Off the Rails: Arakawa Under the Bridge

I’d hate to be a mangaka. I mean, it’s a real “shotgun” sort of business: The publishers throw all sorts of stuff out there looking to see what sticks to the wall.

And as the writer you want it to stick, too. I mean, you’re not a salaried member of the publication staff; you get paid in royalties and your royalties are based on how many books you sell.

Yeah. Dang.

Well, it follows as the night the day that if you get and idea and it hits – it actually does stick to the wall – you want to grab that baby and run with it. And sometimes that means your story has to change mid-stream, because you’ve got a plot that’s good for so many issues but you want to run for so many MORE issues, ‘cuz, you know, that means you keep eating.

We’ve already looked at this with The Ancient Magus’ Bride, right? It starts with the presumption that Chise is doomed to die soon by her status as a sleigh beggie. But BOOM! The book takes off, and if Chise dies, so does the story! I mean, she IS the actual ancient magus’ bride, right?

So Chise gets a curse that keeps her, and the story, alive for, well, who knows how long, right?

I liked the idea of Arakawa Under the Bridge a lot. I like that kind of thing, the idea of a small, magical place in the middle of the urban jungle. I’ve written things like that.

But the story isn’t just about the place, it’s about the relationship between Kou and Nino, right? That’s the heart at the heart of the story. (Dang, I love wordplay.)

You see, we know they must be together, because narratively they are a pair of tropes, Prince and Princess. Right? He’s literally a prince (of industry) and the citizens of the little bridge community treat Nino like she’s Snow Freakin’ White, right? So we know they should be together, because that’s what happens when you have a prince and a princess.

Kou (left) and Nino. Nino’s the woman, okay?

But they can’t be, because they are from different, incompatible worlds. Alas. Sigh. It’s so sad …

And here’s the trick that makes it work: Kou can’t bear to be in debt and Nino saves his life. BOOM. How does he pay her back for THAT? So they are FORCED to be together.

That’s the narrative tension at the heart of the story: we know they will be together but they can’t be together but they have to be together.

That makes their relationship meta-stable: It can’t go on as it is. To resolve the tension in the series they have to end up either together or apart.

But here’s the trick to meta-stable relationships: They have to have two qualities.

The audience has to like both people
The story can’t go on too long

If the audience doesn’t care for one or the other of the characters, then no one cares about the relationship. And that works here: Isn’t Nino an absolute darling? And Kou has a lot of positive qualities: He’s smart, determined, loyal, earnest…

The story can’t go on too long, though, because after a certain period the characters start to look pretty damned stupid if they don’t notice the relationship between them, and being stupid makes it tough for them to be likable, and when they stop being likable, well, see the two qualities, above.

Now, in Nino’s case that’s not too difficult. She’s deliberately designed to be a naif, with responses that are non-normative, because she’s a fairy tale princess.

But we KNOW Kou is smart. It’s one of his appeals.

So we have a meta-stable relationship as we end season one, and the order is in for season two and what do we do if we want to keep the story going? Because if it goes on too long, well, see above?

How about if we change the relationship at the heart of the story?

Enter Hoshi, who is in love with Nino. I mean, he’s been there all along, but we need someone new to come forward and Hoshi’s elected.

Unlike Kou, Hoshi knows he is in love with Nino. Unlike Kou, he knows that Kou is falling in love with Nino. (Right? If Kou knows what he feels for Nino, he acts, and that ends the series, whether they end up together or not. So he has to be unaware.)

What that does is create a new relationship, an Eternal Triangle, in this case two men (Kou and Hoshi) vying for the hand of the same woman (Nino). Oh, and the men don’t like each other.

That’s a very different kind of tension. Instead of focusing on Kou and Nino, the fundamental tension is between Kou and Hoshi, plus the question of who Nino will select.

And on the face of it it seems like a real choice, right? Kou has all the positive characteristics we know he has, and Hoshi is a) a star (a singer) and b) from Nino’s world, so Hoshi understands Nino in ways Kou can never. So, it seems like they might be viable competitors.

Yes, Hoshi’s a real, live star!

But this is where it breaks down: they can’t be competitors. There’s no competing with Kou. He’s the Prince and Nino is the Princess, and they have to be together.

That’s what it means to be a trope. That’s the POWER of tropes: They are the building blocks of storytelling and they act powerfully on our perceptions of stories. Once they show us that Kou and Nino are Prince and Princess, that’s it. No one else can come between them; the two of them control their destiny. No room in there for a third wheel.

Ya know, that second season of Arakawa Under the Bridge just plain didn’t work, and there wasn’t a third.

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.

2 thoughts on “Off the Rails: Arakawa Under the Bridge

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