With the success of Sailor Moon Crystal, we offer our suggestion for another Viz title reboot, the beloved Ranma 1/2.
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1. Keep the Quirk
Takahashi’s greatest strength is in creating unique premises featuring remarkably idiosyncratic characters. For instance, you have Urusei Yatsura, which is ostensibly a romantic comedy about a pervy teenage boy and the hot, adoring alien chick who electrocutes him whenever he steps out of line…and all the other crazy alien shit that comes to Earth in her wake. Then there’s Maison Ikkoku, a rom-com of a more down to Earth nature that focuses on a high school graduate who still hasn’t made it into college and lives in a boarding house with people who make his life a living hell. Just when he’s had enough and is on his way out the door, the new super moves in, and she’s the girl of his dreams. Both these shows are populated with characters that have all kinds of super-specific quirks.
Ranma ½ is no different in that regard. We have the titular hero who is tough, brash, macho, and terrified to death of cats. No, seriously. And sure, as a fellow ailurophobe, I can appreciate that, but all the characters have their own cuckoo shit. Nabiki, one of female lead Akane’s older sisters, is an opportunist who will exploit anyone and anything to make a quick buck. Seems basic, and it is, but it also makes for a lot of character-specific comedy.
Ryouga, Ranma’s chief rival, is a formidable fighter with incredible physical strength…and absolutely no sense of direction. The dude got lost for three days trying to find a vacant lot behind his house. And that’s what I’m talking about. Sure, we all know people who will jump at an opportunity to make a quick buck or get lost constantly and certainly there have been characters who have exhibited those traits to some degree, but how many characters do you know where that’s, like, their thing? Ranma ½ has a fairly large ensemble off odd and distinctive characters, and I’m not even getting into the fact that half of them transform into other creatures when they get wet.
Similarly, the premise is fresh. Two old friends want to marry off their kids to secure the future of their dojo. The only problem is that their kids kind of hate each other while each attracting nearly every member of the opposite sex they come across. This is made doubly dubious by the fact that whenever the lead guy becomes a girl, which is pretty often, the tables turn and half his rivals become besotted with him while half the ladies suddenly want to kill him. Genius.
And while the term “martial arts sex comedy” is somewhat misleading (no one actually has any sex in the show; the word refers merely to sex as a characteristic and the comedic potential of fan service boobies), we do get a variety of both real and fictitious martial arts, which by the author’s design are connected to every day aspects of life. For instance, there is an entire martial arts style based on ramen take-out delivery. I’m serious. And while it sounds a little silly, it’s all part of the show’s charm. You can’t have Ranma without outlandish martial arts, the same way you can’t have it without the quirky characters. It just won’t work if you don’t keep the quirk.
2. But not ALL the Quirk
Look, I love Ranma ½, and I’m a huge fan of shows that aren’t afraid to be a little silly, even more than a little, but there’s a balance, and I just don’t think Takahashi quite struck it. I mean, it’s one thing to have a martial arts style based on take-out delivery. They found a way to rationalize that to some degree (it goes back to early days of food delivery when the person delivering said food would get ambushed and jacked for their wares), and I accept this explanation. However bizarre, it is grounded in some kind of logic.
But martial arts styles that are based on Japanese tea ceremony? Cheerleading? Formal French Dining? Come on. Give a bitch a break, Rumiko. While the series is meant to be a comedy, and thus humor is the priority, there is a fair amount of shark-jumping (your mileage, of course, may vary) in a martial arts style that is strictly a form of competitive eating. That’s not even a martial art. I’m not saying there isn’t any skill involved. I certainly can’t eat a three-course meal in under two minutes, so, you know…respect. But tell me that’s not reaching just a little bit.
Now, it can be argued that all these different styles provided new, colorful challenges as a way of keeping the story fresh and interesting throughout it’s insanely long run. And that’s true, but it also brings us to our third point. The show was too damn long.
3. Quality, Not QuantityRanma ½ spans over two anime series (one directly following the other), three movies, thirteen OVA episodes, and nine specials. There’s a lot of Ranma ½ out there. I would argue too much of it. And this is unfortunately a hallmark of Takahashi’s work.
Ream my beloved Sailor Moon as much as I do on the subject of filler, it has NOTHING on the Takahashi ouvre. As much of a genius as Takahashi is at creating interesting characters and premises, her pacing is…less than good. Every single one of her shows is roughly about twice as long as it has to be, and even then, they usually omit things from the manga! I emphatically stress that this isn’t a question of length in and of itself, rather a matter of how that episode count is put to use.
