MMF: Discovering Ranma and Ranma

In every art form, it seems like there are chameleons and specialists. You can appreciate a particular actor for the way he or she vanishes into a role, or you can welcome the presence of a performer who has a narrower range but nails it every time. A novelist may embrace a variety of tones, subjects and styles over the course of their career, or they may choose to excel in a certain type of story told in a certain way.

I admire creative types from both categories, though I’ll admit to a slight preference for specialists, partly for the comforting familiarity they present. I know Meryl Streep is an extraordinary actress, but I feel no particular need to see everything she’s ever done. I also know that I’ll probably never mistake Eve Arden for any other performer or not be completely aware of her specific presence, but I go out of my way to watch any movie she’s ever done to bask in her brilliantly executed if more limited palette. The fun is in seeing the specialists find variations on their distinctive themes.

For my money, Rumiko Takihashi is one of our most treasured specialists. There are certain consistent elements in her work, whether it’s a nuts-and-bolts romantic comedy like Maison Ikkoku or a time-traveling fantasy epic like InuYasha. These recurring elements are always entirely welcome, in my opinion. They make reading a Takahashi title feel like catching up with an old friend whose life may have changed a bit in her absence but who is still comfortingly, reliably, charmingly herself.

To confirm this opinion, I decided to use the occasion of the Rumiko Takahashi Manga Moveable Feast to dive into a series I hadn’t yet read, Ranma 1/2. I know this is the series that not only introduced a lot of her admirers to Takahashi’s work and sometimes to manga itself, but I’d never gotten around to reading it. Part of this is due to the length of the series, which is a little daunting. But, while the selection of graphic novels at my local library isn’t comprehensive, they do have a robust supply of Takahashi’s work, including a full run of Ranma 1/2.

It’s about a highly skilled young martial artist named Ranma Saotome who has a bit of a problem. During rigorous training with his father, he fell into a cursed spring. Now, whenever he’s hit with cold water, he turns into a female version of himself. (Hot water reverses the transformation.) He and his father become guests of the Tendo family and their “School of Indiscriminate Grappling.” Fathers Tendo and Saotome have arranged a marriage between Ranma and one of the three Tendo daughters, Akane. She’s a tough cookie, and she’s not thrilled that this key component of her future has been decided for her. And she doesn’t seem to like Ranma that much.

I say “seem” because one of the most recognizable aspects of Takahashi manga is the ambivalent romantic relationship. Takahashi doesn’t waste any time twigging readers to the fact that Ranma and Akane are ideally suited to one another, but she doesn’t make Ranma and Akane seem stupid for not instantly realizing it themselves. The trick with this kind of drawn-out courtship is to create honest obstacles to the eventual union, and Takahashi is very, very good at that kind of slow burn. Novelist Charles Reade is credited with instructing storytellers to “Make ‘em laugh; make ‘em cry; make ‘em wait,” and Takahashi has successfully embraced this mantra.

In Ranma 1/2, she does this mostly by making us laugh. Few activities seem to give her as much pleasure as humiliating her protagonists, and Ranma’s boy-to-girl transformations give Takahashi plenty of opportunities. When a bucket of cold water can drastically alter the direction of a story arc, your narrative opportunities expand, and Takahashi makes excellent use of this device. It’s solid, secret-identity farce that offers quick sight gags and more complex complications.

This brings us to another Takahashi specialty, the idiot rival. In the three volumes I’ve read so far, there has been a delightful variety of this type of character, and Ranma’s dual nature makes their attentions even more potentially awkward. There’s school kendo star Kuno, who wants Akane for himself and detests male Ranma as a result. But he’s instantly smitten with scrappy, adorable female Ranma. His smug, conniving sister shows up, as does an old rival of Ranma’s with his own humiliating curse.

While all of these romantic complications force Ranma and Akane’s relationship to shift and evolve, they also result in yet another Takahashi motif, the ridiculous battle sequence. In her universe, nothing seems to say “I love you” quite as much as a completely over-the-top combat challenge. That neither Akane nor Ranma seem in the least inclined to accept the romantic terms of defeat in these tourneys matters very little; they like to kick ass. Cementing or protecting their relationship is generally just gravy, and they keep whatever savor they derive from that to themselves.

So they combine martial arts with rhythm gymnastics in one memorable sequence. As I read this, the possibilities offered by Takahashi’s shamelessness immediately sprang to mind. “They could fight people on ice skates!” A few chapters later, my theory was realized. If it sounds formulaic, it’s not, because Takahashi is a versatile specialist. As comfortable as she is with her style, she doesn’t seem inclined to repeat herself. Good comedy comes partly from the ability of the storyteller to surprise, to find new corners in a familiar, heightened universe. It’s why television sitcoms can run for a decade on the same premise and still be welcome.

This is helped by Takahashi’s ability to build sprawling, likable casts. Ranma an Akane’s fathers don’t play huge roles in the story, but they’re fun examples of the kind of parental figures that are both smarter and more experienced than the heroes but still goofy and quirky. Akane’s sisters get a few good bits, as does the family doctor whose romantic inclinations tend to overcome his professional detachment. I mentioned the rivals earlier, and I certainly look forward to meeting more of these clueless, narcissistic fools, because Takahashi tends to knock that character type out of the park.

But what about the “make ‘em cry” edict? Nobody’s ever going to mistake Ranma 1/2 for a three-hanky drama, but it is invested with genuine feeling. (Great farce always is.) This is almost entirely confined to Ranma and Akane’s underlying feelings for each other and the obstacles they face, but Takahashi does sprinkle a number of honest, moving moments here and there. The series wouldn’t work as well without them; it’s the difference between liking characters and just being amused by them.

Ranma 1/2 has all of the expected qualities of a Takahashi manga: the charm, the slapstick, the warmth, the durability. It also has that last alchemical property, Takahashi’s ability to surprise even when she’s traveling familiar territory. It’s that last quality that makes her the best kind of specialist in the world of comics.