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.
Maison Ikkoku | by Rumiko Takahashi | Manga: Shogakukan/Viz Media | Anime: Studio Deen/Viz Media
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.
CJ saysFebruary 23, 2011 at 8:13 am
The manga is a personal favorite of mine, one of the first series I collected actually.
That said, I’ve only seen the second set of the anime (it was a bootleg, bought at the time when I believed they were myths and that I had bought a legitimate “import”, but at least it had a dub on it) but I remember liking it quite a bit. Not sure if the rest of the series would be worth it for me to track down though, they do cost quite a bit. *Sigh* if only they’d re-release it into thinpacks like they did with Ranma 1/2 a couple of years ago, I’d jump at it. Sometimes I think Viz has a crippling fear of reprinting anything good.
Sure, Nikaido didn’t add anything to the series, I don’t even think Takahashi wanted him in after volume 8, but I did love the prank fight vs Yotsuya, it only made me like Yotsuya more :3 I love the charm that the technology (or lack of it) adds to the series, no cell phones, still gotta use a pay phone, I don’t recall seeing any credit cards, no laptops, reading MI made me sometimes wish the world was still like that if only for a day *sigh*
Cathy Yan saysFebruary 23, 2011 at 4:44 pm
It’s actually one of the first series I ever read, period! So I definitely have very fond memories of it. It’s shocking how much they cost; I feel like I’m exceptionally lucky that I had a friend who collected all of the DVDs when they were first out and so I was able to watch them and compare dub/subs. I guess Viz just doesn’t know how much interest there is in something so old— thankfully the manga is still readily available!
Not gonna lie, I loved how Godai was the aniki to Nikaido in ways he never expected, in that Nikaido kept making problems for him that he’d have to clean up. And Nikaido sucking up to Kyoko was great too. I sometimes wonder if the overabundance of technology is why I don’t like romcom tropes these days? But then that seems unfair, haha.
CJ saysFebruary 23, 2011 at 5:54 pm
Hmm, not volumes 6 and 8 of the 2nd edition, those seem impossible to find, glad I collected mine as they came out! Which is a shame since 8 is pretty much all Nikaido and that’s most all the page time Nikaido gets! I guess that means you can skip the volume and not miss anything, but I quite like when Nikaido goes to tennis practice and immediately tells Mitaka “Nope, just came to get a look at the manager in a short skirt”.
Hmm, I wonder if higher tech makes romance series less good, a lot of my friends seem to get screwed over trying to use technology to sort some things out and have to meet in person for any hope anyway, but I feel like technology makes it more pointlessly complicated so I do like not having it there.
moritheil saysFebruary 23, 2011 at 10:31 am
I think it’s always interesting when a manga is a period piece – Akagi, for instance, mostly involved sitting at a Mahjong table and did not need a fixed time, but Fukumoto went out of his way to state that it took place in the era following WWII. In a strange way, anchoring it to one time better enables the viewer to take away more timeless lessons.
Melinda Beasi saysFebruary 23, 2011 at 12:17 pm
I think what’s especially interesting about something like Maison Ikkoku, is that it wasn’t a period piece at the time it was written, so, unlike something that is consciously set in a particular time, it becomes a period piece naturally, over time, and somehow belongs to that period more inextricably than it might otherwise. Rather than being a period piece told by from a here-and-now point of view, everything about it, even the author’s voice, comes from that period.
Cathy Yan saysFebruary 23, 2011 at 5:03 pm
Ohmigosh, I just want to hold your hands and pump them up and down excitedly for bringing up Akagi. I love, love, love Akagi. I was trying to get through Kaiji, which, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy, but it’s nothing compared to how much I devoured Akagi. I even chased down summaries of the volumes of Ten that he’s in because, well, it’s Akagi. And I love that the post-WWII rebuilding of Japan worked itself into that narrative of Washizu, and the disillusionment, and death and destruction and all that. But basically, so much love for Akagi.
Noura saysFebruary 23, 2011 at 12:16 pm
I haven’t read the manga but I’ve watched the anime twice. It is simply one of Rumiko Takahashi’s bests. I enjoyed it from beginning to end.
This series has great cast. While I love the two main characters, I have always been a big fan of Mitaka. I was actually rooting for him. The series also has one of the best soundtracks. I just loved all of the songs that I got the OST for it. It would be great to see more such excellent works nowadays. Now if only VIZ would reprint the manga. I have most of the volumes but 3 or 4 volumes are missing and I can’t find them.
