I’ve been at this book review gig for about eight months now, and it’s an absurd crime that I haven’t reviewed a single transgender martial arts comedy comic yet… Slacking. That’s the only thing I can call it…
Rumiko Takahashi – Ranma ½ Volume 1 (1993/2001)
Rumiko Takahashi is probably most well known in the United States for the animated version of her classic fantasy series, Inu-Yasha, but more rabid fans of Japanese comics and animation will recognize a variety of her works: Lum – Yurusei Yatsura, the Mermaid Saga, Maison Ikkoku, One-Pound Gospel, and my favorite, Ranma ½. The Ranma comic has spun off into animation, a number of video games, tons of novelty merchandise, and is a recognized classic, but does it hold up? Is it still funny today? Let’s take a look and see if we can figure out what makes this series tick.
At the beginning of the first book, we’re introduced to the Tendo family (a father and three daughters,) who run the “Tendo Martial Arts School of Indiscriminate Grappling.” Without a son as an heir, Mr. Tendo and his friend, Genma Saotome, another master, have hatched a plan to keep the Tendo School in business once Mr. Tendo gets too old to continue teaching. Tendo has pledged one of his three daughters to Genma’s son, Ranma. Unfortunately for Mr. Tendo, he hasn’t seen his friend since before Ranma was born, and when the Saotomes arrive at the school, Mr. Tendo gets a nasty surprise: Ranma is a girl not a boy, and Genma has, apparently, been turned into a giant panda.
After a tearful discussion, it is revealed that Ranma and Genma were training in China at an “accursed” training ground, trying to perfect their skills. The dangerous training ground is actually haunted by the spirits of various people and animals that have drowned in the numerous pools there, and if anyone happens to fall into one of the haunted pools, they become possessed by the spirit of whatever drowned therein. In a mishap, Ranma fell into the pool of the drowned girl, and so whenever he is splashed by cold water, his body transforms into the female form of the girl who drowned in the pool. He has to be splashed with warm water to turn back into a boy again. Genma, we are told, fell into the pool of the drowned panda and suffered a similar fate.
Yes, the concept is silly, but it’s still fun. Mr. Tendo, still keen on fulfilling the arranged marriage, pledges his youngest (and toughest) daughter, Akane, to Ranma. Of course, neither Ranma nor Akane are fond of the idea of an arranged marriage, and instead they seem to spend most of their time fighting with each other. As the daughter of a martial arts master, Akane is unusally strong and fierce, and Ranma, being a chivalrous young man (half the time), won’t hit a girl, so he spends most of his free time at Dr. Tofu’s getting patched up after Akane inevitably thrashes him. It is a testament to Takahashi’s storytelling ability that I find the budding relationship between Akane and Ranma charming instead of annoying, considering how little tolerance I have for romance stories, but Takahashi knows how to temper her romance with some fantastically entertaining characters and absurd situations, making this series humorous enough to keep even a cynic like me interested.
More than anything, this series is about the laughs, and Takahashi’s command of tone and absurdist sense of humor serve her well. The story is filled with bizarre characters, who usually want to kill Ranma or to date Akane, or in a few cases both. The transgender humor, in which Ranma is constantly being splashed with cold water and transforming into a girl at the least opportune time, is also very funny, particularly when some character who Ranma is fighting can’t seem to understand that the boy he was just trying to murder is also the girl he’s trying to woo! In subsequent volumes of the series, we also learn that Ranma and Genma were not the only martial artists to fall into the haunted pools in the accursed training ground, which adds to the farce.
Ranma is a fun series, and this first volume gets cracking right off the bat. It’s an interesting mix of absurdist humor, touching romance (not too overbearing), and a little bit of weird martial arts, although this is definitely not the focus in the first book. Takahashi’s lines are very clean, and she manages a fair amount of humor just from the facial expressions she draws. There is a tiny bit of nudity in the book, but it’s very cartoony, and not particularly offensive. (There aren’t any explicit sex scenes or anything, just a couple of “embarrassing” bathing moments and such, nothing too racy.) The characters are quirky, the battles are bizarre and fun, and the goofy twists in the story are entertaining, even after reading the book at least a half-dozen times. Inu-Yasha may be a more complex, more fully realized story (and I’ll probably review that series eventually, too) but Ranma ½ is still a lot of fun and worth the hour or less that it’ll take most people to read it.
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)