I was pleasantly surprised when a package from Nippon Ichi bearing Arakawa Under the Bridge arrived at Diehard GameFAN headquarters along with Katanagatari Volume 1. It was nice timing as it had been a few months since my last anime review and I was reading the second volume of the Toradora manga when it arrived.
The main character of Arakawa is Ichinomya Ko, the 20 year old heir to the international corporation known as the Ichinomiya company. Ko is good looking, smart, rich and good at just about everything he does. He’s also extremely arrogant because of all this. One day he gets pantsed by some thugs on a bridge in front of a girl fishing off of it. Ko, who refuses to accept favors or help from anyone causes a girder of the bridge to collapse under him when he tries to climb it and get his pants down. Ko is trapped under the girder as it falls deeper and deeper into the water, but the girl saves him. Ko finds himself in debt to the girl who saved his life and he learns not only that her name is Nino, and that she is a squatter in a homeless village by the Arakawa River. Nino says no to a new home as repayment and instead asks Ko to be her lover. She also says that she is from Venus. These two things combine to help convince Ko that Nino is not quite right in the head. Well, more that Venus thing than anything else.
As Nino’s “lover” (it becomes apparent that she doesn’t quite understand what that term means), Ko has to move into the ramshackle community and to his dismay, Nino appears to be the sanest of the crew. The village chieftain is a man in a kappa costume, another man named Hoshi wears a star shaped mask, a girl named Maria is as psychotic and sadistic as she is beautiful and that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Ko, now renamed Recruit (or Rec for short) by the Chief, has to adjust to life amongst the sane, going from the lap of luxury to well…as luxurious as he can make a section of the bridge into, and try to live up to his end of the bargain as Nino’s boyfriend.
The anime consists of thirteen episodes (with a total runtime of 316 minutes and every second of it is laugh out loud hilarious. Aside from the re-release of Galaxy Express 999, Arakawa under the bridge is easily the best North American anime release of 2011. I absolutely adored the cast and crew, whether it was Sister, the gun toting ex-special forces operative who now dresses (and kind of acts) like a nun or Stella, the little girl with the heart of a Yakuza higher-up and who can transform into a hulking behemoth straight out of the Ar Tonelico games. Every character is instantly charming and it’s a lot of fun to see them grow.
There are so many great things about the anime. It’s funny, whimsical, surreal and bizarre. It’s outlandish and yet firmly within the realm of reality (except for Stella’s transformation ability) a la something like School Rumble. I cracked up at the beginning of the fifth episode when the main theme song was replaced by a song sung by Maria about Sister. It was so unexpected and funny that this one act alone made me fall in love with the series. There’s also a lot of jabs, in-jokes, and homages about other things from Japanese pop culture, be it someone sporting an Ultraman style haircut to the animation style of the show changing to fit a gag. It’s all so brilliant and when I had finished watching the series, I found myself wishing Katanagatari was the second season of Arakawa instead. Of course, I have a long wait ahead of me for that to be released stateside. Boo-urns.
One of the most interesting things about the episodes is that they aren’t a full 25 minute story like a lot of animes. Instead each episode is broken into six to nine “chapters.” These chapters are like interconnected skits that form a complete story but tend to have their own beginning and end. It was a very unique way of doing things and I really enjoyed this take, although there were times I thought an episode was done only to find out it was the end of the chapter. This is especially true with the end credits, as a short chapter always follows them.
The special features are of note, as Arakawa marks the first time we have extensive director’s commentary on a Nippon Ichi anime release. Ten of the thirteen episodes have full audio commentary and you can choose to turn subtitles on for that instead of the anime’s dialog if you choose. The second disc in the set (Blu-Ray or DVD) also contains ten commercials for the series from Japan. They’re not very long but they are a lot of fun.
