Reviewby Caitlin Moore,
Yusaku Godai has had enough. After failing to get into college straight out of high school, he moved into a run-down apartment building called Ikkoku House. The other residents are all weirdos, like Yotsuya the peeping tom, or Akemi, the bar waitress who wanders around in see-through lingerie. They mock and antagonize him, calling him ronin and making it impossible for him to study. But right when he's about to move out, a beautiful young woman walks in the door, introducing herself as Kyoko Otonashi, the new manager. Godai falls in love at first sight and decides to stay, but for some reason, Kyoko is resistant to his advances. Can Godai win her over and get into college, even with the unwelcome interference of his neighbors?
Few manga artists have had as strong an influence in the evolution of Western anime and manga fandom than Rumiko Takahashi. Ranma ½ was Viz's flagship title for years, and Inuyasha became a crossover smash hit when it aired on Adult Swim. Urusei Yatsura was published in English as the result of a fan campaign. Her stories have reached us in single-chapter floppies and bound volumes, flipped and unflipped, with chapters skipped and then restored. I have read and loved most of them, but none so much as Maison Ikkoku, her second long-running series and the most grounded and straightforward romance of her oeuvre.
Maison Ikkoku tells the story of Yusaku Godai, a hapless ronin beset by misfortune that, he seems to believe, he has no fault in creating. When he meets the new manager of his apartment building, he is instantly besotted, but Kyoko seems preoccupied. For the first few chapters, Takahashi slowly pulls back the layers on what Kyoko's deal may be, until she reveals that she's a widow.
Like most romances, it's clear from the start who the main couple is, and that by the end of the story, they will fall in love; what's not clear is exactly how that will happen. Yes, Maison Ikkoku is one of those love stories where the main characters take volumes and volumes to find their way to each other. However, this is one of the few series where I don't mind it, because in the first volume, it's clear that neither one is ready for the relationship.
Godai in particular comes across poorly, at least for the first few chapters. He bears a bit more resemblance to Ataru Moroboshi, his fellow hapless Takahashi protagonist from Urusei Yatsura. His judgment goes instantly out the window the moment he sees a pretty girl, and doesn't understand just why Kyoko gets so mad at him when he grabs her breast. It's a bad look, disrespect that goes beyond simple immaturity and makes him incredibly unlikable. After a few chapters, his advances come more down to him trying to put his arm around her shoulder rather than sexual assault. While he's still a nineteen-year-old with terrible judgment and often the architect of his own demise, he becomes much easier to root for. Don't be fooled into thinking this is a simple case of “adolescent boy must learn to be a Man in order to be worthy of a woman.” Kyoko is young as well, and a basket of issues herself. She's still mourning her husband Soichiro, who died only six months into their marriage, and Maison Ikkoku is one of the best portrayals of the slow, messy nature of the grieving process. She's also not defined by her relationship to men, and has a full personality and interests of her own. As the double-length volume unfolds, Kyoko goes from a mere object for Godai to attach himself to, to a widow in mourning, to a complex individual bursting with flaws and strengths.
Takahashi has a gift for ensemble comedies, and this is no exception. While Godai and Kyoko are both plenty interesting in their own right, the other residents of the Ikkoku are considerably more colorful, if simplified. Yotsuya is an unfortunately creepy presence, and the jokes about him barging into Godai's room to peep at Akemi through a hole in his closet wall have aged particularly poorly. It's a sex crime and a violation of her privacy, but is treated like wacky hijinx. Most of Akemi's personality comes down to her being drunk, rude, and practically nude. Mrs. Ichinose and her son Kentaro are more grounded than the others, with Mrs. Ichinose's gossipy nature mostly serving as a catalyst for the gossip and misunderstandings that often drive the action.
Probably the most interesting secondary character is Shun Mitaka, the handsome tennis coach also vying for Kyoko's affection. He's more than just a rival; he's a perfect foil for Godai. While Godai is young, broke, hopelessly awkward, and constantly digs his own grave, Mitaka is older, handsome, athletic, and charming. He's self-employed and wealthy enough to buy a car, while Godai struggled to get into a second-rate college and can't even afford a new bicycle. He's the perfect picture of manhood, while Godai is… not.
Takahashi's art is dated by today's standards - these chapters were first published in the early 80's, after all - but still holds up well today. Her designs are simply, but expressive, and she has a remarkable eye for just how much visual detail to include in each panel. The suburban Tokyo setting gives the setting a timeless feeling where placing it in a more distinctly urban space would show its age. The Ikkoku is practically a character in its own right: crumbling and run-down, requiring enough maintenance to keep Kyoko busy, with its iconic clock tower.
This edition marks the third time Viz has published Maison Ikkoku, this time with an all-new translation by Matt Treyvaud. Its old translation by Gerard Jones was very much a product of the '90s, skipping chapters that were deemed too “Japanese” for American audiences to understand, and with a script that was punchy, but not super faithful. Over the years, as fans grew more culturally literate, such editorial choices shifted over toward translations that were more literal, but often stiffer, with translation notes in place of changing references. Here, Treyvaud finds a good balance between the two: faithful to the original, but still in natural-reading English with clever puns.
I have long considered Maison Ikkoku one of the greatest love stories of all time, but it's so much more than that. It's a romance, a comedy, a coming-of-age story, a story of loss and recovery. Here, Kyoko and Godai are at the start of their journeys, two people meeting long before who they become who they need to be to be right for each other. They are deeply flawed and complicated but, thanks to Takahashi's masterful writing and artistry, still lovable. Even forty years after its first chapter was published and an ocean away from its origins, Maison Ikkoku is timeless and universal. Don't miss out on this.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ Flawed but lovable, complex characters; classic art; strong new translation
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