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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Maison Ikkoku

by Jason Thompson,

Episode XVIII: Maison Ikkoku

Ken Akamatsu, creator of Negima and Love Hinasays that harem manga are dead. The whole idea of an indecisive guy surrounded by hot girls who are all over him has become so overused that people can't stand it anymore, and the guys have become so pathetic that even the most socially awkward otaku can't accept them as protagonists. Samurai Harem, Guardian Hearts, My Dearest Devil Princess, Girls Bravo…Little did I know when I was a young anime fan watching Tenchi Muyo! that I was witnessing the beginning of the end, the beginning of the apocalypse in which all harem manga will melt together into a gray goo of breasts and panties, like at the end of Greg Bear's novel Blood Music.

But what about romance manga? Are romance manga dead? I hope not, since romance manga -- whether the protagonists are male or female -- have always been some of the sweetest and most powerful stories told in the manga medium, long before they degenerated into the harem genre. Love stories were always popular in girls' manga, but didn't catch on in boys' manga until the late '70s, when they started a quiet revolution in a macho world formerly dominated by ninjas and karate champions and tough dudes with cybernetic arms. Even if they included fanservice for the, uh, baser instincts, and if some of them were as sexist as the macho-est shonen manga, romance manga in general represented a softer world, a world where the strict division of shojo and shonen manga were blurred. In the early 1990s in America, before any real shojo manga had been translated, men's romantic comedy manga were a gateway drug for female otaku, who bought lots of copies of manga like Ranma 1/2 and Oh My Goddess!. And Rumiko Takahashi's Maison Ikkoku

Drawn from 1980 to 1987 in the men's magazine Big Comic Spirits, Maison Ikkoku wasn't the first men's love-com, but it is almost certainly the best.  It is definitely the best manga by Rumiko Takahashi, whose contributions to manga fame also include creating the very first harem manga, Urusei Yatsura, a few years earlier. Takahashi was one of the first female artists to work in boys' manga, and her work is sexy, funny and tasteful. She never crosses over the line into the two-page-spread-of-breasts, the ogling closeups, like Pastel and I"s and so many others. Maison Ikkoku is a sitcom, but it's believable. It's a real story with real characters. (Well, at least, most of them are real.)

Maison Ikkoku is named after a building, the rundown boarding house where all the characters live. In one of the rooms lives Godai, a pathetic 20-year-old caught between high school and college, barely managing to live off his parents' money and part-time jobs as he struggles to pass his college entrance exams. His attempts to pass his tests and get a life are impeded by his own flaws (pachinko, occasional partying, horribly studying habits), but also by his obnoxious roommates: Yotsuya, a pervert who peeps through holes in the walls, mooches money, and is always impeccably dressed; Akemi, a bar hostess who wanders around drunk in a see-through nightie; and Mrs. Ichinose, a boozing, gossiping housewife married to a rarely-seen salaryman. (There is also a fourth roommate, Nozomu, a clueless rich kid who moves into Maison Ikkoku in volume 8. Unfortunately, his bland personality doesn't lead to many comedic possibilities, so he quickly vanishes from the story.) This terrible axis of jerks teases Godai at every opportunity, hold late-night parties in his room while he is trying to study, and generally makes his life miserable. But there is one bright ray of light in Godai's low-rent, ramen-eating existence: the new building manager, the lovely 22-year-old Kyoko Otonashi. When Kyoko moves into the building, along with her weird, eyeless-looking dog, Godai instantly falls in love with her and devises various schemes to win her heart.

But Kyoko, despite her outward cheerfulness, has hidden depths, and as Godai soon discovers, there's a reason why such an attractive woman is single. Kyoko is a widow, still clinging to the memory of her husband, who died just a few months after they were married. When Godai realizes this, his heart sinks. ("If he were alive she might come to see his flaws…but a dead man is perfect. He is the ideal of her heart.") Godai perseveres, but he knows it won't be easy. He has to be worthy of her, he tells himself, so first he must get into college…and then graduate college…and then get a real job. And even more importantly, he has to overcome his doubts, his self-esteem issues, and his incredible bad luck which causes him to always end up in embarrassing positions which make Kyoko think he's a pervert or a loser.

