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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Ranma 1/2

by Jason Thompson,

Episode XCIII: Ranma 1/2

When I was a freshman at UC San Diego, in my first month in school, I went to Cal-Animage Beta to see this mysterious thing called "anime." There were flyers all around campus, advertising some serious high-class movie called "Akira" that had been reviewed by Roger Ebert and TIME magazine…as a science fiction fan, I had to see it. But as fate would have it, they were playing a Ranma 1/2 short before the main feature, and The First Anime I Ever Saw ended up being this weird subtitled show that sprung out on me like a home invasion, with the opening credits music turned up super loud, singing "YAPAPA YAPAPA" while colorful objects and big-eyed faces zoomed back and forth. And, cartoon breasts. I can't discount the importance of the breasts, even if, at the time, it made me reluctant to recommend Ranma 1/2 to anyone, since I didn't want people to think I was a filthy pervert. Till now in "House of 1000 Manga” I haven't written about any mangaka twice, but for Rumiko Takahashi I'll make an exception. Like many people who discovered anime between 1987 and 1996, I probably wouldn't have become a fan if it wasn't for Ranma 1/2.

Ranma 1/2 is the direct ancestor of all comedy-action manga, like Sumomomo Momomo and History's Strongest Disciple Kenichi, about teenage martial artists who divide their time between high school crushes and rivalries and kicking one another's asses in increasingly absurd and over-the-top ways. It wasn't the first manga to mix martial arts and school comedy—Sasuga no Sarutobi, about a school for ninja, was doing it back in 1980, and I'm sure there were others before that—but it spanned the period when manga and anime sales were at their height. Ranma 1/2 is also about a guy who transforms into a girl, and it wasn't the first manga to invent this idea either…but it was super-super popular. It was so popular it was adapted into a couple of anime movies and OAVs, a 161-episode TV series, and even a one-shot live-action TV special which just came out in Japan in 2011, 15 years after the manga ended. By a fortunate coincidence, it was also perfect material for fighting games when Street Fighter II created the genre, and it was adapted into several pretty good Japanese video games, including one, Ranma 1/2 Hard Battle, which was, somewhat amazingly, translated and localized for the Super NES in 1993, right around the time Viz started translating the manga. (I'm not counting the first Ranma 1/2 Super NES game, which was 'translated' as a generic game called Street Combat with all the character art totally redrawn.)

It starts out like a fairy tale: once there were three beautiful sisters. The sisters are the womanly Kasumi, the girlish (and, as the series goes on, increasingly money-obsessed) Nabiki, and the boyish Akane. Their father Soun Tendo runs a Tokyo martial arts dojo, the Musabetsu Kakutô Ryû school, which Viz originally translated as the "School of Indiscriminate Grappling" but later settled on the more pleasing-sounding "Anything-Goes Martial Arts." One day, the father gathers his daughters and tells them that his old friend, Genma Saotome, has a teenage son about their age. Long ago, he promised that he would let one of his daughters marry Saotome's son, and the couple would inherit the dojo. And now, Saotome and his son are returning to Japan from a long training trip abroad, and one of them must marry him.

The sisters are all skeptical, since none of them wants to be in an arranged marriage, especially not to their dad's dorky friend. The most skeptical one is Akane, who spends all her time in the dojo smashing bricks with her fists, training to fight off the army of boys who ask her out every time she goes to school. Then Ranma Saotome shows up, pursued by a giant panda…and surprise, Ranma's a girl! Everyone is embarrassed by the mixup. Akane challenges Ranma to a friendly match and discovers to her surprise that Ranma is a much better fighter than she is. But Akane isn't a sore loser. "I'm just glad you're a girl. I'd really hate to lose to a boy!"

Then Akane walks in on Ranma while she's taking a hot bath, and discovers that Ranma isn't as much of a girl as she thought he was. No, he wasn't just crossdressing -- he actually transforms from a woman into a man. After Akane initially assumes he's a stalker pervert and attempts to kill him, Ranma apologizes and explains everything. On their training mission in China, he and his father visited the legendary Training Ground of Accursed Springs, where brave (and stupid) martial artists fight on bamboo poles perched above pools of water. Each pool is cursed, and whoever falls into one will transform into a different creature whenever they are splashed by cold water! Ranma fell into the "pool of drowned girl" and so he transforms into a girl. His dad fell into the "pool of drowned panda" so he transforms into a panda. They change back whenever they're splashed with hot water, so it's not permanent, but it's pretty inconvenient. But hey, at least the arranged marriage can still go on, right? Akane's sisters immediately volunteer Akane for the role of fiancée. "You hate boys, don't you? So you're in luck! He's half-girl!"

