By Hikaru Nakamura
Reviewing Arakawa Under the Bridge was a challenge. Not that it’s insubstantial, heavily symbolic, or even a gag manga from Japan, inevitably full of jokes easily lost in translation; it’s actually quite the opposite. The main challenge is the series trends towards being very ephemeral in nature. The first volume in particular feels very laid back, sweeping me out of this world. plopping me where I stood before,the entire experience just a vivid dream.
The people who live under the bridge are given new names once they start to live there. This gives off the feeling this is a separate world from the real world ecosystem the person inhabited prior. Once this volume of manga is finished the spell cast on you is lifted. For instance, the mayor is just called Mayor, wears a kappa suit, and claims to be an incarnation of the mythological creature. The heroine, Nino, who rescues the straight-laced protagonist, referred to as Recruit by the people inhabiting this strange ecosystem, from drowning, an event which triggers Recruit being swept away into this bizarre world. Nino, who herself claims to be from Venus, wants to learn what love is, and Recruit, obligated by the rule his father taught him of not being indebted, is tasked with teaching Nino about this.
Recruit is, much of the time, the straight man to the other cast members’ strange antics. If the above struck you as odd and long-winded, the world of Arakawa has its own feel and internal logic. Yet, Nakamura is able to convey the large cast of characters’ eccentricities naturally. Despite chapters appearing for fewer than ten pages each, so much information is quietly revealed throughout the book. The comedic tension comes from Recruit as he struggles to adjust to this other “world” under the bridge, and its strange inhabitants, as they themselves try to adjust to his presence.
The one who seems to struggle most with Recruit’s presence is Hoshi, a man who wears a star on his head, who has his own feelings for Nino. His jealousy towards Recruit’s relationship with Nino becomes a greater issue for Recruit as the chapters progress. Nino’s and Recruit’s relationship is easily the biggest source of tension in this volume, or more specifically how the other denizens react to it. Nino herself is a rather deadpan character, and a couple particularly enjoyable aspects of the series are the complete lack of fan service, and how the series outright avoids the usual pitfalls of male oriented romantic comedy manga, such as the protagonist being a closet pervert who gets brutalized by the female characters. In fact, the romance takes a backseat much of the time, instead opting to concentrate on absurdities like a male nun, simply named Sister, his mental state affected through past military service. Even that is done in a completely different way than expected, such as teaching martial arts techniques to Nino while she sleeps.
Volume one of Arakawa Under the Bridge is side-splitting humour in top form. Nakamura is a master of a very unique brand of comedic timing, and this volume exemplifies that well. With much of the core cast introduced, things should only improve further on this very solid base. Thus far, it’s a must read for fans of fantastic comedies.