After the delicious wallowing in English of last week, I was very tempted to continue to wallow and pick up another of the English books waiting so patiently to be read. But I realize there are other ways to wallow, and sometimes, the best way is a book you have read a million (give or take a hundred thousand) times. I’m pretty sure this stems from the same part of your brain that just wants a grilled cheese sandwich and some tomato soup after one too many food “adventures” in a country that considers ham a vegetable. (It is not, people. Let’s stamp this thing out.) Rumiko Takahashi is my mental grilled cheese sandwich.
When I moved back to Canada after nearly a decade in Japan, I had to get rid of a lot of stuff (stuff my friends were only too happy to take, except for one sad futon, which ended up staying in the closet. I assume the new tenant threw it out, but I like to imagine that that faithful futon went on to serve another as well as it had served me. I miss you, futon), and among that stuff were even books, although I cried over every volume I parted with. But among the (far too many) boxes of books I did end up hauling across the ocean were all my Rumiko Takahashi books (including Inuyasha, even though that series infuriated me). And while Urusei Yatsura will always have a special place in my heart, Maison Ikkoku is the series that makes me cry every single time I read it. Or as a friend puts it, so many feels!
The premise is pretty straightforward: Guy living in rundown apartment building falls in love with the new superintendent. He then pursues her for ten books, or about seven years of book/real-life time. Complicating things for Godai (guy) and Kyoko (superintendent) are a cast of wacky characters and ridiculous misunderstandings. Every time I read this series, I note to myself how the whole thing would fall apart if people just talked to each other. But this is a love comedy set in Japan in the 1980s, when apparently talking to each other was even less the norm in relationships than it is today, so nobody ever talks to anybody about how they really feel.
The characters are why you keep reading, though, even if you think they are all doofuses for not just talking to each other. Godai starts out a pervy-minded, would-be university student, and ends up a mature and loving nursery school teacher. The arc feels so natural, with the gradual development of his character through his slowly deepening relationship with Kyoko and his fight to carve a place for himself in the world so that he can be worthy of her love, that it is actually a bit of a shock to go back to Book One immediately after finishing Book Ten and seeing how utterly immature and ridiculous Godai once was.
Artwise too, that flip back to the beginning is a shock. At the start, everyone looks very seventies, and very similar to Urusei Yatsura. By the time the series ends, you can see Ranma 1/2 in the faces of the characters. The heavily made-up Kyoko who walks through the door of Ikkokukan the first time is a far cry from the natural-looking Kyoko who finishes the series. But the thing that never changes with Takahashi’s art is the over-the-topness. Ostensibly, Maison Ikkoku is a series set in the real world, unlike the space adventures of Urusei or the shapeshifting action of Ranma. But the burning intensity of emotion is depicted as actual fire, seen and feared by peripheral characters. Characters are able to leap great distances in shock and horror. And some, like apartment inhabitants Ichinose, Yotsuya, and Akemi are able to drink enough alcohol to fell several elephants and still not die of cirrhosis.
Characters other than Godai and Kyoko tend to be defined by one or two weirdo traits. Ichinose always wants to party and yanks out her hand fans every chance she gets, Yotsuya likes to peep and mooch off everyone and anyone, Akemi generally walks around in a negligee with a beer in hand, Mitaka’s smile literally sparkles and he is terrified of dogs, the master of the bar where Akemi works always yells at her to get back to work, and on and on. But rather than feeling tiresome, these little gimmicks help to give the narrative focus, and snap it into place when it might otherwise drift away from the main problem: getting Godai and Kyoko to the finish line (i.e., marriage).
I haven’t read the English translation, but another delightful gimmick is the naming of characters. “Go” is “five” in Japanese and Godai lives in room number five. Yotsuya’s “yotsu” is four, Akemi’s last name is Roppongi, which has a six at the beginning, Ichinose is room number one. With only six rooms in Ikkokan, characters not living in the apartment building are numbered seven and up. With the exception of Mitaka (three) because it seems like there is no room number three. (Maybe this is where Kyoko lives?)
Even though this series makes me feel the good feelings, it does induce some squirmy ones too. For one thing, (completely non-spoiler-y spoiler) everyone gets paired off in the end. In a nice, happy, heterosexual marriage. With children. Because no life is complete without these things? And Kyoko’s entire story is presented as a choice between two men vying for her affections. Never once does she entertain the thought of choosing neither, or of seeking out someone herself. She is pursued, and she merely accepts or rejects her pursuers. (She may do it rather forcefully and hilariously at times, but still in the end, her life is framed as a choice of one of two men.) And Mitaka’s pursuit of her at points is downright scary. Like if this were real life, I would be recommending she call the cops.
But I can get past this terrifyingly narrow view of the possibilities of life, partly because it is supposed to be a “love comedy” and partly because of the time and place. My own experience with Japan has taught me that feminism and women’s rights are thirty years behind Canada in some ways, so the idea that a woman in the 1980s would be convinced that her only life choice is marriage is not that farfetched. The fact that she is able to live alone with so little protest from her family is likely because she is a widow (a storyline that taps into a whole other creep factor from Japan: the marrying-your-teacher-after-high-school-graduation factor).
And Takahashi devotes many pages to ruminating on some really interesting issues. Kyoko being a widow affords us a look into someone else’s grief and the guilt that accompanies that person’s efforts to move on and have a life beyond the death of a loved one. More than one storyline attacks how preconceived notions can spoil our interactions with other people in our lives. And of course, there is the idea that the “perfect life” might not be the life you actually want.
If you want some insight into Japanese culture, this series has a surprising amount to offer. Like when Godai is in the hospital and various friends, including Kyoko, stay with him to take care of him. A lot of the things that we expect nurses to do (at least in Canada) are expected to be done by family members in Japanese hospitals (something I smashed my head up against during my own lengthy hospital stay). Or when every year, Kyoko goes with her dead husband’s family to visit his grave on the anniversary of his death. Or the portrayal of the annual New Year’s celebrations. Or just the very fact of Ikkokukan itself, more of a rooming house than an apartment building. The tenants have to go the nearby bathhouse because there is no bath or shower in the apartment building, something that was pretty common until the economic bubble convinced everyone they needed their own bathtub. But if you’re poor, you still have just a room and go out to the local sento for your bathing needs.
I could ramble about this series all day and night because I really think it is fascinating on so many levels (and problematic in so many ways!). But the reason I keep coming back to it is really because it is a story about two people trying to figure out what they want and how to have it with each other. And after nine books of them doing this awkward dance around each other, their coming together is so, so, so cathartic and satisfying. Takahashi may make you wait for the payoff, but she does deliver.
UPDATE: In case you need more details on the actual story, I have posted the English summaries adorning the cover of each volume of the series on Twitter. You may or may not learn anything about anything in this story. You will, however, discover that this is a world-shaking masterpiece with many comical episodes and much confusion.