Rumiko Takahashi’s gender-bending martial arts comedy Ranma ½ debuted as a manga in “Shonen Sunday Comics” in 1988 and in animation soon after. Three decades later, it remains hugely popular in both Japan and the United States. Although Takahashi has said she wasn’t commenting on gender roles in Japan, its absurd premise suggests otherwise.
Wiry, black-haired Ranma Saotome is a high school martial arts champion of extraordinary skill. Because he fell into an accursed spring while training in Jusenkyo, China, he turns into a buxom, red-haired girl when hit with cold water. Hot water restores his proper gender. His father Genma fell into a nearby spring and turns into a panda under similar conditions. (Jusenkyo must have been an extremely popular training area, as several other cast members also transform: the geographically challenged Ryoga becomes P-chan the pig; Shampoo the Chinese Amazon, a cat; and her hapless suitor Mousse, a duck.)
When the Saotomes move into the dojo-home of Suon Tendo as full-time freeloaders, the fathers decide that Ranma and Suon’s youngest daughter Akane are engaged, ensuring the preservation of the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts. Ranma complains that Akane, who’s a martial artist in her own right, is a tomboy and “uncute;” Akane yells that Ranma’s a jerk. But underneath the slapstick bickering, there’s a reluctant affection that keeps the humor from feeling mean-spirited.
The first OAV’s display the mixture of over-the-top physical comedy, absurd situations and agreeably dense characters that made the property a hit. The complications of the gender-shifting premise multiply like coat hangers in a closet. Gasbag and high school kendo champion Tatewaki Kuno is smitten with girl-type Ranma, but he’s equally taken with Akane. Shampoo wants to marry boy-type Ranma and kill girl-type Ranma.
Director Junji Nishimura keeps the action moving. When a demon escapes from 300 years of imprisonment, Ranma and Ryoga bombard it with magical charms that subdue the monster—or would subdue it if they had written the charms correctly. Shampoo gets an enchanted brooch that affects her emotions. When she wears the pin right-side up, she pursues Ranma with unmatched intensity; when she wears it upside-down, she tries to kill him with equal fervor.
Things calm down a little—but only a little—for gentler moments that anchor the characters. Akane, who’s devoid of domestic skills, surprises Ranma by knitting him a scarf for Christmas. Although it looks like it’s been ravaged by voracious moths, he cheerfully puts it on and presents her with a frame for a favorite photo, bought with money he borrowed from her venal older sister. Unaware that Akane’s spirit has been trapped within a magic doll, Ranma contemplates it, reflecting on the things he likes about her.
Only about an hour long apiece, the theatrical features The Battle of Nekonron: The Fight to Break the Rules (1991, previously released as Big Trouble in Nekonron, China) and The Battle of Togenkyo: Rescue the Brides (1992, a.k.a. Nihao My Concubine) play like extended episodes of the broadcast series.
Nekonron is the stronger, funnier film. When Lychee, a strange Chinese girl, arrives at the Tendo dojo on elephant back, a dirigible appears bearing Prince Kirin, the leader of the Seven Lucky Gods School of Martial Arts, also arrives. Kirin kidnaps Akane and steals a magic scroll from Lychee. Naturally, the whole gang chases them, but can Ranma adapt the “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” technique to defeat Kirin, who fights with chopsticks?
In Rescue the Brides, Kuno wrecks the family yacht, leaving the gang stranded on the mysterious floating island of Togenkyo, ruled by Prince Toma. He’s been kidnapping girls wherever he drifts, hoping to find a bride. Akane and girl-type Ranma are captured, and find themselves competing in such off-the-wall events as “survival flower-arranging” and “obstacle course cooking.” As Akane says, Ranma can be “such a jerk,” but he comes through in the end. Although Takahashi and director Iku Suzuki play everything for laughs, Happosai, the dirty old man/underwear thief, doesn’t translate. He must seem comic in Japan, but in America, he’s just obnoxious.
The third “feature,” The Super Non-Discriminatory Showdown: Team Ranma vs. the Legendary Phoenix (1994, a.k.a. One Flew Over the Kuno’s Nest), runs only 30 minutes and was released with the original OVA’s. Kuno hatches a phoenix that looks more like a gigantic, ugly Easter Peep than the elegant bird of legend. It immediately imprints on Ranma as its mortal enemy. As it grows bigger, the problems multiply—in the best Ranma tradition. Its outsized final form may remind Western viewers of Tex Avery’s King-Sized Canary.
The Limited Edition comes with a full-color booklet.
Ranma ½: OVA & Movies Collection (Viz: $54.97 3 discs, Blu-ray)
from Animation Scoop http://www.animationscoop.com/anime-review-ranma-%c2%bd-ova-movies-collection/