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.

The All Singing, All Dancing Lesbian Troop – Anime Critique: Hanayamata

8b4d6a16fc4574fefd0438507a3030651402376724_fullTitle: Hanayamata
Format: TV series
Genre: slice of life, comedy, Girl’s Love
Series Creator: Sou Hamayumiba
Series Director: Atsuko Ishizuka
Studio: Madhouse
Series length: 12 episodes
Original Airing dates: July 7 – September 22, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


Synopsis:

Naru Sekiya is an ordinary 14-year old girl who likes fairy tales, but is worried about her lack of other interests. She has a chance encounter with a “fairy”, a foreign girl practicing dance at night. On a spur of the moment, Naru asks to join her and is introduced to the world of yosakoi dancing.


Review:

Hanayamata fits nicely into the Cute Girls Doing Cute Things subgenre, not dissimilar to the aforereviewed Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu ka from last season. The general gist of it is a group of early teenaged girls getting together in order to have fun, gain confidence & strengthen their bonds of friendship. I mentioned lesbians in the title because this series leans towards to the Girl’s Love (similar to Yuri but lacking the sexual side of things). Outside of paternal figures, there is an absence of males within series. & the girls show blushing cute attraction to each other that leans more towards extreme/deep friendship attraction than Sapphicism.

Also, unlike the aforementioned Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu, Hanayamata is less a situational based series than a driven narrative-based story.

The general thrust of the series is the shy Naru, who hides from everything & would rather lose herself in her fairytales, finding someone & something to give her the passion & confidence to face reality. Naru finds this through her encounter with the pixie-esque foreign girl, Hana N. Fountainstand, whom Naru initially mistakes for a fairy wanting to take her to a magical kingdom.

Hana is a pretty typical Weeaboo, who is obsessed with all things Japanese to the point that she wishes to reshape her entire cultural identity. Her primary focus is on Yosakoi, because she witnessed a dance trope when she was a little girl visiting Japan. Hana’s goal is to start a Yosakoi club at her new school & she has chosen Naru to be the first member.

The kawaii! It burns!
The kawaii! It burns!

Naturally, Naru’s painful shyness & extreme lack of confidence means that she refuses but Hana’s persistence & overall adorability means that Naru eventually offers to help set up the club. In order to do this, they need more members -who are often driven away by Hana’s over-eagerness- a supervising teacher & to get passed the very strict Student Council President, Machi. This driving arc is combined with the other protagonists: Naru’s overprotective & slightly self-centred friend Yaya & the epitome of Japanese feminine grace, Tami -whom Naru views as a big sister & princess-like figure. They both strive to find their own passions & dreams in the face of others trying to control their lives or people unwilling to push themselves to take that final step to break through the barriers before them. Machi finds herself in a similar position, wishing to overcome her sister-complex; a sister how just happens to be Sari (AKA Sally-sensei), the Yosakoi club supervisor -who only took on the role because of the pressure that Hana applied to her through begging.

Super excited Loli set to execute snuggle-attack,
Super excited Loli set to execute snuggle-attack,

Each character has to overcome their personal struggles in order to gain confidence. This is central to the construction of Naru, who thinks of herself as weak & lost yet it does not ring entirely true with her. Her emotional weakness & crippling lack of confidence seems to stem more from perceptions of social pressures & her indulgence in escapism rather than face reality. These unto themselves are hardly original ideas for media to explore but in the case of Naru they seem contradictory. That is because she claims to have no physical strength or coordination yet from the outset we are told that she’s practiced Iaido from a young age, having gained a high proficiency in the art from her father, who runs a dojo from their home. I found it strange that these martial art didn’t confer any ability to Naru’s confidence & dance motions but that may lie more in the schismatic nature of her personality then within her actual flesh.

The Tsundere exposed.
The Tsundere exposed.

With Naru occupying the space of the pitiable stalwart looking to overcome their own feelings of inadequacy, it’s up to the other girls to fill the other roles. Yaya is the typical tsundere who wants to be the centre of attention, especially from Naru, & is a little jealous that her friend has finally found something outside of her admiration for & reliance upon Yaya herself. Tami wants to be the epitome of the perfect woman, in order to gain her father’s approval but she also is shown to be a little ditzy & mischievous, looking to break the role that she’s forced herself into. & Machi wants to escape from the shadow of her once successful sister & conquer the feelings of abandonment that stem from her relations with Sally-sensei as well as the academic pressures that her hospital running parents are putting her through now that Sally-sensei has abandoned the role of heir to their tiny medical empire.

Whilst, so many other shows this season, Hanayamata is exceptionally beautiful look at. With its bloom & shimmering use of colours & well rendered action sequences -especially the dance choreography for both the girls & the passing troops. Yet, as a whole, it’s a series not without its faults.
hanayamata-ep3
My main criticism of the series that its aimed at boosting Japanese consumer & cultural confidence, but once again showing a foreigner entirely obsessed with an aspect of Japanese culture/history that they are willing to move & reshape their entire personal identity in order to conform to their perceptions of what it means to be Japanese. Hana fundamentally exists (at least in the anime) to push a form of Japanese superiorism, reinforcing the belief that Japan is the superordinate in terms of its ongoing cultural practices.

The other negative in my point of view is how they push the emotional drama side of things. Bringing out the tears & ramping up the reacting, coupled with some irritating voice acting at times. It isn’t a deal breaker but it detracts from the sweetness of the comedy & the beauty of the anime. Especially the expressions & the reaction shots. There is some mild sexualisation & fan service but that at least palls when faced with the drama & comedy.

Everyone has a goal. Some girls have goals to get boobies.
Everyone has a goal. Some girls have goals to get boobies.

Overall, this is a worth addition to the “Cute Girls Doing Cute Things”. It’s fun, it’s fluffy & silly but also deep & touching when it has to (but not in the yuri sense). Whilst it does have some negative, all the good that it does completely outweighs my basic (& typical) complaints. There are plenty of kawaii moments as well as other random comedic moments -such as with Yosakoi supply store owner Ofuna Masaru, who looks like a stereotypical Yakuza but is passionate about Yosakoi & helping the girls.

If you can get passed some of the minor irritations, you’re sure to enjoy this series. It’s a good balm to some of the bloody & hypersexualised offering this past season. It’s all about what you can achieve if you have self-belief & friends by your side to support you. More so if you push yourself in order to support them so you can find your own strength to face the harshness of reality.

hanayamata-girls