Rumiko Takahashi has been made a world-famous mangaka for iconic works such as Urusei Yatsura, Ranma ½ and Inuyasha. But while these series have very dedicated fanbases around the globe, few tend to name any of them as her masterpiece. Instead, Takahashi fans consistently give that honor to her lesser-known work, Maison Ikkoku, a 1980s seinen manga series that depicts the romantic journey between protagonist Yusaku Godai and his building manager, Kyoko Otonashi.
What makes Maison Ikkoku stand out from Takahashi’s more iconic hits? For starters, it tells a more grounded coming-of-age story with a clear beginning, middle and end. This is surprising as Takahashi is known for a more "make it up as you go along" writing style, incorporating elements of Japanese mythology and fantasy into most of her works. However, Maison Ikkoku's protagonists and supporting cast are mostly adults dealing with real-world problems, allowing the story to explore more grounded themes related to classism and sexism in a more realistic way.
Maison Ikkoku protagonist Yusaku Godai is a 19-year-old ronin retaking entrance exams to get into university. That's not the only hurdle he faces, however -- which university he gets into will also determine his career prospects. In Japan, students who graduate from first and even second-tier universities have more career opportunities compared to those who graduate from third-tier universities. Godai is only able to get into a third-tier school after he manages to pass one entrance exam. While he gets his foot in the door, his university of choice still creates limits for him. This establishes another important detail about Godai's character: he comes from a working-class family.
Despite Godai's parents being restaurant owners in Niigata (which is also Takahashi's hometown), Godai is barely able to live in an expensive city like Tokyo on his parents' budget. His monthly allowance is only enough to cover his rent in the dilapidated boarding house known as Maison Ikkoku and other essentials like groceries. To cover additional expenses, Godai works various temporary jobs but still earns just enough to scrape by. Too often, he has to prioritize what he can spend money on and is very conscious about overspending on things he doesn't actually need. The only time he's willing to make an exception is when he buys expensive gifts for his love interest, Kyoko Otonashi -- who is also his building manager.
Kyoko is the other protagonist of Maison Ikkoku. Though she comes from a middle-class family where her father works as a salaryman, Kyoko is in a similar place to Godai in terms of future prospects. Having married upon graduating high school, Kyoko skipped the milestone of pursuing higher education and a career in favor of becoming a housewife. All was fine for the first six months until her husband, Soichiro Otonashi, inexplicably passed away.
This leaves Kyoko needing to figure out what to do next with her life, as she can't keep living on her in-laws' hospitality. She also can't return home to her own family -- they were unsupportive of her marriage and even less likely to offer her support in a time of grief. In the end, she decides to become the new building manager of Maison Ikkoku, a property her father-in-law owns.
In contrast with Godai, whose character arc explores classism themes, Kyoko's arc deals more strongly with themes related to sexism. As a 22-year-old woman living in 1980s Japan, Kyoko is caught between wanting to live life on her own terms and feeling pressured by her mother to find a new husband. This is a major source of conflict between Kyoko and her parents as they strongly feel her widowhood and "compromised" sexual purity make her less desirable to potential young suitors. Things get even more complicated when Kyoko's wealthy tennis coach, Shun Mitaka, expresses a desire to marry her, which causes her mother to underhandedly try and force an engagement between them. With such a profound lack of respect for her personal boundaries, Kyoko understandably prefers to keep her parents at arms' length.
Godai and Kyoko's storylines converge when both characters find themselves living under the same roof as a tenant and building manager respectively. Godai instantly falls in love with Kyoko and becomes newly motivated to pursue higher education and a career that will allow him to support a family. As he matures throughout the manga, Godai is less concerned with becoming a salaryman and decides to pursue a career as a pre-school teacher -- an occupation predominated by women. He learns the skills he needs to become a successful father and husband but also discovers his own worth as a man independent of gender norms.
Kyoko similarly heals from the grief of losing her husband and learns to love Godai for the person he is. Unlike Mitaka, who treats her as a person who needs rescuing, Kyoko is more receptive to Godai's affections due to his respect for her boundaries. He gives her the space she needs to process Soichiro's passing, but also the time to become emotionally available again. This allows Kyoko to decide to marry Godai entirely of her own volition -- without sacrificing the life she enjoys as Maison Ikkoku's building manager.
With everything Maison Ikkoku has going in its favor, it's easy to see why it's considered Rumiko Takahashi's masterpiece above her more iconic works. The story depicts themes such as classism and sexism in realistic ways and provides the tools for meaningful character development. Maison Ikkoku is a more focused series presented with a clear beginning, middle and end, which breaks the pattern of Takahashi's longer-running series.