Barakamon: The Hardest Part of Making Art

by Raymond H

Raymond's debut article contemplates what a slice-of-life anime has to say about the artistic process.
Today's song is this.

Barakamon, not to be confused with Bakuman, Bakugan, or the Burakumin ethnic group, is a twelve-episode anime adaptation of an ongoing manga series, wherein a young, talented calligrapher called Seishuu journeys to the Gotou islands off the western coast of Kyushu after a fight with a critical curator prompts his self-exile from the calligraphic scene. Once there, Seishuu becomes acquainted with the lovable but eccentric islanders, who rapidly turn his life upside-down as he struggles to return to the craft he is so passionate about.

There's a lot to love about this series, which I think remains an overlooked gem of anime. There's the light-hearted, slice-of-life plot, which manages to make its meandering pace an actual point of Seishuu's character development, i.e. his learning to calm down and not take life so seriously. There's the design, which while nothing overly spectacular still manages to instill this animated world with a profusion of life and color. And there's the acting, with Daisuke Ono turning in a wonderful performance as Seishuu and an assortment of talented child actors bringing the Gotou island children to life. While personally I think adult voice actors are able to give more nuanced and subtle performances than child actors, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the child cast of Barakamon.

However, I think the most lovable, and most important, aspect of Barakamon is how it captures something not many other stories do, that being the hardest part of making art. Art about art is a common enough genre to have produced several popular works. I already mentioned Bakuman, and there are tons of other stories that deal with this theme, such as Blue Blazes or Tari Tari. Each of these stories deals with different forms of art, and each of them has different levels of stakes to deal with, but in the end, all these stories deal with the concept of the artist's struggle, and more specifically, the concept of the big break.

Stories about an artist's big break tend to have protagonists that already possess a deep passion for their chosen art by the time their tale begins. These aspiring artists already know what they want to do with their lives, and the conflict arises from them trying to break into their chosen industry. Sometimes, this conflict arises from external forces, i.e. the protagonist is too poor to attend the prestigious art school that will surely allow them to achieve their dreams, or from internal forces, i.e. the protagonist has to find the internal discipline necessary to complete the projects that will surely allow them to achieve their dreams. However, in both these cases, the protagonist begins their story in the position of a novice. These artists may still have plenty of room to improve their craft, but if they were only given the proper opportunity to show the world what they could do, then they would surely gain the fame and recognition their talent deserves.

In Barakamon though, Seishuu already begins his story with that opportunity taken and used. Seishuu is already an established, albeit unseasoned, calligrapher when he gets into the fight that kicks off Barakamon's plot. More than that, Seishuu is a calligraphic Wunderkind, a youthful prodigy who comes from a family of famous calligraphers. Every artist under the sun dreams of being a Wunderkind, because it means that our big break will come to us with only a minimal amount of effort, and right when we are in the prime of our youths. The fact is though, it's easy to get your big break when you're young. Well, perhaps I shouldn't say easy. After all, there are countless artists struggling today, who have been struggling for years, trying to make a success of themselves with their art. To say that achieving initial success when young is easy would be a disservice to those aspiring artists and their struggles. However, even if catching a big break is not easy, it still isn't the hardest part of making art. The hardest part of making art is to keep making art. Orson Welles made Citizen Kane, considered by many as the greatest film of all time, when he was only 25, but does anyone know what he did after that? Sure, The Third Man was great, and Touch of Evil remains a classic despite its troubled production, but none of those come close to the lasting impact of Kane, or even to Welles' radio adaptation of War of the Worlds, made when he was only 23. In the end, one of cinema's greatest titans was reduced to... erm, well...

Seishuu's struggle is not the struggle of a novice, but of an established professional. The reason he takes such offense to the curator's criticism of his work isn't because the curator thinks Seishuu doesn't have what it takes to break into the calligraphic field, but rather because he thinks Seishuu has already reached the peak of his creative mountain, and in the end it is only a molehill. Over the course of the series, as Seishuu tries to break back into his chosen field, he struggles with the possibility that the curator may very well be right. Seishuu has spent his whole life devoted to calligraphy. His greatest fear then isn't being unable to establish himself, but rather being unable to sustain himself and his art.

Even in series such as Bakuman, where the main characters manage to publish short-lived but well-regarded detective and gag manga, they still buy into the idea that once they make their first long-running and popular series they'll finally have it made and be able to rest easy. Barakamon though, knows that this line of thinking is patently false. If the artist is not moving, they are sinking, and the realization every artist has once they at last catch their big break and find that things have not gotten any easier can sometimes be too difficult to bear. The annals of art are filled to the brim with one-hit wonders, people who captured lightning in a bottle but were unable to make that lightning strike twice. But as Barakamon shows, the key to making art work is to not regard it as work, but as a passion. The idea of something being "just like making love" is such a cliché, most people can only roll their eyes when they hear it. However, making art really is like making love, when you think about it. You can read all the how-to books and ask all the old greats all you want. The fact remains that once you are actually there, actually making art, all the memorized techniques in the world won't save you unless you feel the situation, take hold of the moment, and allow your passion to consume you. Because really, why else do any of us make art, if not for our passion?

(Seriously though, if you're still rolling your eyes at that simile, which I wouldn't resent you for doing, I stole it from Ray Bradbury, who probably would have known much more than me on the subject, so there)

Seishuu could very easily give up calligraphy if he wanted. He's young, affluent, and good-looking. He could surely find some other profession that isn't nearly as stressful as calligraphy. But that very idea is utterly ludicrous to him, because even with all the stress that coming up with new art entails, there is no greater feeling in the world for him than when he at last completes that art, and is proud of what he has accomplished. Seishuu's journey in Barakamon is one of rekindling passion, and through the love and support of the Gotou islanders, he manages to do just that.
Themes: TV & Movies

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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 11:06 on 2018-04-25
Welcome, Raymond!

