Ko Ichinomiya has got it made. Not only is he the heir to the Ichinomiya Corporation, one of Japan's most powerful and wealthiest institutions, but he's a prodigal talent who succeeds at anything he turns his hand to - even though he's scarcely over twenty years old and still in university, he's already founded multiple successful businesses, paid for his own tuition upfront (no mean feat these days!) and bought his own condo in the fanciest part of Tokyo. All the girls want him, all the guys envy him, and he's living the yuppie dream. Ko attributes his wondrous achievements to his wholehearted absorption of the Ichinomiya dynasty's motto - "never owe anything to anyone". Ko's family has prospered for generations on the back of such pithy wisdom, but Ko himself suddenly finds himself the victim of this doctrine when he incurs a large debt that he cannot so easily repay - falling off of a bridge after inadvisably rejecting help and trying to solo-rescue a pair of stolen trousers, Ko plunges into the river below. After a desperate mental cry for help to whatever spirit may be listening, Ko is saved from drowning when a girl dives in after him and fishes him out.
As Ko is hauled, soaking and spluttering, onto the shore, he finds himself in something of a quandary. He is now most definitely indebted to his rescuer, Nino, a blonde-haired and homeless girl who lives between the support struts of the bridge that he fell from. A life is one of the most valuable commodities there is, and Ko's firm belief in his family creed (not to mention the fact that he's conditioned to follow it so thoroughly that he literally starts having a seizure at the awful prospect of incurring an outstanding debt) demands that he give something back to Nino. The thing is, Nino leads a simple existence under the bridge and doesn't really want any of the riches that Ko offers her, and Ko himself can't accept that Nino saved his life out of pure altruism; this leaves Ko with little recourse but to accede to Nino's curious thought that the one thing that she doesn't have is a boyfriend - and so Ko offers himself. He doesn't really relish getting involved with a hobo, but just take her from her hole in the ground, get her set up in a nice city apartment, and that will be that, right?
Well, no. Nino refuses to leave the river. Why? She's an alien from Venus and the gravity of Earth is too light for her and she'll drift into the air if she climbs too high off of the riverbank. I mean, obviously!
Horrified that he's chained himself to a deluded and patently insane freak but still honour-bound by his promise, Ko has little choice but to give up the plush high-rise condo and live as Nino's partner under the bridge, along with all of the others who form the small community of outcasts, misfits and drifters who've fallen between the cracks of society and down into the narrow grassy strip of no-man's land between the river's edge and the flood wall.
They're a colourful and quirky bunch who definitely wouldn't cohere with Japanese conformity, make no mistake - the mayor of the little village is a centuries-old "kappa" turtle-man (just don't say that he's a guy in an animal suit - he's very sensitive about the zippers, you see); the aspiring rock star jamming out on the shore literally has a star for a head; one man travels everywhere with a pitch-marker because he can only walk on white lines; and the riverside church is tended to by a Sister, who's actually a Brother, and calls the community to Mass by firing an Uzi into the air before giving out cookies instead of communion wafers. Will Ko be able to fulfil his promise to Nino before she and her friends drive him completely doolally?
Arakawa Under the Bridge is based on the long-running manga (published since 2004) of the same name by Hikaru Nakamura. As the synopsis above shows, Nakamura has set out his stall as a bric-a-brac stand of the odd and offbeat, his other manga being Saint Young Men, a slacker comedy featuring Jesus Christ and the Buddha Siddhartha as room-mates in modern Japan and sharing a fairly... ecumenical cosmology. The anime version of Arakawa Under the Bridge was broadcast across two seasons in spring and autumn 2010, and this release covers all of the first season in a single collection. Does it delight and amaze with a teeming emporium of quirky craft, or is it just a dusty shelf of chintzy knock-off tat?
At first glance, it could well be the latter. What struck me when starting to watch Arakawa Under the Bridge is how its visuals resemble an anime that had come out a year before it - Bakemonogatari. There are a lot of points of reference between the two. In fact - and let's not mince words - it's a direct copy. The direction of Arakawa Under the Bridge completely apes Bakemonogatari - the intermittent faux-widescreen, the quick-cuts, the random background shots of a curiously empty city, the flat gradient-shaded and silhouetted scenery, and especially the constant close-ins on Ko's blinking eye. Even Ko himself could pass as an older Araragi... and yes, multiple characters turn their gaze backwards over their shoulders in that notorious neck-breaking "SHAFT Head Tilt" manoeuvre all the time! When Nino's hair even sprouts a bouncy little wagging-tail ahoge in one early scene for no reason, it can't be unconscious coincidence.
This should really be expected - both Arakawa Under the Bridge and Bakemonogatari were produced at the same studio and indeed have the same director, Akiyuki Shinbo. These sorts of features are his trademark, and to a great extent also form the house style of SHAFT itself. The visual parallels can also be attributed to how each show shares a similar format, both being led by long dialogues with limited action, so it would be expected for Shinbo to fall back on devices he knows can add a lash of visual flair to what would otherwise be bland talking-head televised radio.
