Synopsis: Kou Ichinomiya is born the scion of a powerful commercial empire in Japan and is himself a high-achieving university student who is already running his own business enterprises. One day, he falls over a bridge and falls into a river, and is rescued by a young woman named Nino, who claims to be an alien from Venus. Kou asks her for a way for him to repay her, and Nino tells him to make her fall in love with him, thus beginning Kou’s life of living under the bridge with her. Kou gradually learns that under the bridge is the home of a group of eclectic, borderline insane individuals with hints of mysterious pasts involved in espionage, warfare, ESP experiments, the mafia, high politics, stardom and space travel…
Hikaru Nakamura’s [中村光] (1984 – present) brand of humour is hard to translate. Aside from early stories she had published when she first debutted as a manga artist, her only major works are two gag manga: Saint Young Men (2007 – present) in which Jesus and the Buddha go on vacation together in today’s Japan, and Arakawa Under the Bridge (2004 – 2015). Out of these two titles, the latter has by far a more coherent plot that is interesting in itself, even if the casual reader from overseas is likely to miss the inside jokes about contemporary Japan, or inside jokes spun from conspiracy theories in general for that matter.
Kou Ichinomiya – The Archetypal Apollonian Man
The protagonist Kou is the typical prince from a fairy tale – handsome, intelligent and generous. At the same time, he is also an extreme representation of the Apollonian man. The sun god Apollo was Zeus’ favorite son and had achieved herculean feats even in his early youth. He embodies reason, knowledge, order and civilization in his person. It follows that Kou is seen as good teacher by the residents under the bridge (the sun throws light on the darkness that is ignorance). Naturally, one of Kou’s motives in becoming a teacher is to establish order and rationality by teaching the residents knowledge and common sense (Apollo is the law-giver – ie. he determines what is right).
You can see other Apollonian traits in Kou when Hoshi, a fellow resident under the bridge with musical aspirations and a rival for Nino’s affections, challenges Kou to compete in a contest to see whose music is more to Nino’s liking. The way the usually mild-mannered Kou is infuriated echoes many myths in which the god Apollo was also challenged in music by a nobody, and proceeded to crush his opponent without mercy. Another noteworthy scene is when Kou is infuriated at being called a himo (ie. a man without job and lives off a woman who loves him). There he also goes on a tremendous rage in spite of his usual gentle self.
In addition, the god Apollo was also said to be challenged by Cupid in archery. Apollo mocked Cupid’s arrows, and in return Apollo was cursed by Cupid in that love would flee from him – the nymph Daphne would rather turn into a tree than to succumb to his embrace. Archery is really a symbol of achievement in the Apollonian mindset – you take aim (ie. set a goal) and you shoot (ie. achieve that goal). The Apollonian man is essentially a goal-setter and an overachiever, and work is a source of his pride. It follows that the Apollonian man is prone to think that ‘love’ is an achievement – you are ‘loved’ because you have achieved A, B, C and can provide X, Y, Z. In other words, ‘love’ is a prize in reward for hard work or a fair exchange of ‘things’.
To come back to the story, this kind of ‘love’ may sit within the circumference of Kou’s family motto of ‘never being in debt to others’ (ie. always pay for what you get, never expect anything for free, never owe anyone anything). It takes a while to get to Kou’s brain that there is another kind of love that happens without any reason and asks for nothing in return.
Arakawa Under the Bridge and the Tannhäuser myth
The story also gradually reveals itself as being possibly inspired by the somewhat obscure legend of Venusberg. In Wagner’s Tannhäuser, an opera adaptation based on this legend, a knight named Tannhäuser spends a year in a subterranean realm called Venusberg, where he worships the goddess Venus who personifies pleasure, sensuality, and ecstasy. He leaves it behind to return to God and the humdrum world of reason, intellect and moral duty, before eventually returning to Venusberg again.
The world under the bridge in this manga is ‘Venusberg’. It is the polar opposite of the ‘normal’ world above the bridge. The residents of ‘Venusberg’ are free to live out their most ridiculous fancies. They are free to be the exact opposites of their past selves above the bridge. Kou, too, (to used a clichéd phrase) learns to ‘connect to his feminine side’ – later on in the story he even acquires the Feminine Mind which he can channel into at will.
Here I would like to say a few words on my personal observation of the ‘Venusberg experience’ and its effects on my limited social circle of overachieving friends. The ‘Venusberg experience’ typically follows this pattern: an accomplished young person in his or her late teens or early twenties falls in love with an unlikely and impossible person, completely goes off the rail from the usual elite track for a year or two (typically against the protests of family and friends and teachers etc), gets burnt, recovers, and heads back the elite track. An emotional experience of that magnitude probably mirrors a trip to the underworld that you only read about in myths or legends. There are typically two things that happen after these young persons return to the elite track: either they completely spurn what they experienced in Venusberg and turn completely cynical, wolfish and one-sided, or they integrate that experience and emerge as a fuller personality of greater depth, vision and intuition into human feelings. I think Kou’s father – who also met a woman very much like Nino – is the former type, and it seems that Kou will turn into the latter.
The Meaning of ‘Recruit’ in contemporary Japanese politics
Among the many oddities in the manga is probably Kou’s new name as ‘Recruit’ in the world under the bridge. Everyone under the bridge gets a new name from Kappa, the elder in charge, upon being permitted to stay as a long-term resident. Kappa gives Kou the name of ‘Recruit’.
‘Recruit’ is a tainted word in Japanese politics. The Recruit Scandal was about the only incident that came closest to destroying the all-powerful and long-reigning LDP as a party. Below is an explanation of that from The Yamato Dynasty written by Sterling Seagrave (1937 – present):
A perfect example was LDP king maker Takeshita Noboru, whose vanity led him to come out of the closet and assume the post of prime minister, only to be embarrassed into resigning in 1989 by the sensational ‘Recruit’ scandal. In this scandal a real estate firm of that name provided unlisted shares to politicians and bureaucrats, including Prime Minister Takeshita, enabling them to make huge profits reselling the shares on the open market. This led to the temporary collapse of the LDP. But after three years of confusion, in which other political parties tried and failed to find a wooden stake big enough to drive into its heart, the LDP revived and Takeshita resumed his kingmaking from behind a light proof black curtain. He is still there a decade later.
Hints in the story point to Kappa as being a kind of shadow kingmaker or at least a darkroom manipulator in Japanese politics. Conspiracy theories have it that the reason why Heisei Japan has prime ministers who typically last only 1 year on the throne and yet the country still runs on as normal is because they are all puppets of the real prime minister, who operates behind the scene.
[To be continued.]