Fish-out-of-water comedies – the city man in the countryside, the country yokel in the big city and any number of other examples – all focus on someone who has been brought up strongly within one society ending up trying to fit into a very different one. They generally gently mock the displaced person by showing how they do not fit in, and often resent the need to fit in, and simultaneously poke fun at the new society they are disrupting. All generally ends with one party or the other changing their ways to pick up the best of the disruptive influence; the stuck-up city folk will learn some homespun country wisdom, or the stressed-out professional will learn to relax. A good example in recent animé was Rowdy Sumo-Wrestler Matsutaro; its protagonist was a single-minded idiot with a heart of gold who gradually learned to put his violent and blinkered thinking to good use in mentoring an inept trainee sumo-wrestler. He took the consequences of his actions (a pleasant change from some series with violent anti-heroes where their escaping justice is just another quirky facet of their character)
Intractability is the key to fish-out-of-water comedy; one side or the other will not adapt to an alternative way of life until circumstances force them to. Indeed, this comes often tied to obliviousness; the disruptive party does not realise their “normal” behaviour is not acceptable in their new environment. This is where the 2014 animé Barakamon breaks the mould almost immediately; on the surface, it is a traditional comedy of the very un-rural man sent to live in a rural village and having to make do with fewer mod cons. The protagonist, Handa, is sent to a remote island after his short temper leads to him punching a judge at an art competition, and wacky events ensue as he meets a group of charming and unpredictable locals. From this synopsis it seems predictable – he will try not to fit in, not want to accept he is the outsider and the comedy will come from his trying to avoid fitting in. In a way, this happens; from the start he meets the energetic, mischeivous Naru, a small child who constantly bothers him, and they set off on a kind of love-hate relationship. Handa, meanwhile, wants to improve at art, using the island as a retreat, and feels like he cannot bear the distractions of these constant visitors.
But there is a subtlety to this apparently stock plot made clear in how Handa reacts, and the reasons he gives in internal monologue as to why. His initial response to arriving, and being faced with distractions, is to shut himself away and work himself to illness. The comedy comes from the locals trying to help the outsider fit in, not from any conflict between prejudices. Naru’s actions – and those of the other locals – are annoying not because Handa is provoking them by demanding they change, but because they want to help him even though he feels he does not want their help. Handa’s flaw is a desire for self-determination, almost a kind of penance – he has been sent to the island because he lost his temper and hit a man, identified that his short temper is a major problem and probably something inhibiting his art, and wants to make things right. Thus the conflict is a slightly different one – it is him coming to learn that he cannot help himself alone and that while he is making efforts to fit in, he needs to properly accept the assistance of others. It is a much more non-judgemental, non-derisive approach than many town vs country stories; Handa’s issues are not because he is a city boy out of his depth, but because he is a troubled man who needs to come to terms with personal failings. The villagers are not bumbling yokels, but well-meaning people trying to convince him that he needs to change.
Throughout the opening episodes, Handa skews between outrage at being disturbed and sincere regret at causing offence; he makes efforts to fit in from the start, albeit ones based on creating an agreement where he is left to work. But at the same time, he is aware of his failings, aware of what he needs to do, and simply wants to do it his own way; it is hard to really condemn him for this because he is so forthright about it. The implication is that in time he will become more mellow and no longer be so short-tempered, but this is not established as a development that will be framed as a bucolic kind of tale of pastoral redemption, but instead his growing up. Having Handa be an artist is what makes this work. He begins the series being told he has insufficient talent to compete within the art world – but as soon as he reaches the island, the children he is surrounded with do not care about this. They see his art and like it – Naru claims she “doesn’t know much about talent” but likes his art anyway. Moving to the island thus represents moving away from the hyper-critical art world – and Handa’s efforts to conform (indeed, the criticism which causes his initial outburst is being told he is too conformist) – and into a place where he can do whatever he likes when he realises this. A journey of artistic discovery in this direction – away from competition in order to in time compete better – is an interesting inversion, too, of the typical performing-arts drama. Something like Glass Mask has its protagonist, in their pursuit of artistic excellence, try to carve out their niche while still undergoing constant training and critical scrutiny – they improve within the framework of a tyrannical system and learn that the system is for their benefit. Barakamon rejects this outright. Trying to conform is what sends Handa to his lowest ebb; the story implicitly being set up is that being around people who apparently care more about aesthetics than tradition will let him improve as an artist because there is no pressure to conform.
Barakamon is tremendously funny from the outset, and not at all mean-spirited in the way some comedies about rural life can be. At the same time, it does not exactly glamourise rural life reductively – it is hard, fitting in in a new, largely hermetic society is difficult for someone with issues fitting in, and this is used as a source of humour. I feel it is its choice of characters – an introspective artist too strongly obsessed with personal improvement and self-determination set against a child who simply wants to help – that makes this possible.