So, I have to ask... what do the rest of the characters actually do in this anime? You've described what sounds like an essentially internal struggle within Seishuu and I am not sure how hanging out with a bunch of kids substantially younger than him (all the art I've found looking for an illustration for this article depicts him with a small child and/or high school kids) has much to do with the resolution thereof.

(In particular, if the anime's thesis is as you say that the reason we do art is because of our own personal passion, what does the approval or disapproval of others have to do with that?)
Raymond H at 13:43 on 2018-04-25
Thank you! (And thanks for editing! Sorry, I forgot to include a picture.) I'm glad to be here.

Hm, I guess the best way to put it is that the other characters encourage Seishuu to live life. Drawing back to my making-love-simile (I know, sorry), textbooks and instruction manuals are no replacement for experience and actual interaction. What we see of Seishuu's creative process before coming to the Gotou Islands mostly consists of him being locked in his room and not being allowed out until he completes his art. Basically, his artistic upbringing has focused exclusively on the discipline side of art-making. Discipline is of course vital to making good art, but it's just as important to have lived a life from which art can be drawn. Seishuu has never really made a proper human connection before going to the GI, and thus his art, while technically brilliant, is lacking soul. Therefore, the other islanders, whether it's the yaoi fangirl who ships him with her male friend, the slacker student who learns discipline just as Seishuu learns relaxation, or Naru, the deuteragonist who like most little kids is constantly pestering Seishuu with some new, fun, and exciting thing that they should TOTALLY DO RIGHT NOW, provide him with genuine, human interaction, from which his art is able to flourish. Indeed, the last episode has him writing all the islanders' names to form one larger word (I believe it's "friends", but I would have to double-check), and it's regarded as his greatest work to date in-universe.

I don't think approval of Seishuu's art really enters into the islanders' lives. Mostly they just treat it like some neat hobby Seishuu has. "Oh, you're a world-famous calligrapher? Well I can pee further than you, and I can read katakana! Boom!" As with most kids and old people, their minds just sort of operate outside of the approval-disapproval rat race in the art world, and thus Seishuu learns to think outside of it as well. "Oh, he's a world-famous critic? Well I'll bet he doesn't know jack about sea-cucumber fishing! One time I caught one that was, like, this big! That's so cool, right?"

Did that answer your question?
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2018-06-26
The annals of art are filled to the brim with one-hit wonders, people who captured lightning in a bottle but were unable to make that lightning strike twice.

This, and the discussion of Welles' filmography, reminds me of something I read last year in Originals, by Alan Grant. It's kind of a weird book politically, in that it includes a sections with sympathetic analyses of Occupy Wall Street and Otpor!, and later cites surveillance contractor and archfiend Peter Thiel as a positive example - Thiel also provides a back cover blurb for the book.

But anyway, Originals makes the case that there are actually two sorts of artistic and scientific geniuses (apologies in advance for getting any details mixed up - it's been a year). There's one type, the Wunderkind who has this amazing, revolutionary idea in their early life - late teens or 20s - but then just kind of gets stuck in that mode and finds it very difficult, if not impossible to grow and develop their views or techniques further. (The book cites Einstein as an example from the scientific field.)

The second is the more slow-burn type, who takes longer to manifest their talent, but is constantly evolving and improving their craft throughout their lives. The book compares two poets (I believe it was e e cummings and Robert Frost), the first of whom wrote the majority of his most republished poems before he was 40 or 50, while the second wrote the majority of his most republished poems after he was 40.

Potentially encouraging for any creative types who've spent a decade or more without making their first professional sale. Though on further thought, it now makes me uneasy for Ryan Coogler's future career.

even if catching a big break is not easy, it still isn't the hardest part of making art. The hardest part of making art is to keep making art.

... Which reminds me of an author interview I heard on a podcast recently, observing that the first sale is not the hardest, because then at least you're new and exciting. Which is rather less encouraging to a creative type who may or may not have spent more than a decade working at their craft without making even their first professional sale ...

Anyway, sounds like a potentially interesting anime, with some very insightful things to say about the creative process. At the moment it sounds like something that would be a little too uncomfortable for me to watch, but maybe I'll take a look at it sometime later.
Raymond H at 12:14 on 2018-06-27
Originals. I will remember that for later. It's hard for me to get print books here in Japan, unless I stumble across them in Jimbocho, but thank you.

Funny you should mention the slow-burn type, as Jonathan Carroll is something of a weird inspiration to me. I found him after I'd been teaching here for a while, and the fact that he also taught in the country he calls home before being able to make a living as a novelist made me feel like I could do it to. But then since he didn't get anything published until he was in his thirties, that makes me feel kind of worried...

And I wouldn't worry too much about Mr. Coogler. Maybe like Kurosawa he'll just keep making great movies until he has a falling out with his main collaborator and then won't make anything for several years before turning out a series of increasingly bitter tragedies and then sort of mellowing out near the end.

It's funny you should mention the first sale. I actually wrote the first draft of this back when I was thinking of becoming an Ani-Tuber, after I'd self-published my first novel and suddenly found that I was basically in the exact same position as I was when I'd first started, only with $20.30 in profit, a scathing review from Kirkus, internal discipline, and a small degree of enlightenment. It's true what they say...

You shoouuld! You should check it out. It's really sweet!
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