In the West, we have a strange phenomenon: the magical pixie girl.
Who is she? What makes her so magical and… pixie-like?
I’ll let the A.V. Club explain it best:
Ah, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, that sentient ray of sunshine sent from heaven to warm the heart and readjust the attitude of even the broodiest, most uptight male protagonist. In his My Year Of Flops entry on Elizabethtown, Nathan Rabin coined the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” — A.V. Club
These are women conjured up out of pure imagination to serve as a sharp contrast to the morose, young men across Western civilization.
Where these stories often fail is the sobering reality that two such diametrically opposite people usually do not make a good couple (the best subversion of the magical pixie girl concept was probably played out in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Yes, for two hours of a movie’s length, the quirky, spunky girl and the depressing male lead may ignite a few sparks of chemistry here and there, but when two people differ to such a great extent, they rarely succeed when it’s all said and done. Why else do most of these movies lack sequels? No one simply wants to see the aftermath.
Anime is hardly spared from the magical pixie girl phenomenon. Like their Western compatriots, Japanese men also suffers from a neurosis born from despair, malaise, ennui… you name it. Although the morose leads of the West often settle into despondency, the Nippon-jin develops a sort of garrulous nature. You know the type… the guy who rambles a thousand thoughts per minute while the viewers strain themselves to keep up. From Itoshiki Nozomu to the unnamed lead of The Tatami Galaxy to Ichinomiya Ko, they all seem to share a similar nervous, high-strung personality. Listening to them fret over their countless worries is like watching Woody Allen on amphetamines.
So if the magical pixie girl serves to contrast the morose, down-in-the-dumps men of the West, what’s the analogue to the neurotic Japanese male lead? I believe it is the dead-pan shoujo whose incisive words serves to cut through the many troubles haunting their men, i.e. their bullshit. Akashi seems to serve that role for the unnamed lead in The Tatami Galaxy and as I watch Arakawa Under the Bridge, I can’t help but identify this as Nino’s role. Of course, sometimes the magical pixie girl of the East simply resembles their Western incarnations exactly (e.g. Kafuka Fuuka).
If there were already undue pressures upon Japanese males to succeed in a harsh modern world, Ichinomiya Ko magnifies his troubles moreso by literally wearing the motto “never be indebted to anyone” not quite on his sleeves but close:
The result of this creed is that Ko’s quite the self-motivated man. He has perfect grades, pays for his own college tuition, pays for his own rent, and so on… there’s nothing, Ko believes, nothing that he can’t do by himself. In fact, the idea of others helping him is an anathema. His philosophy is carried out to hilarious extremes:
But it’s impossible to be completely self-dependent. As a communal species, we necessarily depend upon one another to survive. Continuing down this path would only inevitably lead Ko to come across enough adversities that he simply couldn’t shoulder all by his lonesome. These adversities would weigh down upon him figuratively. Nevermind, this literally happens minutes into the first episode:
How lucky it is, then, that a girl should show up out of nowhere to figuratively and literally save Ko from his destiny?
In Garden State, Sam was everything that Andrew wasn’t and thus successfully breaks him out of his depressive stupor. I can’t help but imagine that Nino-san’s dead-pan indifference is meant to show Ko the wonders of living a life less strictly bound by success and the mindless pursuit of it. Whereas he’s proud of owning his own apartment, she lives freely under the bridge, using nothing but newspapers and a dust rag as covers during cold nights. While he’s proud of his name, she willingly accepts any name that a (fake and deranged) Kappa bestows her. Ko stares in astonishment at her fancy Grecian bed, but she does not even sleep on it but, rather, in it:
Ko remarks, “Nino seems like a relatively calm person,” perhaps a description he could never give himself.
