The next anime in the spotlight comes from one of the hardest working directors in anime today, Akiyuki Shinbou, and his cohorts-in-crime, Shaft animation studio. Since coming off last summer’s monster hit, Bakemonogatari, anime fans have been eagerly waiting for the next big thing from the Shinbou/Shaft team. Which leads us to the $64,000 dollar question; is Arakawa Under the Bridge the next hit or the next miss from Shinbou/Shaft?
Rating for episodes 1 to 5 – 11/12 A+
Anticipation Level: 4/5 Medium to High
Kou Ichinomiya is the heir and chairmen-in-training to his father’s vast fortune and ginormous multi-national conglomerate company. Ichinomiya has been the eager sponge and is all set to step into this wonderful life when something unexpected happens; a woman saves his life and, when asked what she would like in return, she asks for him to live with her under the bridge as her lover. She didn’t want the offered money, car, or mansion and as crazy as the it sounds, Ichinomiya can’t simply blow her desire off. Every fiber of his being has been imprinted with his father’s creed to live wholly independent of everyone which includes paying off any debts incurred to other people; if he doesn’t follow this creed then he’ll get violently ill and will probably die. The debt of one’s life is so large that Ichinomiya can’t do anything else but accept her wish and his life, as they say, will never be the same.
The Fine Print
I think I got Shinbou pegged now. He’s normally weakest when doing a plot-driven show like Dance in the Vampire Bund and normally strongest when doing a character-driven show like Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei or Hidamari Sketch. There are exceptions, Maria+holic should have been awesome but never quite made it and Natsu no Arashi was strongest when he focused on the plot, but it’s a useful generalization and Arakawa Under the Bridge fits the pattern: character-driven = awesome.
The most important thing for a character-driven show is it’s characters and it turns out setting the show under a bridge full of homeless people is a stroke of genius because you can populate the show with very interesting and very odd characters and it doesn’t stretch believability since these are the supposed rejects of society. If they were normal they wouldn’t be here. There’s the mayor of this community, he is a guy that dresses up as a kappa and wants everyone to treat him as if he really was one of those mystical Japanese creatures. And pointing out the zippers on his suit doesn’t do any good since he acts as if they’re supposed to be there. Nino, the woman that takes Ichinomiya (now named Recruit) as her lover, proclaims that she’s from Venus and seems unaware of many societal norms so we’re left wondering if somehow she’s really an alien or just “crazy” like the rest of the inhabitants. Either way she has a heart of gold and a sweet personality so I can’t help but think that Ichinomiya aka Recruit is giving up very little by leaving his former lifestyle and gaining so much. My favorite character, though, is the seven foot tall gun-toting ex-mercenary that goes by the name of Sister since he’s dresses as a nun and is responsible for the spiritual welfare of the community.
One of the important things to figure out for a Shinbou anime is will the “Shaft being Shaft” moments help or hinder the show. In the right amount and used correctly, these Shaft moments help make a show memorably and so far it seems that Arakawa Under the Bridge is hitting it about perfect. The animation is stylized but not overly so, if I’d have to describe it I’d call it Bakemonogatari lite. There’s been no abstract backgrounds and no real objects inserted into the anime that I remember, which I think fits the show well since it allows the characters and story to take center stage.
Speaking of the story, one of the parts of Arakawa Under the Bridge that has pleasantly surprised me is that underneath the crazy characters and silly comedy, there’s a couple messages it’s trying to convey and this lends a depth to the show that I really like. The one message is about how the truly important things in life are free and a lot more satisfying then the stuff money can buy. Corny, I know, but that doesn’t lessen the truth behind it. The second message is about the intrinsic worth and goodness all people have, even those people that society tries to forget about. Some part of me enjoys seeing Recruit humbled by life under the bridge where he meets truly happy people and discovers how much of a loser he is.
And I’d be loser if I didn’t mention the other good stuff about Arakawa Under the Bridge before finishing. I already praised Nino’s voice actress in my Tatami Galaxy impression post and she’s really good as Nino here. I also love that Chiaki Omigawa is doing the voice of P-Ko, she hasn’t done much work but enjoyed her as Maka in Soul Eater and Jun from Natsu no Arashi. Sister’s voice is perfect and so is Maria’s and Stella’s; in fact, the entire cast is a great cast. The only slightly sour note is Recruit’s voice, not because it’s a bad performance, but because Hiroshi Kamiya is everywhere this season and this performance really sounds like he’s doing Goodbye, Mr. Despair season 4. There has to be some equally capable male voice actors out there that could have done this role. Also a plus, it appears that Shinbou/Shaft is going the route they did with Bakemonogatari and are having multiple opening songs. I’ve liked the two done so far a lot and hope the others will be as well done.
I should explicitly mention, since I might have made the impression that this was a slice-of-life type show, that this show is full of comedy and it’s really good comedy. The merry band of misfits is the cause of much of the humor but there’s also the fish-out-of-water comedy from Recruit learning to live under the bridge and there’s the gag contest at the end of some of the episodes.
To review, Arakawa Under the Bridge follows a pattern that I think I see with Shinbou/Shaft shows which is plot driven shows = meh and character-driven shows = win and Arakawa Under the Bridge is definitely win. It has great characters and an abundance of comedy but it’s the subtly done deeper messages that really make me adore this anime. I highly recommend giving this show a chance, if you haven’t already done so.