Shipping Lanes in Ranma 1/2

Oh hey Talen’s talking about Ranma 1/2 everyone is it February is it smooch month oh wait it is and oh yeah he is and you don’t get to control my decisions, Dad. Anyway, what else do you want out of me in smooch month? We’ve talked about how it’s hard, we’ve looked at game mechanics, we’ve even busted out a visual novel (that’s all Mass Effect is and you know it), and now we’re onto me bellyaching about Ranma Fandom Beefs that could now be my adult children if I wasn’t a Millenial who spent too much time buying avocado toast and sexting to ever get a real job and a family.

Anyway, let’s talk about the weird shipping of Ranma 1/2.

If you’re not already familiar, Ranma 1/2 was an 80s comedy manga that reached into the 90s, made by the richest woman in Japan, built around the incredibly queer premise of following a martial artist who changes gender when he’s splashed with water. Believe it or not, there was a time when anime had premises like that and a lot of people thought that that was all anime. We also liked to argue on the internet about it while very carefully avoiding the topic of if anything or anyone could be considered gay.

Outside of lemon fanfictions, that, that was something lots of people did.

Thing is, there was a lively and proactive shipping community that were all very invested with ways that we could see the story of Ranma 1/2 ending, as if it was some kind of ongoing story and not a concluded narrative with a pretty clear and definitive ending (even if we told ourselves it wasn’t, really). That was something I remember that was really surreal about 90s anime online discourse. It wasn’t ‘this is how the story should go’ it always had this weird pallor of as if the discussion was somehow canon, that the story somehow was something we could influence if we could just convince other idiots on the internet.

See, kids, you think this was a tumblr thing, but tumblr is just what we used to call newsgroups.

Anyway, the only real ‘couple’ in Ranma 1/2 was Ranma (an idiot) and Akane (a modestly nice person). They had a relatively unremarkable relationship, and I really do mean that. Like the basic dynamic of two teenagers who don’t communicate particularly well getting distracted by different, competing wants, misunderstanding one another, and eventually managing to express a sincere appreciation for one another is just kind of the nature of the genre. And I mean that actually – most teen romance manga of the supernatural or adventure type or otherwise will include that same general trope set, and I’m not saying it’s because of Ranma 1/2, but if you know Ranma 1/2, you’ve seen a lot of people mimicking it. It’s not the same way that Ranma 1/2 left a generation of online weebs convinced that most anime had gender swap sections, which were then replicated in a host of webcomics that wanted to be manga: It really is just the most basic form of a classically masc/classically femme characters with a form of inevitability that can be spun out week to week in a narrative space that’s more or less about as directed as two pleasurecraft set adrift on a completely still pond. Momentum alone is going to make them hit each other with a low-key pleasant thonk sound even if the actual push to get there is nearly gone.

There were some shippers of the series who thought they could, with the force of Posting More on the Internet about it, change the way people thought the story should end or in some really extreme cases of Posting Through It, how the series did end. There were some who were so convinced that they could, with just the weight of english words on a newsgroup somewhere, change the course of a manga that was already over and whose author had fucking moved on, that if we all just posted enough, everyone would see the Twin Peaks style storytelling where RANMA AND AKANE GOING TO GET MARRIED in the last issue was in fact, a cunning ruse away from what the author wanted to do.

And this created the space where for some reason we were all kind of arguing about how the story ‘really’ went or what it ‘really’ meant which is a really basic way to talk about this kind of thing, because what we should have been saying is I like it better if. But since this is some peak Y2K Bug era buttheadery… we argued.

The arguments were interesting, though, in hindsight, because they showed a lot of things we didn’t think about. LIke, the ‘harem ending’ idea that some people liked was treated as pure, mindless self-indulgence, like the idea of polyamrous people at all was completely alien, that they were a construct of pornography and the fanciful vision of I dunno, crisps companies, which is pretty funny when you consider we called these harem anime. Wonder where that word came from, wild. Similarly, stories about say, Ukyou or Akane getting together were also treated as a bit out there, because, you know, those characters weren’t gay, so why would you bring it up. Let alone the idea of stories where Ranma would choose to stay in a girl form, and maybe even get with one of the boys she flirts with.

