This is a prequel of sorts to “Barakamon” in the sense that it shows what Sei Handa, the straightlaced calligrapher protagonist of that series, was like back in highschool. As it turns out, he was even more uptight and neurotic when he was younger. This is because Handa is convinced that everyone in school hates him and plots against him behind his back, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Handa’s lone-wolf, detached yet impulsive persona has actually made him the idol of the entire school while his classmates are simply afraid to approach him because of (what they perceive as) the impenetrable aura of coolness he projects.
That should give you a pretty good idea of the kind of humor that we’re dealing with here. All of the jokes in this volume revolve around Handa’s misconception of how he’s perceived by the people around him. A love letter from a fellow classmate is thought to be a challenge. His nomination for the position of class representative is viewed as a form of bullying. A bullied student turned tough thug is won over by Handa’s reputation and cool nature. You get the idea.
It’s all amusing enough, but the one-joke note of this setup feels even more limiting than “Barakamon’s” brand of culture-clash comedy. While that series isn’t the funniest thing I’ve read, it managed to establish a larger and more interesting cast along with a potential for a rather broad range of comedic situations in exploring the culture of the region. Also, Handa in that series is at least allowed to grow a little while any kind of growth on his part here will mean that the series is now over. If nothing else, I still feel like I got my money’s worth with this first volume of “Handa-kun” as I downloaded the digital version for three bucks. Even though subsequent volumes are still relatively cheap at seven dollars each, I still feel hesitant to pick up the next one to see if there’s more potential to this series than what’s on display here.