There are two great pleasures in any dramatic art form — seeing something genuinely new, and seeing something not-new done so well and with such vigor that it feels new anyway. Barakamon is the second kind of story. It's retelling of that reliable old chestnut about the city slicker who heads out to the sticks for peace and quiet, and immediately finds himself at odds with the weird habits of the locals, the way the countryside itself seems to be against him, and, well, himself.
The show does three things right that are not easy to get right. It gives us a difficult protagonist that we come to care about; it's genuinely funny in ways that stem from close observation of human behavior, not presumptions about the audience's tastes; and it grows on you. And, on top of all that, it has something to say about the nature of artistic ambition, a part of it that spoke to me more personally than I originally wanted to admit.
Ink slinger, city slicker
Sōseki Natsume's classic comic novel Bōtchan (since adapted multiple times as manga, anime, and live-action) gave us a high-horse Tokyo native who teaches school on one of Japan's more backwoods islands, and immediately finds himself the butt of everyone's jokes and misunderstandings. It doesn't help that he's a self-important hothead who can't help but see himself as superior to most everyone around him. He eventually lightens up and realizes one of the people he's least fond of is in fact his strongest ally, but since the story is essentially a farce he's not obliged to actually learn anything from the experience. (I recall now the formula for Seinfeld: "No hugging, no learning.")
Barakamon, from Satsuki Yoshino's ongoing manga series, opens on roughly the same notes but closes on very different ones. In place of Natsume's authorial stand-in (the author did in fact teach mathematics briefly to middle-schoolers, and hated every minute of it), we have one Seishū Handa, a professional calligrapher in his early twenties who has made communion of brush and paper the whole of his life. He has a chip on his shoulder the size of Ayers Rock, and so when an influential gallery owner calls his work "unoriginal" and "like a textbook", he hauls off and punches the guy.
Seishū's father decides this nice young man needs some time off from everything to think seriously about his future, and so he sends him packing to a village on Gotō island, off the southern end of the Japanese archipelago. This is the last thing Seishū needs, or so he tells himself. Then again, as long as he has some peaceful corner where he can perfect his art — and make sure nobody can ever again find an excuse to call his work unoriginal — he'll be just fine.
This idea lasts for about the time it takes for Seishū to arrive at the house he's staying in and get unpacked. The house he's been provided feels like it was built before electricity or running water were things. His neighbors are a little too helpful for their own good. Everyone talks in drawling local slang that Seishū practically needs subtitles to make out. And he has constant unwanted visitors — like Naru, a local six-year-old who's got it into her head that the house is still her playground, and who climbs onto everything as if it existed to be her own personal jungle gym. And his art frustrates him: he grabs his brush and slathers ink on the paper like Jackson Pollock, but nothing seems to be his.
"Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art"
At first, Seishū's relationship to everyone else in the village is entirely one-sided: he's happy to accept their hospitality, as long as they stay out of his hair and let him perfect his art. Nothing doing — before long, word gets out that he's a celebrity-of-sorts, and soon everyone from Naru's playmates to a couple of local middle-schoolers are showing up to ask for calligraphy lessons. Perhaps this will be just the thing to coax Seishū out of his shell; what better way for him to connect with others than by starting with the one thing he prides himself most on? All he has to do then is survive the misadventures his neighbors and students are only too happy to subject him to, like a mochi-catching contest that leaves Seishū empty-handed. Or a trip to the beach where he almost splits his skull on the rocks, not once but many times, and completely flunks out at protecting the kids from themselves like he was originally asked to (not that they need his oversight in the first place). Or ...
All this misadventure begins, however subtly, to alter Seishū's perceptions about himself — the biggest being that he doesn't see himself as a people person. It's hard for him to accept the idea that total strangers would actually go out of their way to help him, let alone like him. Liking and being liked are not part of the worldview he's built for himself, which consists of relentless pursuit of an artistic ideal that conveniently doesn't have human contact as part of it.
A big part of how this gets knocked down is by way of Naru, who at the age of six (and later, seven) has no such complexity to her personality. She just thinks "Sensei" Seishū is neat, not just because he can teach her stuff but because she can also share with him all the things your average six-year-old in the countryside fixates on, like which beetles are most worth collecting or what herb to rub on your spewing head wound. (Hayao Miyazaki would love this kid.) She is also looking for a father figure, or at least a big-brother figure, since she has no such thing in her life right now, and Seishū has been compulsorily drafted into that role.
"Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art," Stanislavski is once reputed to have said. Seishū's big obstacle is not that he's a "city slicker" who doesn't know how to dial a rotary phone (as he must when his cell goes on the fritz). It's that he's trying to love himself in his art rather than vice versa — that in order to truly express himself, he has to first experience a degree of selflessness and unselfconsciousness that he hasn't found yet. It's only through things done with others, like Naru and the other villagers, that he can access such things.
