Kon’nichiwa! Welcome back to the Lighttrain; once again, this is your Conductor speaking. The medium of Japanese anime has certainly become quite the juggernaut in the North America nerd culture, with its cute girls, fantastical plot lines, and the dreaded beach episode all being staples of this inventive medium. In fact, this movement has been going on even since the 1980s. One of the most popular shows of this era was the martial arts-themed screwball comedy Ranma 1/2, adapted from a manga (the Japanese word for comic book) written and illustrated by Rumiko Takahashi. Ranma 1/2 was a breakthrough, even striking gold in North America, but I believe an overlooked work of Mrs. Takahashi’s is the slice-of-life romantic comedy Maison Ikkoku. Yet what made this series my personal favorite out of her decades-long catalog? Let’s get this show on the road and find out.
Times are tough for Yusaku Godai, a clumsy and spineless young man who has been failing his college entry exams. His housemates are not much of a help either. This includes the loud and gossipy housewife Ichinose, aloof bar hostess Akemi, and mysterious moocher Yotsuya, all of whom are drunkards that enjoy disrupting Godai’s studies. Just as he has had enough of their antics, the beautiful and sweet-natured Kyoko Otonashi appears to begin her responsibilities as the new manager of their boarding house, the titular Maison Ikkoku. In an instant, Godai has fallen in love with Kyoko, and from then on is a charming story following Godai’s attempts to win her heart, along with meddling from the tenants and various romantic rivals.
As the main protagonist, Godai is easy to empathize despite his immature flaws, but Kyoko quickly develops to have enough depth and personality to become equally important in the narrative. Early on in the series, we learn that Kyoko is a widow still mourning over the death of her late husband. This helps add a unique layer to the romance as, though she does care for Godai, Kyoko wrestles with the notion that she may forget the memory of her husband. In Godai’s case, he goes through an excellent arc as well where he perseveres through his struggles and works hard for a stable career, growing into a more hardworking, mature person worthy of Kyoko’s love. Their development and romantic chemistry is arguably the strongest aspect of the series.
However, without a doubt the most entertaining bunch of characters in the show lies in the tenants of Maison Ikkoku, most notably Mr. Yotsuya. His unscrupulous methods, deadpan expression, and strangely Shakespearean flair makes him an absolute scene-stealer. Although an eavesdropper and a gossip, over time Mrs. Ichinose proves to genuinely have Godai and Kyoko’s best interests at heart, and the relationship with her precocious son Kentaro is quite amusing as well. Out of the trio, Akemi gets the least amount of character focus. It’s a shame, as it seems like there could be plenty of interesting directions to take her character. Overall, Akemi is a blunt and down to earth kind of person that helps give our lead couple a swift kick in the right direction on a few key occasions. Fighting for Godai’s affections is the bubbly and innocent Kozue, while suave tennis coach Mitaka has a similar fondness for Kyoko. Kozue is a sweet girl who is unknowingly stuck in an unfortunate situation with Godai, so you really can’t help but feel sorry for her, especially during her last few episodes. Although I was worried that Coach Mitaka would fall into the “rich jerk” archetype, it was incredibly refreshing to see that he’s a decent guy all things considered. His frenemy relationship with Godai along with his morbid fear of dogs works well for both drama and more of Takahashi’s signature sense of humor. Each voice actor fits their role perfectly. Props to Mr. Shigeru Chiba in particular for his performance as Yotsuya.
Regarding the actual plot of the series, it’s not without its flaws. Most of the first half I have very few faults with but, disregarding a handful of pervy moments from the male characters that have aged like milk. Being familiar with Takahashi’s other works, she has a ill tendency to write a lecherous male in pretty much all of her works. Thankfully after a little while Maison Ikkoku downplays this trope and improves the series for doing so. In the second half of the show, after many misunderstandings where Godai is caught in a compromising position and Kyoko stubbornly holds a grudge against him for it, even when it isn’t Godai’s fault, the formula begins to tire. There’s only so many times you can pull this off before the other tenants start to sound more rational than our melodramatic main characters do.
They additionally introduce two fresh faces to further complicate the love conundrum; headstrong high school girl Yagami, who falls for the hapless Godai, and shy dog-lover Asuna, who is put in an arranged marriage with Mitaka. The Yagami plotline doesn’t really effect things too much, until much later where it demonstrates Godai’s character development into a more mature guy. Obviously Godai and Kyoko were the obvious couple from the very start, so it was clear Mitaka had to be removed from their orbit sooner or later. Of course Asuna’s legion of pet dogs bring with it excellent situational comedy, but it ultimately pushes Mitaka to overcome his phobia in a satisfying manner. Neither are inherently weak elements, but I wish they were made more compact rather than lasting a good chunk longer than they needed to.
The series is quite visually beautiful, with simplistic but recognizable character designs and well-done animation. There are plenty of shots in these episodes that simply display the mundane charm of Japanese suburbia in the 1980s, and they greatly add to the thoughtful and slow-paced nature of the series. Another benefactor is the wonderful original soundtrack. Many of these tunes are gentle, atmospheric melodies that engross the audience in its setting. The opening and ending themes are all decent in their own right. For whatever peculiar reason, episode 24 features themes by Irish singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan, “Alone Again (Naturally)” for the opening and “Get Down” for the ending. Only episode 24. It never happened beforehand and it never happened anytime after. Pretty amusing to think about.
Maison Ikkoku is a series that is strong enough to resonate with both fans of Takahashi or complete strangers to anime thanks to its engaging romance, fun characters, and masterful blend of comedy and drama. Though later stoylines featuring Yagami and Asuna can be stretched thin, there are few major issues I have with the series. Ranma 1/2 might have introduced me to the works of Rumiko Takahashi, but this is what completely solidified my love for her artistry.
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