One of the great things about the premium edition of Arakawa Under the Bridge is that Nippon Ichi has released the first season as a DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack. In each set you get two DVDs and two Blu-Ray discs. I primarily watched the series on Blu-Ray and WOW, does it look amazing in high definition. I’ve always said hand drawn animation is the best thing to watch in 1080i/p as you can really see the differences in colours and vibrancy. I watched the first episode of the series simultaneously on two different televisions, one in 480i on a regular disc and one in 1080i via a Blu-Ray player. While both discs look and sound great, Blu-Ray definitely blows the standard definition of Arakawa away and you should always go for that route if you have a choice between the two. The animation quality and the visuals are just stunning.
That being said, there is a technical snafu with the first Blu-ray disc. Unfortunately the disc crashes your player when you go to setup. I tried two different Blu-ray players and it happened with both every time. The way around it is to press UP when highlight is centered, rather than click enter. If you press the up directional arrow, you can access everything, but if you click enter, the menu options disappear and you are left with floating characters. This also happens when you click on the strange X button in the menu as well. There is no way to bring the menu back and so you are stuck stopping and restarting the DVD. There’s no way around it. Just a head’s up.
Update: 7/18/2011 Good news! It turns out that my first blu-ray disc was defective. Nippon Ichi sent me a replacement disc and the setup sub-menu works just fine when you press “enter” or “Ok” on the DVD remote. This means you can ignore the above paragraph (now stricken out). Of course it happens to be a reviewer that gets the one odd disc out of the print run, eh?
It wouldn’t be a Nippon Ichi anime release without they trademarked double sized collector’s box and the accompanying art book. The collector’s box is an extremely hard container featuring artwork of Nino on a blue polka dotted background on one side and Ko/Rec over a pink polka dot background on the other side. The case is twice the width AND twice the length so it may be a bit hard to fit on your DVD shelf, but the quality of the casing is definitely worth. The artbook is the length of the collector’s case and it’s really only an art book in name. It actually contains character biographies, episode synopses, interviews with the cast and crew that made the Arakawa anime back in Japan with a little bit of original art to boot. The book has a high quality glossy hardcover and it’s a great read from beginning to end. I waited until I had finished the series to read my copy as I didn’t want any spoilers, especially when I saw there were episode breakdowns in the book. I will admit to taking a peek here or there though. This character guide (again, it’s not really an art book per say) is a wonderful companion to the anime and the entire package is easily Nippon Ichi’s best in terms of presentation and what all you are receiving for your hard earned dollar.
So it’s obvious than I’m enthralled by Arakawa Under the Bridge, but no set is perfect so it’s time to talk about the things you might not like about this set. Thankfully there are only two issues you might have. The first is that the anime is only subtitled. There is no English language dub. If you’ve paid attention to Nippon Ichi’s anime catalog so far, you should have expected this by now, but just in case this review is your first introduction to their goods – there you go. So if you’re the type of anime fan who prefers their shows with English voice overs, you’re probably going to have a problem here. The Japanese voice acting is really good though, but the subtitles on the Blu-ray version a noticeably smaller than they are on most DVDs, so those two aspects combined can be enough to turn some potential buyers off.
The other potential problem is the cost. The full premium set has a sticker price of $55.99 over on Nippon Ichi’s anime store. That’s a lot for five hours of anime, I know – especially when you factor in that previous Nippon Ichi anime sets retailed for only $47.99. However, previous sets were standard definition DVDs only and for only eight dollars more you’re getting an extra pair of discs, in high definition Blu-Ray format. When you take that under consideration instead of just looking at the price tag, that’s a pretty good deal indeed.
All things considered, Arakawa Under the Bridge really is the best anime series I’ve seen this year and you get the series in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack along with a oversized collector’s case and a hardcover glossy paged art book/series guide. The bundle is attractively priced for all that you get and it’s really a series you’ll kick yourself for missing if you don’t pick it up. You can purchase Arakawa Under the Bridge either from Nippon Ichi directly or from Amazon.com. I’d strongly suggest purchasing from Nippon Ichi directly as you’ll not only get the series for fourteen dollars less, but you’ll get a bonus Kappa mask to boot!
It’ll be quite some time before the second season of Arakawa is released stateside, but the more of you that buy this the sooner I…er, I mean WE will get it. So go go go! BUY BUY BUY!