Case in point: At one point Seishū is dragooned into painting the name of a boat on its hull, and he wants to do it the "right" way — with a stencil and plenty of preparation. But the owner of the boat doesn't want anything that stiff and boring; he wants something that could only come from Seishū and nowhere else. For Seishū, this ties right back into his urge to produce something truly original. But he can't even take the first step and sully that beautifully clean hull with marine paint, because that would mean running the risk of failure. The kids save him the trouble and mark up the hull with handprints, thus inspiring him to cover up their, uh, handiwork with his own. Without others, his work will always be only his own, and he can never fail — but he can also never really succeed, either. The only way he gets out of that trap is by trying and failing.
Express yourself before you distress yourself
Some readers may know about my other creative outlet, writing fiction, with several novels already to my name and many more on the way. When I started watching Barakamon, I had no idea the show would echo some of the insights I've had in time about how creative work could operate — in fact, I had no idea it had anything to say about the subject at all, since at first it presented itself so disarmingly as a fish-out-of-fishbowl comedy. But in time, it made a case for two things that are part of any creative process: the willingness to fail, and the purpose of creative work as part of life and not some thing separate from it. I've touched on the second of those two, but it's worth expanding on.
When we first meet Seishū, he lives for his art, but in a way that his art and his life have entered into divorce proceedings with each other. He wants nothing more than to shut the rest of the world out, go into his sanctum, and emerge with a masterwork. Something about this plight of his seemed terribly familiar, and it was only about two-thirds of the way through the show that I realized John Cage, in his Lecture on Something circa 1959, had described Seishū's mindset perfectly:
When a composer feels a responsibility to make, rather than accept, he eliminates from the area of possibility all those events that do not suggest the at that point in time vogue of profundity. For he takes himself seriously, wishes to be considered great, and he thereby diminishes his love and increases his fear and concern about what people will think. There are many serious problems confronting such an individual. He must do it better, more impressively, more beautifully, etc. than anybody else. And what, precisely, does this, this beautiful profound object, this masterpiece, have to do with Life? It has this to do with Life: that it is separate from it. Now we see it and now we don't. When we see it we feel better, and when we are away from it, we don't feel so good. Life seems shabby and chaotic, disordered, ugly in contrast. (from Silence, p. 130)
Emphasis mine. Seishū wants desperately to be original, to produce something that is unmistakably his, but this will not be possible as long as his life and his art live parallel lives in different rooms, as it were. He will never be able to let one inform the other until he gets out of his own way. Seishū accomplishes this by finding out how to pry him loose from his room, to go on adventures, to open up to others — especially Naru herself — so that Seishū might return home with all the more to bring back to his work. The other people around him aren't the obstacle; it's for them that he is meant to create in the first place.
The other insight the show gets exactly right is how inspiration is not about hanging around and waiting for something to hit you, but rather about giving yourself permission to fail. I mentioned the boat sequence, which I think is pivotal; it teaches Seishū that trying to hit the mark all the time, every single time, is simply a recipe for frustration. Sometimes what matters most is just doing something and taking from it what lesson you can. Ugly as the boat calligraphy might have looked to Seishū, it was his, and that meant he had to own it and work with it.
Later still in the show, there is a scene that is, I think, easy to misinterpret: Seishū, lost in the fields near his house, throws himself down on the grass in exhaustion, takes in a blazing view of the night sky, and is hit with inspiration for a truly original piece of work. The easy way to interpret this is that inspiration finally decided to visit him, but that's the passive way to put it, and thus an incorrect one. Inspiration didn't "visit him"; rather, he went out and invited it, time and again, through one experiment after another (e.g., a hilarious moment where he tries to make prints with the bottom of a vase by sitting on it), until he got to the point where he could look at such a night sky and come away from it with that one idea that was entirely his. Creativity isn't something you wait to come visit you; it's something you go and drag out of its bed and take with you on a pub crawl.
All of this is further supported by the show's conclusion, where Seishū enters his masterwork into a contest and is beaten soundly by several other old hands. Before all this, he would have locked himself in his room and sulked; now, he sees it as just another effortless step along the path he's taking — one that leads him back to the people who, in their own equally effortless way, helped him along that path. He has learned how to get out of his own way, and the boon is not that it makes him successful or famous, but because it makes him honest with himself, made him more connected to others, made him a better person. This isn't just a human comedy, but a humane one, and I think in that is the secret of its unexpected success.
I will leave the last word to John Cage once again, since it came to mind in the moment when we see Seishū has put his name to his at-last-original masterwork:
One of Mies van der Rohe’s pupils, a girl, came to him and said, “I have difficulty studying with you because you don’t leave any room for self-expression.” He asked her whether she had a pen with her. She did. He said, “Sign your name.” She did. He said, “That’s what I call self-expression.”