The Mike Toole Show
by Michael Toole,
As you get older, nostalgia will seem creepy at first. You'll watch as 80s revival fads turn into 90s revivals, wondering why both younger generations and some of your own peers are eager to dig up so much crappy music, TV, fashion, and movies from your childhood. Eventually, however, you'll notice the kids mooning over something that's just a couple of years old. Wait a minute, you'll think. This stuff was recent. How can you have nostalgia for something so obviously popular and enduring, that hasn't even been gone long? Then you'll realize that the revival in question is pretty damn old, and so are you, and who cares anyway? Let's go ahead and watch these old cartoons.
And that's okay, because I'm happy to see an old friend like Ranma ½ again, courtesy of our pals at Viz. They've kicked out a new set of that most excellent first season, even giving it the bluray treatment. It's always fascinating to see old TV cartoons on bluray; the elements can often look wonderful since film can be blown up to 1080p, even if the process sometimes involves chemical baths, extensive color correction, and frame by frame cleanup. Upon seeing the collector's edition, a weirdly pretty piece with reflective details on the artbox, I was eager to jump back into an old favorite. But I'd better start at the beginning.
You've got to start at the beginning with Rumiko Takahashi. It wouldn't be fair otherwise, because aside from a handful of short stories (including the prize-winning Obnoxious People, her pro debut), she went straight to the bigtime with Urusei Yatsura. Well, “straight to the bigtime” is a bit simpler than the reality, which involved a bumpy start to the series in the pages of Shonen Sunday—missed deadlines, frequent left turns into short story-land, that kinda stuff. But by 1982, Urusei Yatsura had over 10 tankobon volumes on bookstore shelves and was going strong. Looking at even Takahashi's earliest chapters, it's easy to see why—she's got a real gift for body language and caricature, and the series’ characters, including high school lech Ataru Moroboshi, his embattled sometime girlfriend Shinobu, and the hot-tempered, bikini-wearing alien princess Lum, are immediately fun and likeable. She loads almost every panel up with some sort of pun, worldplay, or visual gag, and the result is a really entertaining read.
Early on in Urusei Yatsura’s history, there was an exciting development—Yomiuri TV and Tsubaraya Productions started planning on a live-action TV or film project! But that didn't happen. Ha! Gotcha. It's okay, though, because what we got instead is one of the best anime TV shows of the 1980s—an Urusei Yatsura comedy jam directed by an emerging talent named Mamoru Oshii. Before showering the anime world with amazing gifts like action/SF/suspense/sitcom Patlabor and the two tricky and rewarding Ghost in the Shell films, Oshii honed his directorial and storytelling skills working on Urusei Yatsura for an amazing 106-episode run. The show was then shifted to Studio Deen and director Kazuo Yamazaki, and while it was never really bad, it was never as crazily, subversively hilarious as Oshii's best episodes. (Sample scene: Shinobu is walking on the street, complaining loudly about attention from ugly, unpleasant men. Comically ugly men start silently passing her in the background. One of them is Oshii. Then, his entire senior staff.) Amazingly, the intimidatingly-lengthy TV series, plus its OVAs and films, were released in their entirety in English. I kinda wish we could get some sort of “best episodes” package out of the series; everyone knows that movie 2, Beautiful Dreamer, is the best bit of the series, but there are so many other good bits that are harder to dig out! Unfortunately, the whole shebang is out of print for now.
Speaking of “out of print,” there's also the manga question to contend with. I've heard it said that Oshii and his team of lunatics actually gave Takahashi and Urusei Yatsura’s popularity a hell of a boost, because while her manga was engaging, it didn't have the arresting stream of absolute nuttiness that the anime had. I'm a bit skeptical of that claim-- after all, the manga needed to become a sizable hit before the TV anime could even exist-- but it's a pain in the ass for me to call it either way, because only a precious sliver of the original comics were released in English by Viz. They did a run of floppy comics, which was the style at the time, and experimented with trade paperbacks, but it just didn't catch on. I had one of those big, fat “THE RETURN OF LUM” books, and the only thing I didn't like about it was the way the spine shattered immediately, thanks to the cheap glue and binding. That was also the style at the time.
