Vying warriors and vying lovers are staples of anime. While the shonen protagonist can be lampoonably focused on proving hisself the best in his action-packed contest, a shojo heroine can be just as competitive in her quest for a heart. Sometimes, the two are brought together to great effect, as in Vision of Escaflowne—or in the present case, and on the more lighthearted side, 1989-1992’s Ranma ½. Based on the long-running Shonen Sunday manga by Rumiko Takahashi, and still beloved three decades on, in absolute terms it isn’t quite so popular as her later Inuyasha, especially with the renewed attention from the anime-original sequel, Yashahime: Princess Half-Demon. Inuyasha has frequent fighting, and it definitely has romantic drama, so there are strong similarities, but refreshingly, Ranma and his companions fight by choice, out of passion for martial arts rather than force of circumstance, while romantic love and marriage are the issues at stake. And, of course, Ranma ½ is remembered as THE great gender-bending comedy anime has produced.
It’s tragic. He tries so, so hard to be manly, even spending time on the road to hone his fighting skills, but when he finally arrives to prove himself to the one he’s destined for, he’s... those who remember Ren from To Love-Ru know the score.
The first of an impressive 161 episodes finds Soun Tendo’s three daughters, Kasumi (19), Nabiki (17), and Akane (16) sitting primly, patiently awaiting an arranged marriage match: Ranma Saotome (16), the son of Soun’s old martial arts comrade Genma. Who shows up though, but a panda, and large-chested redhead girl, who says she’s Ranma Saotome! The Tendos recognize a mixup but welcome the guests. Ranma proves incredibly skilled at martial arts, besting Akane, the daughter who keeps up the family’s tradition. Not long after, she receives a bigger shock on accidentally walking in on Ranma bathing, to find a muscular black-haired guy!
As Genma explains, he and Ranma just returned from a long training trip across China to hone skills and master their Anything Goes martial arts school. Their journey brought them to Jusenkyo, the cursed springs, a famed training ground nestled in the Bayankala mountains. Fighters balance atop bamboo poles set upright among a latticework of springs, and try to knock one another down into the water. Despite warnings from a Party cadre serving as a local guide, first Genma, then Ranma fell into the cursed pools, emerging as a panda and a busty girl, respectively! Hot water undoes the transformations, but they return to their changed states when splashed with cold water. (Since drinking or washing hands isn’t enough to transform, I think in real life they would almost never transform unwillingly, but conveniently, there’s a pond right in front of the Tendo porch, and accidents keep happening. A common gag has an elderly woman sprinkling water to clean a sidewalk frequently hitting Ranma and Genma). On this revelation, Kasumi and Nabiki do the old “Any volunteers?” step back, pushing Ranma onto Akane. Ranma complains Akane has no feminine appeal, while Akane doesn’t want to end up with a sex-changing freak, but to the others, they are fiancé and fiancée.
From there, a lot of comedy ensues as Ranma settles into school life, he and his father indefinitely boarding at the Tendo home and training at the neighboring dojo! One of the funny things about Ranma ½ is the seeming mismatch of the main couple. Ranma and Akane rarely have kind words for each other, but both are found quite attractive by those around them! Akane even faces an Odyssey-like crowd of admirers every time she crosses the threshold of Furinkan High School. She eventually fights most of them off, but Tatewaki Kuno, ”The Blue Thunder of Furinkan High” persists, deaf to her insistence he get lost. Captain of the kendo team, he’s a formidable foe, but on meeting girl Ranma, falls for “her” too! To Ranma’s horror, he idolizes ”her” as “pigtailed girl”, adding her portrait to Akane’s on the wall of his Spartan room, a sign of tragic indecision between his two loves.