Interestingly, Akamatsu's Love Hina has basically the same plot as Maison Ikkoku. Both are about a really bad student trying to pass his exams, who lives at a boarding house where there is one girl he truly likes, but who is continually distracted by annoying roommates. The differences between the two are basically the result of "otaku inflation" in which love-coms become more and more pandering as time goes on. Godai is pathetic, but he's a movie star compared to Keitaro from Love Hina. He has a few porn mags, but he mostly keeps them hidden. In Love Hina, all the roommates are girls, and most of them are much younger than the main character, unlike Maison Ikkoku where the love interest is an experienced older woman. (Rrowrr!) Ikuko, Kyoko's 12-year-old niece, has a little crush on Godai, but it's treated as a joke, there's never any suggestion that Godai would return her feelings. (I can't believe I had to write that sentence, but with harem manga, you never know, do you?) I like Love Hina, and it's unfair to Akamatsu to suggest that Love Hina is just a ripoff of Maison Ikkoku, but they're cut from the same mold. One thing they have in common is that, unlike a "true" harem manga where the main character is just a spineless blob, both Keitaro and Godai are definitely in love with just one woman. But Godai is much braver than Keitaro. Before the end of the first volume, Godai goes drinking with his friends and comes home wasted, and shouts "I'M IN LOVE WITH KYOKO!" right in front of her. After he wakes up he is incredibly embarrassed at first, but a few chapters later he says it sober. From that point on, Kyoko knows exactly what the score is. But does she love him? I won't give away the answer, but I'll say that Kyoko's feelings for him have something to do with love, something to do with regret and guilt, something to do with a desire for stability in her life, and something to do with her misgivings, and patient tolerance, towards a younger man who is less mature than she is. Kyoko also has a bad temper, which manifests whenever Godai makes some unbelievable screwup. Most of all, she is frustrated by his indecisiveness. ("He gives up too easily! That…that wimp!")

There aren't too many characters, but trouble shows up in the form of rivals and other love interests. On Kyoko's side, there is Shun Mitaka, a hot tennis coach who apparently specializes in coaching bored housewives. He is older, buffer and richer than Godai, and his teeth sparkle (in a running joke, when we meet his family, their teeth also sparkle). But he's not merely a jerk; he really loves Kyoko and is open about his feelings. Mitaka's pursuit of Kyoko spurs Godai into taking action; if he doesn't do something, he's going to lose her. However, Mitaka's weakness is his phobia of dogs; Kyoko's dog Soichiro freaks him out (admittedly, it is a very weird-looking dog) and even the accidental sight of a dog is enough to cause him to lose his cool and screw up a date with Kyoko just as badly as Godai does.

On Godai's side, there are two other love interests, not enough to really qualify as a harem, particularly since Godai isn't that into either of them. One is Kozue, a cute, shy girl who used to be Godai's coworker at the liquor store and has apparently had a crush on him for awhile. ("Gee, guess I'm not very memorable," Kozue tells him when she shows up for the first time in volume 2.) Godai doesn't really care about Kozue, but he's too "nice" (aka wimpy) to turn her down when she asks him out, and so she ends up becoming his platonic sort-of-girlfriend. She goes with Godai to the movies and ice-cream parlors and crushes on him, thinking about their future life together, while unaware that Godai is just hanging out with her because it's comfortable and he's got nothing better to do. Godai tries to treat Kozue as just a friend, but in his worse moments, he considers sleeping with her just to lose his virginity so he'll be more experienced when he gets with Kyoko (Kozue: "Oh Yusaku, I'm so happy you're finally ready!" Godai: "Yes, my dear, I need some practice...I mean...I love you.") 

The other girl in Godai's life is Ibuki Yagami, a high school student who shows up later in the series, when Godai is working as a student teacher and is starting to become cool. Yagami falls in love with Godai and hits on him aggressively, causing him great distress, among other reasons since he doesn't want to get fired for sleeping with a student. Unlike clueless Kozue, Yagami quickly figures out that Godai likes Kyoko, but this doesn't stop her. Instead, she gets off on the idea of having a tragic, hopeless love for a man who loves someone else. And of course, Kyoko is just bewitching Godai. Yagami has got to make him see the light and save him from enslavement to that horrible, domineering woman! Or so Yagami thinks. To Kyoko, Yagami reminds her of herself when she was young, and one of their scenes reveals the real reason Kyoko is so reluctant to get back in a relationship. "You're lucky, Yagam," thinks Kyoko, "that you've only ever been in love with one man."

When it was first coming out in the 1990s, Viz's slogan for Maison Ikkoku used to be "Maison Ikkoku…where wacky hijinks can't stop a great romance!" My friends came up with a new slogan: "Viz…where terrible ad copy can't stop great manga!" But it's true: there ARE wacky hijinks. Maison Ikkoku is 50% realistic character-driven love story and 50% cheesy sitcom where people are always having huge misunderstandings over nothing and walking into the room just in time to see their loved one accidentally embracing somebody else (because they tripped and fell over, or whatever). Again and again, Godai is just about to make a pass at Kyoko when he stumbles and breaks his leg, or falls off one of Maison Ikkoku's crumbling balconies. Again and again, Mitaka is about to make a pass at Kyoko, when a dog shows up and he runs away or goes into a coma. Again and again, Kyoko is just starting to warm up to Godai when she catches him going out to the movies with another girl (it was all a misunderstanding!), or they end up waiting for one another at the wrong restaurant, or he has the wrong time and misses their date, or something like that. In one chapter, the whole household goes boating and ends up stranded on a deserted island, like Gilligan's Island. In another chapter, Godai has to secretly take care of a friend's cat, which is called "Kyoko Baby" (Kyoko-chan in the original Japanese). Of course, one of his roommates overhears him talking on the phone about how he's been snuggling in bed with "Kyoko-chan" every night.

