It’s been a while since I watched Arakawa Under the Bridge, so I may have a detail or two out of whack, but at the heart of it was a really complex and interesting relationship between Kou Ichinomiya and the girl only called Nino. They’re surrounded by many weird and wonderful characters, so unpacking what’s going on with them took a while.
I still may not have it figured out, but if I don’t write more blog posts there won’t be no blog no more. Hey! Hey! You don’t all have to cheer like that!
Look, there are lots of couples that are complementary: the strengths of one match up with the weaknesses of the other and vice versa, so as a couple they are stronger than just the sum of the two. A really good example are Mei and Yuzu from Citrus: Mei is intellectual, organized, disciplined (strengths) while Yuzu is a slob (weakness). But Yuzu is powerfully emotional and strong (strengths) while Mei is repressed emotionally and breaks down physically (weaknesses). Together they can face the world because one’s strengths outweigh the other’s weaknesses.
Then there are couples who are symmetric: They are alike in ways, in strengths and weaknesses or social standing or whatever. I always come back to Lupin III and Fujiko Mine: they actually have fairly similar personalities and social roles. Of course they aren’t a couple in the romantic sense but they are structurally.
What’s interesting about Kou and Nino is that they are both. Watch me now. Nothing up my sleeve…
It’s important to understanding them to know they fill modern versions of two very old roles: He’s a prince and she’s a princess.
I mean, Kou is almost literally a prince in the modern sense: the son and heir of an important businessman. He’s going to inherit the company. I mean, apart from being related to the Emperor that’s as close to being a prince as you can get in modern Japan!
But in the fantasy world under the bridge, Nino is a princess, a literal fairy tale princess, a Snow White looked up to by the others, worshiped as a precious doll.
So they are symmetric in that, and we know what has to happen, because stories are stories: the prince and the princess must marry by the end of the story. That pushes them together.
Now, an asymmetry, to push them apart: they come from different worlds entirely. She’s in her fantasy world with talking creatures and wonderfully obscure neighbors, and he’s from a world as concrete as, well, concrete: corporate Tokyo. He’s from the REAL world and she’s from a place that can only exist in that specific place and time, a tiny pocket universe.
Their worlds can’t possibly coexist. That sort of negates the fact that as prince and princess they must be together. So we have a tension between “They must be together” and “They can’t be together.”
Optimally, to keep the story going what we want is something that forces them be together even though it’s impossible. Oh, wait … He has a personality trait: he can’t bear to be in debt to anyone. For anything. For any reason.
And she saves his life.
NOW we have something that forces them together. FORCES them. He MUST pay her back, even though they can’t be together.
And here’s where the complementarity comes into play: she is competent in her world and he is not. She knows the rules, she knows the people, she knows how life there under the bridge works. And he doesn’t: under the bridge he isn’t Kou Ichinomiya of the powerful Ichinomiya family: he’s Rec, short for “recruit,” the lowest ranking individual.
But he is competent in his world and she is not. Seriously, Nino wouldn’t last fifteen seconds in the real world. She’d be run over by a cab or something like that. Ganked in her first twenty minutes, like baby Alita in Battle Angel Alita. But when the world under the bridge needs something from the real world, Kou knows where to go, what to do, and who to talk to. He is POWERFUL. It’s HIS world and he understands it.
So now they fit together, complement each other, in a structural way. They are not only prince and princess and meant for each other, they also NEED each other.
This is really cool to see, because there’s an enormous tension built into their relationship that makes for a great story: they must be together and can’t, because they can’t function in the other’s world. It’s true, right? He has to build his own house on the bridge’s pier, half-way between the worlds because he doesn’t fit into hers. And in that house she sleeps in a drawer, because she doesn’t fit into his world.
It’s wonderful and fabulously meta-stable, and you keep waiting for something to break, him to swear off the real world, her to break out of hers, or the two of them to separate. That’s Dramatic Tension, like they taught you about in Playwriting 101, and it’s a good good thing.
The problem is you have to resolve that tension somehow. Ha. Hmm. I may have more to say about Arakawa Under the Bridge soon…
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.