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Analysis: Maison Ikkoku

Maison Ikkoku and the Nice Guy

Most people who have read any analysis on dating and gender relations in the modern era have come across the concept of the so-called Nice Guy: the man who interacts with women through a mixture of passive-agressiveness, lack of confidence, and subtle condescension, and then blames his lack of a relationship on the notion that 'girls don't want to date guys who are nice, they're only interested in dating jerks'. By itself, this characterization can be quite insightful; you aren't any less of a user if you're acting selfishly by indirect rather than direct means. Unfortunately, too many people have read it as an attack on the quality of niceness itself: I've seen quite a few internet commenters saying something along the lines of 'I used to be a Nice Guy, and then I realized what I was doing and worked to become an arrogant asshole instead,' which is just missing the point entirely. Even if this extreme is avoided, it's easy to see 'niceness' as a bad word and neglect the fact that the avoidance of conflict and passivity of a Nice Guy might, in a more mature person, be transformed into a genine desire for the best for others (just as an adolescent cockiness might turn into true self-confidence and assertiveness some years later.)

Which is why the depiction of relationships in Maison Ikkoku is so insightful. Godai starts the series as an indisputable Nice Guy — spineless to the point of being completely unable to stand up for himself, running away from his problems, and generally being mediocre. His attraction to Kyoko at first is similarly one-sided: his 'love at first sight' behavior basically boils down to him thinking Kyoko is hot rather than getting to know her as a person, and he goes back and forth between planning extravagent gestures to win her over (which have nothing to do with what she would actually like) and then being too scared to carry them out. When he finds out things about Kyoko's past, he relates them to himself, rather than to her; her being a widow is perceived as her having attachments to her former husband that keep her from becoming interested in him. On the off-moments that he does try to assert himself, he has no sense of timing, coming off as inept at best and slightly creepy at worst.

And yet, for all of this, Godai is not shown as an unredeemable jerk. Instead, his Nice Guy tendencies as seen as the offshoot of simple adolescent immaturity (he has just graduated from high school, after all). In addition, the solution to his problems is not presented as 'man up and become a badass'. Even at the end of the series, he is no more extraordinary or cool than he was at the beginning. Where he DOES change over the course of the series is that he comes to know who he himself is as a person, act on the strengths he has, and appreciate others for the different strengths that they have to offer. In other words, the immature 'niceness' that led him to be passive rather than aggressive as a teenager has grown into a genuine, and quite remarkable, kindness that defines him as an adult. It's a slow process of two steps forward, one step back throughout the 96 episodes, but in the end you can see how the boy became a man while still staying the same person he always was.

The ways this happens are noteworthy, especially for how they reflect not only changes in Godai's romantic relationships but rather his general outlook on life and other people. It's how Godai eventually turns down the chance for a stereotypically 'respectable' salaryman job to follow a career path that is not the most well-paying or prestigious, but is one that he enjoys and is good at and allows him to do good in the world. It's how he comes to see Kyoko's former husband not as an obstacle to be overcome, but as a part of Kyoko's life who has helped make her into the woman who Godai now loves. It's how he finally comes to communicate honestly with Kyoko, stating truths that may be unflattering to himself, but in doing so cutting through all his former evasion and game-playing and opening a path to true intimacy. And in the end, when Kyoko finally accepts him as her lover, she is not doing so because he's managed to present himself as more dominant or exceptional than the other men in her life (indeed, his rival Mitaka maintains a better claim to these labels throughout the series), but rather that he has succeeded in realizing his potential to become a truly caring person, and that this genuine niceness is what Kyoko values and needs most in a partner.

As such, the message of Maison Ikkoku is a clear and inspiring one for Nice Guys everywhere: you have no excuse for whining and wallowing in immaturity rather than trying to become a better person, but you don't need to attempt to turn into someone you are not either. Instead, challenge yourself actually to become the nice person you claim to be, and even if it's a long and painful process, you will eventually grow into someone who is mature, valuable, and, yes, desirable.
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