Just like the similarly ludicrously popular Dr. Slump immediately made way for Dragon Ball, Urusei Yatsura’s sunset in 1986 gave way to Maison Ikkoku, a somewhat lower-key comedy of misunderstandings about a plucky but disaster-prone college kid and the young widow he rents a room from. In fact, Takahashi started work on Maison Ikkoku in 1980, and kicked out chapters of it concurrently with Urusei Yatsura, just in the pages of Big Comic Spirits. (See, Maison Ikkoku was about grown-up stupid idiots, unlike the largely teenaged heroes of Urusei Yatsura.) It kind of boggles the mind to think about it, but we do have the entire run of Maison Ikkoku manga in English as proof of Takahashi's insane multitasking ability. The anime, like I said, dropped straight into Urusei Yatsura’s plum timeslot, animated by the same studio and staff.
It's tempting to write an entire column about Maison Ikkoku, a quintessentially 1970s love story told with a distinctly 80s flair, simply on the strength of its lead characters. Ronin Yusaku Godai is struggling to pass his entrance exams, but is frequently distracted—both by his bizarre rooming-housemates (loud, loutish housewife with noisy kid, drunken floozy, intrusive weirdo) and by his landlady Kyoko Otonashi, an alluring woman just a few years older than him, who's trying to move past the untimely death of her husband. Circumstances never seem to allow the pair to have a moment together, and a seemingly endless parade of family members, prospective dating partners, and family pets constantly get between them. Eventually Godai gets drunk enough to loudly declare his love for her in the middle of the street at 4am (yet, he still calls her “Ms. Landlady” in his slurred paean to her beauty), but that just complicates matters further.
Is Godai a stereotypical “nice guy” who spends chapter after chapter lamely making himself available, waiting for Kyoko to just magically start reciprocating his feelings? Is Kyoko a jerk for stringing him along, never having the nerve to tell him yes or no? The manga's narrative is full of pretty simple, obvious jokes, but it's smart enough to avoid being too simple (both Godai and Kyoko have internal monologues asking themselves the above questions). The anime's also a treat—in my college days, some pals and I spent a merry evening marathoning a huge chunk of it from 9pm to 10am the following day. That's about forty episodes in one sitting, a personal best that I've never even come close to matching, thank God. A decade later, I'd spend my lunch breaks walking to a nearby booktstore and buying a volume of the manga to read every month or so, which I think is pretty much the perfect way to experience the comics. One fun wrinkle: the dubbed version of the anime, which like so many shows, has quietly gone out of print, features Jason Gray-Stanford as Godai for the first couple of story arcs. Ever seen the show Monk, about the obsessive-compulsive detective? Gray-Stanford plays Disher, the goofball cop! I love it when stuff like that happens, but the dubbing studio sure didn't, because his rising stardom meant they had to recast him.
Also, while there wasn't an Urusei Yatsura live-action project, we got a couple of attempts at Maison Ikkoku. I haven't seen the fairly recent TV movies, but I did see the theatrical film from 1986, which does a surprisingly decent job at capturing the mood of the manga. It's awfully dry, though. One amusing sidenote: the film's theme tune, 70s smash hit “Alone Again (Naturally)” by Gilbert O'Sullivan, was swapped in as the TV anime's opening song for just one episode, about a month before the film's premiere. Maybe there was some sort of cross-promotion going on there, but the song was omitted from US release and didn't appear again in the Japanese version, so we may never know exactly why they used it.
Then, there was Ranma ½, which only further cemented Rumiko Takahashi's dominance in the pages of Shonen Sunday. A martial arts master and his teenaged son move into an old friend's dojo. Said old friend has a daughter; long ago, the two men agreed that she should marry the aforementioned teenaged son when the time is right. Martial-arts hijinks ensue, only thanks to Takahashi's twists, some of the characters are shape-shifters (the teenaged son, Ranma, turns into a beautiful girl when doused with water; his dad turns into a big panda) while the rest of them are generally jerks, louts, or crazies. There's Ranma's would-be fiancée, Akane (jerk), her dad (lout), and the many other teen martial artists who constantly fight for Ranma and Akane's attentions (crazies). Not surprisingly, the manga was an immediate hit, and an anime version would follow just 18 months later.
