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You’re Grounded, Nino! – Arguing the Absurd Part 3

May 20, 2010

Arakawa Under the Bridge wants to have heart– it wants to you to feel for these apparently unfortunate people who are forced to live under a bridge due to their various social and mental “quirks” that brand them as outsiders. We get inside of Ric’s head and we hear him remark on how they may not be all the strange after all. We see how he becomes more attached to Nino as he gets to know her. We even get little vignettes at the beginning of episodes that let us hear how other characters feel, like how we saw Nino imagine what it’s like to be a whale that wants to get on a rocket and fly into space.

Arakawa wants to ground us somewhat in reality and make us relate to these wacky homeless freaks. Thing is, I don’t want these heartfelt moments. I don’t want to relate to Nino and Star and Mayor and everyone else that lives under the bridge. I like them for the very fact that I can’t relate to them.

What makes Arakawa “realistic” isn’t the fact that we’re starting to get to know the residents of the river as if they were real people. If anything, by giving them concrete emotions and exposing their eccentricities as little more than ways that they express their alienation, the characters are rendered less realistic.

The thing is that reality rarely falls into easy to define niches. People rarely have the sort of easy to define motivations that fictional characters often rely upon for their actions. You can pin someone’s behavior on one particular emotion that can be expressed in a short before-episode monologue. When someone does something out of the ordinary, you can probe them to reveal one particular instance in their past that led them to such a decision. It’s a hell of a lot more complicated than that in reality, yet when a piece of fiction wants to “ground” something in reality it often resorts to this sort of technique. Want a character to be more relatable? Get inside their head and show us some emotion that explains everything or have them mention some aspect from their past that rationalizes their behavior.

It’s funny how fiction has to resort to be less realistic in order to issue forth a feeling of reality in the audience. This isn’t a bad thing most of the time (It’s usually a great way to explain plot points and the like.), but I don’t think it works in the context of Arakawa.

If you ask me, Arakawa Under the Bridge was already fairly realistic. The world, as far as my point of view goes, is a pretty strange place. Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to the wicked. The world operates under a series of rules we call science, but gravity and all that are pretty arbitrary when you get down to it.

Reality is something like a Bugs Bunny cartoon, with the only exception being that when I step off of a cliff I fall and die when I hit the jagged rocks below. When Bugs Bunny does that, he doesn’t even fall until he looks down and realizes he’s walked over the edge of the cliff. That difference in the rules by which gravity function are pretty arbitrary. What matters is that there’s a rule to begin with, and said rule doesn’t really have any meaning behind it. Bugs Bunny can pull a carrot out of nowhere because that’s the way the world works. I die when I hit a bunch of rocks because that’s the way gravity and matter functions in our reality. There’s no reason why these rules are in place (Outside of metaphysical explanations like God or Flying Spaghetti Monster, but that’s a completely different discussion.). We merely know the how.

At least that’s how I see shit. In Bugs Bunny cartoons, Elmer Fudd gets screwed over not because he’s a bad person (Really, hunting rabbits for sport isn’t bad unless you’re a rabbit or a rabid anti-hunting advocate.). He’s actually a pretty decent fella outside of his antagonistic relationship with Bugs. Elmer gets screwed over because that’s just how shit goes down in a cartoon like that. Same thing with reality as far as I can tell. Someone dies in a freak accident not because it was “meant to be,” but because that’s the unfortunate nature of how reality works.

Essentially, in order to truly be realistic in fiction, one must be denied explanation. When a character behaves in a certain manner, it’s more realistic to not know their motivation– it makes more sense to be in the dark than it does to get the details behind their actions.

That’s where Arakawa Under the Bridge is slipping up a bit. When the series started, everything that we saw going on along the river was completely ridiculous and absurd. Why in the hell is there a guy wearing a kappa costume and a chick that thinks she’s a Venusian and a military man in nun drag down here going about life like all this crap is completely normal. The characters were functioning by their own rules, but we were never told why those rules were in place.

