"Arakawa Under the Bridge": It's Cool to Be Homeless!
Arakawa: Under the Bridge is a difficult show to objectively critique, because it’s a comedy, meaning that either you laugh, or you don’t. I didn’t, for the most part, but Arakawa might send others into hysterics. The best I can do is describe its premise, some of its set pieces, and the things I did like, and let you decide if it sounds up your alley.
First, the premise. Thankfully, this is one area of the show that I enjoyed, since it’s not run-of-the-mill. It concerns an elite, straight-laced college student named Kou Ichinomiya who prides himself on not being indebted to anyone, but all that changes when he almost drowns and is saved by a strange woman named Nino, who lives under a bridge in town (hence the title of the show, naturally) and claims she’s from Venus. Ichinomiya is nicknamed “Recruit” (“Rec” for short) and, going against his very philosophy, decides to repay Nino for saving his life by courting her and moving into a pillar underneath the bridge, abandoning his upper class lifestyle in the process.
After introducing Nino, Rec also meets the varied residents who also live in the field near the bridge: Village Chief, the self-appointed “leader” who claims to be an actual kappa (a mythical frog) but is just a guy in a costume; Hoshi, a former guitar band star who wears a giant star mask; Metal Brothers, a duo of young boys with, you guessed it, metal masks that never come off; Sister, a hulky male nun who always has military matters on the mind; P-ko, your token clumsy girl who grows vegetables for the group; Maria, a female farmer whose beauty belies her harsh criticisms and occasional violent outbursts; Stella, a seemingly cute young girl who has an obsession with crime and Yakuza-esque lore, and who turns into an Incredible Hulk-esque powerhouse when she gets upset (complete with deeper voice); and Last Samurai, a barber with the fastest service around.
There isn’t much of an overarching plot to speak of in the show; much of it is simply Rec (who takes on the informal role of teacher to this community) learning the bridge residents’ odd, unorthodox customs and the interactions therein. For example, one episode concerns Rec teaching the Metal Brothers how to swim; another involves Hoshi and Rec having a guitar battle; another has Stella in a love triangle between Sister and Maria, and which results in her being stuck in her angry Hulk persona for much of it. Each episode usually has multiple stories, like it can’t focus on one. You almost get the feeling the show itself is saying, “Eh, enough of that, here’s something unrelated!”
As you can see, Arakawa: Under the Bridge is basically a slice-of-life show about oddball characters living in an oddball place. Slice-of-life is a deceptively hard genre to get just right, though; if it’s not executed well, it looks like a bunch of random happenings without much of an overall point. I hate to say it, but Arakawa leans towards that at times. And since the very essence of compelling entertainment is conflict (and we’re talking any genre here, including comedy), it’s hard not to feel that much of Arakawa is too easy-going.
However, later in the series, a bit of a conflict does arise: Rec’s strict, by-the-book father learns that his son is living like a bum and plans to renovate the bridge area to make it more tourist friendly, which of course would mean all these people would have to ship out and find a new place to live. But even that isn’t treated in a deadly serious manner, as a couple reps from Rec’s father’s company visit and one of them, Terumasa Takai, gets sucked into the weirdness and even hangs with Rec for a while. I wasn’t expecting (or wanting) the show to dip into angsty territory and clash with the lighter events beforehand, but there has to be a way to make the prospect of the village being forced to leave mean a little more than a temporary problem that, without giving too much away, more or less resolves itself.
As I stated in the intro, Arakawa: Under the Bridge didn’t really tickle my funny bone, save for a few moments, such as Nino stuffing a few uncooked fish into Rec’s mouth when he returns after a temporary hiatus. Or the group throwing Hoshi off the bridge so they can “wish” on his falling body, which is just silly. Or a fanservice fake-out when Nino gets out of a bath… yet is wearing a towel. Some of the dialog exchanges take strange turns and those can be amusing as well; not “laugh out loud” funny, but enough to put a smile on my face or make me chuckle. On the other hand, there’s a lot of humor that is more or less expecting us to laugh at a character’s quirks, rather than if they do anything funny. I mean, I chuckled at a scarred, muscle-sporting male nun when I first saw him just from the sheer oddity of it, but that sort of visual joke loses its impact very quickly. The same went for Stella’s Hulk mode. Additionally, there are a few passages which are just Rec giving a PSA, such as telling his students what to do if they get sick. I sat there thinking, “OK, that’s useful information, but so what?”
On the plus side, I generally liked the look of the show; SHAFT has always done a good job with striking visuals that vary the shot compositions frequently to keep things from getting too monotonous. And the color palette is pretty unique for the show; it’s rather neon but not so garish that it’s painful to look at. I will say, though, that having every episode take place in this bridge field means the environments get repetitive, despite how they try to dress them up with different color combinations and such.
I also have to say, the show has an interesting viewpoint on the homeless. Unlike the stereotypical media portrait of a disheveled, babbling beggar, this group is self-sufficient (Nino catches fish for the group, and P-ko provides the veggies, and Maria has crops of her own), is relatively normal despite its eccentricities, and despite their differences, acts like a family towards each other. That’s pretty refreshing, and does show that maybe Rec wasn’t pursuing the right path when he was rich; sure, he was on the fast track to financial success, but he had no real friends as a result. While it could be argued this makes the series more fantasy than reality (for example, I doubt Rec could nab such a nice room in a bridge pillar), sometimes escapism is good.
Much like Katanagatari, another NIS America release I recently watched, Arakawa: Under the Bridge is a Blu-ray/DVD combo release, and contains all 13 episodes over four discs (two DVDs, two Blu-rays). It has more disc-based features than I’ve seen in the other two NIS series I’ve watched, with audio commentaries featuring the cast for almost every episode (except for episodes 6, 10, and 11 for some reason), as well as ten TV spots. The slim cases come housed in a tall, sturdy artbox that also contains a hardcover art book filled with color pictures, character model sheets, and staff comments. I have no complaints with the release, other than, once again, no English dub.
If you liked SHAFT’s previous comedies (and thankfully, this one doesn’t shoehorn in a bunch of obscure textual references), you’ll probably enjoy Arakawa: Under the Bridge too. Personally, their sense of humor doesn’t really gel with mine; Pani Poni Dash was really the only SHAFT comedy I liked, and even that could be hit-or-miss. However, I definitely have to give props to its unique premise. Additionally, it looks great, and the varied camera angles and color palettes keep it from getting dull. But if there was ever an example of “Your Mileage May Vary” in anime comedy, Arakawa: Under the Bridge is it. So, a mixed review from me.