Arakawa under the Bridge may look like an anime for potheads (what with the kappa costume, star mask, and nun with a gun, among other things), but truthfully it’s just a thirteen-episode-long plate of sashimi: it takes a little getting used to, but ends up being absolutely delicious. Especially for me, having just watched the sour Serial Experiments Lain, this land of perpetual sunshine under the bridge was a joy to behold.
The anime follows business prodigy Kou Ichinomiya as he attempts to live with an eccentric community under the Arakawa Bridge. As far as story goes, that’s pretty much it; it’s a narrative progression that the viewer reacts to rather than follows. Episodes range from decent to nearly brilliant, but one’s enjoyment for the show will not wane if he remembers this cardinal rule of episodic anime: Watch, don’t wait. Here is a train ride through a park, but look elsewhere if you’re waiting to take off on a jet plane.
And under the bridge lies a very weird park indeed. This embankment of overgrown grass, with Tokyo skyscrapers floating in the backdrop as if on a different plane of existence, becomes the universe. People walk among the grass in their various costumes and with their ignorance and ridiculous quirks, living totally in the present. Kou, choked by the expectations of society, lands into this enclave untainted by time and ambition, and weird things happen. Indeed, the humor of this show is what fresh raw fish would be to an incubated Coloradoan: It flails around and goes crazy, and we aren't quite sure whether to burst into laughter or gape in WTF-ery. Watching Kou trying to deal with these people becomes a deliciously mindboggling affair; we surface from an episode and the world is suddenly a stranger place.
But amidst Kou's numerous face-palms and exasperated tantrums, he begins to change. His driven, independent, withered heart begins to realize that there are things in this world that are meant to be shared. Here lies the beautiful continuity that gives the anime its shape. Each episode is broken into few-minute segments, but one still feels a sense of overall direction as Kou starts coming to terms with not only the community but with what the community represents. Hidden among the moments of hilarity and bemusement are moments of bejeweled self-reflection. One line could leave you giggling like a madman and then the show takes something out of its sleeve that silences you instantly with its truth. Alternately, a line could make your heart ache and then someone pulls out a zinger that has you double-taking in delighted disbelief. No scene is wasted. It is a bipolarity that the anime has managed to synthesize into a palatable whole.
Unfortunately Arakawa under the Bridge does not succeed as well with Kou and Nino's romantic subplot. It makes obvious attempts to romanticize their relationship, and while the attempts are not tasteless in and of themselves, they fail to form the same kind of continuity that the show achieves with Kou’s personal development. In the end, one finds Kou and Nino’s bond charming but not arresting.
The visuals are safe, appealing, and pleasantly variegated: There are some shots that could work as prints and others with a slight avant-garde tinge. The main reason the animation does so well is its ability to give the impression that it’s sleeker than it is. Still frames are used frequently, yet they shuffle past so quickly, not allowing anything to become sluggish. The show also employs the technique of perspective to its advantage, where an open sky looks like it could swallow you up and an angry girl-giant in a cute dress could barely be moving and you could still feel her palpitating presence.
The soundtrack reveals a similar kind of bipolarity that accompanies the narrative, as buoyant jazz intermingles with tender symphonic sweeps. It’s astonishing how quickly and seamlessly the music is able to shift moods and establish atmospheres.
In addition, Hiroshi Kamiya and Maaya Sakamoto deliver impeccable performances for their respective leads, Kou and Nino. As Kamiya infuses a choleric, boyish energy into Kou’s voice, Sakamoto tempers it with her gentle drawl in Nino’s. I had been previously acquainted with Sakamoto as Akashi in the radiant Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei, and comparing the roles gives me a newfound respect for the actress. I had recognized her timbre from Yojouhan, yet she supplies Nino with an altogether different personality. The seiyuu for the rest of the cast deserves praise as well for their spirited if not creative performances, with Maria’s venomous purrs and Stella’s comical monster-roars being particularly effective.
The characters will certainly pull raw laughs out of you, but no matter how much each of them shines individually, they cannot bind themselves into a cohesive cast. Arakawa under the Bridge aims for the viewer to fall in love with the residents of Arakawa Bridge as a conception, in order for camaraderie to bloom when trouble comes (in the form of Kou’s father). However, for all the characters' eccentricities, they have been planted too far apart from each other to form a convincing garden. White-san and Piko do hold interesting personalities, but their impact could have increased dramatically if they had been allowed to collide with the rest of the cast. Maria and Sister’s destructive relationship carries a ton of potential but never explodes. Kou and Nino lack chemistry. I have rarely come across characters with so many possibilities, but perhaps the possibilities were too great that the cast cracked slightly under their pressure.
On another hand, the anime constructs an interesting progression with Kou’s father, an intimidating, reptilian magnate with ideals directly opposite those under the bridge. As he exerts his power at the bridge community’s expense, his convoluted relationship with his son is brought to light. His parting words in the second-to-last episode remain one of the most perplexing statements in the anime, an indication of a part of him he doesn’t let even himself see.
Raw fish? Yes. Omega-3's, protein, and other nutrients? Definitely. Arakawa under the Bridge is an anime that might taste a bit strange to the uninitiated viewer, but it is flavorful and healthy to boot. Come partake in this memorable meal.
Holding strictly to his family's creed, Kou Ichinomiya has never once, in his life of privilege, owed anything to anyone – that is, until a self-proclaimed Venusian named Nino saves him from drowning in the wake of a dire accident involving Kou's pants. Eternally indebted to the supposed extraterrestrial, Kou moves into her little community under the bridge along the Arakawa river. Ripped from his life of luxury and success, the young Tokyo U graduate now must adjust to his well-appointed hovel, strange new neighbors, and peculiar lover, Nino.
When I first stumbled upon the anime scene, I demanded only slice-of-life high school romance and Naruto (Weird combination!). I've opened up a little bit since then, but I suppose the high school shoujo type will always be my "comfort zone."