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The Importance of Being Earnest at Maison Ikkoku

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(If you haven’t read Maison Ikkoku before, the following is choc full of spoilery goodness. Proceed with caution!)

Early on in my comic reading experience I was introduced to a comic called Ranma ½ by Rumiko Takahashi, a martial arts comedy about a group of cursed individuals able to transform at the touch of hot or cold water. I was instantly captivated by this new comic form, having only experience reading superhero comics prior, manga opened up a whole new perspective on the art form for me. With the splash of some hot water, there was no turning back.

However, as years go on and we are exposed to more and more material in a medium for which we have a deep appreciation for and connection to, it is almost a certainty that our tastes will change, even evolve. Back when I was first exposed to Ranma, had I been similarly exposed to its predecessor, Maison Ikkoku I probably would have dismissed it as a boring, predictable romance comic. From the very beginning it’s as certain as James Bond having a fling that Yusaku and Kyoko will hook up in the end. So why anyone would be interested in reading something they know the ending to halfway through the first book of a 15 volume series?

Subtlety. Maison Ikkoku is not a read predicated on suspending the reader as to who will hook up with whom; it’s the ride itself that makes this hilarious romantic comedy such a rewarding read. And once you’ve gotten within two volumes of the end, as the finish line is plainly in sight, Takahashi does her best to throw a wrench, and every tool in the box for that matter, into obtaining your reward. Beyond this suspense, Maison reflects on a series of social ideals which easily transcend cultural differences, something many manga series have difficulty accomplishing should they be exported.

Although the cast has many colorful characters the story revolves around Kyoko Otonashi and Yusaku Godai, taking very few tangents to explore supporting cast members through the entire series. Because these two characters take up so much page space their importance to the story goes beyond slapstick comedy, misunderstood circumstances, and love triangles. In the case of Maison, there’s no end to justify the means; rather it’s the means which justify the end.

Kyoko has been recently widowed and appointed manager of a rundown apartment building owned by her late husband’s family. Kyoko questions her suitability as a wife to any other man, due to being “middle aged”, (although she’s only 22 at the beginning of the story, women 25 and over are viewed as being “over the hill”, it’s nuts), and burdened by the stigma of being a widow. Kyoko’s dilemma is particularly interesting and often seems self inflicted: she is courted by two exceptionally virile men, both of whom show an almost (see comedic sexual tension) unwavering dedication to marrying her. Not to mention she’s drawn, and considered by the entire cast to be the epitome of beauty. With these two factors working in her favor, it seems rather unlikely that a woman who obviously has a desire to build a family, and who is afforded two extremely prominent and stubborn opportunities to fulfill this wish would trip on her own feet to get what she wants.

Since we know Kyoko and Yusaku are destined to be together, and we know Kyoko has a conscious desire to remarry and start a family, why does it take Takahashi 15 volumes worth of story to accomplish this known conclusion?

Once again the answer is subtlety. As we discover, Kyoko’s marriage to Soichiro was based on a fierce independence. During flashback scenes we see Kyoko in high school determined to win the heart of her teacher, and future husband, Soichiro. Kyoko sets her terms, seeks out her love, and conquers his heart. In the case of Yusaku, Kyoko is more mature, and in a much more vulnerable position. Still grieving the loss of her first love her destination is the same as far as she’s concerned, it’s the road that has changed.

Through Kyoko, Takahashi creates a uniquely independent woman whose resolve is fixed on finding love based on her own sensibilities. Thus if the man of her affections does not conform or meet her specific standards, by Kyoko’s own decree that man is unsuitable to be her partner. She knows from the very first volume she has won Yusaku’s love, but a simple decree isn’t enough. In order to win her heart Yusaku must embrace the independence and prove to Kyoko the weight of his intentions beyond words.

Next there’s Yusaku, the series hard luck “hero,” who can’t seem to catch a break in life, and who works the hardest to accomplish his goals. Professing his love very early on in the series, Yusaku is a man driven when it comes to winning Kyoko’s heart. Although his love triangle, quadrilateral, pentagon, and hexagon add romantic tension to the story, despite whatever misunderstandings may occur Yusaku’s commitment to Kyoko creates a gravitational force between both characters and the story itself. The force of this bond is what pushes the story forward: Yusaku is allowed to make mistakes, and takes every opportunity to do so, as long as he is willing to learn and walk away a better man.

Yusaku’s expressions of affection towards Kyoko, aside from his initial declaration of love, are always based on an unconscious understanding of Kyoko’s need for independence. Through all his difficulties expressing himself to Kyoko, Yusaku understands the fragility of his beloved’s heart, and through this understanding he intrinsically knows how to bring her to an ultimate revelation that his love is requited.

But Yusaku is human, and understandably his doubts overtake his true desires leading to comedy as well as romantic tension. His will to succeed has an infallible triumph percentage bringing him back to his senses with even more determination than he had before his stumble. However this course correction can’t happen until Yusaku realizes he can be sincere with himself, at which point his connection to Takahashi’s invisible gravitational force propels him back to Kyoko.

Beyond the subtle drama between Kyoko and Yusaku, the supporting cast of Maison constructs an emotional barrier around the two at odds couple to mock them for their own inward dishonesty (always comedic gold), or to create emotional instability similar to that Yusaku experiences. Regardless of intent the supporting cast, particularly Mr. Yotsuya, is allowed to remain mostly shrouded in mystery. Their intents and individual motivations are generally irrelevant beyond surface level harassment, but all of their interferences come at a time when Yusaku and Kyoko are on the verge of an earnest breakthrough. If anything the meddling of the supporting cast pushes the two awkward lovers closer together and closer to understanding themselves.

Disguised as humor or standard Romantic drama, Maison Ikkoku is a truly wonderful reading experience. There were many times during my latest read through I was willing to dismiss the subtleties between Yusaku and Kyoko because for a story that spans 15 books with little deviation from the main characters, both characters’ indecisiveness and overall foot dragging can make this comic feel like a long, drawn out read. But once the true nature of this relationship starts to sink in their romance transforms into something unexpected, with depth that’s lost in most romance comics. Without the burden of the end consummation being unclear Takahashi opens her characters up and allows them to get where they’re going on their own terms, by their own means. They learn the importance of being earnest, to themselves, and to each other. And trust me; the end will leave you feeling all kinds of fuzzy inside, even if you saw it coming.

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