Maison Ikkoku is a classic romantic comedy. Rumiko Takahashi presents a motley group of housemates in a funny farce, complete with frequently slamming doors and mistaken identities. The inhabitants include Godai, a failing student; Akemi, a brazen barmaid who wanders around in her negligee; and Mrs. Ichinose, a tipsy gossip. When the new manager, an attractive young woman named Kyoko, shows up, Godai quickly develops a crush on her. The others tease him unmercifully, preventing their relationship from developing, when his own shyness isn’t getting in the way.
The characters are broadly sketched to provide plenty of humor, emphasizing various human frailties. For example, Mr. Yotsuya resembles a businessman, but he’s really a perv, breaking into Godai’s room to peep on Akemi next door. Of course, everyone blames Godai for the hole in the wall. Rumors fly frequently, because stirring up trouble is always good for a laugh.
Misunderstandings of this sort abound, providing slapstick humor. No one has any faith in Godai, so he has no faith in himself. That will change, since Kyoko is beginning to believe in him out of the goodness of her own heart.
Some of the situations aren’t so funny to those involved, and not all of the emotion is light-hearted. The name of Kyoko’s dog, Mr. Soichiro, at first confuses Godai, who thinks it’s a reference to her boyfriend. In a touching story later in volume one, the reader finds out that the dog was named after Kyoko’s late husband, and her widowed status still weighs heavily on her mind.
In volume two, Kyoko takes up tennis with a local housewives’ club. Mitaka is the cute coach, an older man who’s making a good living, and he soon becomes a rival to Godai. When the three of them take Kyoko’s niece Ikuko and Mrs. Ichinose’s son Kentaro to the beach, the children’s interactions provide wonderful excuses to spend more time learning about each other. Meanwhile, Kozue, a fellow student who doesn’t know when to stop talking, has designs on Godai, turning the triangle into a square.
Volume three begins with Kyoko and Godai ringing in the new year, sharing traditions and celebrating together. It’s a classic near-miss setup, with Godai constantly trying to make a move and Kyoko accidentally ducking him without even noticing. More misunderstandings occur when Godai finds himself taking care of a cat named Kyoko Baby. Later, we meet Kyoko’s parents and learn more about the history of her marriage and her dedication to the boarding house in the face of their determination that she come home. The rivalry between Godai and Mitaka, the tennis coach, intensifies as Kyoko starts to contemplate remarriage.
When Kyoko’s dog gets lost in volume four, she sees Godai with new eyes. A summer festival is a beautiful setting for a romantic evening, while Godai worries about how far he should go with Kozue when he really loves Kyoko. After a discouraging rumor makes the rounds, Godai tries moving out for a while.
Volume five opens with Godai sick in bed while the housemates try to take care of him. It’s impressive how quickly their various personalities are shown to the reader through short scenes with each. Godai’s also having dreams (subtly indicated with rounded instead of square panel corners) that establish his unrequited love for Kyoko. With him back in the house, the basic premise of the series is restored.
Holiday stories are always good excuses for emotional drama. When Christmas arrives, Godai tries to find the perfect yet cheap gift for Kyoko, yet he winds up spending New Year’s with Kozue. Sometimes it’s easier to succumb to short-term enjoyment even if it works against one’s long-term goals. Valentine’s Day becomes similarly troublesome for obvious reasons.
After Akemi gets dumped, she gets drunk and causes trouble when Godai and Kyoko try to take care of her. There’s an interesting sequence where they say they shouldn’t get too upset over just a kiss because “we’re all adults here,” yet obviously a simple kiss does mean a lot to them. They may be chronologically old enough to be out on their own, but they’re just beginning to grow up and take responsibility for their actions and emotions. Their kisses mean more than just lips touching, although they’re paying attention to the physical sensations as well.
Volume six starts with a baseball game. Akemi’s boss at the bar has enlisted the housemates to form a team in order to win a bet. Various circumstances combine to once again pit Godai against tennis coach Mitaka, this time as batter and pitcher respectively. Later, reunions lead to more confusion, as first Godai’s college friend and then his grandmother try to set him up so that he will “become a man”. Grandma moves in with him and pushes him to make up his mind between Kozue and Kyoko. This wise old woman always gets her way, whether it’s taking everyone to Mitaka’s apartment or getting them all drunk on homemade plum wine.
The first half of volume seven is a group of stand-alone chapters that emphasize comedy over emotional reaction. Godai takes his grandmother to the train station so she can return home, but her trip is delayed by Godai’s hangover after her goodbye party. The reader finally meets Mr. Ichinose, only to see him lose his job. His son, Kentaro, is embarrassed by his parents when his school holds a field day competition.
If the reader thought too much about these situations, or sympathized too deeply with the characters, they’d be heart-breaking. Kentaro, especially, is pitiful, with his nobody father and drunken mother. Everything turns out ok, though, with good intentions and lots of laughter, and the art plays up exaggerations to push the humor. For instance, Grandmother resembles an apple doll more than a human. She’s one-quarter the height of the other characters, a cross between a gnome and a monkey in a wig.
After that series of short stories, the ongoing relationship between Godai and Kyoko takes center stage again. Godai is still involved with Kozue because he’s unable to take a stand. He goes along the easy way, accepting invitations to dinner with her family. He isn’t willing to risk Kyoko turning him down and being left with no one, so he risks potential love with Kyoko by stringing along Kozue. In a weird way, he can’t say no, because he doesn’t want to disappoint Kozue.
