When Anime Mirrors Real Life: How Barakamon Helped Me Find My Own Path
“What does it mean to be myself?” Ryuta Shibuya asks viewers of Barakamon. The entire band suddenly goes silent; it’s only the first line of the anime’s opening theme, but even the vocalist struggles to provide an answer. He isn’t the only one wondering, though: Seishu Handa struggles with the exact same question when his father forces him to move to the rural Goto Islands by himself. His nascent career as a calligrapher in Tokyo, the center of his entire life, is crashing down around him after a misguided decision puts his future in jeopardy. But is a sojourn in southern Japan really what he needs to move forward?
Barakamon is a show about finding yourself in the most unlikely of places. On one level, it’s an intimate story about Seishu’s growth as a calligrapher and a person, tackling the social and existential anxieties he shares with many other adults. At the same time, it is also national in scale: Japan’s urban-rural divide features prominently as Seishu’s time with his neighbors in the Goto Islands helps introduce him to new ways of living. But Barakamon doesn’t only evaluate what gets lost in the quagmire of urban life; it also makes a powerful case for the importance of building human connections with others whose backgrounds differ from our own. It is only through learning about these unique perspectives that we can truly come to understand ourselves.
A Journey to a Better Life
The flashpoint that triggers Seishu’s existential crisis is a calligraphy exhibition. He has honed his mastery of the fundamentals through long hours of practice, even managing to debut as a professional calligrapher at a young age. His father, a highly-regarded calligrapher himself, is supportive of his career, and as long as he follows the rules, his future seems secure. However, this is all thrown into disarray when a famous critic remarks that his work lacks personality. Seishu’s obsequious dedication to the fundamentals robs his work of any character. In a fit of rage, he punches the critic, externalizing his artistic frustrations. The resulting scandal inspires his father to send him to Goto, where he too spent some time in his early career.
The Goto Islands are a chain of five small islands off the coast of Nagasaki prefecture in Kyushu — or, to put it another way, the absolute middle of nowhere, southern Japan. Goto is different from Tokyo in several obvious ways that become immediately apparent to urbanite Seishu — first among them being the geographic distance. It’s about as far away from Tokyo as it gets in Japan, and with a total population of under 50,000 people, its community also feels worlds away from the 36 million-strong who reside in the Tokyo metropolitan area.
Even more important than the geographic separation are the cultural differences. Goto dialect Japanese is famous for being difficult for Tokyo dialect speakers to understand. Every episode of Barakamon is titled in Goto dialect and its corresponding Tokyo dialect translation. For example, episode 4, “Island Dads,” is titled shiman ontsaondon in Goto and shimano oyaji in Tokyo dialect. However, the dialect is not the only utterly foreign experience Seishu has when he first arrives. As soon as he moves into a remote house on the edge of town, all the villagers make themselves at home, walking in and out of his house without even knocking on the door. This is quite shocking for him, as in Tokyo such actions would warrant a call to the police.
All of this leaves Seishu feeling completely isolated and alone, but he is soon forced to step out of his comfort zone and directly deal with these cultural differences thanks to Naru, a young village girl who takes an interest in the strange “sensei” who has moved into her turf. At first, we are invited to sympathize with Seishu’s fish-out-of-water situation. The villagers’ strange behaviors and traditions are just as foreign to most of the audience, and Naru’s complete lack of manners are a running gag. But over time, this initial impression flips: Seishu’s nervousness around his friendly neighbors and his strange obsession with calligraphy are equally as bizarre to the villagers, and he develops a reputation as an eccentric artist. Perhaps Tokyo norms are just as peculiar as Goto’s.
As his stay in Goto lengthens, Seishu finds himself pulled into a variety of village activities, such as “hitonmochi,” a local event where chunks of mochi are thrown from the pier for children (and some adults) to catch. Naru’s invitation comes at just the right time, as earlier that same day Seishu received news that his latest calligraphy project only earned second place to a work made by a younger artist. However, he fails to collect any mochi at the festival. His neighbors are more experienced than him and quickly pick up all the fallen goodies before he can snatch any for himself. By this point, he is exasperated and exhausted, but an older woman advises him not to worry so much about competing with others, and later on, one of the villagers who took the lion’s share of the mochi stops by Seishu’s house to deliver some fresh vegetables. At the end of the day, the results of the hitonmochi event don’t matter; everyone has fun at the celebration and shares their successes with the rest of the neighborhood.
Seishu’s daily life is filled with small anecdotes like this, slowly helping him realize that his self-enforced isolation and drive to compete are hindrances to both his career and self-fulfillment. There’s nothing wrong with working hard, but you mustn’t get so caught up in long-term aspirations that you miss living in the now.
Calligraphy is an excellent arena to demonstrate this idea. The more Seishu attempts intense practice, the more his physical and mental health decline. And for what? Writing and rewriting in the same style over and over has turned his work into boring, by-the-books compositions. His experiences with Naru and the other islanders inspire him to search for his own unique style. They help him rediscover his passion in more productive, healthier ways by thinking about calligraphy not as a winner-takes-all competition but instead as a form of artistic self-expression. This shift in his thinking reflects in his interactions with his neighbors, which become less stilted and uncomfortable as he settles into the village and steadily becomes an active member of the community.