But Akane doesn't like him; she thinks he's a pervert, and her pride is hurt that Ranma is stronger than he. Luckily (?), Ranma doesn't like Akane either; he's kind of sexist and cocky about his martial arts abilities, and he hates "macho chicks." In fact, he hates being half-girl—he only willingly becomes female to bum sweets from street merchants. Still, Ranma and his dad are crashing with the Tendos now, and he's transferred to Akane's school, so even though he and Akane argue a lot, they have to spend a lot of time together. Everyone assumes that they're going out, and all the boys in school are jealous, especially Kuno, a rich, arrogant kendo student with curly permed hair (the sure sign of a jerk in an '80s manga). Kuno challenges Ranma to a fight for the right to date Akane, and the fight ends with both of them falling into the swimming pool together. Seeing Ranma transform into a girl snaps Kuno's tiny mind, and he is unable to process the idea that Female Ranma and Male Ranma are the same person no matter how much evidence he has, so he falls in love with Female Ranma, while still holding a grudge against Male Ranma. Now Ranma must fight Kuno in boy form while also enduring sexual harassment in girl form and trying to evade his lecherous clutches! Oh, and in the heat of combat, Ranma's clothes occasionally get ripped, giving female-oriented Ranma 1/2 readers all sorts of "should I enjoy this?" sexual confusion!

And Kuno's only the first of about A VIGINTILLION opponents and romantic rivals that show up at Furinkan High School. After Kuno comes Ryoga, a rival martial artist from Ranma's past, whose primary features are his incredible strength and his incredibly poor sense of direction (the two are linked: he's gained his strength from fighting wild beasts in the wilderness where he inevitably ends up when he was just trying to go to the corner store to buy curry bread). Ryoga, who's really sort of sympathetic despite his continual burning desire to defeat Ranma, falls in love with Akane and another love triangle forms. Then there's Shampoo, a martial artist from a tribe of sexy Chinese Amazons where all the women are super-powerful. (Ranma 1/2 was my first realization of the fact that Japanese people have as many stereotypes about Chinese people as Americans do.) Shampoo's in love with Ranma and is determined to marry him at any cost, even if it requires brainwashing, drugs, rope bondage, etc. After Shampoo comes Shampoo's unrequited and unappreciated childhood sweetheart Mousse (did I mention that most of the characters have silly names?), who kidnaps Akane to get revenge on Ranma for "stealing" his beloved. Then there's Ukyo, a girl who runs an okonomiyaki shop and fights with a giant spatula; she spent most of her life crossdressing as a boy, and she too has the hots for Ranma. (The character who likes Ukyo is Tsubasa, who is, of course, a boy who crossdresses as a girl.) There are characters with martial arts styles based on rhythmic gymnastics, and cheerleading, and cooking, and painting, and card-playing. And there's also plenty of characters who, like Ranma, fell into the accursed springs, so that when water splashes them they turn into a cat, a duck, a pig, or a horrible octopus-ox-bird-monster.

Ranma 1/2 is a blend of fighting manga and romantic comedy. Basically, the formula is: Ranma, Akane and their friends meet some new character who challenges someone to a fight. Our heroes learn special moves, or exploit their opponents' weakness, and manage to be victorious. But they don't really become friends or learn any lessons like in a shonen manga; when they team up to fight some opponent, it's always a temporary alliance, and they return to squabbling immediately afterwards. Characters are continually hitting on one another (mostly girls hitting on Ranma) and girls (and to a lesser extent, guys) are continually getting naked and/or having water splashed on them. Having water transform the characters doesn't make much sense, but it's pretty brilliant, since it adds a slapstick element and water is something that could show up at almost any moment, even if it's a sudden rainstorm or some character punching a hole in the wall to smash a hot water pipe.

The love story is also slapstick. Like almost every long-running romantic comedy, Ranma 1/2 is a huge tease. Characters are always almost confessing their love to one another, almost kissing, almost getting married, but some stupid thing always gets in the way. No one ever overcomes their character flaws or ever really changes; Kuno is always too stupid to understand that "the pig-tailed girl" is actually Ranma, and Ryoga is always too shy to confess his love to Akane. There are so many characters that a lot of them end up getting forgotten completely, such as Hikaru Gosunkugi, the voodoo freak, or Dr. Tofu, the chiropractor, who's implied to be a great martial arts master, but never gets the chance to prove his skills in combat. (Indeed, the manga's set up so that you think Nabiki and Kasumi might become romantically involved with Ranma, but they both end up being fairly minor characters.) The key to success as a Ranma 1/2 character is being both hot AND able to fight, but you could say that about any manga, right?