With these pre-episode soliloquies and Ric’s inner commentary, we’re starting to see the why. I don’t want to know why Nino believes herself to be a Venusian. I don’t want to know why a clumsy girl has a kappa fetish. It’s all far more appealing and far more realistic when you’re not trying to ground everything in realism.

All that said, Arakawa’s still one of my favorites of the current season.

Random Notes that aren’t so damn serious and shit:

Am I the only person who thought Stella was channeling Chow Yun Fat in the latest episode? It’s probably just me.

Also, wouldn’t the cast of Arakawa make for a kick-ass fighting game? Stella already has the juggling and launching down. Ric and Star can be the Shotokans. Nino can have a swimming style like that one dude from Rival Schools. The Mayor can be Blanka P-ko can be Zangief. Sister’s obviously Guile Sagat.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Taka permalink
    May 20, 2010 8:49 PM

    P-Ko as Zangief…nightmare fuel

    I agree with your assessment though. Unless the characters really are going to accept life outside their world under the bridge (say Nino breaks down and confides in Ric some traumatizing childhood memory) then I see the show as losing effectiveness. In other words if it wants to be realistic then it needs to be actually realistic and not just realistic within their mindsets. If not then it just needs to be the ridiculous gag show it started off as, or hell a romantic comedy. I think it desperately wants to be an effective fish out of water story right down to the imagery used in the opening. Divorcing yourself too much from reality though gives the viewer no proper ground to stand on. I’d almost say it’s sort of like the Tropic Thunder notion of going “Full Retard”.

    • Landon permalink*
      May 22, 2010 4:07 PM

      Ric probably thinks he’s a fish out of water, yeah, but I think the series is getting at the idea that he’s actually just as messed up in the head as everyone else.

      Ric’s the one character who I enjoy “getting to know.” It’s only through seeing his inner thoughts that we see that he’s just as divorced from mundane society as the Arakawa nutjobs. His delusion is that he’s a normal person, but he’s a bit like Nami from Zetsubou Sensei: They’re obsessed with the concept of normalcy that it becomes something of a psychosis. It’s only by seeing his motivations that we realize he’s just another Arakawa resident, while seeing the motivations of the others makes them seem MORE normal.

      I much prefer the “Ric is descending into maddening Hell and we’re along for the ride” angle over the “Ric and the residents are coming to a mutual understanding of everyone’s feelings” angle.

  2. May 20, 2010 10:13 PM

    I gotta say that I disagree with the main message of this post. It’s not about realism at all. It’s about character. There’s a reason many works of media are panned for “flat” or “2 dimensional” characters: characters who are “black boxes” or don’t seem to have any raison d’etre are boring. They create boring stories.

    In giving us little hints at the characters’ back stories and showing us different sides to them, Arakawa Under the Bridge isn’t trying to make the characters more “realistic.” It’s making them more interesting. Perhaps more relatable. Does Riku’s past make him any more realistic? No! A character in the show even points out how unrealistic his past is. But a character need not be realistic to be relatable. What he needs is to be more than just a figure, a warm body. And by viewing his past, we see aspects that we can relate with. We are more interested in what happens to the character.

    When we see Nino as an aloof girl who thinks she’s a Venusian, she’s just a crazy girl. When we see that there’s something in her past that might have led her to this place, she becomes interesting. Not necessarily realistic. When we see P-ko, we see just another stereotypical clumsy anime girl. When we see her expressing her love for the chief, we see a girl who has beliefs, convictions about life. That make her interesting. Not necessarily realistic.

    Maybe you don’t want to know their back stories. That’s fine. But Arakawa Under the Bridge is a show with a story, a clear path to character development, and romance. It’s not a random or episodic gag comedy like SZS or PPD. In order to succeed, it needs the viewers to understand and sympathize with the characters to some extent. And it seems that some of their back stories might be crucial for this goal.

    For example, would Lost be the same show if we learned nothing about the characters’ lives before the crash? Would the story be as meaningful, or the characters more relatable?

    And by knowing these back stories, do we see the characters as being more “realistic?” No. Their lives almost seem like caricatures. But they make them more relatable, more interesting. They give you a vested interest in their fate, and that makes the show more interesting.

