Seishuu Handa, a rising calligrapher based in Tokyo, is forced by his father to visit a small island town when he reacts violently to a negative critique. Known only as “the village” on “the island,” it’s a rural paradise home to a friendly community. What impact will the villagers have on Seishuu (and vice versa)? Will he get the inspiration he needs to find his creative voice?

Barakamon is a big, warm blanket. Its slice of life narrative creates plenty of opportunity for Seishuu to process his artistic angst against an impossibly earnest and helpful backdrop of cheerful neighbors. He is not the only resident with personal interests: the children who barge onto his property have their own hobbies, like bug catching, fishing, and school plays. A couple of middle schoolers take lessons from Seishuu in calligraphy, mirroring his own early days of agony and ecstasy in the profession. A budding young mangaka, Tama, is nervous about being identified as a manga geek, but practices illustration and frets over submitting a manuscript to publishers. Meanwhile, the older residents of the village enjoy imparting their life lessons and observing how Seishuu and the village impact each other, even if it’s not immediately obvious to anyone else.

Satsuki Yoshino is up to the artistic challenge of rendering urban and rural lifestyles: fishing, chopping wood, catching bugs, gardening, boating, riding subways, raising pets, and the island’s local customs are all rendered in a fair amount of detail, as well as the neighborhood, city, beach, and agricultural environments. Of particular note is Yoshino’s depiction of calligraphy, both as a practice and an art form. Japanese letters are drawn in a variety of styles befitting each artist’s personality and personal progress, from formal lines to rough shapes. Characters comment on how some pieces must have been made, and readers will easily pick up on their meaning due to Yoshino’s ability to imitate the different stages of each artist’s growth.

The story is concerned with each character’s growth and maturity, and it’s as easygoing as the island’s inhabitants. People don’t lock their doors here, the town shop has a rotary phone, and a consistent country accent is represented by phrases like “ain’t nothin’ ta worry ‘bout.” When Seishuu’s colleagues from Tokyo visit him, they each undergo their own forms of culture shock, and when he pays return visits, his family notices how his mannerisms have changed. One of the manga’s central themes is how artists can find their voices by getting out of their own heads and doing other things, and the slight tension between Seishuu’s urban upbringing and country living matures him out of his slump and into a different mindset somewhere in the middle. “This is the first time I’ve been so worried about other people,” he thinks to himself after a chapter involving kids diving into the sea from a high ledge.

The emotional content of Barakamon leans in every direction, and sometimes the story shifts gears into chapter-length series of four-panel joke comics. These brief changes of pace create smaller art with super-deformed characters, but they soon become a recurring feature that increases the series’s profile. A story arc about a character’s funeral brings responses from all the villagers, culminating in an emotional outburst over a treasured family member, while a couple of ghost stories are more charming than scary. Appearances from rival and elder calligraphers bring touches of shonen-style “I have to be the best!” determination, but always return to a breezier tone.

Barakamon is suitable and recommended for all ages, though there are several readalikes and watchalikes with similar DNA. Fans of Yotsuba&! will recognize a lot of Yotsuba’s spunky antics in Barakamon’s impish Naru. Those who enjoy career comeback series like Yuri On Ice or Your Lie In April will also enjoy watching Seishuu practice and refine his technique. Finally, anyone who followed the short-lived US release of Kingyo Used Books will find the same high level of respect for art and its uses and impact on all walks of life.

The fourteenth volume of Barakamon will be released in September 2017, and the anime is available on CrunchyRoll.

Barakamon, vols 1-8
by Satsuki Yoshino
vol 1 ISBN: 9780316336086
vol 2 ISBN: 9780316336581
vol 3 ISBN: 9780316259439
vol 4 ISBN: 9780316340298
vol 5 ISBN: 9780316340311
vol 6 ISBN: 9780316340335
vol 7 ISBN: 9780316340359
vol 8 ISBN: 9780316340373
Yen Press, 2014-2015
Publisher Age Rating: A (all ages)

  • Thomas

    | He/Him Teen Services Librarian, Richland Library

    Features Writer

    Thomas is a teen services librarian at Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina. While studying for his MLIS at the University of South Carolina, he won an award from Thomas Cooper Library for his curation of the works of “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka. He has spoken about manga, graphic novels, teen programming, and podcasting at NashiCon, DragonCon, ColaCon, New York Comic Con, and American Library Association conferences. He has been on on YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels For Teens selection committee, written articles for Public Libraries, The Hub, Book Riot, and Library Trends, and reviews for School Library Journal and Kirkus.

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