So, back to the breasts, which so shattered the brains of many a young anime fan in the '90s. Ranma 1/2 is a shonen manga, and it has a lot of fanservice, but on the other hand, it also has a large female fanbase, both in the US and Japan. (Its success, and the success of other rom-coms like Oh My Goddess!, was a big surprise to American manga publishers like Dark Horse and Viz, who had previously stuck to translating manga about traditional boy topics like sci-fi, ninja and robots.) I wouldn't say this is just because Takahashi is a woman, since plenty of female mangaka have created some very pervy manga, but let me suggest some reasons why Ranma 1/2 isn't as skeevy as, say, Battle Vixens. First, Ranma 1/2 has strong female characters (even if the boys are usually stronger, at least physically). Second and more importantly, the fanservice in Ranma 1/2 has a playful, even childlike feeling, in contrast to the adolescent "Mokkori" horndogginess of so many shonen manga. There's lots of naked breasts in this manga, but there are almost no closeups of breasts, or touching of breasts. There are lots of clothes coming off, but there are no scenes of female characters in compromising positions or up-skirt camera angles, or tied up, or otherwise at the mercy of men and male readers. All the male characters (with the possible exception of Kuno) are too shy to actually want to do anything lecherous to the female characters, except maybe steal a kiss, and even though dirty-old-master Happosai likes to steal panties, there definitely aren't any jokes about how he might use those panties. And all the female characters are adult (well, teenage) and competent (even if they are also insane and clueless, like the male characters); there are no moe/lolita/little-sister type characters whose whole point is to be vulnerable, unless you count Hinako, the martial artist schoolteacher who transforms back and forth from a cutesy prepubescent girl to a ditzy twentysomething woman with huge breasts and absolutely no common sense (hey, she's like every K-On! character smashed together into one person!). So basically, if I stretch things a little and assume a VERY lenient definition of "all ages," a definition which would might cause angry parents and librarians to throw stuff at me, I am forced to describe Ranma 1/2 as a slapstick all-ages action-comedy with boobs. It's more about characters romping on the playground than romping in the bedroom.

The question is how much romping you can handle. Fans of Urusei Yatsura, Takahashi's first series, used to diss Ranma 1/2 by saying the whole thing was based on just one UY character: Ryunosuke, a butch girl whose insane father raised her as a boy and who has serious gender issues. But Ranma 1/2 isn't really about the sex-change thing; Ranma him/herself is the only gender-switching character, and Takahashi never even does the obvious thing and has him meet a girl who had fallen into the Spring of the Drowned Boy (and who would thus have been Ranma's obvious True Love). Maybe it's for the better that Takahashi doesn't pursue the gender issues, since it would have inevitably made the manga more adult (like Futaba-kun Change) and/or more talky and downer/serious (like A Cheeky Angel), and since Ranma's whole "I wanna be a guy, guys are stronger" thing is such a cliché and it's probably better to just laugh it off and not talk about it. There are a couple of sort-of ongoing teases of story arcs, like Ranma and Akane's attraction to one another, and Ranma and Genma's efforts to get back to China so they can find a cure to their condition. But basically Takahashi focuses on the crazy martial arts, and the manga is a fairy tale about weirder and weirder characters showing up and fighting everybody with household objects and school supplies.

At its best, it's just SO GOOD. Eventually (the exact point when it jumps the shark is up for debate) Takahashi adds too many characters, and the manga starts repeating itself. Because of the lack of a strong story arc, a lot of people stop reading Ranma 1/2 at some point in the middle, and by the time Viz finally published volume 38 in 2006, Ranma 1/2 had fallen off the radar of many manga fans. But hey, you try to write a manga and keep it fresh for 38 volumes. Ranma 1/2 goes on so long, it's a chronicle of Takahashi's artistic development. At the start, the fighting is minimal and it's almost a semi-serious relationship comedy, like Maison Ikkoku; then it turns completely ridiculous; and by the climax, when Ranma fights the evil bird-people of Phoenix Mountain in an excessively long and un-funny shonen fight scene, it's like a warmup for Inuyasha.

Still, this is an awesome manga and it's a shame that, due to its age, it's not available in many bookstores or libraries. (SPOILER WARNING) One complaint many people have about the series is that the ending doesn't really resolve anything (at least, it feels like a pretty cheap payoff for reading all 38 volumes). But expecting to see Ranma marry Akane is like expecting to see Uncle Scrooge marry Glitterin' Goldie or Archie marry Veronica (and not just in some lame cop-out alternate universe); it just doesn't happen. Ranma 1/2 isn't a story-based series like Maison Ikkoku where characters grow and change; it's a sitcom where Shampoo will always be chasing Ranma and Ranma will always be running from all the girls, or as Wikipedia puts it, "although the characters and their relationships are complicated, they rarely change once the characters are firmly introduced and settled into the series.” To have a different, more satisfying ending, Rumiko Takahashi would have had to change it into a different type of manga, and well, she doesn't. For that reason, I almost prefer the ending of the anime series, even though the series ended in 1992 while the manga was still running. At the end of the TV series, Ranma and Akane basically break character and turn towards the viewer and say "Goodbye! So long!" and then run away, over the hill. That's kind of a nice payoff, knowing that Ranma and Akane are still kung-fu fighting and flirting with one another in some timeless alternate manga/anime dimension. If you want an ending that's more serious, you're going to have to write the dojinshi yourself.

Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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