Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jul 18th 2011
Arakawa Under the Bridge
Season 1 DVD/Blu-Ray Premium Edition
Ko Ichinomiya is perfect. He's smart, he's rich, and he's defiantly self-sufficient. Or so he says as he stands on the Arakawa Bridge in his underpants. Some "eccentric youths" stole his pants and hung them high on the bridge. No problem. Never owe anyone anything is his family's motto, so he'll just climb up and get them himself. That little bit of self-sufficiency costs him dear when he ends up in the river with the beam he was climbing on top of him. And when a local girl pulls him out, he ends up owing the mother of all debts: his life. In order to pay it off, he agrees to fulfill whatever wish his savior has. Despite being homeless and convinced that she's a Venusian, or perhaps because of it, Nino is perfectly satisfied with her life. The only wish she can think of is to experience love. Ko agrees to be her lover, and thus begins his life with the real eccentrics beneath the Arakawa Bridge.
The first thing you need to know about Arakawa is that it is very consciously weird. It doesn't come across its strangeness naturally; it goes out hunting for it. You may find its sheer weirdness alienating, but you're far more likely to be put off by how deliberate its zaniness feels. That would be quite the blow to the series if the characters who embodied that zaniness weren't so darned endearing. You can't really resent a show for calculatedly bizarre behavior when you keep falling in love with the people who are doing it. Or when they keep cracking you up.
Ko, under his under-the-bridge name Rec, has quite the menagerie to cope with. The first to come out of the river, so to speak (or in his case, literally), is the Village Chief, a man in a proudly unconvincing kappa suit who claims, all evidence to the contrary, that he's a centuries-old yokai. He's followed in quick succession by a washed-up rock star with an enormous star-shaped mask, a towering English mercenary who claims, all evidence to the contrary, to be a Sister, a pair of twins who firmly believe that their iron masks/helmets safeguard them from human experimentation, an inhumanly clumsy horticulturalist, a dangerous sadist with an angelic face, a former company man who only walks on white lines, a little girl with yakuza-sized ambitions and the skills the back them up, and assorted other costumed, masked, and generally unbalanced individuals.
If they all sound less like full-blooded people than wellsprings of gags, then good. That's exactly what they are. Each introduction is a fresh source of insanity; with every new addition the awkward situations, strange discoveries, and opportunities for Rec to play shell-shocked straight-man flow freer. These are characters built for laughs and little else: they're broad and humorous and shallow as summertime mud puddles. They do have the good fortune, though, to be each given a well-defined personality, and a superbly-matched actor to give it voice. Each is also blessed with a kernel of humanity—Hoshi's devotion, for instance, or the self-imposed loneliness of Rec's father—as well as the good sense not to flinch away from their less pleasant traits. Maybe they're just running gags, but they're human gags...or at least human enough to be both funny and surprisingly sympathetic.
If you're wondering where Rec and Nino are in all of this, they're busy being the heart of the series. Oh, they get down and crazy with the best of them, but while the Village Chief is demonstrating his special brand of inept leadership and Maria is heckling poor smitten Sister until blood spurts from his old wounds and everyone else is just generally being bonkers, Nino and Rec are also quietly falling in love. The series doesn't draw much attention to their romance, and treats it seriously even less often, but still, it's the glue that binds the series together, and gives it its deceptive depth of feeling as well. The awkward courtship of these two deeply inexperienced lovers is funny, yes, particularly during the awful experimentation of their first date and the fallout of their first kiss, but also oddly touching. There's a tender scene in which Nino washes Rec's hair that, if it doesn't put a pang in your chest, means you're probably immune to pangs.
Arakawa has a somewhat irresponsible view of homelessness. Arakawa's inhabitants aren't homeless because they're too poor, mentally ill, or screwed up on meth to find housing; they're homeless because they choose to eschew society and its strictures. It's a view of homelessness that you occasionally see in quirky homeless Hollywood films, and not one that rings particularly true. Indeed, Arakawa's portrayal of homeless life is best taken as a kind of fantasy; with Nino the white rabbit leading Rec down the rabbit hole and into the wacky Arakawa wonderland.
To that end, the direction of Akiyuki Shinbo is indispensable. He channels his and SHAFT's signature stylistic fascinations into something a little more meaningful than they usually end up, using abstraction and meticulously composed expressionist tableaux to give Rec's journey the flavor of a surreal fairy tale. The colors are vivid, the backgrounds (and foregrounds) highly stylized, and the textures of clothing and furniture complex yet pointedly unrealistic. From a purely stylistic standpoint this is one of Shinbo's most successful works, not just because his penchant for visual excess finds its match in the series' own excesses or because that peculiar jumpy rhythm of his is a perfect fit for the manga's short chapters (faithfully reproduced here, complete with sub-titles), but because it all serves a higher purpose than stylistic masturbation.
His visual wit, eye for simulated camera motion, and ability to blindside with a punch-line shouldn't be ignored either, nor should his throwaway sight gags or incidental fan-service. His deployment of music maybe should be though. Comedic scenes, particularly as they open, tend to be far too noisy, and some of the old-fashioned musical flourishes don't go over too well. On the other hand, the score is positively lovely when sensitivity is called for, and the opening and ending themes are great, particularly the pastel pop of Etsuko Yakushimaru.
NIS America's packaging is, as always, spectacular. The box is gorgeous and the hardcover booklet big, colorful, and packed with interviews and info. The Blu-ray's transfer is also superb—preserving SHAFT's glorious colors and not-supposed-to-show-up-on-TV animation with wondrous fidelity. While at first glance skimpy on extras, a quick look at the setup menu reveals ten episode-long commentary tracks featuring a medley of Japanese actors, actresses and the occasional producer. For fans of seiyuu like Maaya Sakamoto, Takehito Koyasu, Chiwa Saito, Keiji Fujiwara, Rikiya Koyama, and many others, including those not featured yet extensively gossiped about, these discs are an embarrassment of riches.
Unfortunately, the Blu-rays have a hideous habit of throwing you back to the main menu whenever you restart after pressing "stop" or powering down. The DVDs don't have that bug, but as with past NIS releases, do load straight into the show sans subtitles. It's pretty easy to forgive that, though. A bug or two, like the cliché climax and occasional gag that chokes, is a small price to pay for spending a couple of hours in Arakawa, under the bridge.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B-
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B-
+ Bizarre, funny, secretly sweet and utterly unique; fun cast with a flawed but highly loveable couple at its center.
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