And like, okay, we’ll go more into that later, but there is a point here: For a series with a gender-swapping protagonist who flirts with both men and women, this is a stunningly straight series, and I can see more reasonable arguments that Akane is ace than necessarily that she’s anywhere on the Kinsey scale. Ranma flirting with the boys in disguise is overwhelmingly shown to be insincere, manipulative and also always in disguise so he doesn’t have to attach that behaviour to who he is, and he’s also pretty disgusted by the idea of it when he’s speaking to himself.

That is however, bringing the lens of now onto the work of then, and remember that Rumiko Takahashi was born in 1957, and reacted to the idea of Ranma getting pregnant with ‘I don’t think about that and neither should you.’ I maintain that the series’ authorial eye is much more asexual, spending its time mocking the amount of energy sex-wanters put into their rituals, given how needless and silly they are.

Rituals like fighting about who kisses who, on the internet.

And this is a weird adjacency that dealt mostly with fanfiction, which was easily communicated and distributed with online channels thanks to newsgroups and their related feeding archives. Typically speaking, fanfic got to live in this space far away from the space of fanart. Fanart needed a different set of skills but also a different framing. It didn’t matter if your fanart of Ukyou and Ranma wearing Okonomiyaki outfits working the cart together had a Viable Backstory that Resolved The Akane Question, but we liked to imagine in the fanfiction space that you definitely did need to answer the question of But What About The Canon Couple?

The powerful ‘I don’t care’ had not yet been developed amongst us tedious nerds.

CONTENT WARNING: I’m operating on what I think is a very reasonable interpretation of the canon of the manga, where Ranma is not a trans girl or trans boy or anything of the sort, but is a cis boy with a magical curse that gives him a female body. So if hearing that character described in that way, or treated that way bugs you, maybe just don’t worry about this one. Also, Ranma 1/2 as a series is going to involve some talk about TERF topics and also some of the whacky sex hijinks that show up in the series.

What we had developed were some sort of ‘standard forms’ of Ranma narrative, like apocryphal ‘well obviously this works’ kind of justifications. Rather than having big arguments about it you’d see things like ‘well I think this goes Ukyou/Konatsu,’ and that was that. If you wanted to play around with any pairings that would be complicated by the core pair (which is to say, all of them), you kind of had to find something to do with them. It couldn’t be that Akane and Ranma broke up over the mutual animosity that you could just as easily say was Too Much for the story of teenagers with big feelings, you had to make sure they weren’t single any more. This had two effects:

  • It locked off the potential for reconciliation, because couples are like weird chemical reactions where they snap together and now you have table salt or something
  • It also usually meant that the other one was a sleazy jerk who had two-timed the one you wanted to work with and that was a super common way to structure things so you could focus on the only good traits of the character you preferred.

It says so much about what kind of people we were that I could observe these trends. If you ship A and B and B and C are already in a clearly destined relationship, you have a love triangle, even if it’s very obvious that B and C are not involved or care. You gotta get out the scissors and come up with some story solutions for un-triangulating.

Akane/Ryouga

Okay let’s say you wanted to do something with Ranma and Ukyou. Getting Akane out of the picture is necessary, so you gotta find some place to put her like she’s a moist pot and you can’t just leave her on the counter. Well, the damp sink people often rely on for this was Ryouga Hibiki, who was conveniently already stalking Akane*, and had the romantic virtues of being There. The manga really does drive home just how much antipathy Akane has towards Ryouga as a romantic interest, and I mean really hammers it in. The friendzone isn’t real, which is good, because otherwise Akane banished Ryouga to it for ten thousand years of Friend Dungeon.

By the way, I know that Mike Rhea is out there on twitter and I hope he’s doing okay. I was pretty rude to him the last time we talked.

Anyway, Ryouga and Akane is really common, in a comes-with-the-frame way, but something I find really funny in hindsight is that I can’t remember a single story that used this device that didn’t start from different first principles (like, they met and engaged with each other in different ways in a full retelling of the series), or didn’t really focus on what Ryouga or Akane thought of each other at all. I can remember stories of Akane handwringing about how nice it’d be if, you know, Ranma was less of a turd and therefore, Ryouga was the natural alternative, but very, very rarely do I remember a single story which was about how Ryouga and Akane had any kind of common interests.

