Summary: Yusaku Godai hates his life: he lives in a run-down boarding house, his neighbors are all weirdos and drunks who have no greater pleasure than tormenting him, and he’s struggling to pass the entrance examinations of even third-rate colleges. He’s just about ready to move out when a beautiful young woman walks in and introduces herself as Kyoko Otonashi, the new manager. It’s love at first sight for Godai, but the recently-widowed Kyoko is still in mourning for her deceased husband.
Potential Triggers: Nothing major – a lot of discussion of death
Grief is a funny thing. It’s hard for people who have never lost a loved one to understand the roller coaster of emotions. The way it quietly follows you for years only to emerge, full force, when you least expect it. People try to simplify it to make it easier to understand, such as with the “seven stages of grief.” These attempts fail to capture the messiness of such emotions, and how every individual experiences them differently. Rumiko Takahashi’s Maison Ikkoku, a love story about a grieving widow and a penniless student who falls in love with her before she’s ready to move on, portrays that messiness with an unusual degree of sensitivity. The story spans seven years, as Kyoko Otonashi and Yusaku Godai grow to the point where they’re in the right place emotionally for each other.
The beginning of Maison Ikkoku is largely through Godai’s perspective, allowing the reader to get to know Kyoko with Godai. The first couple chapters bear a bit too much resemblance to Takahashi’s previous series Urusei Yatsura for comfort, with the slapstick antics feeling out of place in the more grounded setting. Watching an irredeemable pervert chase women and get his comeuppance may be entertaining when superpowered aliens and advanced technology are involved, but it makes Godai difficult to buy as a romantic hero at first. For example, he stops Kyoko from unwittingly running off the roof, but then grabs her breast. Naturally, she slaps him, but he’s confused: “What kind of woman would strike a man just for touching her?” He remembers how earlier she cried in her sleep and figures, “She must have been being faithful to that Soichiro guy!” He learns the truth a few months later, when the landlord comes to pay a visit and they learn that he is Kyoko’s father-in-law. Godai accompanies them on their outing, due to Mr. Otonashi throwing out his back, and only after he’s lit some incense and said a prayer he learns that he is at the grave of Soichiro Otonashi, Kyoko’s late husband.
It’s never specified how long before the start of the series Soichiro passed away, but it can’t have been more than a few months – this encounter was only the first anniversary of his death. Mr. Otonashi tells Godai, “Less than six months after she came to us as a bride… my son passed away. If he were alive, she might come to see his flaws, but a dead man is perfect. He is the ideal of her heart.” Kyoko can’t imagine moving on at this point, as she tells Ikkoku resident Mrs. Ichinose, “Soichiro isn’t dead for me! It’s just… It’s just too soon.” Later she tells her would-be suitor Coach Mitaka, “I can’t forget– no, I don’t want to forget my late husband. I feel that if I forget about him, Soichiro will really be gone forever.” Kyoko herself is quite young – only 21 when she starts as manager at the Ikkoku – and fell in love with Soichiro when she was still in high school. He has been the center of her world for years now, the only man she could ever imagine loving. She sees preserving his memory as her duty as his widow. Without her this wonderful man, her perfect ideal, would disappear from existence.
As the series continues, Kyoko begins to face more and more pressure to move on before she’s ready. Starting around the second anniversary of Soichiro’s death, Kyoko’s parents – Mr. and Mrs. Chigusa – begin bringing up the subject of remarriage. Mrs. Chigusa is quite manipulative, trying to force Kyoko to quit her job because she thinks managing a building owned by the Otonashi family will keep her daughter tied to his memory. Before she can bring up the subject, however, Mr. Otonashi tells Kyoko he wants her to remove her name from the Otonashi family register. He wants her to be able to start a new life, saying, “In the old days, when a husband died, they would write the name of his widow on his headstone, too… in red ink. To be a widow meant simply to be a wife who wasn’t dead yet. But that’s not the way it is now, is it? It’s not that you’re not dead yet… It’s that you’re alive.” Kyoko declines, responding, ““I understand what he’s saying… on an intellectual level… But until I do decide what to do… I want to keep my husband’s name.” Moving on must be her decision, one she can only make until she’s ready. In fact, the pressure from others is counterproductive. Kyoko is stubborn and contrarian, and all these people talking about remarrying only make her cling to Soichiro’s memory more tightly. Only Godai treats her sympathetically. When Mitaka, Kyoko’s handsome tennis coach suitor, hears about what has been going on with her family, he too encourages her to remarry – largely because he wants to marry her himself. Godai replies, “Look… Nobody’s taking Kyoko’s feelings into consideration at all, here! She’s not doing this just to annoy her parents, you know! Kyoko is… She’s… S-she’s s-still in l-l-love with her late husband… So… so there’s no point in everyone telling her what to do, okay?” It’s difficult for him to say, because to do so, he must accept that Kyoko is out of his reach until she’s ready. No amount of courting of her will change that.
