Akiyuki Shinbou’s latest project, Arakawa Under The Bridge, has nearly drawn to a close, with its thirteenth and final episode airing next week. The show has so far, in true Shinbou style, played its thematic ideas close to the chest, slowly building up characters and grand ideas via his trademark comedic pacing and eccentric visual delivery. In episode 12, we see the most explicit development and acknowledgement of these themes since the revelation of Hoshi’s past in episode 09 - there we got a brief glance at the reasoning of those who came to the bridge entirely willingly; here we see what keeps the Ichinomiyas away from it.
The immediate conclusions people I’ve heard from generally draw from any of the bridge’s inhabitants are, first, that they are in some way mentally damaged or inhibited, and second, that their choice to live under the bridge is motivated by an unwillingness to grow up and participate in the common understanding of the “real world”. The chief abjectly refuses to acknowledge that his kappa appearance is a costume; Tooru gave up a successful office career to walk a line-painter around under a bridge. These are, at first glance, people who failed to live up to the stresses of the modern world and therefore relegated themselves to being the dregs of society.
Ichinomiya Kou, on the other hand, exemplifies a wide range of accepted societal markers of success - a self-made, wildly successful businessman, classically handsome and fully versed in the motions of polite society, a model capitalist. The Ichinomiya family motto, and particularly its execution, could have been taken straight from the pages of Rand. But, as Arakawa has regularly hinted and as it said outright in episode 12, all of these traits obfuscate a wide range of his own insecurities and psychological inhibitions.
In the first scene of episode 12, Nino comes to Kou’s aid, saying “It’s fine, everyone is afraid of ghosts, bugs, bell peppers and their fathers”. Hoshi, and likely a good part of the audience, responds with a disbelieving “how young do you have to be to be scared of those things?”. Kou being rushed by his father into an adulthood in which emotion and compassion are weaknesses and any human interaction deeper than simple exchange of goods is unforgiveably wasteful left him with a full 22 years for those simple, childish-to-most fears to become deeply ingrained in his psychology. Kou’s childlike preferences at that level seem as strange to the rest of the bridge’s denizens as someone wearing a star mask or claiming to have come from Venus.
And his father Seki’s humanizing monologue near the end of the episode, where he implies that his own embracing of the Ichinomiya motto is as a result of his inability to cope emotionally with his own experiences with love. Kou, much earlier on, displayed many of these same insecurities - his inability to accept any measure of altruistic kindness from Nino, and later his need to rationalize her favors to him as simply a less obvious kind of capitalistic exchange. Both Seki and Kou hide from the possibility of emotional interaction by single-mindedly pursuing profit.
In his time under the bridge these insecurities have been worn down a great deal; Seki’s meeting with Nino, which so closely parallels Kou’s own first arrival at the bridge, gives us a point of reference to just how much Kou has changed in the past twelve episodes. Kou’s own story of maturing and overcoming his past insecurities is embodied in his attempt to altruistically put his own set of acquired skills to work in protecting the community he’s become a part of, just as Nino, Hoshi, P-Ko and the others have.
What Arakawa asks here is this: is it really a mental or psychological failing to reject a set of accepted social ideals relevant to pure accumulation of capital profit, and instead strive for a set of accepted social ideals relevant to building a community? The structures occurring in the community under the bridge are very in line with those at work in any small communal living scenario - how much is the choice between these ways of thinking a dichotomy, and to what extent are they mutually exclusive or zero-sum - which is the “real world”? With Seki on one end and the bridge denizens on the other end of a loosely capitalist-communist dichotomy, Kou’s struggle is to find an ideal point between the two.