A strange cousin to all this is that for some reason, especially in the younger makers in this space, they’d often interpret Akane as being a TERF? Like, the fact that Ranma changed gender at all (despite his aggressive interest in maintaining his masculinity and his clear preference for being a boy) was itself inherently revolting to her. I went poking around about this and it seems that since Ranma was running on reruns in Brazil for a long time, there are a bunch of people in Portuguese actually going ‘wow, Akane’s a big-ass TERF.’

This is one of those things the anime kind of reinforces too, where because they had to keep repeating jokes to fill space, Akane would spend a lot of time asserting Ranma’s identity on him. This is a thing she did in the manga, mind you: He’d pretend to be a girl for some reason, which was almost always mendacious and manipulative, and Akane would interrupt and try to set things straight for the third party involved, by asserting that Ranma was a dude who was fucking with them. Ranma would often respond by flashing his boobs. This joke happened like, four or five times in the 38 volume manga (because mostly only Ryouga was stupid enough to get fooled by a Ranma girlmode fakeout twice), but the anime went back to this well more in filler episodes, resulting in lots of episodes that culminated in Akane shouting at Ranma you’re a boy, act like it, which, y’know.

TERF shit.

Weewww this went dark. But still, the point’s there: Akane being a butthole to Ranma about things Ranma chooses to do that also respect Ranma’s stated gender identity while trying to stop him exploiting or manipulating people, is then treated as proof that she actually finds the idea of Ranma being gender-noncompliant vile, ergo, she should date Ryouga and Ranma should be free to get with some other option.

We’re at how many words?

Oh fuck.

* The P-chan thing just isn’t cool man, like there’s no fucking excuse. I keep trying to find a way to frame this as not fucked up because if this wasn’t part of who he is I’d really dig Ryouga but god damn man.

Ranma/Shampoo

Alright, what about if you want Ranma to date Shampoo, instead of Akane, or you want Akane free for something else like, I dunno, Shinnosuke.

Well, we’re going to have to climb some hurdles here. Like, the big one is that Shampoo sucks.

Like, I don’t know if people remember that this clearly, but Shampoo super duper sucks. Shampoo, of all the fiancees in Ranma’s harem, is the one who is the closest to just plain out being a villain, and really the way she gets accepted into the ‘friend’ group and goes along with them on adventures is one of those ways that this series built that idea that ‘oh you can put up with any villain if you beat them enough times’ that pervaded the landscape.

Shampoo starts out wanting to kill Ranma. Well, so what, so does Ukyou. Except Ukyou doesn’t want to kill him kill him, she wants to beat the shit out of him for revenge, which may be bad, but it’s also bad in a way that stops several steps short of actual murder. Like, Ukyou exists as a person in a society where murder is bad, and we have every evidence that she can function as part of that society.

Shampoo on the other hand, at first wants to Actual Murder Ranma, and we know she means Actual Murder, because she moves on to wanting to Actual Murder Akane and a number of other characters. If someone is going to compose some sort of magical nonsense that could kill someone (bad) or blackmail Ranma into her arms (also bad) or actual mind control Ranma into her arms (extremely bad are you hearing this), Shampoo is the one who does it.

Shampoo is also very easy to read as not-very-smart, but that may be a language barrier problem or it may be Takahashi thinking it’s hilarious to depict Chinese people as idiots. I don’t know and honestly I don’t care.

Okay, so the Shampoo/Ranma Ship has a lot of uphill to climb. You have to basically scrub Shampoo of a lot of her negative traits, and then you have to undo a lot of the history Ranma has with her and the Actual Murder and the Actual Attempted Mind Control (repeatedly) so he, a pretty sensitive and easily threatened dude, can get over it and be into her. This is why, almost every time I saw it, the stories that attempted this ship simply… didn’t. They were all almost rebuilds of the series from the ground up with an OC in it that was called Shampoo and had very different ways of thinking and doing things and maybe wouldn’t drug their romantic interest.