The running joke of the series is that Godai and Kyoko seem like they're going to get together, but something always happens, something always interferes. To Takahashi's credit, it really is funny, except possibly towards the end of the series, when things start to get more serious and the screwups have higher stakes. At this point, when a simple misunderstanding leads to a 200-page emotional crisis instead of a 20-page gag, you wonder why the characters don't just sit down and talk to one another. You'd think that someone would have had sex with someone (or, in the case of Godai's roommates, that Godai would have killed them and hidden their bodies) long ago. However, one thing is consistently hilarious throughout the story: the fantasy/dream sequences when Godai imagines what will happen if he does this or that. At one point in the story, Godai is contemplating kissing Kozue, when he imagines her dad busting into the room with a gun and forcing them into a shotgun wedding. At another point, Godai imagines himself as a homeless bum, crawling in the gutter as a happily married Kyoko and Mitaka walk by. All the ridiculous, wonderful, awful things that don't happen in the actual manga happen in Godai's fantasy life.

As the story goes on, spanning at least five years of the characters' lives, Maison Ikkoku becomes a more mature love story (and not in the "mature readers" sense…well, mostly not). Both Godai and Kyoko are thinking long-term. For Kyoko, although she hates to think of it so bluntly, the choice between Godai and Mitaka is partially a matter of pragmatism ("If I choose Yusaku, I'll have to wait at least four or five years. He's so young. I wonder if he'll really wait for me that long? Maybe we should get engaged, then wait for him to graduate. I wonder how old I'll be by then? Yeesh! I'd like to have children by the time I'm thirty! With Shun, I could do it right away…") For Godai, loving Kyoko means more than admitting his love, it means becoming a man worthy of her. He struggles with college, and then struggles to find a decent job, promising himself that he will propose to her when he is stable and successful, and not before. (A warning to anyone reading this who might be contemplating doing the same thing: it's dangerous to admit your love to someone, but waiting is even more dangerous. Don't be like a stupid manga character.) Like the main characters in Bakuman, he wants to be awesome (or at least competent) before he tries to thinks about romance. Godai will become the breadwinner and Kyoko, the housekeeper, will be his wife -- it all sounds very traditional. But Godai's professional life takes some unexpected turns, and in the end, the manga's idea of husband-and-wife relationships is less traditional than it first seems to be.

I worry that I haven't made Maison Ikkoku sound awesome enough; that Godai sounds like too much of an idiot (really, compared to every other male love-com lead in manga, he's amazing), that Kyoko seems too stereotypically temperamental, that it drags on too long, or anything like that. I first discovered Maison Ikkoku not through the manga, but the anime. In college in the '90s, Cal-Animage Beta (the UC San Diego anime club) showed all 96 episodes of the anime series, one a week, over the course of three years. Since I didn't have any other way to see it in those bygone days apart from buying some overpriced laserdisc from a Japanese import store, I watched it religiously, along with Kimagure Orange Road and other love comedies of the '80s, when every manga character had bouffant hair. I studied Japanese to get the cultural references, and I asked my friends what the "piyo piyo" written on Kyoko's apron means. ("Piyo piyo" is the sound effect of chicks chirping.)

Maison Ikkoku was a turning point in my life, because, basically, I'd never allowed myself to watch a love comedy before. They just weren't in my zone. My friends, who were mostly male otaku, liked things like science fiction, technology, video games and Magic: The Gathering. But suddenly, because it was anime, I found that I had been tricked into caring about a love story, and thinking of myself, like Godai, as a starving college student who might one day find true love. The idea of a long, delicate, slow-moving romance has always charmed me, even if it's a little unrealistic that any relationship would ever stay in limbo for this long. (Some trivia: apparently Takahashi's editors tried to get her to drag the series on even longer, but Takahashi rebelled and brought the series to its present, reasonably timely ending.)

Yes, it's true; Maison Ikkoku warmed my frozen, icy heart. When Rumiko Takahashi visited San Diego Comic-Con in the 1990s, a fan at her panel said he loved Maison Ikkoku because it was a realistic romance, not a fantasy like her other manga. "Actually, I think it is a male fantasy," Takahashi said. But regardless of whether it's realistic, or who it's aimed at, Maison Ikkoku is a touching, funny story which almost everyone who reads it – including non-manga-fans – likes. Sadly, Viz's 15-volume English edition of the series, which finished in 2006, is now out of print. I hope they bring it back. It's hard to think of a better manga about love.

Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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