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Maison Ikkoku and Displaced Nostalgia

Brian Ruh

The Japanese TV program Maison Ikkoku generates an elegiac feeling of home. Watching the show creates an odd disjuncture for Ruh -- leaving him feeling nostalgic for something he has never known.

I don't have a very clear memory of '86; after all, I was only nine years old, then. I have an astoundingly vivid recollection of the chilly day in late January when I came home and my mom told me that the Challenger shuttle had been lost. However, my other two memories of that year are probably more indicative of my mindset at the time. These two events that loomed so large in my life were my forays to the movie theatre to see Top Gun and Transformers: The Movie (both released in 1986).

I had long wanted to be an Air Force pilot, but watching Top Gun made me reconsider my career plans. Here was a cool, suave, airborne ace who was a pilot for the Navy. I thought that this was perhaps the life for me. All this changed when I discovered that my eyesight probably would not allow me to become a pilot, and it changed even more when I grew away from an ideology that would have led me to a military life.

As a young boy growing up in the '80s, I was enchanted by the robot toys and cartoons that were (unbeknownst to me) coming out of Japan. I had watched every episode of the Transformers television program, and was thrilled when the movie came out. I had many of the toys that were in that movie, and I played with them regularly. My first vinyl record was the soundtrack to Transformers: The Movie, which I received as a Christmas present later that year.

Nineteen eighty-six was the year that the television program, Maison Ikkoku, began airing in Japan. Based on a manga by Rumiko Takahashi, the show was about a young college student named Godai and his day-to-day life in a run-down boarding house called Maison Ikkoku. The main story arc involved Godai's love for Kyoko, the young widow who became the new manager of the boarding house in the first episode of the series. However, through the show's 96-episode run, there was also plenty of time to develop rival love interests as well as examine the backgrounds of the house's other wacky tenants.

Maison Ikkoku has long been a favorite of anime fans in the US because they can connect with it on both exotic and familiar levels. By depicting the culture of daily life that existed in Japan in the mid-'80s, Maison Ikkoku presented a world so different from the lives of American fans that the show was worth watching to see how an "everyman" such as Godai lived and interacted with others. This accounts for the high incidence of Maison Ikkoku references in Gilles Poitras's book The Anime Companion: What's Japanese in Japanese Animation? (Stonebridge Press, 1999). On the other hand, though Maison Ikkoku presented feelings of love and longing (as well as some highly comedic moments) that transcended the specificity of Japanese culture. Watching Maison Ikkoku was to be both learning and entertained; it was a potent mix of cultural education and love story.

As mentioned above, I barely remember '86. I didn't see Maison Ikkoku for the first time until I began attending the anime club meetings at Purdue in the mid-'90s. Whenever I watch Maison Ikkoku now, though, I get the same feeling of nostalgia that I get when I watch Transformers: The Movie (which I now own on DVD. My old Betamax copy of Top Gun, however, is long since lost to the ages.) This onset of nostalgia is an odd feeling. On the one hand I must be associating my viewing of Maison Ikkoku during my college days and memories of meeting and courting the love of my life. (Not to completely spoil the ending, but the relationships of both Godai and myself ended in marriage.) On the other hand, I am feeling nostalgic for the world of Maison Ikkoku, for the Japan of the '80s, a world I never knew firsthand and have only experienced through media abstractions.

In her book Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke (Palgrave, 2001), Susan J. Napier identifies three main modes through which Japanese animation works: the apocalyptic, the carnivalesque, and the elegiac. These modes are not discrete, thematic markers, but instead combine and overlap to identify the main tones in anime. Maison Ikkoku certainly falls into the elegiac category, and it preserves a measure of the carnivalesque as well.

A major concept in Japanese culture, and of particular importance in the elegiac mode of anime, is that of the furusato. While the word can be translated as "hometown", it has taken on a much more powerful symbolic resonance. A furusato is one's spiritually grounded home, a physical place in tune with nature and the seasons. However, the need for an idea like furusato marks this home as something apart from one's everyday existence; anthropologist Marilyn Ivy says that the use of a term like furusato is indicative of a "fundamental alienation" from one's idea of home.

In Anime from Akira, Napier quotes anime director Mamoru Oshii as saying that perhaps Japanese animators have no furusato. Napier theorizes that in saying this, Oshii is rejecting the idea of Japan's cultural uniqueness. In a sense, the elegiac mode in anime can be seen as a way of both mourning the loss of one's stable furusato as well as the creation of a new homeland through and in the animated work itself. One obvious example of this is Isao Takahata's film Only Yesterday (Omohide Poro Poro, 1991). The film chronicles the adventure of a young woman from the city who goes off to the Japanese countryside so see what such a life is like. While there, the woman reminisces about life when she was younger and eventually falls in love with an idealistic farmer. She eventually decides not to return to her job in the city and stay and marry him. While this film is the most obvious representation of this loss and longing, it is far from the only example. Even films like Oshii's Patlabor 2 (1993), ostensibly a film about police robots fighting off a terrorist attack, have an elegiac bent to them. (Although in Oshii's case, his furusato seems to be a thoroughly urbanized one, which could explain his statement, above.)

The feeling of nostalgia I experience when watching Maison Ikkoku is then perfectly understandable; in fact, nostalgia is built into the very fabric of the show itself. Even though the story takes place almost entirely within the city, images of nature are invoked throughout, sometimes in lovingly lyrical shots of falling leaves or flowers dancing in the wind. Maison Ikkoku takes the time to build slower, more contemplative moments into the story, evoking feelings of attachment. Of course, the images onscreen aren't "real" in the same way that a live-action show is real, but that is of little concern. Maison Ikkoku is not trying to be representational, but rather IT tries to generate an elegiac feeling of home. For me, however, watching the show creates an odd disjuncture � I am feeling nostalgic for something I have never known.

Sarah, my wife, says she remembers me telling her about Maison Ikkoku shortly after I began going to the anime club screenings. I apparently told her how I identified with the story of the earnest yet bumbling Godai, and how I couldn't help but cheer on the poor student in his quest for his love. Now that the series is being released in the US on DVD, we are buying the discs and watching them together, savoring the story.

This tale could easily have gone another route. I could have written about the commodification of sentiment in Maison Ikkoku. I could have written about how watching the series in the US is the consumption of a simulacrum of life, and that by trading on such images an idealized and exoticized image of Japan is produced and propagated. These are all valid points. But that's not how I'm choosing to read the series, at this moment. For me, Maison Ikkoku is a way of re-envisioning dreams of the future while watching the past.

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