Handa-kun is the story of Handa, a cool calligraphy genius who is by far the most popular boy in school. The problem is he interprets every action in the most pessimistic light, leading him to believe that he is the most hated and bullied kid in school. This misunderstanding is the comedic core of the anime. However, if you think about it, Handa-kun is a tragedy, not a comedy.
Handa-kun typically follows the same pattern: Something great happens to Handa, but he misunderstands and reacts by jumping to the worst possible conclusion. He then does everything in his power to get out of the perceived (and totally false) dilemma. Somehow, despite his misunderstanding, he comes out looking even cooler than before to those around him–even though he is no less miserable and isolated on the inside. But it’s not this comedic formula that makes Handa-kun a tragedy. It’s the fact that he has no possible way out of this cycle of perpetual pessimistic misunderstanding.
The reason we know this is because Handa-kun is a prequel series to Barakamon, which takes place six years later and tells of Handa’s life as an adult. In Barakamon, Handa is little better off than what the prequel shows us of his high school days. He is highly pessimistic (especially of his own work) and is so socially isolated that he only has a single friend at the start of the series–the same solitary friend he has in Handa-kun.
At the start of Barakamon, Handa is a broken man. Used to being mocked and bullied all his life (even if it has always been all in his head), calligraphy has always been the one thing he was considered a genius at. Experiencing public failure of his one talent causes him to lash out, punching a well-respected calligraphy critic and subsequently going into self-exile on a rural island as punishment.
Barakamon is the story of Handa learning who he is as both an artist and a person through his interactions with a six-year-old girl named Naru and the other people he meets on the island. With Naru by his side, he finally learns how to love life, surrounded by friends who truly love him and show it constantly.
When it comes down to it, the story of Handa’s life truly doesn’t begin until the day he meets Naru–the day when he is finally able to start to change and see the world for the wonderful place it truly is. It is no coincidence that Naru is six years old and Handa-kun takes place six years before Barakamon. Everything is leading to their fated meeting.
Up until that event, his life is static. No matter what happens in his life, it will always end in emotional hurt, with Handa feeling bullied and alone. He is trapped in a sisyphean cycle with no escape, just endless pain. In other words, a textbook tragedy.
However, while the events of Handa-kun are superficially funny and at a deeper lever tragic, at least Barakamon gives us hope. Things will get better for Handa one day, even if that day is far off.