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.