Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Ranma ½ [2-in-1 Edition]
Soun Tendo, who runs the Tendo School of Anything Goes Martial Arts, has promised one of his daughters in marriage to the son of his friend Genma Saotome. Only problem is, he hasn't told them. Well, actually, that's not the only problem – Genma and his son Ranma were training in China when they both fell into magical cursed springs. Now when doused with cold water, Genma turns into a giant panda and Ranma turns into a girl! Since Akane Tendo, the youngest Tendo sister, doesn't like boys, her sisters Kasumi and Nabiki foist the business of being a fiancee off on her, because after all, Ranma's only half a boy. Thus begins the craziest martial arts-romance-gender-bending saga of them all...
For a lot of people, Rumiko Takahashi's Ranma ½ was their introduction to manga. First released in 1993 in chapter-length comic issues and later collected into large trim flipped volumes, then regular sized flipped volumes, Takahashi's 1987 – 1996 series has just been re-released in two volume omnibuses by Viz, unflipped for the first time. So why release a series three times in different editions? Because while there may be earlier examples of gender-benders or crazy martial arts, or shounen romances, or even combinations of all three, Ranma ½ is one of the best of at least two of those genres, and if you haven't had a chance to read it before, you should definitely take advantage of this latest edition to find out what all the hype is about.
The story seems to begin like any other generic shounen romance. Soun Tendo owns a martial arts school but has only daughters. He therefore has made a betrothal agreement with his friend Genma Saotome, who has a son the same age as the youngest Tendo daughter and not that much younger than the oldest. Tendo neglected to tell the girls that one of them would have to marry the young Saotome until the day he receives a postcard telling of the Saotomes' imminent arrival. When he breaks the news, Kasumi, Nabiki, and Akane are understandably upset, none moreso than man-hating Akane, the youngest at sixteen. All of this soon seems negated when a large panda and a teenage girl arrive, the girl proclaiming to be Ranma Saotome. Nabiki's pretty upset, but Akane's utterly relieved...until it turns out that after a hot bath girl Ranma turns into boy Ranma. You see, Ranma and his father, the panda, took a trip to a special training ground in China made up of many cursed springs. If you fall into, for example, Spring of Drowned Girl, you become a girl when doused with cold water. Hot water (it needn't be boiling) will turn you back to your original self. Kasumi and Nabiki, upon learning this, quickly gang up on Akane and make her Ranma's fiancee, saying that it's perfect because he's half a girl. (Interestingly enough, it seems possible that Takahashi took this premise from the Chinese folktale “Spring of the Butterflies,” where two lovers drown in a spring and re-emerge as butterflies.)
Thus begins a crazy epic of animal/gender swapping, insane martial arts, and an on-again/off-again romance. Both Ranma and Akane are powerful martial artists, but so is practically everyone else in the story. By the end of these two volumes, we learn that there's a martial arts version of rhythmic gymnastics, and it could be argued that Dr. Tofu's use of chiropractics could be a martial art unto itself. Takahashi's art is dynamic, using choice moves to give us the feel of an entire fight or an amazing move without cluttering up the page with too many speed lines or small panels. The movements of billowing skirts or blowing hair helps to accent the power of the fighting, with the latter proving to be a major plot point for Akane. While her art is clearly of an earlier school of manga, it is very appealing in general, with attractive bodies, easily recognizable characters no matter what form they take (very important in this series), and an overall clarity that makes for easy reading.
Characters are plentiful, but at this point they are all very distinct. Ranma himself is the least formed character; at first he feels badly about his affliction at how it affects others, but by the middle of the book he's started using it to his advantage, and really, it's hard to blame him there. He also clearly likes Akane far more than she likes him; however, her usual treatment at the hands of boys – she's regarded as a prize to be won – does inform her blanket dislike of her new fiance. Nabiki, the middle Tendo sister, is in some ways the most interesting character, a self-serving strong-minded young woman who seems to enjoy manipulating others. Her interactions with Upperclassman Kuno are particularly entertaining, although it must be admitted that Kuno in general is pretty amusing in an annoying way.
While Ranma ½ is, in some ways, a baseline for contemporary shounen comedies, it also has some differences that will seem refreshing to a modern readership. For example, girl Ranma objects to other girls grabbing her breasts, something in short order in many stories today. There is also a level of goofiness that has become a bit passe, and, of necessity, more fluidity in gender roles than we see as given rather than as something to gloat about.
To put it simply, Ranma ½ is just as enjoyable now in its unflipped, omnibus form as it was years ago when it was one of my first manga experiences. It has aged well, with the out-and-out lunacy of the story remaining fun and fairly fresh, the art still attractive and not too dated, and a generally entertaining atmosphere. If you've never read it or never had a chance to buy it, this is a good time to do so, because there's a reason people have been, as a local comic book shop informed me, asking consistently for this title since its initial English publication.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A-
+ Story has aged well, still a lot of fun. Takes its weird premise with just the right amount of seriousness, art is very attractive and clean.
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