Rumiko Takahashi has been a manga author since the late 1970s, and a well-beloved one at that. If you have not heard of her, you’ll most certainly have heard of her most famous works: Ranma ½, Urusei Yatsura and Inuyasha. She’s extremely popular in Japan as well as the West, with Inuyasha selling over 45 million copies, and she’s still working to this day with a series called MAO. Maison Ikkoku was her second series, clocking in at 15 volumes and over 25 million in sales, and this brand new Collector’s Edition goes on sale just in time for its 40th anniversary (yes, it first came out in October 1980, and that was 40 years ago – feel old yet?)
The story of Maison Ikkoku takes place in an apartment house, home to many colourful characters including Yusaku, a ‘ronin’ (original meaning ‘ a wandering masterless samurai’ – used in modern Japan to describe someone who is unemployed or secondary school graduate yet to attend university) who seems to constantly fail to get into college and blames his nosy and noisy neighbours on his failures. Enter Kyoko, the beautiful new apartment manager, and suddenly Yusaku doesn’t want to move out anymore! He constantly attempts and fails to tell her how he feels, not helped by the crazy lives of his neighbours, but Kyoko seems to hold secrets of her own. Could the older women ever fall in love with a loser like Yusaku?
If I had to describe this manga series in five words or less, I would say ‘Love Hina but for adults’. Now, I know that doesn’t sound like an inviting summary, considering I’ve dismissed Love Hina in the past but hear me out. It’s true that both series have surface-level similarities: the main male leads are ronin, they live in apartment buildings with eccentric neighbours, they both have rooms with broken walls that can be used for peeping, and the main female love interest does physically slap the male lead for misunderstandings. (In fact, Love Hina came out in 1998, so I wouldn’t be surprise if it was somewhat inspired by Rumiko Takahashi’s work). But ‘for adults’ doesn’t mean that there’s more sexy content or fan service here, but instead all of the cast are over 20 years old, with the majority of the side characters being actually working class and family-centric and so, naturally, are more mature than those found in the average rom-coms we get these days. That’s not to say that this particular series is mature through and through, we still get many familiar tropes from the ‘accidental’ breast grope, the misunderstandings between the love interest, the ‘will they or won’t they’ dance, etc.
As already noted, this series first came out in the 80s, so the tropes we’re all used to would have been a lot fresher back then than they are now. But what makes this series stand out, even to this day, is the characters. The fact that the cast is mostly adults all living together trying to get on with their day does make this series still feel fresh, considering that most anime focus on teenagers and students. But in this series only one character is in college (at least at the start of the series is trying to get into one) the rest have full-time jobs, one is a single mum raising her son in the apartment complex, and we have other single females who go out drinking and meet people outside of the rooms. So, each character feels rich and stands out because they have their own lives and, like in real life, come and go as they please and aren’t in every story. Yusaku feels very similar to the male leads you get in rom-coms to this day; he’s a bit of a loser, constantly blaming others for his problems, falls head over heels for Kyoko despite barely knowing her and, being just 20 years old, he’s still trying to find his place in the world, as well as what he wants to do with his life. He is the butt-joke for most of the neighbours, all of whom take great delight in picking on him. Due to his nature as well as his character development in this book alone, there’s a nice balance between us feeling sorry for the guy, wanting him to catch a break from the bad luck he’s having, and laughing with the side characters when they mock him, since half of the bad stuff that happens to him is merely a consequence of his own actions. It’s that perfect balance between ridicule and sympathy that Rumiko Takahashi nails from the first panel.
And then there’s Kyoko, who’s quite different from your average female love interest. It’s revealed early on that she is, in fact, a widow, which puts her tsundere-ish actions into a new context. She’s reeling from the loss of her husband and has just moved into a new job and home, so understandably, she’s going to be a bit defensive and skittish. Not helped by the fact that every person who lives in the complex not only wants to know everything about her but gives unwarranted advice. I’m sure that anyone over 20 years old reading this will not only feel great sympathy for Kyoko but also has heard many of the things the neighbours constantly ask her: “Do you have a boyfriend?”, “Are you married?”, “When are you going to have children?” and other questions along those lines. It’s all for comedic effect of course, in fact the comedy in this is very good despite a few outdated references (I did laugh out loud quite a few times in this volume) but there’s also a bittersweet element to the story that keeps you hooked into the romance. Despite framing all of Kyoko’s and Yusaku’s interactions in mostly a comedic manner, it’s clear that the pair are just not ready for a relationship yet. Kyoko has all the walls put up, still missing her late husband and has even named her dog after him, whilst Yusaku is immature, directionless and has little self-discipline. But by the end of this volume, when the pair for the first time communicate like adults, you start to see where the series is going; the pair need to grow up, and then eventually towards each other for the relationship to work, and it’s going to take a lot of work before we get to a stage where they can have a happy, and more importantly, healthy relationship.
This Collector’s Edition has been released by VIZ who have a long history with this series; they licensed the series originally back in 1993 but the images/pages were flipped, with some chapters shown out of order and even some completely missing. They eventually re-released the series in its proper right-to-left format and complete across 15 volumes from 2003 to 2006. The series has had over 4 translators across its original runs but this new edition provides a fresh translation from Matt Treyvaud; his translation is mostly fluid and flows the comedy along very nicely. I found it a tad off-putting that the inner thoughts of the characters are conveyed in a completely different font but overall, it’s a good investment if you’re the collector type and like to own different translations of the same product. As I reviewed a digital copy of this collector’s edition, I sadly cannot say physically what’s different about this book aside from the fact that the first volume of the 2003 release had only 224 pages, whilst this copy has over 300 pages, containing the first 16 chapters of the series. According to the VIZ blog the book also comes with colour inserts. The manga in total has 161 chapters so it’s going to be a heavy investment, even if VIZ seem to be collecting more into each edition.
Rumiko Takahashi’s art style is very distinct; you’re never going to mistake her character designs for another’s and, like the writing, the art holds up to this day, being very clean, and despite Yusaku’s tendency to daydream in the midst of an interaction, I never got lost on what was just his imagination or what was happening in real life.
Maison Ikkoku is a delightfully bittersweet rom-com that, for the most part, holds up to this date, despite being 40 years old. If you have yet to get yourself acquainted with Rumiko Takahashi’s work, or are looking to upgrade your copies, now’s a great time to invest in this series.