Barakamon’s life advice is straightforward, but its delivery is profound. Seishu’s artistic and existential anxieties don’t magically disappear, and in some ways his journey is still just beginning when the anime ends. Nevertheless, he feels like a completely different person by the final episode. His friendships with Naru and the other village youth feel natural, and his attitude towards those relationships and his own professional pursuits has become less antagonistic, more empathetic. As it turns out, a forced exile to the Goto Islands was exactly what he needed.
Barakamon, Iyashi-kei, and My Own Personal Journey
Much like many other Western fans, I first got into anime for the action-packed adventure series. The medium’s ability to portray innovative fantasy worlds far too difficult to adapt believably into live action was a key draw for me. Barakamon felt like the exact opposite of everything that attracted me to anime. It was the first “slice-of-life” anime I ever watched, and it exposed me to new styles of storytelling that reinvigorated my media consumption and inspired me to change the course of my own budding professional career.
“Slice-of-life” implies a type of story that revels in the ordinary experiences of everyday life, such as Flying Witch or Tanaka-kun Is Listless. Many shows have a hook of sorts to draw audiences in, but other than that, there isn’t necessarily an overarching plot. Truth be told, “slice-of-life” can be a bit of a misnomer at times: the genre usually delivers relaxed pacing and minimal drama, but most series are not actually straightforward, realistic depictions of normal life. The setting, daily activities, and even interpersonal relationships between characters are usually caricatured or idealized on some level. This makes more sense when you consider that the Japanese term for “slice-of-life,” iyashi-kei, literally means “relaxing style.” The word iyashi evokes physical and mental wellness, and anime in this genre are known for their soothing, therapeutic effects. The point, therefore, is not simply to reproduce ordinary life: it is to present an ideal, lightly comedic version of ordinary life in which the audience can find comfort.
Iyashi-kei is an approach to media that I was entirely unfamiliar with before watching Barakamon, and I found the first few episodes initially jarring. After the initial excitement of the exhibition fisticuffs and dramatic banishment to the countryside, the plot doesn’t advance in the obvious ways that I was accustomed to from action-packed series such as Attack on Titan. Seishu has a broad goal of recovering his reputation, but it isn’t clear what he needs to do to accomplish this, and not every interaction he has necessarily directly moves him toward his supposed destination.
However, I soon found myself gaining an appreciation for Barakamon’s narrative style with each episode. While some individual episodes have self-contained stories, many serve as a more broad depiction of Seishu’s experiences on Goto that, when taken together, help create a holistic understanding of his long term emotional and social development. His life on Goto is certainly idealized, but his journey toward self-acceptance is profoundly empathetic because of the variety of everyday moments we experience alongside him. Barakamon’s therapeutic mixture of relaxing entertainment and inspiring life lessons made it a pivotal media experience in my early adulthood: it encouraged me to dip my toes into new genres of television, and even more importantly, it was inspirational when I later faced my own fork in the road as I entered adulthood.
Joining the engineering program my freshman year of college seemed a logical step in my own career. I had decent grades, liked computers, and the job security promised by engineering programs was enticing. But my interests were in opposition to my plans: my favorite courses in high school were my English and history classes, and I spent most of my free time writing blogs and attempting amateur media criticism. It’s obvious in hindsight, but even from the outset, a part of me knew that engineering wasn’t where my heart lied. Much like Seishu, I needed to step off the beaten path to realize my true passion. Thankfully, an opportunity to do so soon presented itself.
When I began Japanese language classes my first year of college, it was mostly as a hobby. My interest in Japanese media, particularly anime, inspired me to at least give it a try, but my focus was still technically my STEM coursework. Barakamon ultimately led me to my first Japanese immersion experience. I had always dreamed of studying abroad in rural Japan like Seishu; fortunately, I received a scholarship to spend a summer in Hakodate after my freshman year, and the rest is history. Some of my closest friends are from my time studying abroad, and after meeting them and my host family, I realized that I needed to change majors to Japanese. There were risks, but I had experienced a taste of what was possible and wanted to pursue this alternate path full-time.
Near the end of Barakamon, Seishu creates “The Stone Wall,” a collection of all the names of his friends from Goto, which he submits to a calligraphy competition. It ultimately receives fifth place, but he is satisfied with the result anyway because he is proud of the final product. By the end of my first semester as an official Japanese major, I too felt my passion for my work reinvigorated, and it showed in my performance and personal outlook. Switching academic tracks was risky, but only through taking that plunge was I able to meet lifelong friends, learn about myself, and discover the right path for me.
Barakamon is a master class in the therapeutic art of iyashi-kei. Its charming depiction of the Goto Islands and comedic yet moving portrayal of Seishu’s interactions with his neighbors make it an excellent source of relaxing entertainment incredibly relevant to the existential concerns of many of us today. Seishu’s emotional and professional journey to a more fulfilling lifestyle inspired me to make similar choices at a pivotal moment in my own early career. It is remarkable to me how similar my own time abroad in Japan mirrored the trials and tribulations of Barakamon, from endearing cultural and linguistic misunderstandings to life-changing encounters with people I would have never dreamed of meeting back home. But don’t just take my word for it: there’s still time to find your own Goto Islands.
Thanks to TheMamaLuigi for his help proofreading this article!