It’s one of those rare series that anybody familiar with anime can at least remember the premise.
“Oh yeah, that’s the one where the boy turns into a girl.”
Probably Rumiko Takahashi’s most famous work (though Inuyasha is very close), Ranma ½ is regarded as a cornerstone of late 80s/early 90s anime. Running from 1987 to 1996, it was one of the first shows and manga to be translated and available to western audiences. Interestingly enough, it’s also one of the earliest examples of parody amongst shonen works, mocking things like shouting the name of your technique or having increasingly obscure and ridiculous martial arts styles.
But enough of my history lesson. The real question is if Ranma ½ is worthy of your attention over 2 decades after it started. As a series that tries to cram romance, action, comedy, and drama all in at once, does it work out in the end?
Our story concerns the many adventures and strange happenings of high school student and martial artist, Ranma Saotome. The story begins with Ranma getting forcibly engaged to tomboy martial artist, Akane Tendo, who deals with a lot of unwanted male attention already. Ranma and his father, Genma, live at the Tendo household, along with Akane’s two sisters, Nabiki and Kasumi, and their father Soun Tendo. Ranma has to deal with rivals, love interests, old masters, monsters of the week, and full-on arc villains.
So beyond being a magnet for trouble, what else does Ranma got to worry about? Well, he’s also been literally cursed by a magic spring he fell in to. Whenever he gets splashed with cold water, he becomes a female version of himself. Getting splashed with hot water turns him back to normal. He isn’t the only one either; lots of people have these curses as the series goes on. For starters, his own father, Genma, transforms into a giant panda.
For a time, the series focused on Ranma going to school while dealing with his curse and trying to get closer to Akane. More and more characters were introduced, such as Ranma’s rival Ryoga, and several possible love interests, like the “Chinese Amazon” Shampoo or the martial arts chef Ukyo. The more serious tone of the opening chapters was gradually phased out, though never truly killed (in the manga at least), and more and more fantastical elements were introduced, such as ridiculously niche forms of martial arts based on things like dining or gymnastics.
Martial arts fighting is prominent throughout the series. Ranma himself often has to beat opponents through trickery and creative ploys, a welcome change from other shonen where fights are often settled by who can take the most punishment and acquire the most broken powers. The comedy often comes from visual gags, slapstick, parody of action and romantic clichés, and contextual jokes revolving around Ranma caught in embarrassing positions and his misunderstanding or ignorance of feminine behavior.
In addition to the comedy and action elements, the romantic parts are just as important. Ranma ½ could easily be considered an early example of “harem” anime; as the series goes, Ranma increasingly picks up a number of possible romantic interests (even some for his female form). As one would expect, the love interests fight amongst themselves to be with Ranma, and several take time out of their schedule to harass Ranma into marriage.
All of this might sound like a mess, but for the most part, Ranma ½ combines the three genres remarkably well. Although ridiculous, the action scenes are still fun to read or watch, and the romance is surprisingly amusing, as most of it is following Ranma’s reactions to the crazy actions of his many suitors. It never takes itself too seriously, knowing full well how silly and goofy it can be and rolling with it.
Ranma himself is not your ordinary shonen protagonist, having an ego to match ridiculous talent in most fields and an underhandedness and pragmatism to his combat. He’s rude, prideful, and rather petty while also being crafty, defiant, and even heroic when things get serious. Akane is one of the classic tsundere examples, though she’s honestly far nicer to everyone not named Ranma or a recurring villain. Ryoga, Ranma’s rival, is generally nobler than Ranma himself is, but simultaneously easily fooled. Most of Ranma’s enemies are just as often his friends, and the antagonists who don’t return often aren’t evil for the sake of evil, having more complex motivations. Indeed, there are very few totally flat characters in Ranma ½.
Being from the late 80s and early 90s, Ranma ½ is no stranger to some unfortunate cultural differences between now and then. Modern readers might feel uneasy with some of the character’s attitudes towards gay individuals, as homosexuality is considered either perverted or unnatural by the main characters, and it’s often played up for jokes. Given the time period it was made and the more tolerant attitudes that the characters express later on, I think it can be excused.
Nudity, specifically uncensored bare chests, appears sporadically, as does mention of sexually explicit content, though it’s usually played for humor. In today’s world, baring the nudity, most of the time its hovers around PG-13. Cursing is frequent, and the action can get tense and bloody, but it’s overall nothing too bad.
Ranma ½’s anime adaptation ran from about 1989 to 1993, with several OVAs and movies following in its wake. It follows the manga’s story on most of the key parts, but introduces some original stories (or filler, if you prefer) and occasionally diverges from the source material. The animation is definitely not the best, though I admittedly have a soft spot for that old school look. The background music and opening themes are very catchy. Overall the tone feels lighter than the original, partly due to the later serious story arcs of the manga never getting adapted. Due to its greater length, more story arcs, and greater character development, I feel the manga is the better of the two.
Although one of the earliest English dubs, Ranma 1/2 has a surprisingly competent cast and script, only really hampered by the unfamiliarity with dubbing at the time. It adapts some of the cultural jokes into ones Americans might be more familiar with, but it still feels genuine. If you prefer dubs to subs, it’s worth checking out.
Where Ranma ½ suffers the most is probably just how inconsistent it is. You might have an epic story arc for a few chapters then followed by goofy one-shot chapters where nothing really happens. While it blends comedy, action, and romance well, if you’re not a fan of those genres to begin with, or even Ranma 1/2 ‘s take on it, you might be disappointed. The art style of the anime or the overall feel might seem archaic to some, given the show began over 20 years ago.
So is Ranma ½ a good read today? I think some parts of it have aged remarkably well, such as the characters and the humor. It does a good a job of mocking shonen tropes while simultaneously embracing them, and it takes itself seriously enough to where you at least care about the characters without ever forgetting how silly it is. Ranma’s curse is always relevant and never feels like a gimmick, while being different enough from other shows (especially it’s contemporaries) that it doesn’t get old.
I’m definitely not objective when it comes to the series, being the first manga I read all the way through, but I feel modern fans can enjoy the show as well. I don’t feel it’s a good show to show to new fans, nor is it good one to show to children, but it has a lot of charm and definitely breaks the mold, especially for the time. Fans of Rumiko Takahashi’s other works, like Inuyasha, will probably feel right at home with Ranma ½. I don’t give numerical ratings, but overall Ranam ½ definitely deserves the recognition of being a classic.
Derek Delago is a UF student who is also an anime club officer. He loves anime, video games and rock.