Reviewby Theron Martin, Apr 2nd 2014
Blu-Ray - Set 1 [Special Edition]
Soun Tendo, head of the Anything Goes Martial Arts School, has three daughters: 19-year-old Kasumi, who is a kind-hearted domestic in the mode of a traditional Japanese housewife; 17-year-old Nabiki, who is a money-grubbing schemer; and 16-year-old Akane, who is both the temperamental one and the only one to have seriously taken up martial arts. To assure the continuation of his dojo, Soun arranged for Ranma Saotome, the 16-year-old son of friend and fellow Anything Goes practitioner Genma, to take one of his daughters as his fiancée, and Akane ends up being the one chosen. What Soun does not initially know is that both Genma and Ranma picked up weird curses on a sojourn to a special training ground in China: when they are doused with cold water (which happens with alarming regularity), Genma turns into a panda, while Ranma turns into a girl. Both turn back into their original forms when doused with hot water, but that naturally creates all sorts of complications, including some coming to love Ranma in male form but despise him in female form and others having the exact opposite reaction. Even besides that, neither Ranma nor Akane take the arranged engagement forced upon them well, leading to a combative relationship that is nonetheless more caring than either of them would willingly admit. Complications also continuously arise in the interference of an eclectic mix of colorful characters, including a kendo master who cannot decide whether he loves Akane or female Ranma more, a direction-challenged long-time rival of Ranma who has his own transformation issues, a vicious gymnast who falls for male Ranma, and a ridiculously strong Chinese Amazon named Shampoo who does, indeed, use shampoo for one of her special attacks. And Akane might not be the only girl Ranma has been engaged to, either.
With its 1989 debut and a mostly-continuous run of 161 episodes over the next three and a half years, Ranma ½ became the third long-running adaptation of a Rumiko Takahashi manga, following Urusei Yatsura and Maison Ikkoku. Its timing also made it a staple of the burgeoning U.S. fandom in the 1990s; it was, in fact, one of the first two titles released in the States by Viz Media and, by some accounts, their bread-and-butter title for many years. Given its pedigree and ultimate success, that it actually got canceled after only 18 episodes due to low ratings (only to be revived for a continuing run under a slightly different name a month later) is rather surprising. But those circumstances are no weirder than the series itself.
While Maison Ikkoku shifted towards a more ordinary romantic comedy-drama, Ranma ½ represents a return to the formula which proved so successful for Takahashi in Urusei Yatsura: toss wave after wave of bizarre, crazy, and sometimes-super-powered characters into the mix and watch them form romantic relationship webs complicated enough to require a flow chart to track as they bounce into (sometimes literally!) and play off of each other. Spice it up with a few odd gimmicks – in this case gender and species-changing transformations – and running jokes that will take a long time to get old and you have a recipe for a romantic comedy which can be sustained over years, much less seasons.
In many respects the series can also be seen as a transitional step between Urusei Yatsura and the romantic comedies of the late '90s and 2000s. Many characters present in the early going of Ranma ½ have at least partial parallels in Urusei, but Ranma ½ tweaks and refines them a bit more. While Urusei's Lum is often pointed to as the original tsundere character, Akane is certainly a version much closer to the way that they would commonly be portrayed in the 2000s. While the complex relationship dynamics take their cues from Urusei, they slide much more in the direction of the kind of harem structure that would be defined just a couple of years later by the Tenchi Muyo! Ryo Ohki OVAs. (Amusingly, one might also argue that the series also moves towards establishing reverse-harems, too, since Ranma attracts love interests willy-nilly in both genders.)
At the series' heart, though, is a whole bunch of silliness. Almost everything about the series is ridiculous, from the base premise to the running gag that just about any activity one could name has a competitive martial arts version, whether it be gymnastics (which actually makes a lot of sense in concept but is still bizarre in execution), figure skating (more of a stretch), or even ramen delivery. (Just roll with it!) Not even the unluckiest characters in anime get accidentally doused with water as often as Ranma and Genma do, and theirs is a world where buckets are practically omnipresent. The mere notion that a martial arts style literally called Anything Goes could actually exist is itself ludicrous, but no more so than the nature of the cursed springs which are responsible for the transformations or the idea that a character's sense of direction could be so bad that it takes him five days to get to a vacant lot directly behind his house. Akane initially having to literally fight her way through an army of suitors every day at the front doors of the school (because someone claimed that she would only date someone who could beat her in a fight) gets old quickly, but thankfully that one is curtailed after a while. Funnier are some of the bizarre training methods that can arise in Anything Goes style, such as the whole business with Cat Fu. The silliness can even show in small moments, such as when Kasumi performs perhaps the ultimate parody of a domestic goddess by suddenly whipping out a platter of bamboo shoots when Genma unexpectedly turns into a panda as dinner is being served. That shot plays out in maybe one second but is spit-take-worthy if you catch it. And naturally plenty of oddly-named martial arts moves are present, too.