Volume eight begins with a visit to that classic manga setting, the hot spring, where the characters bathe naked in relaxing waters. Following that opportunity, Kyoko is summoned home to take care of her mother when she has the flu, and then she commemorates the anniversary of her husband’s death. A new character is introduced in this book, Nikaido, a clueless young college student who winds up at Maison Ikkoku by mistake. Like Godai, he develops a crush on Kyoko, but unlike him, Nikaido is well-off with good prospects. The other residents haze him, since they think he’s a pampered rich kid, so he vows revenge, setting up an ever-escalating series of pranks. He’s awfully dense about almost everything, which complicates the delicate relationship between Kyoko and Godai.
It’s time for a graduating Godai to search for a job in volume nine. He’s having a hard time lining up job interviews, not to mention dealing with questions of his future and whether he can find an “in” at a prestigious company. In the meantime, he’s student teaching at Kyoko’s old high school. Young go-getter Yagami develops a crush on him, including becoming jealous of Kyoko, in a storyline that parallels Kyoko’s earlier life. In a fascinating reflection on how perspectives change as people do, Kyoko remembers her younger self while her knowledge as an older woman gives her new insight. It’s a battle of pushy cuteness vs. self-confident experience.
Yagami continues to cause trouble in volume ten, complicated by Godai trying to interview with her father for a position at his company. With his future closely approaching, so is the chance of making a more permanent arrangement with Kyoko. He’s got to make some tough choices, though, and he’s learning that adult life may involve disappointment. He’s also not the only one having to make a life-changing decision when Mitaka proposes.
Volume eleven opens with another misunderstanding between Godai and Kyoko, but the reaction is more severe and potentially final than ever before. As a result, Kyoko sets off on her first solo trip, traveling around Japan. Of course, this provides the excuse for an extensive chase, as Godai tries to find her, only to be stymied by pitfalls and comedic missed connections. After his return, Yagami reappears to request tutoring as an excuse to continue seeing him. She’s jealous of “the widow”, as she refers to Kyoko, and all of the characters are tested by the rivalry between the two.
Mitaka returns in volume twelve. He claims to have resolved one of the problems keeping him apart from Kyoko, although a more serious matter still stands between the two. Mitaka’s family is trying to arrange a marriage for him with a well-off but sickly dog-lover, and Mitaka is having problems convincing them that he wants to make his own choice. Meanwhile, Godai continues struggling with his future, since his relationship with Kyoko can’t go anywhere until he has a more settled position and occupation. Every step forward is followed by a forced move back, continuing to spin out the struggle… and the series. Many chapters revolve around the conflict between not wanting to keep secrets from a loved one and not wanting to share bad news.
As the series begins drawing to a close in volume thirteen, the story problems become more serious as Godai winds up with temporary custody of two young children. Their mother worked with him, but she’s ditched the kids in order to spend more time with her new man. Suddenly, Godai and Kyoko have an instant family, since she steps in to help take care of them (although, in a refreshing twist, Godai isn’t shown as incompetent or stereotypically stupid around children; he just can use the assistance).
I was impressed that the mother’s actions are shown as wrong but understandable. In her own way, she’s trying to do what’s best for her kids, and it all works out in the end, even though she went about it in the wrong way. She’s scheming to create a better life for them, and it’s not that different from the way other parents in the book behave. For instance, Mitaka’s parents and Kyoko’s parents continue trying to manipulate their children into marriages they think best, without enough regard how the kids feel because of their schemes.
The family is a unit that individual members must put before themselves, making sacrifices for the betterment of all. Marriage is seen as the prize that leads to a better life, with all kinds of inappropriate actions (tricks, lies, a kind of kidnapping) justified as part of that quest. Yet in the modern world, that sacrifice must be balanced against the needs of the individual. When it comes to what he wants, Mitaka has no qualms doing to Kyoko what was done to him.
Near the end of book thirteen, there’s a classic misunderstanding revolving around two characters, one drunk, spending the night together, and what may or may not have happened. Volume fourteen deals with the ramifications of the situation, and Mitaka takes a significant step. The core triangle of Godai, Kyoko, and Kozue also makes one more revolution on the wheel of jealousy. Akemi’s easy reputation makes it easy to jump to conclusions, and Kyoko is surprisingly willing to go farther than ever before in giving Godai one last chance.
As the characters grow up, they have more depending on them — kids, dogs, loved ones — and a greater willingness to do what’s right rather than what’s pleasurable. They’re finally able to make significant decisions instead of spinning in holding patterns (helped by the author’s intention to give many of her characters some sort of resolution). The series concludes in volume 15 with the expected happy ending, but only after a lot of drama and determination and hard work on the part of the characters.
The series’ art style is warm and welcoming, and the simplified cartoony look doesn’t skimp on emotion. It’s open and easy-to-read, a classic approach with exaggerated motions to carry the comedy. The setting is attractive, providing glimpses of a different world with more traditional expectations.
As the series continues, new characters continue to be introduced. They help keep the stories fresh and distract the reader from wondering how many more ways Godai and Kyoko can be kept apart when they’re so obviously right for each other. The youngsters also demonstrate through contrast how the others are growing up over the course of the stories.
There’s a playfulness with the comic page that keeps the mood light. In book eight, for example, an image that looks like a flashback has the punchline, in a later panel, of the pictured characters actually being present to hear what’s being thought about them. The format jokes and allusions to other manga styles support classic farcical plot elements like conversations based on conflicting interpretations.
Interesting bits of Japanese culture are included, like noodle shops and the importance of the college entrance exam. I get the sense that some of these chapters are simply excuses to work in a trend or cultural touchpoint (similar to the way Archie comics often write stories about fads). That doesn’t matter, though, since the characters remain true to themselves and different situations provide entertaining insight. The underlying behavior is universal, demonstrating the need for courage in romance.