I view the Ranma ½ TV anime through rose-colored glasses, and a glance through the show's history and staff credits is surprisingly revealing as to why. See, that magical first season of the show, which spanned 18 episodes, was directed by the great Tomomi Mochizuki, who directed Ocean Waves for Studio Ghibli and helmed other teen romance classics like Kimagure Orange Road and Here is Greenwood. (He also directed Dirty Pair Flash, so I guess we shouldn't get carried away about how awesome he is.) I immediately liked the show when I first saw it, and upon tearing through the blu-ray version, I liked it again. But at the same time, it's really easy to see why this first season didn't really click with viewers and was cancelled. Well, “cancelled” isn't quite right—the producers just handed it over to a new production team, who punched the comedy and visuals up. They kinda had to, because despite its frequent moments of frenetic comedy and combat, the first season of Ranma ½ is surprisingly slow-paced, gentle, and quiet. It's very faithful to the first narrative arc of the manga, but it's just not terribly exciting. Subsequent Ranma seasons would feature cuter character designs, more action scenes, and a “bad guy of the week” formula that kept viewers interested for a whopping 143 episodes.
Going back and watching Ranma ½ again is also interesting for other historical reasons, like this nice fella here. He's the guide to the hot springs at Jusenkyo, where Ranma and his dad got their shape-shifting curses.
Not surprisingly, he speaks in kinda-broken Japanese (or English, if you're watching the dub). Other Chinese characters tend to look just as crazily stereotypical, and also speak with goofy accents. It's easy to look at stuff like this in retrospect and go, “Man, what were they thinking?!” It's kinda obvious what Takahashi was thinking, honestly. She was probably thinking “Heh heh, look at this Chinese dude! I better put him in a Chairman Mao uniform so the readers will be hilariously certain of his origins.” I've had friends blanch at stuff like this after revisiting it, but I dunno, to me it's not much goofier than the idea of Ranma encountering a German dude who wears lederhosen and eats sausage. While this was running on TV in Japan, we were watching Perfect Strangers, with the goofy-accented, comically Mediterranean Balki Bartokomous doin’ his dance of joy. I don't think you could get away with it today, though.
Another really interesting aspect of Ranma ½ is its importance to Western fandom. Takahashi has said she created it as a series for kids and is kind of surprised at its reception in the west, but it was an absolute lynchpin of mid-1990s anime fandom in these parts. The much-smaller tribe of anime dorks faithfully bought the tapes, argued over the dub (I think it's alright, but I've never liked the WordFit system), grabbed the manga, briefly took over the entire anime usenet message board with something called the Global Ranma Insanity Thread, and even played the video game.
Of course there was a video game. It's a pretty bad video game, too! I played it, of course. I had to! It was an anime video game, and I was an anime dude, so I couldn't possibly say no to it. Decades later, the crappy stage music and character reaction grunts echo inside my skull. Ranma also made big waves at anime conventions, because for the most part, it's pretty easy to cosplay as Ranma characters—just find some off-the-rack sparring outfits and colorful wigs, and you're good to go. What intrigues me, however, is seeing teens and college kids dressed as Ranma and Akane today. How are they finding out about it?! Is it because of that live-action TV movie from a couple of years ago? Jeez, I hope they didn't watch that. Nobody should have to watch that. It's an abombination that shouldn't exist, so please don't immediately go looking for it.
Anyway, Ranma endured for years before Takahashi got a bit bored and hastily ended the whole thing. Seriously, the manga ending? Kind of a non-event. But despite that, Ranma ½ remains a global hit for Rumiko Takahashi, and probably her life's most important work. Except for InuYasha, which is also her life's most important work.
InuYasha came after Ranma, and I don't have a whole lot to say about it. It's definitely got her magic—while it never really caught my interest, I watched a few episodes, and could still feel myself getting sucked into the story despite my apathy. It utilizes that tired old “girl gets sucked into alternate timeline/world” trope that Takahashi helped establish with Fire Tripper, a short manga that reads like a simpler, tighter version of InuYasha without as much magic. But what InuYasha, with its fantasy/romance tug of war between schoolgirl Kagome and her protector, handsome and hot-tempered dog-demon Inuyasha, does have is tons of appeal—it was also a big, sprawling hit throughout its run, with plenty of anime episodes and other tie-in goodies. Here in America, the TV series broadcast had a big, splashy premiere at Planet Hollywood in New York, which was quite a spectacle. (Turns out anime nerds can consume a lot of buffalo wings and house lager!) Someone tell me, did Kagome and Inuyasha ever find that jewel they were looking for? When it shattered into a zillion pieces in the opening episode, my only thought was “hmmm, a zillion episodes.” That may be why I wasn't eager to start watching it.
