Graphic Delight

Japanese Comics Artist Rumiko Takahashi

by Edward Kim

When I told one of my anime-loving friends that I wanted to review Rumiko Takahashi's work, he said, "No, don't. You're going to look like a fool." I wasn't exactly sure what he meant by that; maybe it was because at the time I'd only had minimal exposure to manga (Japanese comics), and he thought I was sure to get things wrong. Or maybe -- just maybe -- he wanted to hoard this Takahashi person to himself, make her a well-kept secret.

I first came across Rumiko Takahashi on a plane ride from New York to Austin. I was wading through Gaddis' The Recognitions (or something of that nature) while my brother seated next to me was laughing his head off reading this goddamn graphic novel. This thing was producing more laughs-per-minute than Airplane! Being the ascetic that I was, I restrained myself from indulging in any of this brain candy, and instead went to sleep. A few days later, I noticed that my brother had pushed this Takahashi comic onto one of our low-affect friends, a guy who is basically a human Eeyore. Within minutes, our friend was hee-hawing like a slap-happy donkey on nitrous.

I was amazed. I'd never seen anything in a book format with that effect on people. I started to get scared -- could Rumiko Takahashi be the end-all and be-all of humorous literature? I had to find out, so I dove headfirst into the Maison Ikkoku series, failing to maintain an objective viewpoint because I was too busy blowing whatever I was drinking out my nose. Before I knew it, I had finished the first book and was experiencing withdrawal symptoms, angry for another fix. This stuff was more addicting than crack.

According to her graphic novels, Rumiko Takahashi is "one of the most popular female comic artists in the world." According to my anime-loving friend, she's also one of the richest women in Japan. Neither of these aspects come as a big surprise, given the highly exhilarating, highly satisfying nature of her work. She's done several long-running series in Japan which are just now being translated and released in America, including Maisson Ikkoku Vols. 1 and 2 (Viz, $16.95 each, paper), Ranma 1/2 Vols. 1-4 (Viz $15.95 each, paper), and Lum * Urusei Yatsura (Viz, $19.95, paper) and The Return of Lum (Viz, $15.95, paper).

While all three titles share the same brand of slapstick comedy and over-the-top wackiness, Maisson Ikkoku stands out as the most fully realized and fully human. The story revolves around Yusaku, a college student, and his desperate love for his apartment manager, the beautiful and penis-teasing Kyoko. Yusaku wants to do the nasty, but Kyoko's not ready to give it up because of the recent death of her husband. And so we bear delightful witness to the ups and downs of their pseudo-romance, which basically involves a lot of misunderstandings, some embarrassing moments, and the occasional close-quarter contact. There's also a nice supporting cast: other strange tenants of the apartment, a tennis coach competing for Kyoko's attention, and a girl who essentially wants to marry Yusaku.

Takahashi has an incredible talent for taking these familiar situations and stuffing them full of humor and emotion. While Maisson Ikkoku is more grounded in reality, the series Ranma 1/2 (for which Takahashi is probably best known) takes off into a more magical world where just about anything is possible. Here, we follow the adventures of Ranma, a boy who, when splashed with cold water, turns into a girl. His father suffers from the same curse, except that cold water turns him into a giant panda. As if this weren't enough, Ranma is fixed to marry the hot-tempered Akane, a tomboy who'd rather beat Ranma up than bear his children. Together, they experience the requisite love spats and sex changes, Takahashi-style. This means when they have at it, they really have at it, launching each other up hundreds of feet in the air with a well-placed kick.

The thing about Ranma 1/2, though, is that whenever Takahashi exhausts all the possible situations with the existing characters, she'll just throw a new one into the mix -- say, an arch-enemy from Ranma's past, or some guy who's got his heart set on Akane. No doubt, Takahashi has the ability to keep the story lively and entertaining but you begin to wonder if any forward progress is being made. You can also see this happening in Maisson Ikkoku; it seems to be a kind of Takahashi paradigm and can go on ad infinitum.

Finally, there's the series Lum * Urusei Yatsura -- one of Takahashi's earliest works -- about a bikini-clad alien named Lum whose general purpose is to smother Ataru, a drooling, sex-craving maniac, with her intergalactic love. Unfortunately, it's a strange case of unrequited love, since Ataru has got his gonads locked on every female within a 10-foot radius of him, and could care less about the space creature.

It's obvious, two or three chapters into the first Lum collection, that Takahashi didn't plan this series much farther than the current episode she was working on, given the disjointedness of the series as a whole. She'll leave the world in a state of apocalypse at the end of one chapter, and then everything'll be picture perfect in the next, no explanation offered. Of course, this could be the fault of the Viz, the American distributor, which tends to omit certain original chapters for the sake of attracting a general audience. But if Takahashi just didn't care, and was trying to raise the silliness factor to unheard-of heights, she sacrificed some believability in her characters as a result. Either way, this series will still have you laughing mindlessly. You'll be hard-pressed to find a sexier alien than Lum.

Rumiko Takahashi has created a set of characters so recognizable, so unforgettable, so endearing, that she goes unrivaled among anything I've read in comic book form. (She makes Maus seem like a collection of mere rodents.) There are animated versions of Takahashi's series on video, but I would recommend reading manga first; so you can set your own pace, and not have to punish yourself with childish screaming and horrible English voice-overs.

I showed this article, by the way, to my anime-loving friend. "Pretty good review," he said. "But you still look like a fool." n

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