Also really commonly, they ditched the Shampoo No Getty Words speak, which I can understand, it’s certainly more comfortable to write that way. A convention I can only half-remember is having Shampoo speak fluently [in Chinese] and then struggle in Japanese with other characters.

uh anyway, Shampoo and Ranma: If You Must, I Guess.

Akane/Nobody

You know I’m going through these in an attempt to bring up classic stories from my misspent youth of Too Online Anime Dorks, and that meant thinking about the stories where the point was ‘I need that person out of the way so this can happen.’ But that’s underselling a really common alternative form of the medium, where people would pointedly write a story that hooked up every character and then left Akane alone.

Because fuck Akane.

I’ve talked in the past about how Akane was a character who was subjected to a transformation in the fandom’s eyes, and also, wore the brunt of a lot of really misogynist shit. What was interesting was that you could do a lot with this kind of structure of Conspicuously Akane Doesn’t Get Anything kind of thing.

This obviously sucks because in the same way that Shampoo was basically someone writing an OC and calling it Shampoo, these stories often came at things from the other end, starting a story at the end of the Ranma 1/2 story as if every fan theory and half-remembered version of the character was the true core of who she was, and then using that as justification for making sure that character just got treated terribly by reality itself.

It was the earliest form I can remember, post-church, of someone Making Up A Guy And Getting Mad At Them in fanfiction form.

Ranma/Ryouga

Okay, so you know how I mentioned that they sometimes had Akane get into some weird TERF stuff? Well, here’s another place that broke out. Some folk had Ryouga and Ranma shack up as the focus of the story, but it was not unheard of for this to be something that happened in the background of another story, often one that focused on Akane finding love elsewhere (sometimes) but also oddly, focusing on Ukyou finding love. I can understand to an extent the way that Ukyou was one of the characters who had a lot of character development that meant she was often treated in a sort of precious way by readers who definitely were thinking about her as a girlfriend.

And you know what, that’s fine.

Anyway, one of the weird things is that there were quite a few stories people wrote that focused on the idea of Ukyou or Akane being deprived of their potential partner, because Ranma was over there. With Ryouga. And you’d either get a smack of homophobia (‘they’re gay’) or even more weird, transphobia (‘Ranma is living as a girl and with Ryouga,’) with the same conclusion that that’s why nobody wants to see those characters again (‘and that’s terrible’).

That is: Western fans of Ranma 1/2 had a subgroup that was common enough to generate a trend of people who were actively using homophobia and transphobia as reason to dislike something. In hindsight, looking at the series, I do get it, I understand the way that these reactionary mindsets can employ everything and anything to enable their ideology, but man imagine looking at Ranma 1/2 and thinking ‘yeah, the real thing here is to be more strict about gender boundary rules.’

My favourite dumb thing about this is that overwhelmingly, my memory is of these stories that introduced the idea that Ryouga and Ranma were you know, over there doing things with one another and that’s terrible… were stories that shipped Akane and Ukyou. Because boys being gay, or trans people being straight, ew

But girls, anime girls, anime girls kissing girls…

Well, we were okay with that.

Yeah, it’s not comfortable to think about is it? I know that I think about how I’m a great big Ranma 1/2 fan and how people now comment on how queer the series is, but going back and looking the series over it’s really not. It’s a series you can find a lot of queerness in, but it is also a series that was able to be a comfortable safe place for a bunch of extremely mediocre boys —

and it was largely boys

— to be misogynist, transphobic, and homophobic, all while loving a manga that should hypothetically have been against our presence.

Here’s one final point, a minor thing here, but like, the idea that Ranma 1/2 cracked a lot of eggs is not untrue. Lots of people did. But the thing is, the people who analysed their own gender were the people who when they saw how Ranma behaved, how he insisted he was a boy, how he disliked being a girl, how he did what he could to avoid being a girl and who sought out cures for being a girl, saw that and went: surely I could just live with that?

Because when you saw Ranma complaining and your reaction was: That’s strange, surely you could just get used to taking lukewarm baths, or carrying a thermos around, and then later on you realised that you were thinking about how it wouldn’t be a bad thing to be a girl?

That came from you. The anime gave you the reason to ask that question, but the person who came up with the right answer was you.

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