Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #293: Barakamon, Vol. 1 by Satsuki Yoshino

The fish-out-of-water story has a long history, and nearly as long a list of requirements: the "fish" must be brusque, bordering on unpleasant, at the beginning of the story. He must be coming to somewhere rural and out-of-the-way, and coming from the biggest city plausible. The locals will be helpful, and possibly friendly, and definitely honest to a fault. The joys of the natural world will be praised at great length. There will be at least one outrageous local character whom our fish and the audience at first can't stand. And the fish will be confused and out of place for quite a while, as the lurking suspicion that this is a better place than his city builds and builds. All these things can be extended nearly indefinitely if the aim is to make the story a long-running serial, as well -- there will always be new odd habits of the locals, and quirky seasonal festivals, and even locals who the fish has amazingly not met yet.

(Fish-out-of-water stories about young women inevitably turn into romantic comedies, as the female fish meets a gorgeous infuriating local man who has Hidden Depths and struggles against her plot-required love for him. There's also the somewhat rarer reverse fish-out-of-water, the hick story, in which a rural native travels to that Big Bad City. Those must always end with the fish fleeing back to the peace and purity of the rural landscape; an axiom of these stories is that places with a lot of landscape and only a few people are superior morally to places with a lot of people and only a little landscape.)

Satsuki Yoshino's Barakamon, Vol. 1 is a story right down the middle of that tradition. showing that it's not the cultural tradition of any one country. Japan has rustic salt-of-the-earth yokels as much as America does, and the lessons they have to teach stuck-up cityfolk are very similar. In this particular story, our fish is Seishuu Handa, a driven young calligrapher rusticating after an unpleasant encounter with a critic.

Seishuu doesn't want to believe the critic -- that his work is cold and technically correct, but has no heart -- but those are always the exact flaws of the fish: a lack of connection to the world, being alone rather than part of the community, technical proficiency at something generally respected and well-paid but a gaping lack of soul. And so the people of Nanatsutake Village, in the far west of Japan's Gotou archipelago, have that soul in spades, because they live in a natural place in tune with the real world.

The primary vector of Nanatsutake's wonderfulness is the deeply annoying and hyperactive young girl Naru, who had been using the house Seishuu is now renting as her "base" (along with several of the other young people of the village). Naru is the kind of character who is beloved in fiction but who would quickly make one homicidal in real life: clinging and loud and demanding and overwhelming and aggressively cute at all times. She latches onto Seishuu, and it's clear she'll never let him go.

This is early days for Barakamon, so the stories here mostly settle Seishuu in the village and introduce a few characters, like Naru, the local "chief," and two tween girls. As the book goes on, there's more local color, like a competition on a beach to gather packets of mochi or a fishing expedition -- we can expect that future books will have a lot more of this. There's no Maggie O'Connell character yet, but I would be greatly surprised if one didn't show up by volume four.

Many people will like this story better than I did; I am allergic to manic pixies, particularly when they're grade-schoolers. Yoshino makes this story energetic and bouncy, despite Seishuu's moroseness and sedentary occupation, which isn't easy. It also all looks very pretty, and the characters are drawn crisply and with verve. Anyone who likes fish-out-of-water stories at least some of the time should enjoy Barakamon, though you do need to be able to take Naru in large doses.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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