Hello, this is Cathy! I’m so excited to be a part of Manga Bookshelf! To kick off the anime reviews, I thought I’d start with something long, old, and beloved.
Anyone who’s ever read manga has probably read a Rumiko Takahashi story, whether it be Rumic Theater, Ranma 1/2, or Inuyasha. She is easily one of the most recognizable and popular mangaka, one of the few that all American readers can name with ease. But in 1980, Takahashi was 23 and her first major work, Urusei Yatsura, was only just beginning to pick up. Armed with her own experiences of living in a small apartment with her two assistants, she sat down to write what became my favorite of her long epics: Maison Ikkoku.
Maison Ikkoku is about the residents of Ikkoku-kan, a boarding house in Tokyo. The protagonist, Yusaku Godai, is a 20 year old ronin student deep into his second year of trying to pass college entrance exams, when the story opens on the arrival of Kyoko Otonashi, the young widow who’s Ikkoku’s new manager. Yusaku instantly falls in love with Kyoko, but like all Takahashi romances, there are plenty of obstacles. The other residents of Ikkoku do their utmost to create embarrassing situations for the uncertain couple. The local tennis coach Shun Mitaka, a rich and suave playboy, declares his own intentions towards Kyoko within hours of meeting her and spends the rest of the series wooing her. Yusaku’s cheery ex-coworker Kozue Nanao eventually becomes his cheery girlfriend, though, much to everyone’s chagrin, she never cottons onto Yusaku’s feelings for Kyoko. Then of course, there’s Kyoko herself, who worries that loving a new man would be betraying the memory of her dead husband. Throw in three interfering families, an engagement made and broken by a fear of dogs, and a high school girl determined to marry Yusaku, and it’s easy to see how the story spanned seven years, fifteen volumes of manga, and 96 episodes of anime before coming to a satisfactory end.
Maison Ikkoku is ultimately a slice-of-life romantic comedy, but unlike Takahashi’s other series, it’s set firmly in the real world. The recurring characters, while exaggerated, are perfectly ordinary people with perfectly ordinary problems. Families get into screaming arguments, marriage is complicated by monetary concerns and societal approval, young men and women worry about their future careers. The path leading up to Ikkoku, the persimmon trees, the kotatsu, the fear of the economic downturn, Kyoko’s habit of sweeping the sidewalk free of leaves– all these are still elements of everyday Japanese life.
Yet the more humorous plot devices of Maison Ikkoku could have only existed in the Internet-less, cellphone-less world of the eighties. If gimmicks like mistaking the French restaurant “Ma Maison” for the local pub “Mamezou,” or Yusaku’s female friends pranking Kyoko so badly she ends up installing a public phone for the rest of the boarding home seem ridiculous at first glance, they’re enjoyable for nostalgia’s sake. In 2011, hijinks like that just don’t happen anymore– people just text each other!
The relationship between Yusaku and Kyoko is the highlight of the entire series. The anime does a wonderful job of showing how it changes from obsession (on Yusaku’s part) and annoyance (on Kyoko’s part) to a mutual affection. Surrounded by secondary characters who are more or less caricatures, the main romantic players come across as surprisingly real. Yusaku might appear at first to be simply a lecherous loser just barely out of his teenage years, but with time, he emerges as a man who, if nothing else, will always do the right thing, even if it’s to his disadvantage. And Kyoko is never just a pretty face. While Mitaka and Yusaku are both guilty of idealizing her, they also embrace her faults: her tendency towards jealousy, her bad temper, her indecisiveness. In an adorable moment in episode 43, they even spend a night drunkenly swapping notes and consoling each other. Kyoko is secretive to a fault with her feelings, so it’s no surprise that most of the series consists of both men learning to reconcile their idea of Kyoko with the person she actually is. An admirably realistic portrayal of love, for sure, but gosh if the story isn’t repetitive! If you don’t find yourself tempted to throw your TV out the window by episode 58, you’re doing it wrong.
Despite the addition of numerous sidestories, Maison Ikkoku the anime feels more streamlined than its manga counterpart, simply because the anime has the benefit of hindsight. While the manga hesitates over how to resolve Kyoko’s and Yusaku’s relationship, the anime already knows how the story ends and stresses their romantic tension early on, most notably in episode 14 and and 22. Readers of the manga might actually wonder if Kyoko ends up with Yusaku; the anime, on the other hand, is emphatically a story about Kyoko and Yusaku, just with detours.
However, the anime never strays far from the manga’s wacky sitcom nature. Don’t expect Ichinose to be much more than a busy body with a fondness for alcohol, or for Yotsuya to stop being an infuriatingly mysterious leech. Just the opposite, as the Ichinose-Yotsuya-Akemi trio get far more screen time in the anime. On the other hand, Nikaido, an accidental resident introduced late in the manga, is absent from the anime, and his lines are given away to the other Ikkoku residents. Anime-only fans thus never experience the epic prank war that erupts between Nikaido and Yotsuya, but Nikaido’s absence is glossed over so well in the anime that it made me question Takahashi’s choice to introduce him at all in the manga.
With five opening and six ending songs, including a Japanese pop hit by Anzen Chitai and two songs by Gilbert O’Sullivan that never made it to the American release, the soundtrack is a perfect representative of the music from that time period. Likewise, the animation is classically eighties but holds up well despite its age. Among other things, the characters frequently change outfits — a rare feat even nowadays for an anime series! Despite its simplicity, the animation does an excellent job conveying the characters’ every emotion, no matter how nuanced, and manages to stay true to Rumiko Takahashi’s original art. Paired with an all around impressive performance from the entire Japanese voice acting cast, the characters of Maison Ikkoku have never been more alive as they are in the anime.
For those who have never read the original manga, Maison Ikkoku the anime is an excellent substitute or introduction. For those who are already fans of the manga, watching the anime is just like revisiting an old friend. Personally, three episodes — 27, 84, and 92 — make the anime adaptation for me. Episode 27’s masterful use of silence, a blinking light, and silhouettes elevate the anime treatment of Souchirou-san’s disappearance into something far more cinematic. I could write whole essays on how wonderfully episode 84 encapsulates repeating issues of trust, family, and determination, not to mention the little animation details — the classical music soundtrack, the Joan Miro in the hotel lobby — that build a world richer than the one in the manga. And Episode 92, split into three acts, each dedicated to one woman, is a great argument for why Takahashi writes some of the best women in anime.
Viz Media distributed both the manga and anime, and both are available through most major online retailers. As the series is pretty old now, it’s unlikely to be found in bookstores, but chances are good that if your local library is like mine and only stocks outdated anime or manga, the old Viz volumes (complete with cheesy titles like “The Hounds of War” or “Good Housekeeping”) will still be there.