Ranma ½ is a genre-busting, subversive manga/anime that features a boy who changes into a girl when splashed with cold water; his father, who becomes a panda under the same circumstances; an arranged engagement between the gender-fluid youth and the daughter of the owner of a martial arts dojo and more spoofs of martial arts and romance genres than one could ever expect from a single series.
Genma Saotome has entered an agreement with his old friend Soun Tendo, owner of the Anything Goes Martial Arts Dojo, for his son Ranma to marry Tendo’s daughter Akane. The two teenagers have never met and when they do, it’s a serious case of mutual detestation – further complicated by the discovery that He becomes a cute redheaded girl when doused with cold water.
That initial surprise is compounded when the Tendos – Soun, Akane and her older sisters Nabiki (a really ruthless opportunist) and lovely, charming Kasume – discover, equally accidentally, that Genma becomes a giant panda when similarly doused with cold water. They both return to their normal forms by being doused with hot water (or, alternatively, taking a hot bath).
Ranma and Akane’s lives become even more complex when Ranma accompanies her to school. It seems that virtually every boy at school wants to go out with her but she won’t date anyone who can’t beat her in a fight – so every morning, she has to wade through practically every boy at school before classes begin. One particularly ardent, if clueless would-suitor mixes it up with male Ranma – but becomes enamored of the female Ranma when she kicks his butt.
Ranma ½: Set 1 contains twenty-three episodes, detailing the set up and introducing a host of characters. The story of how Genma and Ranma became cursed with their transformations is hilarious – and a perfect illustration of the old adage, look before you leap.
The transformations themselves could have quickly become old, but oddly, take on a kind of Zen feel – a sense of rhythm and inevitability – that manages to keep making them funny and kind of endearing. And Ranma not only gets used to the idea of gender shifting, but occasionally initiates the change himself when he figures it will be useful.
Genma, in panda form, gets a job as the receptionist for Doctor Tofu, a doctor of chiropractics who has a huge crush on Kasumi that renders him a babbling idiot when she’s around – bad news for Akane, who has a crush on him. One of the better running gags is Panda Genma using signs to communicate.
Ranma ½ plays with martial arts tropes in unexpected ways – rhythmic gymnastics and figure skating (as two examples) become martial arts and every anime martial arts trope gets spoofed in fight sequences that have the same kind of balance between deadly and humorous that we know from Jackie Chan’s movies.
The characters of Ranma and Akane are developed over the course of the twenty-three eps in set one – going from strong mutual dislike to unvoiced respect and even a grudging admiration. By the time twenty-third ep unspools, they clearly like each other a great deal – though they’d never admit to it.
After we’ve gotten to know the main characters a bit, the series introduces new characters to the mix – like the directionally challenged Ryoga Hibiki, who holds a grudge against Ranma for dodging a fight after school – even though Ranma waited three days for him to arrive (and the location was a vacant lot behind Ryoga’s house!). It takes a few more eps before we discover the real reason Ryoga wants to fight Ranma, and it’s a killer. Then there’s the amazon girl Shampoo, who wants to kill the female Ranma but marry the male Ranma…
The timing of the arrival of the new characters is such that they occur at a point when previous storylines have been mined for their best stuff. As such, Ranma ½ is a show that changes up and rejuvenates itself at frequent enough intervals that it never gets boring.
Technically, the animation is very solid. The set design is lovely and the character work is fluid and, when it needs to be, graceful or awkward. Despite the set’s PG/TV14 rating, there is a fair bit of partial nudity – enough that the rating surprised me.
Despite Ranma ½ being twenty-five years old, it remains a remarkable series because of its irreverence and willingness to take risks – gender fluidity wasn’t exactly a popular topic in 1989 and the seeming ease that Ranma accepted it and used it to his advantage was, and is, unique.
Sadly, the only bonus content – other than a couple of trailers for other VIZ Media DVDs – is a five-minute featurette of cosplaying Ranma fans talking about why they love the show and why they chose to dress up as the characters. The set would be better off without it.
Grade: Ranma ½ – A
Grade: Bonus Features – D
Final Grade: B+