Cathy Yan saysFebruary 23, 2011 at 5:09 pm
A kindred spirit! I think this is probably my third time powering through the series, and I love it more every time. I find anime Mitaka to be so much more charming than his manga counterpart, and I confess that when his time was up, I got a little teary. Do you have the hospital volumes of the manga? I think that’s probably the one arc in the manga that I loved more than the anime, haha, because I’m such a sucker for Mitaka and Yusaku commiserating with each other. And his final “TAKE GOOD CARE OF HER” speech! What a trooper. The soundtrack is indeed excellent! I actually tracked down all of Anzen Chitai’s “Sukisa” to listen to while writing this column. Dear Eighties, I wish I knew how to quit you.
Noura saysFebruary 24, 2011 at 1:28 am
I actually fell more in love with Mitaka the second time I watched the anime. I, too, teared up when he finally had to let go. I was so sad but I was also happy that he found someone who loved him a lot.
Oh, I forgot how awesome Godai’s neighbors are! Akemi, Yotsuya, and Ichinose-san. My favorite episodes were when Godai started teaching at the girls’ high school and Kyoko’s alma mater. The Ibuki Yagami part was one of the best. I so enjoyed these episodes and Ibuki was just lovable. She added some spices to Maison Ikkoku.
While I want to read the manga, I kinda have a feeling that I won’t enjoy it as much as I did the anime. I am usually a manga person but some series are better as anime.
Aaron saysFebruary 23, 2011 at 2:17 pm
Havent read the Manga or seen the Anime (probably wont ever watch the anime because Netflix has so little of the whole series and the box sets are too expensive.) the Manga I’m on the fence about I love well done romance but Rumiko Takahashi is like the reverse of Arina Tanemura for me in that I love Takahashi’s story telling ability but have never warmed to her art or character design where as with Tnemuras I absolutely adore her art but cant stand her stories.
Cathy Yan saysFebruary 23, 2011 at 5:13 pm
Oh man, Netflix, why you gotta be like this. The box sets are enormously expensive. I’m sorry to hear that you don’t like Takahashi’s character designs! I’m actually quite lukewarm on Tanemura’s art myself, which is why I’ve yet to ever finish Full Moon Sagashite (the story might have something to do with it too, though). I guess I’ve always imagined Rumiko’s designs to be inoffensive, haha, and then it takes me a second to realize that wait, she has an art style too! But seriously, seriously, seriously— the manga is one of the best romcom mangas I’ve ever read, and I find something different in it to enjoy every time I come back to it, so give it a try if you ever have some free time. :D
Michelle Smith saysFebruary 24, 2011 at 9:36 pm
What a great series—both in manga and anime—for a first column! I find it impossible to hear Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Get Down” and not think about Maison Ikkoku.
Cathy Yan saysFebruary 25, 2011 at 6:52 pm
It always deeply saddened me that the American version of Maison Ikkoku was never able to overcome licensing issues and use his songs. “Get Down” fits the series so perfectly. Sigh~ Told you once before and I won’t tell you no more…
Erica saysFebruary 25, 2011 at 9:32 am
> 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.
I have long stated that Takahashi give me hives and, in one sentence, you’ve nailed why. She’s really good at what she does – and what she does is milk a simple romance with every possible variation on a theme for dozens, sometimes hundreds of episodes. Ranma 1/2 is hysterically funny for ten episodes….then it’s just increasingly exhausting. Inu Yasha is exciting adventure for…well, for me about 10 minutes, but I’m not the audience. I respect Takahashi as a writer, artist, trendsetter, businesswoman. But I have never been able to like any of her series. Maison Ikkoku has been recommended to me by many people, but it’s too late for me. ^_^
Cathy Yan saysFebruary 25, 2011 at 7:11 pm
I totally agree with you about her milking a simple romance. I felt it less with Ranma 1/2, because the series was so wacky anyway, but it always struck me particularly hard with Inuyasha (which I’ve never finished for that exact reason). And there are a few scenarios in Maison Ikkoku that make me rend my clothes in frustration. While I’ll always be fond of Ranma 1/2. I don’t think I’ll ever love it, simply because, for me, after volume 1 and the hair cutting and Dr. Tendo, the series never hits that same level of emotional honesty. I don’t know what it is about Maison Ikkoku that makes it worth it for me. Must be that I”m more willing to accept feet-dragging when it’s not supernatural, haha.
Anyway, cheers, and thank you. <3
Rob McMonigal saysApril 25, 2011 at 5:28 pm
This is a really great article! I added it to the links for the Takahashi Manga Movable Feast! I’m pretty much clueless when it comes to talking about anime, but I think you did a good job of discussing it with a lot of care. You can tell you really like it!