Following on from my viewing of Log Horizon, this year's Secret Santa pickings have turned out to be a great opportunity to watch recent shows that I'd hoped to catch but never got around to, and thus my second selection for 2014 was Barakamon.
Out of nowhere, this seemed to be a series which built an impressive amount of hype from those watching it as it aired, although in this case the hype may have done it a disservice by frequently involving the phrase "it's like Yotsuba&!" Allow me to begin by saying that Barakamon cannot hope to occupy the same planet as Yotsuba, let alone the same strata of entertainment.
The series tells the story of a young, ambitious calligrapher named Seishuu Handa, who finds himself disgraced on account of punching an old man with a stick who also happens to be a big name in the calligraphy world himself - an attack predicated upon said old man suggesting that his work might be lacking in any real sense of self (a common theme that runs through anime as commentary on Japanese society, no doubt - see this series and the currently airing Your Lie in April).
In the wake of this attack, Handa finds himself shipped off to a remote island in the hope calming him down, offering him a period of self-reflection and, perhaps, an opportunity to discover a previously hidden side to his artistry. For Handa's part, he doesn't mind his exile so much, as surely it'll give him the peace and quiet he needs to work doggedly on his calligraphy.
Of course, this proves to be anything but the case, as Handa instead finds himself constantly bothered by overly helpful neighbours and, more frequently, a group of kids led by the loud and excitable young girl Naru. This offers countless distractions and irritations that Handa could really do without, but perhaps these distractions and his being forced into the bosom of this village's society is exactly what he needs to truly find himself.
If all of that sounds rather predictable, then... well, it is. Thankfully, Barakamon is a series more interested in the journey rather than its character development, and so any kind of narrative arc to the series can take a back seat for the kind of comedy manga adaptation fare you might expect. As these kinds of series go, Barakamon is largely pretty mediocre - it has its funny moments but they're relatively few and far between, particularly in the early running of the series which feels like it's trying way too hard to force the issue in terms of both characterisation and making its gags hit.
Thankfully the series does at least calm down, find its footing and ultimately get into the groove of what it attempts to offer, and with that new-found confidence comes more good jokes and one-liners, more enjoyable character interactions and some saccharine yet sweet moments that provide an enjoyable pay-off (even if one or two missteps arguably hijack what should have been some of the better scenes). It still isn't hilarious, nor does it have anything approaching the charm of Yotsuba (while we're making such comparisons), but it's broadly fun and feels better paced, and with some solid animation to keep it trucking the overall experience is a decent one.
Ultimately, my opinions of Barakamon could be seen as a case of "damning with faint praise" - I simply can't get excited about the series, nor can I reel off hysterical moments, because it never moved me to any great degree beyond the occasional laugh or smile. Its relatively unique setting and premise allows it to stand out from the ever-crowded pack of anime comedy, and it's certainly competent at what it does, but I suspect if you removed the "calligrapher on a remote island" angle this show would have been forgotten about no sooner had it begun.
On another day this may have been one of the better comedies on the block, but in a year which brought us Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun and Sabagebu, as well as less overt comedies like Shirobako, it's hard to give it a look-in when it comes to 2014's final reckoning.