So what does this mean for Arakawa Under the Bridge? Don’t get me wrong — I like the anime; I think it’s really funny. Western cinema missteps by trying to make something ponderous and meaningful out of the magical pixie girl. Ultimately, they want to make her concrete, a reality. Elizabethtown and other like-minded films tries to end with gravitas, but the final result just seems forced and unrealistic. I can’t imagine taking Arakawa Under the Bridge too seriously, especially with this guy running about:
Arakawa Under the Bridge thus revels in its absurdity without being too proud of it. What doesn’t make sense ends up being a whole lot more fun than the Sisyphean struggles of real life, i.e. being successful and clearly defined as Ko’s life has been up to that point. At the same time, however, it purely isn’t real. There is no easy way out of life’s immense pressures, especially the need to conform to society’s standards. We simply have to appreciate the little oddities along the way and not be so high-strung as Ko has been. Having already made its message, the anime drives itself towards the end of the cliff of realism and happily hurtles over the edge. Western cinema too often attempts to portray the magical pixie girl as reality, turning its own message — no matter how cogent it is — into a farce.
How far have you gotten in the show? I think there are SOME moments of what you could call “gravitas” later on. But it’s pretty telling that they happen at the very beginning or very end of the episode, when the main stuff is all done and there aren’t guys with star-shaped heads running around. I think we even absorb it better that way than we might in something like (sigh) Elizabethtown.
Glad you’re writing again!
About half of what’s been released. Yeah, there are some introspective moments — if I made it seem as if things never diverges from being completely carnivalesque, it wasn’t my intention — but the attempts at a serious atmosphere dissolves as soon as the humor kicks up again so I just can’t view these scenes too seriously. They seem so fleeting, as if Ko (or Riku) is desperate to retain his sanity, his grounding in relation to the other characters. The irony here is that everyone else is normal in this particular world and he’s the weird one. As a result, what we laugh at should really be considered normal while the introspection bracketing each episode is really the joke.
I thought you had better taste. And sense of humor.
I’m not a big fan of the brooding morose guy/magical pixie girl combo myself. For one, both character types are a bit unrealistic.
Most people aren’t constantly negative (the brooding morose guy) or impeccably upbeat and positive (the magical pixie girl).
Secondly, and as you rightly point out, even if we accept these two character types as realistic they still don’t make a good match. I personally think that there’s a lot more truth to “Birds of a feather flock together” then “Opposites attract”. I think that we tend to like potential mates with skills that are different and complimentary to our own, but with similar personalities and interests.
Finally, brooding morose guy/magical pixie girl is simply overdone. It’s almost like the inversion of the guy with the heart of gold/tsundere… and about as common too.
Oh, there are quite a few people out there who come quite close to being an eternally brooding morose guy. It becomes even sadder when they play it off for laughs half the time, then immediately switch to all-out guilt trip when convenient. It’s unfortunate that most of these guys lack the perspective to see that most of their troubles wouldn’t even compare to the predicaments of Darfur orphans.
One of the things I liked about how Kafka was portrayed in Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei is that she was the magical pixie girl taken to an extreme, as probably best demonstrated by the very first episode when she first encounters Itoshiki – hanging from a tree. The absurdity of it was fairly refreshing, since we’re never supposed to expect her to develop into a full-fledged character – after all, none of the characters on the show ever do/will.
Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei as a whole was a good subversion of many tropes. Itoshiki as the brooding male was equally ludicrous in his despair. I just couldn’t take three seasons of the same thing over and over as much I liked the concept of the anime.
In general, I just like that these tropes stay firmly tongue in cheek for the most part in anime. There are wish fulfillment shows, of course, but something about the medium makes it easier to remain surreal and fantastic. In Hollywood, on the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if these movies, Elizabethtown and Garden State in particular, actually take themselves seriously.
Based on my knowledge of Garden State and those involved with it and their comments on it, I’d say it took itself pretty damn seriously.
I think Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is really something that you have to watch over a very long period of time. Otherwise, it does get very tiresome. And by long period of time, I’m thinking… three years-ish. If you’re watching an episode and feel bored and like you’ve seen it before, you have to take a six month break.
My problem with SZS went like this:
Three episodes in: wow, this is funny.
Six episodes in: Well, the luster has worn off a bit, but what else is there to watch.
Around the eighth or ninth episode: I think I’m gonna stop.
Now repeat that for season two. I didn’t even bother to watch season three. For a lot of Shaft shows, the novelty usually wears off about 2/3s of the way in.
As for Garden State, someone else said it best:
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