    Again, it’s not at all about realism.

    And, of course, it’s never a case of all-or-none. Just because complexity is inserted into a character doesn’t mean he has to be fully complex, as deep as a real human being, for that complexity to have its desired effect. That is a false dichotomy.

    • Landon permalink*
      May 22, 2010 3:45 PM

      “It’s making them more interesting. Perhaps more relatable.”

      That’s exactly what I’m arguing against. By delving into their motivations and feelings, I think Arakawa’s making the characters LESS interesting by exposing their real-world issues.

      Initially, Nino was an enigma. Is she really an alien? Is she just a space case with emotional issues? Is she just pulling a fast one on Ric? She was fascinating because we had no idea what direction she was coming from. Now that we’re being given hints that show her to be someone longing for an unatainable goal, her motivations are more grounded. Yeah, we can relate to her a little more since she has problems like everyday people, but I don’t think that makes her an interesting character.

      Being able to relate to someone doesn’t always make them an interesting character depending on the context. Arakawa’s context is such a situation, since it hinges on absurd situations, and making her relatable takes away from that absurdity. That’s what I’m getting at.

      I know some people aren’t going to dig on that perspective, but that’s where I’m coming from.

  3. May 21, 2010 8:21 AM

    I haven’t checked out this anime, so I’m going to talk out of my ass – please bear with me. I think lvlln has a point; if a character’s motivation is too opaque, it’s tough to have some connection with the character, and you might feel like you’re watching from a distance or you might not care at all. In the case of Bugs, Bugs is a charming character – he’s funny. Most people take to his personality, and his motivation is simple – he doesn’t want to wind up on a dinner plate.

    But Bugs Bunny cartoons are more abstract than an anime like FLCL or even Keroro Gunsō. The Bugs Bunny cartoon is a self-contained vignette that lasts between five and eight minutes, and FLCL and Keroro Gunsō have longer and more complex story arcs. The audience expectations are different for both and it’s willingness to disbelieve are different too. I think the expectations in character development are as a consequence, a bit higher. It’s like the differences in audience expectations between a concise narrative poem, a short short, a short story, and a novel.

    I do agree that knowing too much a bout a character’s motivation can be a troublesome thing, but I’d rather a writer give me more information about a character (generally) than have a person of mystery. Is it too much in this case? I can’t say – I haven’t unfortunately seen the anime.

    That being said, the blog was a great read. Nicely done.

    • Landon permalink*
      May 22, 2010 3:55 PM

      Yeah, I’d wager that my willingness to suspend my disbelief is a good bit larger than most people’s when it comes to this sort of stuff. It makes perfect sense for someone to want their questions to be answered over the course of a story or series or whatever, and people are going to have different “tolerance levels” so to speak.

      Most people get their payoff in the form of having those questions answered, and expect more questions answered the longer something lasts. I’m probaby the aberation that often prefers to NOT have those questions answered in favor of allowing my own conclusions to still have some validity. Call it selfishness. Heehee

  4. May 21, 2010 8:23 AM

    – its (typo). Sorry.

  5. May 21, 2010 11:25 AM

    I think Arakawa is a satire on society, it’s just that it was so strange at the beginning that we couldn’t see past the odd sense of humor; but now that we’re getting in tune… well, they relate far more to the average person than one would originally imagine. Frankly I find this the part about Arakawa I really like, rather than something against it.

    • Landon permalink*
      May 22, 2010 4:01 PM

      I agree with the satire angle, but I’d argue against the need for us to relate to the characters in order for the satire to work. Not that the satire won’t work if we start to get into their heads, but I think it can tackle the concepts of “What is normal behavior/common sense,” “What do people really need to be happy” and all that sort of stuff without trying to make us care about the individual plights of the characters.

      Nino already made some pretty obvious statements about enjoying her role as group fisherman simply because she likes to help out long before we started to get inside her head and relate to her on a more personal level. I don’t think that message was aided or hindered by delving into her personal life.

      Like I said before, I totally get why people enjoy the personal aspect of the series, I’m just attempting to show that there’s validity and substance in the opposing perspective.

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