I mentioned Takahashi's Fire Tripper above, which rules. It turns out that Rumiko Takahashi's also spent her entire career taking periodic breaks from her longer series to craft some pretty awesome shorts and short series. There was a whole set of OVAs in the late 80s based on these, and they're all awesome. Along with Fire Tripper, there's Laughing Target (a jealous girl tries to break up an archery star and his girlfriend, but she's a demon!) and Mermaid Forest (kind of like The Little Mermaid, only mermaids are monsters and eating the flesh of one of them makes you immortal) and Maris the Choujo (super-powered space bounty hunter kicks mad cartoon butt). If you got a lot of anime from Blockbuster Video in the 90s, you probably saw one or more of ‘em—they're nice “one and done” featurettes. You'd think a DVD release would be a no-brainer, but we're still waiting.
The “Rumic World” OVAs aren't the end of the artist's extended library, either. There have been additional looks at the Mermaid Forest tale with a 2000s TV series and a stand-alone 90s OVA, Mermaid's Scar, a pretty damn great adaptation of weird boxing/romance manga One Pound Gospel, and Rumiko Takahashi Theatre, a set of TV episodes that each adapt one of her short, stand-alone stories. My favorite: the one where a high-level company man is laid off, and has to put aside his dignity and wear a department store mascot costume to keep earning money. He finds himself starting to enjoy the job. The TV series, which is out of print (feelin’ like a broken record at this point with the “out of print” line; I wish it wasn't so!) isn't always brilliant, but it's a really nice showcase of Takahashi's versatility.
Heck, you can still see proof of Rumiko Takahashi's versatility in her current series, Rin-ne. The manga's got some pretty familiar shonen notes—our heroine can see ghosts, but finds them annoying. Her new classmate might be able to help her get rid of her irritating clairvoyance, but he's some sort of crazy grim reaper type. Cue some weird romantic tension between the pair, plus an avalanche of both good and bad denizens of the spirit world. At over 20 volumes, the series has demonstrated Takahashi's strength as a storyteller, and continues to anchor Shonen Sunday.
While Beautiful Dreamer is the pinnacle of a damn fine series and Maison Ikkoku is a fun romantic comedy for grownups, it's hard to think of a more perfect introduction to the weird, magical nostalgia of Rumiko Takahashi's older anime than Ranma ½. It starts off slow and has an odd sense of humor, but something about it just grabs you, and won't let go until, dozens of episodes of anything-goes martial arts battles later, you collapse in exhaustion. Maybe it's that iconic opening sequence—I dare you to watch it and not start singing along. Watching Ranma ½ again, one thought sticks with me: what's the deal with this hand gesture?
It's not unique to Takahashi's work, but I've only occasionally stumbled across it elsewhere. The artist uses it to express shock or surprise. What's going on with it, though? Is Ranma throwing the devil horns, or what? Is this proof positive that Ranma went to UT Austin before making his trip to Jusenkyo? Someone enlighten me, please.
I guess our question is: which Takahashi favorite is the artist's life's work, comparable to Tezuka's Phoenix or Spiegelmann's Maus or Barks’ Uncle Scrooge? You know, maybe Rin-ne will turn out to be her life's work! Or maybe Rumiko Takahashi's life's work is still ahead of her—the lady's only 55! Personally, I think all of it, from Urusei Yatsura to Ranma ½ to Rin-ne and beyond, is Rumiko Takahashi's life's work. Her whole oeuvre is run through with crazy comedy, romance, scary horror, hot-blooded action… pretty much every genre you could think of, except for maybe giant robot stuff. And I'm sure those robots make a cameo in Urusei Yatsura somewhere. So I guess I'll leave you with this question: which is the best Ranma ½ character? Please have an anything-goes martial arts argument over your favorite in the comments!
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