Arakawa Under The Bridge

Comedy is the theater of the absurd. One camera or three? Laugh track or no? Half hour or hour? Doesn't really matter. You can set up a comedy television show any way you want, with any cast you want, dealing with whatever situations you want, and it will come down to a celebration of the ridiculous. Life is weird, and whether we see it through the eyes of Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor, Hank Hill, Michael Scott, or Homer Simpson, we get a glimpse of the beautiful silliness of the human condition. It says something about us all that the funniest shows are usually ones that relate to us personally. I've lived The Office and Everybody Loves Raymond. They take the dreary and even painful events of life and make us laugh at ourselves.

So what happens when a comedy rejoices in the absurd merely for being absurd? Though unusual, it can work. Monty Python's most bizarre skits, even forty years after they originally aired, still make you laugh hysterically while asking, "What the heck did I just see?" The anime world has seen absurdist comedies like Cromartie High School and Welcome to the NHK succeed. If the characters are funny enough and the humor just a hair from going over the deep end, it can work, especially if there's some warmth in the midst of the oddball.

Arakawa Under The Bridge makes a noble effort to be a great absurdist comedy. While it doesn't quite pull it off, it is often amusing and occasionally touching. While the opening salvo of episodes is kind of bumpy, it eventually settles into a comfortable groove that makes for entertaining viewing, enough so that I can understand why a second season was made. Heck, I'd even watch it...though I struggled through the running time with the underlying pathos of the subject matter. (More on that in a moment.)

Arakawa itself is a district of Tokyo. That's where our lead character, Ko, finds himself without pants. Ko is actually a young captain of industry; his father is a leading magnate of Tokyo, and Ko has already begun following in Dad's footsteps. Yet he is attacked by a bunch of playful hooligans who hang his slacks high up on a bridge. A young girl named Nino who is fishing off said bridge offers to help, but Ko's family motto is "never be indebted to anyone." Ko thus tries to get down his khakis by himself, only to wind up falling and nearly drowning. Nino saves him -- which, to Ko's utter shock and dismay, means he definitely owes her one. But as it turns out, what Nino really wants is for Ko to become her lover. Now before you think that this is one of THOSE anime, she barely knows what love of any sort really means. And for Ko, it sounds like a pretty easy way to get out of his obligation.

However, there's a huge problem...Nino lives under the bridge, and she's not the only one. Nino is odd enough, as she believes she's from Venus. But she's perfectly normal in comparison to the others down in this community of the odd and intentionally homeless. There's a man who's never seen outside of a costume that makes him look like the world's ugliest mythical frog spirit. Another guy goes around with a star on his head. Two young kids wear metal helmets. And that's not to mention the cross-dressing priest/nun, the cute kid who actually belongs in the cast of Fist of the North Star, and the farmer girl who's Sarah Silverman twisted with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. As it turns out, Ko hasn't caught the nearest tornado to Oz, but he may have fallen down the rabbit hole.

There's virtually nothing to complain about in Arakawa's presentation. The Blu-Rays that NIS America has released are gorgeous, and while they have a habit of unceremoniously dumping you out to the main menu, that's a small price to pay for a show that looks this good. The animation is not fantastic in and of itself, but the color palette is beautiful, and I couldn't help but think that, for what is kind of a dumb show, it was awfully pretty. The soundtrack isn't something I'd buy, but the themes worked well enough that they're still in my brain, and while I didn't ever really get into the opening theme, the closer ("Upside-Down Bridge" by Suneohair) is really a great song.

But what about the show itself? Honestly, it starts off pretty weird and gets weirder. I deliberately didn't describe too much about the characters because discovering their strangeness is supposedly part of the charm. There are very few explanations for any of these oddballs; even when we get one, it's hard to tell whether what we learn about their pasts is a lie or a fantasy or something vaguely close to reality. The audience is not supposed to relate to them; instead, Ko is our advocate who acts appropriately shocked at the madness around him. But Ko is also a bit off his rocker himself. His father has so stunted him that he's a bit of a man-child himself, totally competent at business but miserable at human relationships. So it's touching when this triumphantly confident yet secretly insecure guy winds up finding a sense of real community with a bunch of misfits he would have never met but for his descent into their madcap world.

But how fun is that world, really? I found myself smirking often, and every now and then I'd get a good chuckle, even a guffaw. But the truth is, I'm an easy laugh, and I didn't laugh as often as I should have. There are two core problems for me in Arakawa Under the Bridge, and the first one is that it tries too hard. The characters are played for their maximum bizarro factor. It's as if everyone involved was enamored with figuring out how strange they could make each player in the series. It also stretches the limits of credulity. For example, not only is there's no reason to believe that Nino is from Venus, we don't have the slightest hint why she believes it; it's just a quirk to make her stand out. A bunch of quirks strung together do not make a believable character or even a semblance of one.

The second problem that got under my skin repeatedly while watching Arakawa is that this in no way resembles homelessness as it really exists throughout the world. What we really see is something more akin to a small commune -- and I would have no problems with that working. However, the kind of personality disorders the folks under the bridge seem to have are strikingly sad and manifest themselves often in violence in the real world. If you at all begin to take Arakawa seriously, it becomes hard to enjoy. Because the show never bothers to show where most of these folks live or how they survive, the questions became larger and larger in my mind. As the show began to become more likable, I wanted to see the cast of freaks and geeks be alright...and having worked with the homeless and having seen their plight, the internal dissonance was a little much for me. However, I wasn't offended, either.

With those things out of the way, Arakawa made its way into my heart through slow and simple relationship building. While all of the denizens of "Under The Bridge" are a little nuts, most of them are generally likable. There's no plot, so you can't exactly wish them success...but they become a lot like those relatives you see at Thanksgiving. Yeah, they pinch your cheeks and make fun of you running around the house naked when you were two, but they also give you a listening ear and a hundred dollar "loan" when you're in trouble. And though Nino and Ko may not understand a shred about what having a romantic relationship is about, they make a cute couple, and I hope that the second season might actually make more of it.

I also found I enjoyed Arakawa best when I watched it an episode or two at a time. If you watch three or more episodes at once, the weirdness starts to become cloying and certain personalities start to grate. But in small doses, I found the mix of the bizarre, the romantic, and the sentimental endearing, at least to a point.

Arakawa Under The Bridge will annoy those who don't like a mindfrazzle in their comedy. But for those looking for something a little off the beaten path, Arakawa is good once in a while for a small smile and a reminder that whatever strange people live in your home, they could be worse.

Arakawa Under The Bridge -- mild profanity and insults, mild violence (and comedic blood), very mild innuendo -- B