & Light Novel spinoffs).

The story literally begins in two parts.
Anime-Koi-K-01-9A4B19FF.mkv_snapshot_04.12_2012.10.06_15.28.19
The first is of two superpowered & warring Clans, who serve under the Red King & the Blue King respectively. You are given absolutely no context as to their powers & why the Red Clan (who call themselves Homra or HMR) are on a rampage in a American mafia office or why the Blues (also referred to as Scepter 4) wish to stop them. You are only given clues to their natures in how they are depicted. The Reds are dressed in Street Punk & Hip Hop Gangsta clothing, using street weapons as well as the power of flames & fire, whilst the Blues are all in matching uniforms, based loosely around 18th century European military style, completely with sabres & rapiers for combat, wielding blue energy slashes & shields.
SCEPTER4_Clan
After this confrontation between the wild Reds & the ordered Blues, we jump to the other part of the story.

Which is based around the cliched, idyllic futurists mega-school built upon an artificial island that does so seem to dominated so much sci-fi anime. Yet it is a cliche & a set up that serves the story well & so much better than other recent series who used the same trope (looking at you again Valvrave the Liberator!). It is meant to be a juxtaposition to the (yet) unexplained supernatural nature of the early confrontation between the Clans by presenting the viewer with something familiar and relatable as well as introducing us to the central protagonist, Isana Yashiro, or simple Shiro (White) to his friends. He is seen as a carefree trickster, getting free food from his schoolmates as his classmate Kukuri tries to both control his behaviour & get him to eat healthily, yet she is completely unable to explain her need to care for him.
k-anime-9
It is only when Kukuri sends Shiro on an errand for the school council that the two halved narratives collide & the idea of sides, powers & the various Clans are begun to be woven together.

This is because Homra believe that Shiro, claiming to be the 7th & Colourless King, murdered their clansman (& the cohesion of their group) Tatara. So they chase Shiro until the Black Hound, vassal to the former Colourless King, Yatogami Kuroh (or Kuro [Black]) rescues Shiro, only to vow to execute him on the spot for his crimes.

& this is all within the 1st episode!

The plot moves at a fairly fast pace, with little wastage -even in the slightly stupid chase scene between Shiro & Kuroh in the 2nd episode where the strange character Neko (who switches between being a cat & a naked girl [will address that in a moment]) uses her powers to confound Kuroh in his pursuit.

There is little exposition from the characters, instead weaving in flashbacks throughout the narrative to establish past relationships & how things got as they are between the various clans. Even the concern between the rival Kings of Red -Mikoto- & Blue -Munakata- & trying to avert a repeat of the never really explained (in the anime) Kagutsu Crater Incident. In fact, the majority of character development is done by flipping between past & present yet you don’t get to know many of the characters outside of their physical appearances & habits during the course of the series.

The characters are a strange dichotomy in so far as the male characters seemed to be designed for or by fujoshi whilst the female characters (the few that there are) seemed to have been designed for & by horny teenage boys.

Yes, now I shall beat my usual hypersexualisation drum!

Outside of Kukuri, there are only three other female characters who appear in the major of episodes. They are Neko, who protects Shiro around, Scepter 4’s 2nd-in-Command Awashima Sera and Homra’s mascot & gothic lolita Anna Kushina.

Out of the 3, only Anna isn’t sexualised in any way. She is only portrayed as an imouto (little sister) style character who is an emotional anchor for the Red King Mikoto so he doesn’t destroy himself through over using his powers.
Screen shot 2012-10-11 at 9.06.25 PM
When we first see Neko, she is totally stark naked -with only her long hair covering her nipples (which you never see during the series). In fact, she totally shuns clothing where she can & is seen during the ending credits starkers as the camera pans up her naked, prone body. Yet Neko plays a central part within the story & can even be seen as a driver of much of the plot. She is loyal to Shiro, claiming that he belongs to her, but she doesn’t try to sexually posses him or dominate him. She acts very much like a cat owning a human, especially in her constant demands for food & attention.

Awashima on the other hand is always in her uniform (or otherwise fully attired) but she might as well not be, since her body is so emphasised in a sexual way. Whenever she uses her special sword slash attack, the camera starts at her barely covered arse & twists around her massive boobs up to her cold face. This happens every time (though more because they want to save money by reusing the same footage) & almost every other shot incorporates her barely covered backside or boobs in some way. She too has narrative drive & is a force to be reckoned with in battle. She is even given the strange quirk of adding Red Beans Paste to almost everything she eats & drinks -much to the disgust of everyone around her.

Even Kukuri isn’t spared the sexualisation & is used for the occasional incidental pantie-shot (which is more disturbing than just focussing on a characters tits in a way).

It is very much unneeded or even undemanded in my view yet is somehow balanced & counteracted (but not enough) by the fujoshi fan service.

Amongst the paired male cast, there always seems to be a weird sexual tension. With Shiro even blushing in Kuroh’s presence & embrace whenever he is being saved. Shiro even jokingly refers to Kuroh as his ‘wife’ after Kuroh makes him & Neko lunch for school. There is a far more brutal sexual tension between Mikoto & Munakata as well as something fairly disturbing between formerly friends & clansmen Yata & Fushimi.

In fact, the entire male cast seems to run the typical gamut of yaoi (Boy’s Love) tropes. From the feminine Shiro to the cold but protective Kuroh, the wild but emotional punk Mikoto to the cool megane Munakata, the insane megane Fushimi to the tough but virginally innocent Yata. There are more than a few “now kiss!’ moments for the female (& homosexual) fans yet it doesn’t really push any boundaries nor becomes blatant in any way -yet that doesn’t distract from the hypersexualisation of the female characters.

One day I’ll stop beating that drum but not today, even though I will now move on.

One thing you must keep in mind when watching it getting a good sub where they keep the honourifics intact because they play strongly with the character relationships.

Primary to this is relationship between Yata -who is young, passionate & almost uncontrollable- & his in the field partner/offsider Rikio, who refers to Yata as ‘Yata-san’ despite being older than him. Where as most other Homra members call Yata ‘Yata-chan’ because of his small size & feminine 1st name of Misaki.

Visually, the series is utterly beautiful & only enhanced in the blu-ray release -where they’ve added more background & incidental details into the backgrounds as well as made the special attacks prettier. There is so much detail packed into the alt-world Tokyo, yet still keeping it visually on par with the city as it stands today. There are many flat-screen holograms showing various forms of information but they don’t clutter the mise-en-scene or distraction from the action.

The fight scenes are frenetic but handled smoothly, so you never lose track of who is the centre of the action. Most of the attacks are done with twisting or circular motions but the characters always stay within focus (apart from the aforementioned emphasis on Awashima’s body) & the different powers -such as Kuroh’s ghost hands- are clear in their intent & destructive capabilities.

I also utterly adore the opening theme KINGS by the talented band Angela, who many know from various other anime openings -such as Valvrave & Coppolion.

In the end, this is a most worthy series because of how it keeps you guessing as to what is going on within the story yet it doesn’t bring anything out of nowhere. The clues are always there, which adds to the enjoyment of watching it again & again. There is a sequel movie due out later this year as well as all the side manga & Light Novels to round out the narrative universe as well as character backgrounds.

Highly recommended.

K