Looking Back - Maison Ikkoku
Why we'll still remember Rumiko Takahashi's masterpiece 20 more years from now
We here at Animefringe pride ourselves in bringing to you, the kind intelligent reader out there lounging hopefully in a comfortable chair, some of the latest and greatest in Japanese media culture. We know our audience is filled with savvy, internet-ready, bit torrent/fansub-loving geeks. We do work around the clock to sift through lots of totally boring and predictable anime, manga, cinema, and television in order to provide information on some of the really exciting stuff coming out of Japan. A useful service to be true, considering the vast amount of media being imported from Japan everyday.
Sometimes, however, it's time to pull back. Don't get me wrong, I love Full Metal Geologist (or Full Metal Candy Cane, Full Metal Anxiety, etc) as much as the next guy, but sometimes I get a little nostalgic for something classic (read: old). The thing is, there has always been some great stories coming out of Nippon, stories that held incredible importance and reverence to anime fans "Back in the Day" that very well might have been passed by the newer generations of fans that have been tumbling in by the truckloads in exponential numbers during the past ten years. In some scenarios, this is unforgivable. So, I apologize for going on and writing this entire article on a series that you probably already know about. However, I ask you all to bear with me, because this is important. Why?
Because this could be one of the greatest love stories ever told.
Any fanperson worth his/her salt knows about Rumiko Takahashi. One of the richest women in Japan and arguably the most famed manga artist alive in Japan, Takahashi has continually been responsible for some of the most profitable and beloved anime franchises for over 20 years. The late 70s saw the release of Urusei Yatsura, introducing the tiger-striped bikini-ed Lum into the Otaku Lexicon. The American fandom has watched the big anime hit of the 90s, Ranma 1/2, and Takahashi's InuYasha is aired nightly as part of The Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. If the teeming fangirls who glomped Toshi Yoshida at AnimeNext for bringing new episodes of InuYasha are any sort of measure, Rumiko is as big in America as she is in her home prefecture.
Now, I don't want to go out on a limb and say something like "but this one work has been ignored in America!", because it hasn't. Back in the early 90s of small anime fandoms, Arctic Animation fansubs, and AnimeCon '91, fans were getting together to bring this fairly long series to the fans, on 8th generation tapes traded through the pre-internet fan networks. Still, if you talk to enough younger fans, full of knowledge of each of Gainax's series or the works of Yoshitoshi Abe, not too many of them have seen or read Maison Ikkoku.
There are plenty of reasons why Maison Ikkoku, which is considered by many to be Takahashi's greatest work, didn't achieve the kind of popularity here as it did in Japan. For starters, the initial manga release of Maison Ikkoku began before the days when Sailor Moon and the internet really helped the explosion of anime fandom come along. The initial anime release of Maison Ikkoku, following a schedule of two episodes a tape every two months, was a deadly decision on Viz's part for such a slow-moving series. Eventually, the home video release of Maison Ikkoku trickled off before it reached the halfway point. The manga was released slowly but surely, each chapter released monthly with graphic novels coming out about once a year for quite a while. There's also the matter that in comparison with Takahashi's other famous works, Maison Ikkoku lacks science-fiction and fantasy aspects, preferring to tell a simple story of a couple of people in contemporary Japan falling in love in admittedly hilarious circumstances.
So, let us go back, shall we?
Young Yusaku Godai lives in a completely ramshackle boarding house in the suburbs of Tokyo, sharing the seven-room building with the most destructive and distracting tenants possible. Godai, who begins the series getting ready to retake the college entrance exams that he failed while in high school, constantly struggles against his obnoxious neighbors who insist on partying in his room every night.
"That's it, I'm through!" he proclaims, duffel bag slung over his shoulder, clawing out of this building before his college career collapses like the economic bubble of the 80s. As he's about to leave the decrepit Maison Ikkoku, the new manager arrives.
Yeah, she's hot. We all could have seen that coming a mile away.
So it starts simply enough. Godai is hot for caretaker Kyoko Otonashi, filled with lusty thoughts of the incredibly kind manager. The situation becomes more comical as the other inhabitants of the house, drunk housewife Ichinose, slutty bar-girl Akemi, and the mysterious pervert Yotsuya, strive to constantly complicate the situation between the two simply for their own amusement. Godai constantly embarrasses himself, as any awkward 18-year-old does, and as such, hilarity ensues.
If this was all there was to the story, however, I know I would have shut the TV off and thrown the DVD out the window (I have very little patience for such a substandard shonen anime plot). But wait, there's more! The situation starts to slowly complicate itself, revealing not only more hurdles for Godai to face, but some complexity to the characters involved in this romance. Poor Kyoko has been recently widowed, and is still very much in love with her dead husband. She continues on living almost as if she can never find love again. Godai, almost accidentally, starts dating the kind yet vapid Kozue, who assumes early on that the two will be married for sure once college is done. Hot tennis coach Mitaka also has his eye on the young widow, and his aggressive nature can only be curbed by his insane fear of dogs (Kyoko has a big white dog named after her dead husband, Soichiro-san). When the tenants, the neighbors, the family, and complete strangers get involved in this romance, it seems as if Godai can never win Kyoko's heart.
The secret of Maison Ikkoku, however, is that it's so much more than that. As the series progresses at its slow pace, it injects true heartfelt emotions, complicated situations, clumsy confessions, and yearning for something magical. What begins as lust in Godai's affections towards Kyoko transforms to love, and eventually, understanding.
The majesty of Maison Ikkoku is that it takes the time for Godai and Kyoko's relationship to develop slowly and organically. While some might view the animated series as something akin to watching paint dry, others revel in its pace for giving this sort of romance the time for it to grow realistically. Those who thrive on quickly paced stories sadly tend to run away from this piece of Takahashi's legacy.
Because Kyoko and Godai go through so much together before the finale (almost painstakingly so), Maison Ikkoku succeeds as being incredibly timeless and powerful, 20 years after the story was first being serialized in manga form, unlike many other anime and non-anime romances. Here, the journey is the important part, not the actual end result.
The 96 episodes that comprise the television series and the 15 collected editions of the comic goes through six years in the lives of those at Maison Ikkoku. There are plenty of misunderstandings, heartbreaks, misfortunes and hopes on the way. Those who have followed Godai through his journey to get through college, to become a kind and good person, and to evolve, yet stick to his resolutions and ideals, are moved by his life. Those who see what Kyoko goes through will understand her frustrations and wish her the best in everything, as she tries to deal with the specter of her dead husband, and tries to stay true to what she wants, when everyone around her tries to manipulate her into what they feel is the best path for her. Girl, guy, gazelle, this series will move you to the very core.
Right now is the perfect time for the American fan to take the time to fall in love with Maison Ikkoku. Viz is currently re-issuing the manga, unedited and unflipped, priced at the more wallet-friendly $9.95. Concurrently, Viz is releasing all of the anime on DVD in short box sets, 12 episodes retailing at $49.95. Viz wants you to see this show. I want you to see this show. Secretly, you yourself want to see this show. Who are you to fight against fate?
Grab some tissues and experience the greatest romance ever told. Isn't it about time that you fell in love with Maison Ikkoku?