Definition time: Manga is a Japanese comic book; Anime is animation. Get it now? Great!
You know, I find Japan very interesting. Its customs, traditions, culture and history is almost unique due to the country having been so secluded and isolated all the way to the mid-19th Century when traders from the west started to take the first trepidatious steps into opening the country up for the rest of the world. Deeply rooted with traditions, the country still has an air that makes you think theyd rather mind their own business and not really let the outside world get too close, although a lot of the post-WWII youth are a lot more open and welcoming. One of the most interesting nationalistic traits for me, however, is their thriving Manga industry. Ever since the end of the war, Japanese Manga (or as the rather weird western terminology would probably say comic book or graphic novel) has exploded into one of their most well known exports. Drawing much influences from the likes of Walt Disney (the big, expressive eyes in particular), Manga is very much an amalgamation of western influences turned authentically Japanese with the often larger-than-life tales of good vs. evil transcending all the way to simply present everyday, normal situations of life. It is read by everybody from children to grand parents and is divided into many subcategories to cater for just about every demographic, from girls and boys, to gays and sports jocks, and anything in between.
At the moment, one of the most successful mangakas working in Japan has to be Rumiko Takahashi, whose early success with the romantic fantasy-sci-fi adventure of Urusei Yatsura in the early 1980s made her one of the most respected and popular mangakas, something that has in time earned her the nickname of the queen of manga. With her follow-up series of Ranma ½ of 1987-1996 and the on-going Inuyasha, she has mostly attached herself to romantic comedies with a lot of fantasy elements, while keeping her style usually pretty clear and straightforward (though still fairly detailed). However, it is her fourth series that could arguably be considered her best. Maison Ikkoku was produced between 1980 and 1987 and is the sole series of Takahashi that is squarely taking place in the average, everyday world (though it is still populated by obnoxius and eccentric weirdos that are a Takahashi trademark).
Maison Ikkoku centers around one Yusaku Godai, a hapless 20-ish student who is desperately trying to get through his college exams, but is constantly hindered by his fellow housemates living in the old and decrepit boarding house of Maison Ikkoku. However, things change drastically for Godai when their building manager suddenly just quits (only saying Im tired) and is replaced by the gorgeous, young Kyoko Otonashi, a widow of the love of her life, Soichiro Otonashi, the son of the family who owns Ikkoku (and whose face shall forever be obscured throughout the manga). Of course Godai almost immediately falls for her and thus starts his mad pursuit of getting the love of Kyoko, a love that for the next seven years of his life will be filled with misunderstandings, heartbreak, joy and changing perspectives of life. The story is one of Takahashis most maturely adult, a story which, while containing bucket loads of comedy and unbelievable situations, is a really mature look at the development and rockiness of a relationship between man and woman. Likewise, since the development takes place in real time, nothing is ever overly rushed to make their growth seem too hurried and the changing situations in their lives are in continuous flux as life goes on, thus making nothing that easy for either of them.
The characters of Yusaku and Kyoko are probably the most ordinary of the entire manga. Yusaku is a clumsy, unreliable and somewhat immature daydreamer, poor and always flunking out in his exams much to the fault of his fellow tenants. He is the archetype of a guy to whom nothing ever seems to go right, and try as he might, every good thing is always followed by three bad ones. The charting of his life after meeting Kyoko, the on-going troubles of college life and later on job life in a non-existing job market, are the constant struggles of his to be worthy of Kyoko and hopes that she returns his love despite all the misunderstandings and problems. Likewise the widower Kyoko is in constant flux over her life, not being able to forget her late husband, unwilling to move on with the fear of eventually forgetting him and thinking that their love was but a sham, hers is a life of uncertainty and fear of letting go of the past and going on with her life. And when she meets the dashing tennis coach Shun Mitaka upon enrolling to a tennis school, she soon finds herself as the main prize between the rivalry of Yusaku and Mitaka, a rivalry that continues with its ruthless pursuit of affections all the way through the manga.
