The first word that comes to mind with Maison Ikkoku is grounded. Rumiko Takahashi’s reputation precedes her, including in the west, where series like Lum Urusei Yatsura, Ranma ½, and Inuyasha served as gateway series into anime and manga. Where those series used an alien visitor, kung-fu slapstick, and fantasy tropes, respectively, Maison Ikkoku uses ordinary people. Being a product of the turn of the 80s, everyone has fairly realistic, dark hair. As another example of grounded visuals, moments of exaggerated humor only slightly distort characters’ faces or figures compared to more modern series’ chibi figures and razor-sharp hairstyles. The two main characters are Godai, a frustrated college applicant, and Kyoko, the manager of the boarding house where he lives. He falls for her at first sight, with a string of misunderstandings, rivalries, and personal revelations in their journey toward ending up together. “It must be nice to be so simple,” a neighbor says about Godai, and it’s true of this manga, too.
Takahashi’s got plenty of gags to keep the pages turning, though. The other residents of Maison Ikkoku interfere with Godai and Kyoko’s affections at every turn, to the point that Godai imagines them as antagonists in the sky laughing down at him and his ambitions. Godai’s neighbor Yotsuya is a peeping tom who blackmails Godai over his stash of porno magazines and hole in the wall that allows him to see into the room of his other neighbor, the bar hostess Akemi.
It is at this point I should mention that this series was serialized from 1980 to 1987, complete with sexual humor that makes light of men’s overwhelming desire for visual stimulation. Some chapters go several steps further, with characters accidentally or purposefully grabbing and groping Kyoko, often resulting in a hard slap that leaves a hand print. There is a daydream scene of a topless Kyoko embracing her dog as her lover (she named the dog after her late husband, which leads to misunderstandings). One night, a drunken Godai carries Kyoko to his room but passes out before any sexual assault can happen – meanwhile, Kyoko apologizes to her late husband in her mind while outwardly shouting for help. As much as Kyoko is objectified, including scenes on a tennis court that look up her skirt, Takahashi deserves credit for swapping to her perspective every so often. She is a young woman in mourning who sees the potential in Godai but isn’t committed, either. She has her own life beyond her tenants, even if they butt into her business all the time. Still, compared to Takahashi’s later works, this one leans disappointingly hard on a “boys will be boys” attitude.
Your mileage may vary, but I don’t think the misogynist humor completely ruins the overall effect of the book. Takahashi renders an incredibly sweet Japan, complete with changing seasons and weather that give the boarding house plenty of character. Rain causes leaks, howling winds keep people up at night, and on a sunny day, the road seems to curve in around people walking along. Time passes using outdoor imagery, always inviting the reader to start fresh with the cast for another chapter. A mother and young son who also live in the boarding house contribute to a feeling of nostalgia, as the son has a childhood crush that mirrors Godai’s spellbound behavior around Kyoko. The mother provides a seen-it-before perspective, one that the other tenants echo as they play peanut gallery for the would-be lovebirds. These are events that the characters will clearly remember fondly, even if they tended to get on each other’s nerves and criticize each other. This is the strength of the slice of life genre, which could be likened to a sitcom show here. Godai is always attempting to declare his love for Kyoko, but as soon as she says yes the series would lose its dramatic tension, so poor timing and alternative suitors keep them apart.
It’s great to see this series in print again as collector’s editions, having been collected before in thinner volumes in the early 2000s. Takahashi is a one of a kind talent, and there’s a satisfaction to tracing how her humor and characterization evolved from one series to the next. Not everything about this series has aged well, especially its sexual politics, but its humor and heart earn it a recommendation for older teens and adults.
Maison Ikkoku Collector’s Edition, Vol. 1
By Rumiko Takahashi
Publisher Age Rating: Teen Plus (16+)
Series Reading Order: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Maison_Ikkoku_chapters (Wikipedia or Goodreads)
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: East Asian Straight
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator