2015 was also a good year for digital manga distribution, including (but not limited to) Crunchyroll's manga service. A lot of their best offerings got licensed for print, so most of them will have to wait for next year. Amongst a fairly late addition of Square Enix-published titles was this odd little surprise of a manga.
ARAKAWA UNDER THE BRIDGE (Arakawa Anda za Buriji), by Hikaru Nakamura. First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2015.
Kou Ichinomiya's family have always lived by one edict: never owe anyone. He's done his best to live up to that credo until one day he fell into the river and was saved by a mysterious blonde girl nicknamed Nino. Despite being poor and living under a bridge with a multitude of weirdos, Arakawa wants nothing in return from Kou except for one thing: to fall in love. Now Kou is obligated to accept her request. Will their relationship become something other than an obligation, or will the weirdness of Arakawa and company simply be too much for straight-laced Kou?
I'll be blunt: Arakawa Under the Bridge is not funny. It's verging upon painfully unfunny. It's meant to be a comedy, but it's far too chained to its own formula and random weirdness to make a impression beyond "...huh. Well that happened."
If you watch enough anime or read enough manga, you'll start to pick up on a very common pattern to many of the so-called 'jokes.' Someone will say or do something unusual, and then another person will scream out something along the lines of "Hey! You are being weird! Why are you doing/saying that weird thing?" Then that second person is somehow made the fool, and we are all meant to laugh at this turn of events. It's a pretty lame set-up that rarely has any sort of proper punchline, and unfortunately just about every chapter of Arakawa follows this formula to a T. Kou is the unfortunate straightman, forever doomed to be embarrassed at the hands of a spacey young girl and her weird, frequently costumed friends. At least the chapters are much shorter than usual. Few of them go over 10 pages. That means that while the jokes are lame, they don't linger long enough to amplify their lameness.
The only time this manga actually works is during the far too rare times where it gets a little serious. For most of the time, Nino is far too odd and spacey to show much affection to Kou and Kou has too much baggage from his upbringing to accept any sort of kindness at face value. So when Nino does something as simple as washing his hair for no other reason than she wants to, it really affects Kou in a way that few things do. He gets to show a more sensitive side to himself that we rarely get to see and their relationship starts to feel like something other than an obligation to repay a life debt. It even provides the set-up for one of the better gags, as we learn from Kou's flashbacks that Kou's dad was determined to make Kou repay any simple parental act of kindness in return. He even dresses up like a giant baby to make a point, and the image is a genuinely funny one. I wish we could have had more moments like this and fewer that simply rely on the weirdness of a guy dressed as a kappa or the resident nun being a tough, gun-wielding nun. It would have made the jokes feel far less repetitive and give the story a point beyond 'point and laugh at the uptight square.'
Nakamura's art is a little rough and odd, but it fits well with the story. He certainly has fun drawing all these weirdos in their costumes (even if many of them tend to have giant foreheads), but he also clearly has even more fun drawing all of Kou's extreme expressions. Maybe they just stand out because he tends to draw most everyone else with these dark-eyed, blank expressions that makes them all look bored. Nino is the worst offender of the lot, considering that this blankness is pretty much her only defining characteristic. The backgrounds are nicely rendered, but nothing flashy. In all fairness, there's only so much you can do with a grassy riverbank and some ramshackle shelters underneath a perfectly ordinary bridge.
Arakawa under the Bridge is a quirky series with a rather lame sense of humor. It's got a bit of heart to it, but you have to dig through a lot of yelling and formulaic gags to get there. Still, I hope this one does well on Crunchyroll. If so, then maybe - just maybe - we could have a shot at getting an English translation of Nakamura's other notable manga: Saint Young Men. That would be a real feat.
This series is published by Crunchyroll. This series is complete in Japan with 14 volumes available. 3 volumes are currently available digitally.
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