As you may have noticed, there are an awful lot of romantic manga series available in the UK. Therefore the addition of another to a crowded genre that already features decent series like Love Hina, Chobits, Kare Kano and Fruits Basket probably won't raise too many eyebrows. However, the fact that Maison Ikkoku comes from the pen of Rumiko Takahashi - the most successful female manga author of all time - should be enough cause to sit up and take notice.
Rumiko Takahashi is famous for a succession of anarchic romantic comedies and the epic fantasy Inu-Yasha, but Maison Ikkoku sees her take on a more straightforward love story.
Yusaku Godai is a a failing college student who has come to the end of his tether. He desperately needs to pass his exams but studying is nearly impossible in the apartment building he lives in - the titular Maison Ikkoku - because of the antics of the other residents. Just when the teasing of alcoholic housewife Mrs Ichinose, brazen waitress Akemi and pervy neighbour Yotsuya have reached the point where Godai is on the verge of leaving for good, a reason for him to stay arrives in the shapely form of new apartment manager Kyoko Otonashi. Godai instantly falls for the stunning Kyoko but wooing her is not going to be easy. Firstly there are the neighbours, who seem to enjoy embarrassing him and making his life difficult, secondly there are his exams, which he needs to pass, thirdly there is a rival for her affections - playboy tennis coach Shun Mitaka - and finally there is the fact that she is a widow. Kyoko's husband passed away shortly after they married and she is not sure of her own feelings, how can Godai compete with a man who is immortalised in death as the perfect husband Kyoko married?
Many romantic comedies follow similar paths, and to start with Maison Ikkoku seems no different. As usual the main character is a failing student who feels that passing is the key that will unlock the heart of the woman he loves, but unusually it quickly veers away from type. The first sign of this is that there is only one love interest, rather than a 'harem' of female admirers like in Love Hina or Tenchi Muyo, but most obvious is the fact that Godai passes his exams about midway through volume 1 of a 15 volume series. This means that the series has to create fresh obstacles and challenges for the characters and also that some more thought may be needed than normal.
Compared to most of the romantic comedy series I have read Maison Ikkoku refreshingly takes a mostly realistic approach to an interesting romance. There are no aliens or demons, no genius inventors or martial arts, just two people with realistic feelings who are trying to find their way through their respective problems. Takahashi is a master of characterisation and all of the characters in Maison Ikkoku vol 1 are superb, particularly Yotsuya and the shameless Akemi, and it's nice to see that Godai and Kyoko are very likeable characters. Unlike many of Takahashi's male leads (such as the arrogant Ranma Saotome from Ranma 1/2 or the lecherous Ataru Moroboshi from Urusei Yatsura) Godai is a nice guy, and someone who strives to better himself for the one he loves. He realises his shortcomings and tries to overcome them, whilst Kyoko struggles with her true feelings and how she thinks a widow should feel and act.
Despite the superb characters and interesting premise this book does fall short of greatness though. For one thing it was created in the 1980's, and it the big chunky jumpers and strange fashions the characters sport do date it quite badly. However, the main problem is that it does seem to be very straightforward and predictable at first, with Kyoko seemingly falling for Godai and a relationship between the two looking like it's just around the corner. Thankfully though Takahashi is a bit too canny for that and throws in a rival for Kyoko's affections in the form of tennis coach Shun Mitaka, which serves to revitalise proceedings just as the story was falling into a rut. Mitaka is everything Godai is not - he's handsome, he's a bit of a ladykiller, he's reliable, he's older and he has a steady job - so it will be interesting to see how Godai will be able to compete with him over the rest of the series. There is still a lot left unsaid about all of the characters' pasts too, leaving plenty of room for further character exploration, and it will be interesting to see how all of them will grow and change as the story progresses.
Maison Ikkoku vol 1 is an enjoyable book, but despite some great characters and some flashes of brilliance in the dialogue and story it doesn't quite manage to elevate itself from good to great. It does have a good streak of humour running through it - mostly coming from the decidedly unladylike Akemi - but it is only near the end of the volume that the foundations of the interesting story it will no doubt become start to build. At the moment it is certainly a fun and easy read which goes against type and raises some interesting questions, but it's not quite an essential purchase. However, there is a lot to like and for £5 you can't really go wrong as I'm sure that there are some great things to come in future volumes.
Not much - a short biography of Rumiko Takahashi and a Gollancz survey, plus a few blank pages.