Trauma & Play At Work in Arakawa Under the Bridge

“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.

12 thoughts on “Trauma & Play At Work in Arakawa Under the Bridge

  1. Anonymous

    Yeah, this show is deep. And original. The way it conveys its message is very subtle, too. I’d never figured it out myself if it wasn’t for your analysis.

    Oh, and the deadpan humor is hilarious. Just for my American taste.


  2. zzeroparticle

    I think that what you’ve addressed here reflects a lot of what pressures fall upon students who attend Ivies. That is, once the four years are up, most of them haven’t quite figured out what to do and since they’re bright, they feel they need to live up to their “brightness” and take on prestigious jobs. Like corporate law and banking, both of which are extremely draining and not the kind of world-changing stuff that many of them had signed up for.

    I do hope people look upon this post and realize that playing is very important to one’s creativity and to not let society dictate what types of work are more prestigious than other types since people who gravitate towards work only because they’re prestigious are setting themselves up to be unhappy in the long run if they never enjoyed that work to begin with.

    1. E Minor Post author

      Regarding the playing, there is a lot more to be said but I’ve long since lost my notes. I don’t think I did the concept enough justice, but I think what you’ve said also leads us to another conclusion. In play, we can freely experiment. In play, even if we fail, it’s not a big deal.

  3. Topspin

    I find it more jarring than deep. It always feels like they’re trying to be introspective but wind up largely forgetting the issue. Probably because it relies too much on a sense of humor that’s distracting and corny.

    It’s like someone starting up a seriously discussion about about poverty for a minute, but then giving up and jiggling keys around to make us feel better about it. I can’t shake the feeling that it’s just escapism trying to pass itself off as a semi-serious commentary on.. escapism. As you suggested though, this show’s really for a different audience who probably need the escape more than I do.

    As long as they don’t ruin it with a half-hearted ending I’ll still have enjoyed Arakawa. At least it’s managed to generate interesting and serious commentary online, and that’s far more than I expect from an anime.

    1. E Minor Post author

      The shifts in tone from serious to non-serious might be jarring, but I think this was intentional. Riku takes life too seriously and the show’s all about tearing that down.

  4. KizukuKanshi

    Apart from laughing at wacky antics, there does seem to be a lot of thought that could be put into the show. For me, I’d rather wait until it ends to form that kind of deeper thought. *insert hindsight quote*

    1. E Minor Post author

      To each his own, but with ten episodes out, I don’t think the anime’s going to drastically change enough that one can’t start analyzing it now.

  5. Mystlord

    Being the Marx-lover like I am, I saw the show as a class struggle, but I can see where the comparisons with the current state of Japanese society can exist. The environment under the bridge seems to be a place of escape for Rec – where he can get away from all the societal pressures placed upon him. Society doesn’t even touch the area under the bridge, but with the intrusion of his father and thus higher society into the community under the bridge, I feel that Rec will have to make a decision with whom he’ll support. In the spirit of the show, it’d be a crime if Rec didn’t side with the Arakawa residents, because we can’t be all that impersonal and competitive in today’s society. The comedy in the show reinforces the fact that one cannot treat the human experience without emotion.

    Indeed, Rec doesn’t have an identity. He’s just his father, and the upcoming confrontation should help Rec determine exactly who he is and what place he has in this world. If it means overthrowing the man who made him who he is today, then all the better.

    1. E Minor Post author

      A Marxist class struggle? If you don’t mind, could you elaborate on that? I’m as anti-capitalist as they come, but I don’t see the anime as particularly condemnatory of capitalism. Rather, I see it more as a semi-serious postmodern deconstruction of firmly held beliefs (what is love? what is common sense? what is identity?).

      1. Mystlord

        When I say Marxist class struggle I certainly don’t mean it in the strictest sense, after all you can hardly call Kou a member of the bourgeoisie or any of the bridge residents as proletariat. But I was more referring to Marx’s statements of the monetarization of family relationships. Capitalism has essentially reduced the family to an economic unit, and not as the sentimental and emotional unit that it should be. Rec represents the epitome of that idea – he’s trapped in his materialistic familial relationship. On the other hand, the familial relationships for the residents under the bridge are much more bonded by pure emotions, and those are the relationships that we should be yearning for. I do agree though, that there is a questioning of the fundamental beliefs that we hold. There’s a certain clash of realities that take place, where the established societal conceptions are challenged by the society under the bridge.

        1. E Minor Post author

          I’m only skeptical because money never seems to be the utmost concern for Kou. While success drives his family unit, I think it’s the honor and prestige that he seems to worry most about rather than the money. Even with his father, I would say that it’s not so much about money that concerns him regarding Kou’s recent activities, but how Kou might tarnish the family name. While you could argue that money drives prestige, I just find the Marxist connection a little tenuous. Rather than being anti-capitalist, the anime strikes me instead as being anti-traditionalist (if that’s the right terminology for it).

          Nevertheless, your ideas are interesting.

          1. Mystlord

            Ah ok, I can see where the debate lies. I suppose calling that theory a purely Marxist class struggle is a misnomer, but it incorporates some elements of Marxist theory. I can understand the idea of the anime being “anti-traditionalist” rather than Marxist or “anti-capitalist”.


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