Monday, April 25, 2011

April MMF: Maison Ikkoku, and the Emotional Core of a Wacky Comedy

SPOILER WARNING! I am writing this under the assumption that most reading have read Maison Ikkoku, so if you have not, you have been warned...

 Ah, the Manga Movable Feast, the only time anyone reads my blog, and sees my own self-deprication. In some ways, I really shouldn't write for this thing, as if I happen to write in a sloppy fashion, my lack of editing will be on display to the whole blog-o-sphere. And yet, I feel an obligation to write this time 'round. This month's MMF is about Rumiko Takahashi. When I started this blog, I wrote three reviews of Takahashi books in a row for what I billed "Rumiko Takahashi Week." When I wrote these, I was not as good at thinking critically as I am now, and looking back on them, I see my writing as a hilariously pretentious, hyperbolic, garbled mess (Ikkoku: human emotion had never been so fully realized in cartoon form!) with criminal overuse of the words "fan" and "best". I feel bad about mistreating the wonderfully zany Rumic World, and this is my attempt to redeem myself, if just a little.

Maison Ikkoku is a comedy. There is no denying that. Rumiko Takahashi writes comedies. Maybe there are some soapy elements to the story of Yusaku Godai's attempts at wooing the beautiful apartment manager Kyoko, but it is first and foremost a comedy. And yet when I first read the series, I took it seriously, too seriously in fact. What it was that made me so invested in a character like Yusaku, who I was originally supposed to pity and/or laugh at? What made Maison Ikkoku so important to me, and to readers in general?

One thing that elevates Maison Ikkoku (which will henceforth by refered to simply as Ikkoku) above the well-meaning fun that comprises her overall catalog is the characters. Takahashi's natural knack for characterization has always been one of her strong points, and in Ikkoku the characters are not only well-defined and interesting, but well-rounded to boot! Not every character is of course, but that's fine. If we saw any other side of Mr. Yotsuya's lecherous lifestyle, would he be as funny? This notwithstanding, many of Ikkoku's major characters are remarkably well fleshed out. For example, Shun Mitaka, Yusaku's rival with a fear of dogs, is initially treated as the "bad" guy whose fear of dogs only serves as a way to give Yusaku a way to "win", but as the series progresses, we realize that he is a far nicer guy than we thought, and deserving of Kyoko's (and the reader's) sympathies. He even got the happy ending he deserved, overcoming his fear of dogs and happily married to a beautiful woman with countless puppies for pets. However, many series have great characters; For example, Naruto. And the heavy emotion resonance the series possesses can't come from the story, which cartwheels from slapstick to sitcom to soap (oh god, THE SOAP!). Did I react like this to Friends? No, because a live-action TV show lacks one thing that a comic book can have, as this one does...

What I allude to here is artwork and panel orientation. Takahashi's artwork has had some serious ups and downs over the course of her career, from its lovable but messy origins to the polished but over screen-toned look of Inuyasha and Rinne, but the artwork in Ikkoku is Takahashi at her strongest. While beginning with that early Takahashi vibe in both story and artwork, the art matures to a certain "hand-drawn" quality. The above two cover images serve as a good example of this. Through these covers, we are shown Kyoko through Yusaku's eyes, a naturally beautiful woman worth the world. This skill is shown in the interior art as well. Chapter 47: The Kissing Scene (in Vol. 5, BTW) is an emotional roller coaster, beginning with a clearly humorous scene where Akemi, drunk, kisses both Yusaku and Kyoko, and moves toward its conclusion, one of my favorite manga sequences of all time, in which only the characters' mouths can be seen.
Maison Ikkoku Manga (v.5, ch.4, p.29)
[Click to view next page or press next or back buttons]
And yet, the emotional gravity of Ikkoku does not come from the artwork, but from what has been called Rumiko Takahashi's greatest failure as a cartoonist. Readers of any of Takahashi's series should know by now that Takahashi does not plan her stories in advance at all beyond the premise. In other Rumik series such as Inuyasha and Ranma 1/2, this caused (for Inu) pacing issues and (for Ranma) lame conclusions. But Ikkoku did not suffer from this, but rather benefited immensely. Without the constraint of "knowing" where the story would go, Takahashi is free to change the direction of the plot and mess with reader's expectations with ease. Like the characters in the story, the author rarely seems fully aware of what will happen next, and because of this, neither does the reader. Unlike many romantic comedies (including Ikkoku, in its anime version), the core romance's success is not set in stone, and there are times when it looks like Yusaku will move on, or Kyoko will reject him, and that would just be life. Kozue is a nice girl anyway, and Yusaku could always end up with her. Of course, he does end up with Kyoko, but by that point, it feels like a genuine victory rather than an inevitable Finale.

Of course, lack of planning can't always be a good thing. For one thing, there's Nozomu, a brief "Mary Sue”, and comedic foil to Mr. Yotsuya, who proceeds to become even less than a Mary Sue, but a complete non-character. And then there is the unfortunate case of Kozue Nanao. Kozue is a bit of a Mary Sue herself, who through sheer niceness, becomes Yusaku’s girlfriend, in a relationship that Yusaku wants to end but can never bring himself too. Like Knives in Scott Pilgrim, a series influenced by Takahashi, Kozue is just too nice for her own good as Yusaku has no feelings for her and cannot end their relationship. However, when the end of the series comes, this is never dealt with. Instead Kozue is proposed to by a man who is unseen in the series. In the final chapter there is a page even showing Kozue saying that she is happy with mystery man, her hubby. It would seem thus that on the subject of Kozue, Yusaku and Takahashi are of the same mind. What do you mean, one might ask. No, that’s too pretentious. What’s the dope yo? you might ask. What the dope not what the dope is. I’ll be pretentious. What I mean is that both seem to think that Kozue is too kindly to hurt. However, by doing this we loose any character development that could have evolved and simply get a “Mary Sue.”

Once again, I must repeat that Maison Ikkoku is a comedy, but not a comedy like Ranma 1/2. Through the lens of humor and drama, we are shown a real world populated by real people with real emotions. Don't take it too seriously, but do keep in mind that Ikkoku is more than just a comedy: it's a smart comedy.

1 comment:

  1. Hi there!

    Thank you for contributing to the Feast!

    I admit I'm not a huge fan of Ikkoku, but I think some of that is the lack of being able to get several volumes to read together at once. I think your comments about Takahashi's characters are spot-on!