No More Half Measure: Hiro, Handa, and Pursuit of Self-Fulfillment

Barakamon Volume 9 Cover

A look at the relationship between the grumpy calligrapher and his noodle delivery boy, and how it shaped one of the most interesting and resonant arcs in Barakamon manga.

(sorry Tama, I’m not talking about the kind of relationship you’re thinking)

Sensei, you look like you’re thinking very hard about things, but turns out you don’t really think much.”

“You, on the other hand, look like you’re not thinking at all, but turns out you really over-thinking everything.”

 Sei Handa is a driven man. He always knew what he wanted to do in life, and just as his insatiable thirst to improve could attest, that choice is not merely about following in the footsteps of his father. It’s both a blessing and a curse, to be so deeply invested at something that you go beyond just enjoying doing it, that you must keep doing it and be great at it.

On the other side of the coin, we have Hiroshi Kido, a teenager defined  by people around him and (most of all) himself as  “perfectly average”.   A ‘straight 3s’ student who doesn’t excel at anything , Hiro sees himself as a mediocrity personified, and he’s blatantly unhappy with that. However, his most significant attempt  to break away from that was by dyeing his hair blonde and engage in mild juvenile delinquency in a vain attempt to stand out.

When those two crossed paths for the first time (Barakamon chapter 6 Volume 1), Hiro assumed of Handa the way many of us reflexively thought when we see a wildly successful musician or athlete on TV—“some people are just talented like that”. Cue the discovery of Handa’s private room, the evidence of how much sweat, blood, and sacrifices went into making calligraphy his life-sustaining method.

Hiro Enters Handa Room

This is not really an example of classic ganbatte! narrative, where the protagonists are encouraged to work extremely hard and accept nothing but to be the absolute best at their preferred field. One of Handa’s most important developments revolves around him making peace with the idea that people may react negatively to his art (and that they’re not necessarily  wrong), as well as him being bested by a kid several years his junior.There’s honesty and grounded realism in Barakamon’s general approach that prevent the manga from being an inspirational narrative clichefest.

It is indeed a myth to think that hard work will always guarantee success—too many factors come to play, not least of which personal privilege and luck. It is a very harmful mindset, nonetheless, to constantly downplay other people’s achievements and overplay the roles of external factors in hindering your own path—hence, Hiro’s self-defeating attitude. In the end, it’s not really about having to be great, or that being mediocre is necessarily a bad thing. It’s about daring to change things when you know you’re not being comfortable with your current situation.

Hiro eventually decided to start studying and practicing for what he wants to do: a career in culinary. Things don’t magically change for the better just because you get up and say “Okay, time to get serious!” though. As I can personally attest, it’s a very significant jump to parlay your hobby and/or passion into a currency  for your livelihood sustenance. You have to do it most of the time now, not just ‘whenever you feel like it’. There’s a lot of blocks to overcome (physical and mental, real and imagined), and in the case of Hiro, he doesn’t even have much of a starting point—his school counselor flat out told him that there’s “nothing special” with his lunchbox cooking.

Handa Hiro Playing Catch

There’s plenty of interesting things said during Hiro’s consultation with Handa, which takes form as a baseball play catch session (Barakamon Chapter 59 Volume 7). As Hiro threw the ball back and forth, he also threw up one familiar excuse after another. It’s too late now to find my dream. I’ve wasted precious time by half-assing everything. I have confidence, but I can’t find conviction to do it because nobody believes in me. Handa may  be  a questionable authority on life/career advice for others (setting up a mock job interview for Hiro that’s way more silly than instructive or useful, for one), but he did throw this stinger: “Do youths these days need other people’s approval in order to realize their dream?  What you need isn’t conviction, it’s resolve.”

That “resolve” finally come through for Hiro  as he set himself for a job interview in a Nagasaki restaurant, in the process dyeing his hair back to black. It’s mainly for practicality’s sake (“I don’t think saying my parents are foreigners would work.”), but in a way it’s also a symbolic step.

Barakamon Hiro Black Hair

During the actual interview (Barakamon Chapter 71 Volume 9), Hiro quickly realized just how out of his depth he is. It’s a group interview session, where he got to present himself among people who are much more experienced, technically qualified, and equipped with sophisticated pre-built narrative. In comparison, Hiro lacked culinary license or any sort of professional experience, while his narrative basically boils down to “I like cooking since I was a child, and I respect your company’s vision and mission.”

(as a sidenote: it’s nerve-wracking enough to have a one-on-one interview, but to actually be interviewed together with your rivals and get to listen to their presentation? Brutal.)

I’ll share a bit about my experience here.

I can relate with what Hiro felt at the time, the ‘what the hell I’m doing here with these crazy awesome people’ kind of thought. Just like Handa, Hiro, and Tama with their respective aspiration, I chose a path in English translation entirely at my own volition.  I got plenty of basic ESL (English as Second Language) education, but I’ve never had formal education in the particular field of translation; everything I have is basically self-taught through practice, dirt cheap translation favor to fellow college students, and conditioning myself to the language’s nuances through daily exposure to random English content. Even then, I felt confident and resolved at the time I stepped out to the professional world.

Then, I was practically crushed.

Awfully sloppy result. The struggle to strike a balance between speed and quality of work. Failure to meet deadlines due to poor scheduling. Overestimation of my ability to handle certain material. These are the growing pains I’ve experienced, compounded by the realization that I was outclassed by people who have actual degrees in translation, people who grew up in English-speaking country, and people who are simply more skilled, conscientious, and mentally resilient than me. I have a peer who started practicing later than me, but by now had surpassed me in many aspects of the work.

There’s no turning back at that point though, and I eventually earned my share of highs to go along with the lows. That sense of humility shouldn’t ever be forgotten though, and so does the need to recognize people who are further along than us in a comparable pursuit.

Hiro Interview Barakamon

In response to the “who is the person you respect” question, Hiro defaulted to the one guy who isn’t a cook (…or even a conventionally respectable person), but who had inspired him by just being extremely dedicated to the path he’s chosen. It’s a nice closer to his Nagasaki journey, which is depicted with great comedy and warmth by Satsuki Yoshino. It’s not just the interview, but the whole process: through mundane yet supremely effective panels of Hiro being driven by his dad from their home, conversing in phone with his mom and Handa, freaking out in the train station, buying a wrapped food in the mini market (“I saw this in TV ad!”), and finally relaxing in a hotel room a night before the big day, you truly get to empathize with the young man taking his first lone step into an outside world.

I felt legitimately nervous and rooted for Hiro throughout, and in the end I was proud of him. Regardless of this particular interview’s result, he should be fine (….by the way, you know a fictional work really got you good when you start thinking and talking about its characters like actual people you know in real life).  Again, as the great Maya Angelou once said: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” He did it.

Hiro Chilling Out

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