But of course this being a Takahashi serial, you cant escape her ripe sense of humour and Maison Ikkoku is filled with this. The most of this is presented by the secondary characters who are as loony and eccentric as any in a Takahashi manga. The three tenants who live at Ikkoku are ones that dont spare any punches in making Godais life a living hell. Mrs. Ichinose is a nosy and insufferable busybody with a barely existing salaryman husband and a level-headed son. She enjoys getting drunk when ever she just grabs a bottle and dances on tables waving her fans almost on a daily basis (though she is also perceptive and loves to embarras people). Then there is Akemi, a sexy vixen who usually just struts around with a very transparent and short nightgown, much to the annoyment of others. She works as a waitress in a nearby bar, but whether she actually does any waitressing instead of drinking on tab at her workplace is anybodys guess. And finally there is the man named simply as Yotsuya. He enjoys the pleasures of voyeurism, has a job nobody knows what it is, has a constant dead-pan expression on his face, and loves to torture Yusaku day in and day out. As you can probably tell, the main secondary cast is not one to easily get along with, and when the three often join forces, the results are only liable to get more and more complicated.
Of course over the duration of the series we meet all sorts of different characters of varying importance, such as Yusakus main rival in Shun Mitaka, a very handsome and self-assured ladies man who sets his eyes on winning Kyokos heart, though unfortunately he has a deeply rooted fear of dogs, meaning that as Kyoko just happens to own a very burly dog (named Soichiro incidentally), being around her is certainly not as easy as it is cut out to be. We also meet a gentle lady named Kozue Nanao who falls in love with Yusaku, much to his chargin as he simply cant make himself to break up with her; a new tenant in dimwitted Nozomu Nikaido who becomes the no.1 rival of Yotsuya; the dog-loving and very demure Asuna Kujo who becomes Mitakas uncles wedding project for him; another girl after Yusaku called Ibuki Yagami, who will do anything and everything necessary to be with him; Yusakus best friend Sakamoto, both a confidante as well as user of Yusaku; and the families of both Yusaku and Kyoko, both with their desires and objectives towards the two.
To give you even an inkling on some of the mad cap situations that Yusaku and Kyoko end up in, at one time the group attends as extras in a horror park event, with Kyoko playing the ghost of a girl who fell in a well and died. Unfortunately she mistakes the real well as the one she is supposed to go to and before Yusaku can warn her, they both end up inside it. With the walls being too high, they then find themselves to be stranded in the cramped hole. And when Yotsuya finds out about it, it is not long before Coach Mitaka gets stranded too when attempting to get Kyoko out (but surprisingly not really Yusaku), followed by the drunken Akemi and leery Yotsuya, and finally by Mrs. Ichinose who doesnt want to miss the party. Or when Kyoko chances to find her old school uniform and tries it on, she is caught by the others much to her embarrasment, resulting in them all wearing whatever outfit they can find (a monks costume, a nurses outfit etc). And things finally come to a head when Mrs. Ichinoses son catches them and is mortified as Kyoko, the seemingly only one who was at least somewhat normal, is just as bad as the rest of them (followed by Yotsuyas priceless Actually, it was Ms. Otonashi who started it all). Or when Kyoko helps out with a puppet show for children with Yusaku, the whole play ends up in disarray as Yusaku bungles up his lines due to the closeness of Kyoko (and the kids just love it).
Spread out over 15 volumes, each containing roughly 200 pages, Maison Ikkoku is a story unlike any other Takahashi has put together in her career and stands as one of the prime examples that the expression in a manga can be much more than just a comic designed for children. Her structuring is very clear and easy to read, and her style is fairly consistent with her other series, though still a bit different (particularly the noses are a lot more rounded than in her usual fare). As is the Japanese style, the proper way to read manga is of course reading it backwards, meaning you dont read from left to right but from right to left and the books cover is where usually the backcover is at. For anybody getting into manga, this way of reading may at first feel a bit strange, but you get adjusted to it fairly quickly (Im actually starting to find it difficult reading the normal way nowadays). The translation done for VIZ is one that is very American indeed, containing many slang expressions that are perhaps not entirely truthful to the original text (wih some expressions perhaps requiring you to be acquainted with US lingo a bit more), but it is still on the whole fairly easy to read and consistent. As a complete set, Maison Ikkoku costs around £4.99 to £5.99 per book, though prices on Amazon vary widely from book to book, making definite prices impossible to set down. On the whole, Maison Ikkoku is an impressive manga, not too long, and definitely an interesting and often humorous study of a growing relationship. No fantasy and magic in this one, but simply a group of people living in this world and trying to get along with the consequences of life. Certainly Takahashi at her very best.
© berlioz, 2007