Maison Ikkoku is a run down old apartment building, notorious for its wild tenants. This makes it the worst place possible for someone studying to pass college entrance exams, and a big part of why Godai wants to move out. However just as he is about to exit the apartment for good, the beautiful new apartment manager steps through the door. Maybe he could stick it out after all.
It doesn't take long for Godai to fall in love with Kyoko. As a guy who doesn't have much going for him, and lacking willpower; trying to progress the relationship is going to be tough. Godai will also have to overcome Kyoko's past, a rival, and a never ending stream of misunderstandings. There's also the other residents of Maison Ikkoku who enjoy making Godai's life as complicated as possible.
Some history first. Maison Ikkoku was an instant classic which became iconic in the anime / manga world. In Japan. The tale in America turned into a mess of bad timing. Anime first broke into American markets billed as "extreme cartoons". It wasn't until the mid to late 90's that the industry (and market) had reached the maturity to accept an anime that didn't involve fantasy, giant robots, or tentacles. Even so, at 96 episodes no one wanted to risk licencing something already a decade old. Particularly with A.D.D. anime fans who can rarely look past the next shiny new anime released that year. This is also why traditional fan subs never got that far with it either. Viz finally had the guts to give it a go in the mid 90s, but stopped around episode 30. In 2002 (series being 16 years old mind you) Viz gave it another shot and the releases came slowly but surely. Then not long after the final volume was released, it went out of print. This makes the end episodes very difficult (or expensive) to find. That's why there isn't as much buzz as you would expect for such an anime romance masterpiece. It's hard to find, so word of mouth hasn't done much for this series.
Long review ahead (it's a long show)
The key word for Maison Ikkoku is patience. The story is sometimes called a slow moving romance, but honestly it rarely moves at all. Many times it looks like something has been accomplished, but for most of the show the romance is effectively frozen. That doesn't mean it's not enjoyable to watch, but you will have to forgive the show for not progressing the romance between two people who obviously have a thing for each other by the end of episode two. Maison Ikkoku doesn't try to string you along, but it doesn't always "go somewhere" either. The journey is the thoughtful subtle approach.
Kyoko - She's the center point of the show, thus the success of Maison Ikkoku hinges on the strength of her character. Kyoko is a sweetheart who is hard not to adore. Her kind gentle nature is a benchmark characters are still compared with even today. She's cute when teased, and has an aura of flaming awesomeness when jealous / pissed. She's also stubborn (and slightly dense) which is how the story plays out the way it does. This part of her I found frustrating in ways, but on the other hand it's a part of what makes her character special - especially in her devotion to her dead husband.
Godai - Much like Kyoko invents drama through stubbornness, Godai creates just as much through gutlessness. In many anime titles, the male lead is just a place holder. Godai has a personality and is a guy I really liked. He's wacky and spaced out. He's somewhat chivalrous, but not above checking out Kyoko's ass when she's bent over. Aside from the romance, his story is one of perseverance. No one other than Kyoko and the Cabaret Manager ever really supports him, thinks he'll make anything of himself or thinks he'll succeed. Even with his lack of confidence and everything stacked against him, he still comes out on top at the end. I really liked that.
Mitaka - He's Godai's rival for something like 90 episodes! While at first he seems like the smooth talking ladies man, Mitaka is a very interesting rival. You see, he's actually a really good guy. It's true he's pushy, but his feelings are sincere and he is determined to wait as long as it takes to win Kyoko over. Despite Godai being her "destined love", if she ended up with Mitaka it would probably be a happy ending as well. At the end Mitaka is set up and trapped in an engagement that seems like an unhappy route. But then a simple dialog with Asuna makes you feel good about how things went for him.
Ibuki - Kozue was the girl who first took an interest in Godai, and the only real dud character in the show. About mid way through Maison Ikkoku stalled REALLY bad... until Godai meets Ibuki. In a fascinating turn of events, Godai meeting Ibuki parallels how Kyoko met her late husband. Yet Ibuki is extremely aggressive and it really livens up the show. While it seems like a simple crush, her feelings are sincere. Her antics made her my favorite person in the show.
Others - the other residents at Maison Ikkoku I've grouped together, but individually they all serve a purpose. They often play the part of "noisy neighbors" but are well crafted to move the story forward at key points - particularly Akimi who gets really catty towards Kyoko at times. Due to the personalities of Kyoko and Godai keeping things at a standstill, it's often the mischief of the residents that moves it again (in entertaining ways). This creates a pretty good balance between the two.
As for the story, I'll be frank: it stalls in places and filler episodes don't help. In the beginning the formula has plenty of charm but it can get old. I found this worst at 40ish episodes in, where the relationship felt like gridlock. At episode 50 or so, Ibuki shows up to save the day and things improve quite a bit. Even then there'd be times I'd feel my interest waning. Mind you that this is only sometimes, and the majority (say 70%) I really liked.
The thing I like most about Maison Ikkoku are the quiet moments. These days shows feel obligated to use sound effects, dialog or some visual cue to draw attention to things. This show doesn't require that kind of crutch. When Maison Ikkoku has a quiet pause, it's fully confident you can understand what that gesture means between two hearts in love, and it doesn't need gimmicks to stand on. I really loved that.
Last but not least, there's the ending. It's the general formula these days to "go out with a bang", but whatever happened to properly concluding things? When you build up such a big story, it only makes sense that it should conclude with an equal amount of care used to construct the story. At 12 episodes left, Maison Ikkoku starts to conspicuously tie up loose ends and many characters have their part of story brought to a close.
Criticisms? The dub is weak, but it's also hard to live up to the outstanding Japanese cast - especially the performance by Sumi Shimamoto as Kyoko. Viz had issues with sales, so before the licence expired they pushed it out the door, and washed their hands of it - going out of print soon after. This makes it really hard (or expensive) to find later episodes. I wouldn't say the show is dated, but changes in anime are pretty obvious when comparing Maison Ikkoku's subdued approach with modern overzealous romance / comedy formulas. If you're not into classic anime titles, this anime may not hold your attention.
Maison Ikkoku is an entertaining love story, but love isn't just something that happens. It's something which develops, and characters question what it means to them. Few titles really delve into love itself, and I think that sincerity is part of what makes Maison Ikkoku special. It's a long journey at 96 episodes, and certainly not perfect end to end either. Even though I love this show, I have to admit it tested my patience at times, but coming out of those slumps was always something worthwhile.
Highly recommended as an anime classic... if you can get your hands on it :-/
Godai: Never trust a guy with teeth that sparkle like that.
Boss: If you're the one who left her, don't ever go back. Keep running until she begs you to come back. In a relationship you lose if you go back to her. Run and keep running.
Godai: And what if she never comes after you?
Boss: Dumbass. That's when you run back to her and get on your knees. Women are simple. They like stuff like that.
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