I’ve been trying to put my finger on why I find Arakawa Under the Bridge so appealing. It’s not just the quirky characters or the slapstick or the surrealism, or even that it’s a Shinbo show; it’s the alternative vision of life, work, and even community that the folks under the bridge seem to live out. And it’s all contained in the ending song.
How fitting to discover that the ED, which grabbed me with its familiarity, wistfulness, and sincerity, turned out to be by Suneohair–the artist behind the superb Honey and Clover ending themes. And just like Honey and Clover’s EDs served as a summation of the themes and emotions of the characters “waltzing” through life, his lyrics here manage to evoke Recruit’s emotional journey:
That day, on the playground
We laughed without a reason
On my journey to pick up the pieces of my love
For some reason I’m always so lonely
Kou/Recruit’s life has been determined, overdetermined really, by reasons: by forces beyond his choosing like his family legacy, his father’s instilling of a hatred of indebtedness, even his arrival into the community under the bridge. He had no playground, no childhood or normal adolescence as a result, spurning the offers of Valentine’s Day chocolates so that he would never have to give any chocolates in return on White Day.
Which, of course, has made him utterly lonely, unable to laugh except in proud derision. He lives like a man who has never had the experience that Suneohair sings about–but does he secretly long for it? Because, in an unlikely way, he finds love with the simple, grateful Nino–an incomplete, fractured one, mired in hilarious misunderstanding (the “date” in episode 4 is a masterpiece of comic absurdity and a satire on knowing only about relationships through fiction), but sincere in its own way. There are little moments of beauty: the grass boat finding its way to the sea, Nino in a pretty dress. There is no need for the grand gestures he had planned, which Nino fittingly dismisses as nothing more than a picture-book story. One gets the feeling that Recruit will get it one day, that the fragments of understanding, tolerance, and camaraderie he feels among such strange people will be put together. But for now he is still picking up the pieces and getting his bearings–shocked by the surprises in a life he expected to be thoroughly unsurprising.
I’ve got to get going, before the sky falls
Everything’s in reverse, and I’m searching for you
In a way the sky already has fallen for Recruit: his original name has been taken away from him and he is no longer anywhere close to what he had planned for his life. He has to start over: having nothing rather than everything, even being called a “leech” in the most recent episode when his whole life has been defined by his work. The first shall be last, and the last first.
In a way his journey is strangely reminiscent of Chihiro’s situation in Spirited Away, where among strange and surreal beings she learns the value of hard work and must earn her own name back. And when she gets it back, she is no longer quite the same person, but stronger and more responsible. Recruit/Kou actually needs to learn to let go of his illustrious family name more than anything else, and to learn that to be responsible to others–in other words, to owe them something and to be owed in return–actually can be a good thing when it is accompanied by love. Because that is, supposedly, what he and Nino are: in love. Not in the usual way, maybe, but there it is: a wan girl in a track suit, and you couldn’t have lived without her. Sometimes the things we search for are found in the strangest places, and it only takes the eyes to see and the ears to hear.
Even though we’re never going to arrive
Standing under the bridge, borne on the waves
We’ll always be looking for an answer
The community under the bridge is far from perfect. Star and others are jealous enough of Recruit to want to beat him up. Sister’s religion seems to be held together as much by the threat of violence as by theology. Much like the mentally unbalanced harem that the teacher picks up in Shinbo’s earlier series, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, everyone has his or her own comedic flaws: Maria’s words are literally cutting, Stella is a two-faced wannabe gang lord…and Recruit is a neurotic show-off with few practical skills. They are less likable than complementary: one gets the sense that though it begins as a fish-out-of-water comedy, all the characters deserve and fit each other. And because they do, they are starting to have fun, and I as the viewer pick up on that carefree, uncontrolled joyousness. The ending gag contests, hideous giant fish for dinner, cookies after Mass–sure, it’s twisted. It’s also a lot less boring than being a corporate drone, or heck, real life in general. No wonder Sister is felled by someone calling him ‘boring.’ Because that is the antithesis of what this village under the bridge is supposed to be. And that, really, is what Kou/Recruit is beginning to find is keeping him there. A reverse of the Village of The Prisoner, in which a dully utopian village threatens to trap a free man; this is about a dull conformist growing into a community of people who are free to be as weird and imperfect as they want to be. They’ll always be journeying, but it’s a lot more fun when they do it together.
One can argue whether all of this is actually in a show that, aside from a few dazzling hints here and there, has focused mostly on absurd humor, strange Shinbo colors and angles, and pun-filled aphorisms. I hope, however, that the undercurrent which the Suneohair song points to will reveal itself in due time. Honey and Clover was a very different kind of show, of course, but even it began inauspiciously, with slapstick and a slacker running around calling a girl Mouse #1: but the lyrics of the ending song suggested something just a little more. The song actually kept me watching for about five episodes, when the writing truly began to open itself up; and if Shinbo plays his cards right, he might be able to work a little of the same magic, too.