“Recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation.” — Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
For Riku, his job has always been a measure of his worth. When he describes his many accomplishments near the end of episode five, it feels as though Riku is compensating heavily for something. He constantly seeks approval in the eyes of others, most notably his father. He thus finds it incredulous that the people under the bridge could “just do whatever [they] want.” This sense of self-determinacy and empowerment is strange and alien to Riku’s ears. Although Riku seemingly lives the life of a self-made man, the paradox of his individual successes is that he really hasn’t made his own life at all. Riku’s worth is not self-determined; it is determined by others. His “CEO of the world’s number one conglomerate” is not a personal goal, but a goal desired only because others covet it. Riku is thus not a self-made man, but someone who has been singularly crafted by his father’s motto: “To never rely on anyone else.”
This motto, one of utter dissociation from other human beings, is one source of Riku’s trauma. His impersonal creed has divorced himself from the rest of humanity. Whereas humanity comes together and cooperates in a symbiotic relationship that benefits the entirety of the community, Riku has been forced to consider life as a selfish competition where only one can reach the coveted top. Although this philosophy has been played for laughs in the anime, it is evidenced by Riku’s rejection of his classmate’s help (an innocuous act of picking up an eraser) in episode one that his motto has isolated him from the companionship of others.
Before Riku ever met Nino, only one person has ever been prominent in his life: his father (I assume that from Riku’s point of view, Takai’s merely a secretary and not someone of great importance). He recounts that ever since he was 3 years old, his father has instilled in him the motto that one must never rely upon others. This scene is rendered absurd to elicit laughter, but it also demonstrates the coldness in the way Riku has been raised by his father. According to Herman, a child’s notion of self-worth is heavily dependent upon the early years of his social development, one in which parents feature prominently:
The developing child’s positive sense of self depends upon a caretaker’s benign use of power. When a parent, who is so much more powerful than a child, nevertheless shows regard for that [child]… the child feels valued and respected; she develops self-esteem. She also develops autonomy, that is, a sense of her own separateness within a relationship. She learns to… express her own point of view. (152)
At the start of the eighth episode, Riku remembers a time during school when he read his essay about his dreams for the future in front of his father, his classmates and their parents. Riku wrote about how he wanted to be just like his father, but on the way home, his father easily dismissed what he he had heard. His father proclaimed that Riku could never understand the kind of person he was. In reality, Riku never truly had a loving father figure in his life. Takai, his secretary, reveals that Riku was always alone in his childhood. Since his father never showed him any regard, Riku hasn’t developed true self-esteem. Riku confesses that he was able to stand up to his father this one time, but this implies that Riku never stood up to his father again. Although Riku is a proud young man, he is greatly affected by how others see him.
In Handbook of Play Therapy, researchers studying “the effects of German air raids during World War II on London’s children… found that the children were more disturbed by separation from their parents than they were by fear of the objectively more dangerous consequences of the bombing of London” (299). The absence of a loving, caring father figure in Riku’s life was merely the first sign of trauma in his life. The immense pressure to succeed placed upon Riku’s shoulders by his father is simply one of the many forms of child abuse. Riku coped by constantly seeking his father’s approval. The first step was adhering dogmatically to his father’s motto, thereby losing his autonomy at an early age.
How does Riku’s father represent trauma? Those who have been traumatized feel trapped by time. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder include recurring nightmares and visions, forcing the victim to relive the moment of trauma for years to come. For example, loud noises can trigger flashbacks in many war veterans. In Riku’s case, Hoshi singing “leech” over and over in episode five triggers in Riku a nightmare of his father.
Riku’s time under the bridge then serves as his therapy: “The first principle of recovery is the empowerment of the survivor. She must be the author and arbiter of her own recovery” (Herman 133). In episode five, Riku must learn to find a job he loves to do like the rest of the residents under the bridge. They cannot give him a job, nor will a job deemed prestigious by society (i.e. “CEO of the world’s number one conglomerate”) suffice. This job must be something that comes from Riku’s heart; it must be something he personally loves to do. He must now seize control of his life and become what he truly wants to be, not what society, which includes Riku’s father, thinks he should be.
Much of Arakawa Under the Bridge reflects the traumatic stress of the pursuit of success in Japanese society. The best jobs are given only to those who have graduated from the most prestigious universities. Placement in the most prestigious universities are rewarded only to those who can successfully survive a back-breaking examination system put in place to socially stratify the future of Japanese youth. The immense pressure to succeed has caused many to succumb, leading to one of the highest suicide rates among first world nations for Japan (with the same examination system in place, it is no coincidence that South Korea’s suicide rate rivals Japan). Those who have not decided to take their own lives find themselves dropping out of schools, becoming hikikomori, etc.
In the face of such mounting pressure to succeed, Riku can only escape to a fantasy world under a bridge where social status means nothing. It is a surreal world where the residents can be whatever they want to be and do whatever they love to do (even if they are clearly bad at it; for instance, Hoshi’s guitar playing). The emphasis in Riku’s new home is fun: in the sixth episode, Nino suggests that Riku becomes a teacher since he seems to excel at it. Riku still resists because he doesn’t think work should be fun, but as the anime slowly progresses, much of Riku’s firmly held beliefs are chipped away. In the following episode, Riku finds his teaching efforts enriching even though he doesn’t succeed in teaching the brothers and Stella much of anything but science.
All the jokes and absurdity in Arakawa thus represents the need for fun and play:
…eminent theorists have emphasized the value of abreactive play for children… children in play reconstruct, reenact, and reinvent their stressful experiences in order to understand them, assimilate their reality, and achieve mastery over them. Through play, children can adopt roles that were not part of real experiences… and, thus, master difficult life situations. (Play Therapy 302)
The positive effects of play also reinforces the idea that Riku must find his own identity: “…play enables the child to relive past experiences and allows for the satisfaction of the ego rather than for its subordination to reality.” Essentially, Riku must live life for himself. When the trauma is reinvented and understood, time begins to flow again. The victim of PTSD can finally begin to move beyond the incident of trauma. In Riku’s case, he must learn to rely on others and live freely.
At the end of episode seven, P-ko explains to Riku why she likes the Mayor. To her, there’s nothing better than living an unwavering life and being true to oneself. The Mayor’s lack of common sense doesn’t matter whatsoever to P-ko. This causes Riku to pause and wonder what common sense is truly good for anyway. Riku is finally thinking for himself. I suspect the climax of the series will involve Riku finding the courage to finally stand up to his father, preventing the takeover of the land underneath the bridge.