I want a medal. Nothing else has ever put me through the wringer like Maison Ikkoku. I've seen anime that had me in tears (Sai's passing in Hikaru no Go) or emotionally traumatised (Rurouni Kenshin: Seisouhen), but here I spent 96 episodes variously drained, moved, horrified, laughing my arse off and cringing in terror. In fairness I should point out that I have a low pain threshold when it comes to embarrassment comedy, so for instance it nearly kills me to watch Fawlty Towers. Nevertheless Maison Ikkoku really got to me.
It's a simple tale, set in the real world with no aliens, demons, crime lords or reincarnated samurai. Godai is a hopeless twonk living in a tumbledown boarding house with three complete bastards when a beautiful new manager, Kyoko Otonashi, moves in. He falls in love with her, but the episode count shows it won't easy to win her heart. His obstacles will include friends, housemates, rivals and misunderstandings, but worst of all is himself. Eventually he matures somewhat, but in the beginning Godai is the world's biggest idiot. The man's crimes against intelligence are legion and almost beyond belief... anyone trying to choose examples faces an embarrassment of riches. This man will make you squirm on your sofa, lunging for the pause button and wanting to die. It's funny, yes, but oh my word. You'll never see grown men acting so childishly in your life... the ice skating episode, oh God, the ice skating episode!
Sometimes he blindsides you with idiocy that no one in the world could have seen coming. At other times (episode 59, gaaaaaah!) you spot the inevitable half an episode away and thus spend ten minutes in hell praying to God and all his angels for Godai to see the danger, please, even he couldn't be that stupid, no no no, I can't take this any more, OH SHIT HE DID IT, kill me now.
Over time the cast grows and we get emotionally involved with them, caring about the most unlikely folks. Kyoko, Godai, Kozue and Asuna are genuinely good people, and not in the contrived way of many shows. Mitaka could have simply been The Love Rival, but there's more to him than that. My personal favourite is Yagami, who's like Nicolo Machiavelli reincarnated as a brazen Japanese schoolgirl. She's one of my all-time favourite anime characters, not because she's sweet or quirky (she's neither), but simply because she's such a live wire. The girl has guts! Yagami even has the courage to give up what she most wants in the world for someone else's sake... she's not around for the whole run, but I wouldn't have been happy if we hadn't at least glimpsed her in the final episode. Unfortunately it is only a glimpse, but apparently the movie (Kanketsuhen, lit. 'The Final Chapter') is set during episode 96 and among other things gives Yagami's arc a better conclusion.
Incidentally Yagami is deliberately painted as a more aggressive next-generation Kyoko, with at least one more similarity between 'em that's probably unintentional. Yagami at the end isn't dissimilar to Kyoko at the beginning, which leads me idly to imagine a variant of the Maison Ikkoku story repeating itself with people we don't know a few years down the line.
The show spans years of fictional time, which is a long time to follow our characters' lives. As they came and went, eventually my brain sprang a leak. I wondered about these people as if they were real, for instance hoping that Kozue was doing okay because we hadn't seen her for a while.
I'd have never wondered about Godai's housemates, though. They're not technically evil and very occasionally they even help, but they're utter bastards. Personally I'll never forgive them just for what they did to Godai in the cabaret. Ichinose is the best of them, genuinely interested in other people despite also being a loud-mouthed drunk who humiliates her son. Akemi wanders around all day in a transparent nightie, teasing Godai and getting drunk. She's lazily poisonous and Godai rightly regards her with exasperated hostility, but on two occasions she makes jokes about eloping with Godai that might have been half-serious. However worst is Yotsuya, a sinister leech with no known source of income who knocks holes in Godai's wall and openly steals his stuff. The three love all-night parties in Godai's room, especially when he has exams the next morning.
The show goes through phases. I got stuck on the early episodes for months, simply because the embarrassment comedy was so sadistic as to be hard to watch. Things settle down as the cast expands and dilutes Godai's genius for landing himself in trouble. We get dramatic stretches, a sudden switch to light comedy for a chunk of the second half and finally a sombre tone as the end draws near. I thought the concluding run of episodes was weak, taking itself too seriously and losing its sense of fun, but some individual scenes were downright beautiful.
It's an emotional roller-coaster, but it's a warm show with old-fashioned animation that's charming though never sexy. Its comic timing can be dazzling and its humour just the gentle warmth of ordinary people having fun. This is a show with heart, just the ticket for anyone feeling jaded from slick but hollow modern shows. No less importantly it's often hilarious!
At a mere 96 episodes this show is a throwaway by the standards of Rumiko Takahashi anime. She's a manga superstar and Japan's richest woman, best known for her blockbuster series. Her other shows include Urusei Yatsura (195 TV episodes, eleven OVAs and six movies), Ranma 1/2 (161 TV episodes, twelve OVAs and three movies) and Inu Yasha (167 episodes and four movies in its first season). Furthermore her manga tend to outlive their television incarnations, so Maison Ikkoku is also unusual in ending properly. Urusei Yatsura's final chapter wasn't animated until the fifth movie, Inu-Yasha went on hiatus to wait for the manga to finish and Ranma 1/2 simply never adapted the end of Ranma and Akane's story at all.
This show also demonstrates the silliness of getting hung up about animated nudity. Akemi's tits are a regular fixture and we glimpse Kyoko's boobs in episode 16, but I can't imagine a more family-friendly show than this. Kyoko's school uniform in episode 37 is more distracting, even though this show's schoolgirls may be the most modestly attired in anime!
Upon finishing the show, I felt almost bereaved. That's not a reflection on the ending, by the way, which takes great pains to be happy. I spent way too much time with these people and they wormed their way inside my heart, putting me through hell on a regular basis even as I kept coming back for more. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to watch some brainless fluff...