ANIME & MANGA - Review
16:00 - 7th December 2013, by Matt Kamen

Arakawa Under the Bridge

Everything Ko Ichinomiya has ever achieved, he's done on his own. "Never be indebted to anyone" is the Ichinomiya family motto, and it is Ko's duty to uphold that view. Problem is, he takes it all too seriously, and when he's mugged for his trousers (don't ask), he can't deal with accepting help from the strange girl living under the bridge where he finds them.

Fast forward a few misunderstandings, though, and Ko is moving in with the girl. Calling herself Nino, she declares that she's a Venusian, and part of a whole society of misfits living around the Arakawa river - a heaving cast which includes Sister, a gun-toting soldier dressed like a nun; Stella, a British orphan girl who transforms into a hulking warrior; Hoshi, a jaded rock star who wears an actual star mask; and Maria, a sadistic farmer. They're all governed by the nameless Village Chief, who may be a mythical Kappa or just a nutjob in a costume.

Despite the insanity, Ko settles in and finds a community and camaraderie that he always lacked in 'real' society. He even falls truly in love with Nino, regardless of her odd ways, and helps defend the residents from his own father's urban development plans. The romantic trappings and the father / son friction are the closest Arakawa has to an ongoing plot, though it's often hard to follow through the show's choppy nature.

Each episode consists of five to seven brief chapters, each structured to tell some abstract joke, most relying on physical overreactions or an utterly unrelated punchline for comedy. Often, the writing is sharp enough that these vignettes will be genuinely funny - sometimes because of, sometimes in spite of, the sheer randomness. However, the general joke ("Look how WEIRD everything is! Oh and here's a yakuza with a parrot head!") can wear thin.

Arakawa's biggest problem is a lack of focus. Perhaps this is an odd criticism to level at a show that is deliberately off-kilter in its world view, with a sense of humour that can only be described as 'surreal'. Yet even surrealist comedy works best with a target for its jokes, something that's hard to find here. For instance, it's unclear if the Ichinomiya 'accept no help' stance is meant to be a criticism of something specific - perhaps aimed at something like Ayn Rand's cruel Objectivism - or just a broader dig at the Japanese attitude towards work and obligation. Or the strange, borderline fetishised obsession the underage Stella has for Sister - an inverted dig at the all-too-common 'sister complex' pairings found in less illustrious manga? Maybe there simply isn't any meaning to anything, and it is all an exercise in the bizarre, but the series has allusions to a depth that never quite pan out.

On the plus side, it's rather pleasing to the old eyeballs, with great character designs and solid animation. It's probably for the best that Arakawa is released as subtitle-only though - any attempts at dubbing such an overwhelmingly strange show would likely render it even more awkward than it can sometimes be.

An oftentimes genuinely funny series that suffers under the weight of its own desperate need to be wacky. Fans of the abstract - or shows such as FLCL - will likely enjoy this a great deal more than most. Despite only being 13 episodes long, Arakawa is best viewed in small sittings - more than a few episodes at once and it starts to grate.
SCORE: 3/5
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