Every day is a drama in Furinkan. Our main characters rarely left to themselves, nor meaningfully, proactively moving toward a goal (none of the cursed characters thought of finding springs to heal their ailments when still in Jusenkyo, and boarding with real estate rich, cash poor Tendos, getting back proves a lot harder than was getting there), Ranma ½ settles into a kind of situation comedy, but with a more iyashikei (“healing”) atmosphere. It’s very comforting beginning the day with “unmarried housewife” Kasumi preparing breakfast as Nabiki reads a magazine, and Soun and Genma (often in panda form, mute and holding up signs) play go, Ranma and Akane running late, and after sitting through school, walking home together: Akane on the street, Ranma atop a chain fence, trading unpleasantries. We are expected to believe they’re in love and in denial, but it’s usually hard to see.
New characters introduced over the seven seasons add to but don’t alter the routine. Before long, Ranma’s “rival” Ryoga shows up, a fierce, all-thumos martial artist also given to long training journeys, but with a penchant for getting lost. When his travels also bring him to Jusenkyo, he adopts a very incongruous form, a tiny, powerless black piglet. Akane doesn’t know the piglet’s him, and calls him P-chan, caring for him whenever he’s around—and serially reproves Ranma, who knows it’s Ryoga, for bullying P-chan. Ryoga has a soft spot for Akane, and welcomes the kindness, but struggles to overcome shyness and communicate his feelings to her.
Meanwhile, additional fianceés show up to claim Ranma! A big fan favorite is Shampoo. A Chinese Amazoness whom Ranma bested in a match on his return from Jusenkyo, according to tribal law, she is now to wed him! A stunning, cunning vixen with long blue hair, she has no scruples about doing whatever it takes to make Ranma hers. Meantime she settles in Furinkan with her great-grandmother, and they operate a popular Chinese restaurant, for which Shampoo ofter delivers by bicycle. Tatewaki’s sister, Kodachi Kuno, captain of the martial arts rhythmic gymnastics team at private St. Hebereke Girls Academy, also gets in on the game. Fans mostly scorn Kodachi, but she’s my favorite. The anime’s aristocratic girl with a noblewoman’s laugh, she’s also highly cultured and wants to secure the best for Ranma from her familial wealth. Occasionally, she reveals a gentler side too. With another main fiancée introduced later whom I won’t spoil, plus an anime-only pair of Amazoness twins following up Shampoo, and the possibility wholesome Kasumi or fashionable, money-minded Nabiki could change their minds, Ranma has some deciding to do!
Given all the girls, and that this was taken from shonen manga, there is a good deal of fanservice. But watch out! Most of it, including almost all of the nudity, is of girl Ranma! A program that features sex-changing fanservice in such a silly way, Ranma ½ can seem out of touch with the times in a good way. Despite frequent ecchi, and numerous girls, this also isn’t a harem: like shojo romance, female rivalries and competition is fierce, and all the fiancées are abundantly clear: Ranma is to be MY soulmate and no one else’s! The plot as such is very appealing, but some fantasies will have to be left out.
Ranma himself is in no way pleased by all the females he’s supposed to choose from. Whereas his father Genma is pretty lazy and mainly focused on continuing freeloading at the Tendo’s (Soun likes to put him down for this, but isn’t especially industrious either: Kasumi does all the housework, and despite operating a dojo, there isn’t a single student, as someone points out), Ranma genuinely loves the martial arts, and spends his free hours in the dojo. Ranma ½’s one real weakness is never giving Ranma much solitude; a few episodes with just him doing his thing would’ve been nice, even inspiring and a good role model for viewers of all ages. The show could certainly have spared the many episode plots that revolve around challenges from spurious-sounding martial arts schools (the “Martial Arts Tea Ceremony” school being an especial head-shaker).
The televised anime is followed up by two full length movies, an 11-episode OVA released from 1993-1996, and a goofy short film, One Fell Over the Kuno’s Nest, that easily fits in with the OVAs. There was even a new OVA episode released in 2008, but whereas I enjoyed the movies and old OVAs, the revival was pretty lackluster. Ranma ½ has aged little, the material being so timeless, and the move to digital, high definition does nothing for it with its too-frantic plot that lacks the relaxing, reassuring nature of the original that otakus have and may still grow to love.