Not all of the humor is purely ridiculous, either. Nabiki's slyly exploitive ways are a joy to watch, and one character's lament over equally loving two girls is amusingly ironic since neither girl will have anything to do with him. The abusively spoiled nature of the girl in the skating duo actually becomes a good joke, instead of just irritating, when her partner shows that he actually won't just calmly take it from her. Other such moments abound, too. Although the humor does take a couple of episodes to gain full traction, rarely does an episode in the 23 presented here pass after that without at least a few good laughs. Compared to that, the more serious aspects of the Akane/Ranma relationship development are neat to watch but entirely ordinary.
The series' technical merits come courtesy of Studio DEEN, and while no one would confuse the series with a technical masterpiece, neither does it do poorly. Character designs are quite distinct and generally appealing, and even offer some interesting observations; for instance, Nabiki is one of the rare teen girl anime characters who more commonly wears shorts or pants than skirts when dressed in street clothes. A truly stunning turn of events concerning designs is that Akane's hair style dramatically and permanently changes only a few episodes in for story-related reasons. Something like this would probably be unthinkable these days (remember how big a deal it was when Naruto's Sakura cut her hair?), especially given that it does not reflect a major attitude change, but Akane arguably comes off looking cuter for it. The animation naturally emphasizes the martial arts moves the most but rarely completely slouches elsewhere, and well-orchestrated scene framing alternately keeps things moving along in brisk fashion or pauses just long enough for a joke to sink in. Graphic content never goes beyond a cartoonish level, but several episodes have at least small amounts of nudity (nearly always Ranma in girl form).
A lively, light-hearted musical score hits all the right notes with its silly enhancements to the comedy scenes; few anime comedy soundtracks do much better. Chinese-themed initial opener “Jaja Uma ni Sasenai de” is a simple but enormously catchy little ditty which is replaced for episodes 14-16 by vastly inferior new opener “Little Date” before resuming for episodes 17-21; this seems strange, since “Little Date” is listed in multiple online sources as actually being the proper opener for the second season, which constitutes episodes 19-40. Even stranger, episodes 22 and 23 totally lack openers, instead going directly into a narrated introductory recap. This span of episodes has three different closers – one for episodes 1-13, one for 14-18, and one for 19+ – none of which distinguish themselves beyond the fact that the second closer was later remade for use in one of the Di Gi Charat series.
Viz Media's Blu-Ray release is remastered and uncropped, hence presenting the series with its best possible visual quality. It is presented in the original 4:3 aspect ratio, but the colors are impressively sharp for something not originally done digital. The audio has also received a serious upgrade, to DTS HD Master Stereo on both language tracks. Extras on the third of three disks mostly consist of clips from New York Comic Con 2013, where the remastered manga version was put on show, and discussions of the manga remastering. However, the case does come in an artbox along with a beautifully-produced glossy booklet which contains episode summaries, translated credits, and the first chapter of the original manga.
The English dub included seems to be The Ocean Group's rendition, which means that the original voice for female Ranma is replaced starting with episode 7. This supposedly happened due to fan complaints at the time, and given how grating Brigitta Dau's performance is, that's entirely believable. (Is it any wonder that this and the franchise's OVAs are her only anime voicing credits?) Venus Terzo stepping in is a vast improvement, one which elevates the dub to an overall acceptable level. It is hardly a great effort, and some bit parts seem miscast, but for the most part the casting fits well enough and a few performances are actually quite well-done, especially Tatewaki Kuno (the poetry-spouting kendo guy) and Shampoo. The script takes some liberties but not big ones, with the only significant change being “Cat Fist” used instead of “Cat Fu” in episode 23 for a peculiar fighting style.
Some of the gimmickry, running gags, and regular cycles of new cast additions may eventually become tiresome, but at least at this early stage the series is fresh, funny, and fun. If you are an established franchise fan who never got around to getting earlier releases or is looking for a significant, space-saving upgrade, this set is definitely a worthy pick-up. If you have heard of the series before but never got around to actually watching it then this set is an ideal, economical way to get started. At least on the comedy front, it doesn't disappoint.
NOTE: The Overall (dub) grade below should be considered one step lower for the first six episodes.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : B-
Music : B+
+ Remastered picture and sound, included booklet, often very funny.
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