Mastery of a skill takes a lifetime of effort and discipline. Even to reach the rank of Expert requires an element of unwavering dedication, and the gulf between Expert and Master is usually wider than the gulf between Beginner and Expert. To be a Master is to be at the apex, with almost nothing left to conquer. And let’s face it, if even Anakin Skywalker couldn’t achieve the rank of Master, there are very few who can.
Barakamon gives us just a small glimpse of what it takes to fight for Master level skills. More importantly, it shows us what overinflated confidence can do to someone’s career, and one possible way to respond when you’re at a crossroads created by your own hubris. Exactly what kind of support system does it take to recover when your world is upended?
Sei Handa finds himself in exactly this situation. In a moment of brash impulse, he all but throws away his status as a professional calligrapher. He’s sent away by his father to a small island village where he can reflect on both his character and how he wants to move forward as a calligrapher. It is here in this village where he finally learns what it means to grow.
At first, Handa hopes to live the life of a recluse so that he can focus solely on improving his calligraphy and return as a master to the art world. But Handa, born and raised in Tokyo, underestimates just how nosy and intrusive people living in a small village can be. If he had hopes of remaining unbothered so that he could spend his days inside writing calligraphy, he came to the wrong place.
Handa may be the protagonist, but he hardly feels like the main character. That title belongs to the entire village. While they may be nosy and opinionated (as well as slightly under educated), they also seem to be incredibly in tune with one another. In many cases, it feels like the village is a single entity that moves to embrace Handa as soon as he arrives, working to make sure he is both welcomed and given the opportunity to succeed. They know he’s a calligrapher, but to them he’s more than that. He’s both fascinating to watch and worthy of their help.
This is doubly true for the children in the village. He’s young and, as an outsider, interesting to be with. Kids from grade school to high school rush to befriend him while also establishing their territory as the local youth; his house is their former clubhouse, after all.
No man is an island, and he wouldn’t have succeeded without their help.
On more than one occasion I found myself in awe of just how hard the villagers worked to make Handa feel accepted in his new foreign home. From the very first day, they were there to help, expecting no form of payment in return. They were showing him what it means to be part of their community, hoping that in turn, he would embrace them back.
More than anything, Handa needed to learn to relax. He’s a uniquely terrible combination of arrogance, high stress, and a need to be validated by those around him. This creates a character who breaks easily at the slightest criticism, spiraling into a dark cloud of self pity; and worse, he’s always on the verge of falling into a cadence of whining, self pity, and defeat. All said, the attitude of his character is a tough pill to swallow. While it does get better by the end, it never truly leaves completely.
Some tough love from the villagers might have helped him see his faults and work to resolve them, but usually their answer was to avoid giving him any news or criticism that might upset him. It was the one aspect of him they were unwilling to touch, instead hoping he would eventually see and claw his way out this unfortunate habit.
Despite Handa’s flaws, Barakamon still soars as a Slice of Life anime. The surface level story of a calligrapher hoping to recover his mojo is there, but the real story is that of Handa and the village. In the end, he learns to not only accept his shortcomings as a calligrapher and a human being, but he also learns to look outside of himself and his own ambitions. He learns the importance of caring for those around you, helping them when you can, and being there to celebrate their lives and achievements as well. Even his mother notices a striking difference between the son who left her and the one who returned.
It’s when Handa embraces this change that he creates his true calligraphy masterpiece. Rather than striving for technical perfection, he creates a painting based on what is most important to him personally. In doing so, he frees himself from the shackles of needing first place; he’s truly free and content with however he is judged, because in his mind, he knows now that there are things more important than simple trophies and accolades. He’s found a place to belong.