At its best, Ranma ½ is colorful, strange, and funny. At its worst, it is painfully repetitive. Here is almost every story arc in a nutshell: Some new challenger or love interest shows up, someone gets royally pissed off, a new martial arts style is introduced, it’s either mastered or bested, and there are a few jokes about Ranma’s tits. That’s all, folks. That’s the whole show. And it’s mainly due to the author’s almost fundamentalist aversion to character development.
Takahashi is queen of the status quo. Her characters don’t really grow and change as a product as of their experiences and interactions. Yeah, they learn some fancy new moves here and there, but they’re essentially the same exact people at the beginning of the series that they are at the end. Takahashi’s concept of character development isn’t progressing and enriching the characters she has; it’s just introducing more characters, which leaves us with an ensemble that is far too big to keep track of and pay attention to. It’s fucking ridiculous.
Takahashi has all this great story just sitting there, waiting to be mined for comedy and action and romance, and she just keeps spinning her wheels on the same bullshit, story arc after story arc. She keeps putting her characters through these crucibles that test them and teach them, and then when it’s over they’re just right back to being who were before. Yes, fine, actual human growth is rarely a straight line. People make the same mistakes over and over, they backslide and lash out and fuck up. And we all fuck up. Perfect people are not only boring, they’re unrealistic, but someone can only make the same mistake so many times before you start limiting your exposure to them.
You know that friend you only see every once in a while because, despite the fact that there are things you genuinely love about them, their bullshit is just too much to handle on a regular basis? That is the problem with the characters in Ranma ½. After a while, seeing them walk in behavioral circles just gets too damn frustrating to watch. How many times can you really watch Ranma say something insensitive and/or kind of mean, only to have Akane fly off the handle and have a raging shit attack about it? I mean, the first dozen or so times, sure. But after a while, wouldn’t they know each other well enough to adapt just a little? Even if it seldom works, the doomed attempt to restrain themselves would be another stage in their relationship and whole different kind of comedy.
But this is the flaw of Takahashi’s work, Ranma ½ in particular. It’s ultimately pretty shallow in its exploration of its own themes and conflicts. Scenarios are rarely played out to their full narrative potential, and fascinating possibilities are just blithely glossed over if acknowledged at all. Speaking of which…
4. It Needs to Go There
How does Ranma’s experience of living as both a boy and a girl from moment to moment affect his perception of gender, gender roles, how he views his own gender identity and sexuality? So, would Akane ever find herself attracted to Ranma in his girl form? If not, would that be an issue between them? Would Ranma ever want to experience sex as a woman, whether with female or male partners? And the age old question… what would happen if Ranma-chan got pregnant? Rumiko Takahashi’s stock answer to questions like these?
“I don’t think about these things, and neither should you.”
Uhh…no. I don’t think so. Because I do think about those things, and I should. Takahashi’s policy is beyond nonsensical. A really good story does make you think, and she had lightning in a bottle with Ranma ½.
Takahashi has said herself in more than one interview that when she created Ranma ½, she came to it without any kind of social or political agenda and that her sole intent was to write a good story that was funny and entertaining. You know what? I can respect those priorities. Too many writers get so bogged down in the message that they’re trying to get across that the story acting as a vehicle for that message suffers. Putting the narrative first is what’s important, but there are two things that bust up her defense.
One, she clearly wasn’t too concerned about the strength of the narrative. I mean, she essentially wrote the same storyline over and over again, like, fifty times. Would actually breaking the routine for a few episodes here and there really have been such a detriment?
Two, a common solution to the squandering of an idea is for someone else to tackle that same idea in their own unique way, but the premise of Ranma ½ is so specific and so unique, it’s kind of impossible to approach a different execution of the same premise without completely ripping the original off. Forget the creative implications, from an intellectual property angle alone, it would be a complete clusterfuck. It’s not like The Lord of the Rings vs. A Song of Ice and Fire or Deep Space Nine vs. Babylon 5. You can’t make any variations on this theme. There is no freaking way to replicate the basics of Ranma ½ without it being Ranma ½, and thus any potential to develop ideas and stories rooted in that premise, the story of a thoughtless, sexist, homophobic douchebag who suddenly spends half his time as a girl, are the sole purview of Takahashi.
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This show had to potential to not only be laugh out loud funny, but to ask the big questions of sexual politics, gender, and sexuality. How does being a girl and subject to all the shit they endure alter Ranma’s perspective? If he can justify doing traditionally girly things like eating an ice cream parfait (seriously, Japan?), would that extend to justifying sexual feelings for guys as long as he’s in his female form? And how long before he starts blurring the lines? And what would happen if Ranma got pregnant and how would it further alter his perspective?
All these questions could be answered, and it need not be heavy handed or didactic. There are a hundred ways to couch those thought-provoking stories in side-splitting comedy, to bust the conversation of sex and gender wide open while entertaining the crap out of us through stories of wacky martial arts and a bizarre harem of suitors, both male and female.