If all that's the case, why am I harping on about it so much? Is it really that big of a deal? Well, to be honest, it kind of is. That's not petty nitpicking, either - it does affect the viewing experience. The resemblance was so close that it actually became quite distracting, and my attention was carried off from watching the story to just picking out the links. A different show should try to establish its own character, particularly when viewers coming across from Bakemonogatari expecting more of the same will instead find themselves wrong-footed and maybe a little cheated, because whereas the two shows share a style and a format of delivery, they don't actually share much content. To begin with, Arakawa Under the Bridge has no real fanservice to speak of, and Nino gets fully dressed before pulling her bath-towel off from underneath her tracksuit; Bakemonogatari opened the first scene of its first episode with a panty shot!
The "Arakawa" of the anime's title takes its name from the real-life Arakawa ward of Tokyo, a neighbourhood through which runs a river with the charming name of, uh... Desolate. Despite that name, though, the anime shows that life under the bridge is a bright and happy affair with the assorted weirdos who are Ko's new neighbours cheerfully forming their own little society outside of the mainstream. Initially though, this setup works against it. The show is a rolling series of skits (frequently the only thing that separates one episode from another is just the half-hour cut-off for a TV series) and Ko starts out as just the beleaguered straight man of a bland assortment of odd-couple gags; one of the riversiders does something wacky, Ko makes exasperated noises, rinse, repeat.
It's not a promising start, but it is worth sticking with it, because Ko eventually comes into his own and becomes that rarest of beasts, rarely spotted in the wild - a mature anime character. Yes he's a rich kid, but the anime thankfully holds off on the childishly petulant class-warfare stereotypes and instead shows that there's more to him than daddy's money and that he has wit and resourcefulness of his own. The script is sensibly written to avoid tainting Ko with condescension: for instance, the singer Hoshi also holds a candle for Nino and boasts about his musical prowess, sneering that Ko can't hope to match it, at which point Ko reveals that he's had a fine classical education and no-one can beat him at violin. Rather than coming across as Ko throwing his high-society upbringing around, because Hoshi threw the gauntlet down first with a lot of jealous sniping it instead becomes an equal and entertaining slamdown between two stags butting heads that we can more easily enjoy.
Another great asset to the show is Ko's relationship with Nino. While chaste, this isn't just twelve episodes of tortuously contrived misunderstandings with one kiss in the final reel, but instead follows a genuine developing arc. Ko has not had a girlfriend before Nino despite his high-flying life, but rather than him just being the stammering shrinking-violet milquetoast otaku self-insertion template that cheapens so many other romance anime, there's an actual credible joke behind the reason why, and Ko goes on to become quite earnest and heartfelt in his endeavours to impress and please Nino. He also is quite perceptive as he infers more about Nino, who for all of her reticence and "Venusian" limitations (alien physiology or a psychological defence mechanism?) has a subdued but definite personality of her own with teased-out likes and dislikes.
Ko also has a lot of scrapes with the other people living under the bridge. He starts out as a typical straight-man carping on the sidelines, but he becomes a lot more proactive in his own efforts to straighten out the kookiness of his new neighbours, as much as the need to function in his new environment mean that they begin to affect him, leading to a gently humorous underucrrent throughout the episodes. There are multiple comparisons and contrasts drawn between Ko's pride in his mounting tower of individual endeavour and the limited but easygoing communal lifestyle of the people living under the bridge, although any social message that the anime may be trying to convey is undermined by the implausibly sunny and outright utopian conditions of life there - I hate to say it, but I really doubt that many homeless people shivering by the canal can simply saunter a few hundred yards downstream and pick up fresh milk and eggs from the dairy farm that just so happens to sit under the flood wall!
Arakawa Under the Bridge is a subtitle-only release, in both senses - the show is hardsubbed, so there is no option to turn subtitles off. This probably won't matter to the vast majority of viewers, but the subtitles don't adequately explain a few pun-based jokes and they made it a bit of a pain in the ass to gather screenshots for this review. The extras, all included on the second disc, are sadly pretty underwhelming. There are a large number of entries on the menu, but before you rub your hands with glee at exploring a treasure-trove of bright bonuses, understand that it turns up dust - past the MVM Entertainment promotional trailers it's only a collection of short promo reels and television adverts. I enjoy getting a peek under the bonnet and I suppose this is some (small) form of insight into how the Japanese industry works, but it's like an engine inspection where all you comment on is the colour of the cap for the windscreen-wiper fluid. The extras don't even include clean opening and ending sequences, which must surely be the bare absolute minimum that all extras sections should include. The ancillary materials are entirely disappointing.
The core experience, however, proved to be quite enjoyable. The first couple of episodes don't grab you and viewers may be disaffected from its entirely derivative foundations, both in its overly familiar art and its off-the-shelf quirky and zany personality tropes, but stick with it - on this basis the anime builds its own beast, with a setting that brings high and low together in a good-natured way without bitterness or smarminess, characters that do lift beyond their gimmicks and understated humour with a minimum of overdone pratfalls. Much like the rickety but homely shacks of those living by the beautiful blue waters, Arakawa Under the Bridge is more than the sum of its parts.