Life does move on for Kyoko. The run down Ikkoku requires a lot of maintenance, and her tenants need a lot of managing. She has tennis lessons and dates with Mitaka and a social life of her own. As time goes on, her feelings for Soichiro drift to the back of her mind. On the fourth anniversary of his death, Kyoko is so preoccupied waiting for her parents to start nagging her about remarriage that she forgets to talk to Soichiro. She only realizes she’s forgotten when Mrs. Ichinose asks what she spoke to him about. She returns to the grave alone, albeit unknowingly accompanied by Godai, who’s worried she plans to commit suicide, to talk to him on her own. Alone, she can express her feelings of guilt about her shifting priorities and feelings. She admits that she rarely cries anymore unless she purposefully digs up painful memories, and she’s not sure whether that’s a good thing. Tearfully, she asks her departed husband, “S-S-Soichiro… why did you have to die? If you had lived… I would never have had to feel this way…” and asks him for his forgiveness. Those who knew Soichiro in life describe him as a gentle, carefree soul – there’s little doubt he would have forgiven her and wanted her to move on with her life. Regardless, how Soichiro would have felt doesn’t matter – it’s Kyoko’s actual feelings that do.
Moving on is especially confusing for the inflexible, single-minded Kyoko as she grows closer and closer to Godai. One of the factors that forces her to confront her feelings is the teenaged Ibuki Yagami, who falls in love with Godai and aggressively pursues him. Although Ibuki is never seriously treated as a romantic prospect, which would be wildly inappropriate, her forthright nature plays foil to Kyoko’s reluctance to move forward. Ibuki attends a Christmas party held for the Ikkoku residents at the Chachamaru bar and confronts Kyoko, who bought Godai a sweater but is reluctant to give it to him in front of others. Kyoko, her boundaries lowered by alcohol, tells her, ““I’m not afraid of getting my heart broken. I’m afraid that everything will just turn out to have been… a lie…” and, ““You’re a lucky girl, Yagami, to have only loved one man so far.” There are many parallels between Kyoko and Ibuki – both attended the same all-girls’ high school and fell in love with student teachers. Kyoko married the teacher she fell for, but now is at a different part of her life. To have only ever been in love once means never questioning the purity or strength of that love; it never calls into question the reality of a previous love. Kyoko married her first love and expected him to be her only love, and falling in love again has destabilized her. As Kyoko’s former homeroom teacher tells Ibuki, “She’s always been so earnest and inflexible, and she loved her husband so deeply… As complex as life can be, she’s always wanted to believe that there’s only one right way. In her eyes, falling for someone new would probably mean that her love for her husband was all a lie…”
In the end, reconciling her memories of Soichiro and her growing love for Godai is the final obstacle for their relationship. Much of the series has always been predicated on comedic misunderstandings, but in the final chapters, Kyoko’s reactions become increasingly intense, even physically striking Godai on a couple occasions. When Kozue, Godai’s long-time casual girlfriend, mistakenly assumes he’s planning to propose to her, Kyoko slaps him and leaves the Ikkoku for her parents’ home. Godai stops by every day, hoping she’ll let him explain herself to him, and leaves when her mother tells him she isn’t ready to listen. With him preparing to take his childcare licensing exam and Mitaka having married another woman, Kyoko is running out of excuses to put Godai off. This frightens her – last time she fell in love, it ended tragically and caused her years of pain. There’s no question that she loves Godai, and has for some time, but they’re finally both in a place where a real relationship is feasible. He’s grown from a penniless, unreliable boy to a man taking the final steps toward his career. Kyoko tries to hold onto her image of him as a thoughtless, horny adolescent and always assumes the worst of him. When Kyoko finds out Godai and fellow resident Akemi were seen leaving a love hotel together (he paid her bill after her date ran out on her), she says, “I understand. That’s all I want to know. I just hope you’re paying her as much as she deserves!” Akemi, frustrated with Kyoko’s histrionics, says, “Crying and carrying on over a guy you won’t even let hold your hand. What’s wrong with you? You think I’m so desperate I’d bother to steal a man from a neurotic twit like you? Grow up!”
