On Shinkichi Kato’s BAKA AND GOGH
Shinkichi Kato’s Baka and Gogh is about the friendship between three people and how that friendship changes over time. The Baka of the title refers to two friends who are in a high school band. They’re desperate to play in their senior year festival-type thing, but it seems like they’re destined to be disliked or shunned. The Gogh of the title refers to a girl in their class who’s constantly being picked on. One day, the Baka step in and help her out. They then become best friends. But it isn’t that simple. What follows is a beautiful portrait of outsider friendships, the strange paths that those friendships can take, and a subtle critique of the possessiveness of love (or obsession).
One of the most beautiful things about Baka and Gogh is how it treats the main friendship between all the characters. The characters are outsiders and they seem to be fated to never quite fit in. But, more than that, they’re far too alive and unpredictable to be restrained the expectations of the world. The two male characters, realistically, go straight from high school to the work force; there isn’t any worry about college entrance exams, they’re never in the picture. There aren’t any mentions of the rituals that high school students might be expected to participate in. None of that matters. Our characters are far too invested in their dreams to really pay that much attention to anything else. What matters is the bond that’s created between everyone here. Throughout the first volume, these characters find something that they want to protect, something that they want to cherish; but what’s beautiful is how Kato understands that it must necessarily change. The things that are precious do not seem to last.
There comes a moment about halfway in Baka and Gogh where one character confesses to another. It’s an embarrassing moment, for both the person who confessed and the person being confessed to, and even almost to the reader. Embarrassing because how real it feels, yes, but also because it feels like you’re suddenly not wearing any clothes; the people who you love have seen all of you now, and there is no taking that back. This is the moment that is the catalyst for what happens next in the story. This is the moment that begins the new phase of the friendship at the heart of the series.
Friends come and go from our lives. Some our always with us, while others may drift away. What Kato manages to beautifully highlight is that even if a friendship changes, even if the role that someone played in your life is different, they don’t truly go away. They stay in your heart, in your memories, wherever. You carry them with you to whatever new destination you’re going to. And sometimes the people you thought were gone from your life come back. Maybe you see them in a different way now, maybe they’re going to play a new role in your life; what matters is that the bond was strong enough that it could survive that time apart, that your friendship was strong enough to begin with that it could withstand that change in definition. The final chapter of Baka and Gogh shows how each character has changed, and it shows their new role in life. The Baka are still wildly enthusiastic and hilarious and still chasing their dreams, but experience and pain have matured them; they also no longer mean the same thing to Gogh as they once did.
I think I’ve played down the importance of Gogh in my analysis of the series, and this is a mistake. She’s arguably the most important character, because it’s through her that the other characters define themselves. And she’s the one who undergoes the most change. Her journey is different than from the male characters. They’re all about introspection and brooding and whatnot. Gogh has the strength to reject the things she doesn’t want, to know what is right for her. Kato draws out that inner strength and by the final panel she looks luminous; she’s found her own path and it’s led her to her own happiness.
In the background of this story about personal growth and friendship, lies a more interesting subtext. Both male characters have unrequited feelings for Gogh. One of them actually confesses those feelings, gets rejected, and leaves town. The other one keeps it inside, bottled it up, knowing that nothing would ever come of it. They both have an image of Gogh in their head, of what she should be, of what they want her to be. There’s a possessive quality to their feelings for Gogh, which is an outgrowth of their romantic feelings, that can’t be denied. She’s our Gogh. When she declines to go along with them and stay behind, she asserts her status as an equal to them; she does not need their protection, she can make decisions for herself. This is what throws off the balance of their friendship. So much of their friendship has been based, at this point, on everyone trying to take care of Gogh and helping her out, that when she makes this big decision on their own, they get flustered.
Both characters are essentially trying to protect their own image of Gogh. They want her to remain the same, to stay in the same role that she’s always been in. The maturation, redemption even, of the male characters only happens after they let go of their possessive feelings toward Gogh. Their feelings must change, their role in Gogh’s life must change, their conception of what Gogh means to them must change. When a character late in the series says: “it’s the sound of the whole universe,” it tells us that his love for Gogh isn’t the same anymore; it’s transformed into something different. It’s a repudiation of his previous belief system; he even has to say goodbye to “my Gogh.” She isn’t the woman he knew, or that existed in his head. She’s her own person. But the beauty of what Kato achieves here is that he doesn’t say: “okay, so now that you can’t be together, that’s it; that’s the end of your friendship.” He allows the possibility for growth. In essence, Baka and Gogh speaks to how friendship can evolve and become even truer and more powerful as we grow older, as we accept the fact that our friends change, and our role in their life also changes. It’s one of the most beautiful expressions of this feeling that I know of.
How To Find It
Sadly, this wonderful series isn’t available legally in the United States. You’ll have to scour the web to find it.
Baka and Gogh (2000)