It’s difficult to place this show. On the surface it is an episodic wacky slice-of-life comedy. Only it eschews most of the cliché settings in favor of taking place under a bridge and starring a dozen or so weirdos. And they really are weirdos in the strongest sense. These aren’t your typical characters who are portrayed as “wild and zany” but still lead relatively normal lives going to school/work and so on. No, these people live under a bridge so you know already there is something wrong with them as they willfully choose not to participate in normal society. And it is a deliberate choice because none of them seem to be poor hobos either. Well, probably.
But let’s back up for a minute. Our main guy Kou is introduced to us as probably what would normally be a bit of a weirdo in any other series. He’s the heir to a wealthy conglomerate business and has been raised with extensive schooling and discipline as well as a tradition of never taking favors from anyone. It’s even written on his tie. Yeah. As a result, he comes off as a bit of a rich boy with an inflated ego because he’s always been successful at everything. He takes the “don’t be indebted to anyone” mantra very seriously.
After losing his pants to some hoodlums and falling off a bridge while attempting to retrieve them, he is saved from the Arakawa River by a girl named Nino. He hastens to ask her to make any request of him she wants so that he may clear the immense life debt he now owes her. She initially resists, not really thinking much of it, but eventually nonchalantly requests they become lovers. This comes as a bit of a shock to Kou but he is determined to repay the debt so he agrees. Thus begins his life under said bridge.
And it only gets weirder. It turns out a lot of people live down there, not just Nino, and each one is weirder than the last. They seem to have a sort of communal structure too, even with an appointed “chief”, who by the way wears a kappa outfit that is clearly plastic (complete with a zipper on the back) but insists he’s actually a several hundred year old kappa. There’s a cross-dressing nun who seems to be a former military nut and so is constantly brandishing MP5s, pistols, grenades, as well as an unhealthy paranoia about bombs and enemies in the trees. There’s a guy with a star for a head who plays guitar and sings songs all day and is really bad at both. There are two boys who wear metal helmets because they claim it protects them from the signals of the laboratory that is trying to abduct them because they have psychic powers only the helmet blocks their powers making them invisible to the scientists’ detection but also unable to demonstrate said powers. And lots more besides them.
This is all simultaneously the greatest strength and weakness of Arakawa UTB. It manages to be extremely good at introducing quite a few bizarre characters that never cease to elicit WTFs. But that’s all it seems to want to do. It’s a lot of episodic comedy, mostly as Kou (now renamed Recruit by the kappa chief guy) is introduced to these weirdos and tries to integrate into their make-shift society under the bridge. Kou is our straight man in this sea of insanity and it’s a fun ride to be sure. But it starts to get almost tiring, like it never gets beyond the introductions phase despite being a relatively short 1-cour season.
The humor is there, the fun is there, and it’s an enjoyable ride, but I kept wanting something else. There are flashes of progress between our newly joined couple Kou and Nino but it never really gets anywhere despite them claiming to be a couple. There is a brief arc that halts (somewhat) the extremely episodic nature for a bit when it looks like they might all get evicted from the area but it resolves itself soon enough without much fanfare.
Fortunately, a lot the kinks begin to smooth out during the second season, titled Arakawa Under The Bridge x Bridge. Kou no longer feels like an outsider and is practically too comfortable with the bunch. More importantly, the introductions are long over as there aren’t but maybe one or two new characters, which gives the show time to finally sit back and just cruise with its now well established weirdos. The humor improves as it no longer feels the need to one-up itself on the wacky scale and instead relies on its already wacky characters to provide the zany.
Our star couple even start to finally kind of start to really understand each other in the second season. They are perfect opposites, with Kou constantly worrying about his performance, appearance, and debts to others, and Nino caring perhaps too little about herself, choosing instead to find meaning in the “family” she’s come to live with under the bridge. It manages to be a nicely sweet b-story to the hijinks in the foreground. Sadly, it never grows beyond poetic hints and such, with the series ending before anything really resolves, romantic or plot-wise, despite the season dropping lots of threads.
Animation quality is fairly good, it’s never super high quality but the SHAFT art-sense is there, with good use of color, movement, cuts, and scene transitions. Voice actors all do just fine, helped along due to there being quite a few big names in there (the much loved Sakamoto Maaya is Nino, for instance). Music also tends to be well-used and appropriate. Most of all though is veteran SHAFT director Shinbo’s easily recognizable style. If you’ve seen any of the Monogatari incarnations, for instance, you’ll probably notice the similarities right off the bat like I did. It’s all squarely in the “good” sector for sure.
Despite how perfectly adequate everything is the whole is still just… I dunno. I can’t get all that worked up about it. The second season is a noticeable improvement if you stick around long enough, but even so I can’t really heartily recommend it. It’s a lot of wacky fun that is well directed for sure, but it seems to hold itself back to episodic bouts and so it kind of never amounts to anything long-term. But if it sounds interesting check it out, most likely you will at least laugh and mildly enjoy it like I did. And damn if the openings aren’t just weird as hell (though I suppose the crab one still tops the list of incongruous). Oh, and did I mention the next episode previews typically entail some cringe-worthy live-action kappa suit guy?
As of this writing, you can watch the first six episodes of Arakawa Under The Bridge for free on Crunchyroll. Subscribers get all of both seasons.