Kyoko flees the Chachamaru, angry and ashamed, but Godai catches up with her. He shields her body with his on the crowded train, and she thinks, “I mean… I know I’m pretty distrustful but… But it can’t be helped… There’s… there’s really nothing between us. Maybe… If I weren’t so uptight… if we felt our bodies together… we wouldn’t have to be so tense…” They confront each other about the wall between them, how their misunderstandings could easily be cleared up just by talking. The two end up in a love hotel. It’s awkward – the panels are composed around awkward angles, emphasizing the space between them. Neither are comfortable with the situation as Kyoko, unsmiling, showers in anticipation of sex. As the two climb into bed, Kyoko thinks of the dog she left at Maison Ikkoku and murmurs, “Soichiro…” Godai thinks she’s referring to her late husband, and the encounter ends unsatisfyingly. As she goes home, Kyoko thinks, “Yusaku… don’t tell me it was Soichiro you were thinking about? But why? I wanted you to forget about him. I wanted you to make me forget about him. Why?” For the entire series, Godai imagines himself causing Kyoko to forget about Soichiro. He’s obsessed with finding out more about him and suffers a serious inferiority complex. But the idea of making Kyoko forget about Soichiro is misguided to say the least, and long as the two expect that to happen, they will never be able to connect. When they meet back at the Ikkoku, things are still awkward. For the first time, however, they stop and talk about what happened before jumping to any conclusions or reacting angrily. They discuss the specter of Soichiro hanging over their relationship, and Kyoko tells Godai, “It may never be possible to erase Soichiro’s memory from your mind or mine… because he did exist… and I… I did love him more than anyone in the world… There was a time I could only see Soichiro… and chase after Soichiro… and fill my heart with Soichiro…” Godai says he still feels insecure, and may never really feel secure. It’s hard for him, to feel compared to a man who Kyoko loved so deeply and fully. She loved him at a simpler time in her life, when she wasn’t as fully aware of the complexities of life or the messiness of emotions. But, if he has a constant inferiority complex, they can never be happy together. She says, “Do I have to beg, ‘Please make love to me?’ to make you feel secure?” He apologizes and embraces her. Finally, by communicating and accepting that Soichiro will always be a part of Kyoko, and that Godai can be just as important to her in a different phase in her life, the two can connect, physically and emotionally.
Grief is a long, slow process. Kyoko is 21 years old in the beginning of the manga, and 27 by the conclusion. Takahashi masterfully presents it in a way that feels natural and, even more importantly, respectful; Kyoko is a woman with many flaws, but her sadness is not one. Moving on isn’t a matter of compartmentalizing or forgetting. It’s about acceptance and the readiness to move forward instead of looking backward. Godai, in the penultimate chapter, visits Soichiro’s grave and sums it up perfectly: “I have to admit, Mr. Otonashi, I really envy you. Even if she does return all her mementoes, I don’t think Kyoko will ever forget you. I guess I mean… she can’t just forget you… Because you’re a part of her soul now. But, I can’t resent you. You’ve been a part of her since the first day I met her, and I still fell in love with her. I’m taking you into my life too. As part of her.” Kyoko will always carry the baggage of her first love – she tearfully asks Godai to promise to outlive her, even if it’s by one day – but now the present and the past can peacefully coexist.