Ranma ½ is a Japanese manga series in the ‘whacky martial artists doing whacky stuff’ genre starting in 1987 and concluding in 1996. It’s a big work – over those ten years of weekly releases it made almost 38 volumes of stories, which range between classical kung-fu duels, adventure stories, harem anime hijinks, school test drama, pg-rated sex romp and magical-realism short stories. It’s probably one of the most important anime of its time, with an influence that stretched well over two decades, and one of the queerest really straight things in the world.
And if you know me, you had to know that me talking about this series is more of a when than an if.
Let’s start with talking about the woman who made it. Let’s talk about Rumiko Takahashi.
First things first, Ranma ½ was both enormously commercially successful, and it was a follow-up to an enormous commercial success. Typically speaking blockbusters don’t follow blockbusters, but not only was Ranma ½ such a case, but it was followed up by another blockbuster, Inu-Yasha.
Takahashi literally went from chart-topping success to chart-topping success as the manga industry and market grew, creating a chain of franchises, each one of which could have been regarded as a career highlight to anyone who wasn’t this absolute titan of the industry. At the beginning of her career she was literally living in a closet at her publisher’s so she could save money on travel and make the most of her opportunity, and now she’s one of the wealthiest women in Japan, all thanks to having made manga.
With a career that stretches across as much time as hers (since she’s been creating pretty much non-stop since the late 70s), it’s hard to really explain in a brief introductory paragraph how important she is if you’re not already aware of the scale of the form. She’s responsible for Urusei Yatsura, then Maison Ikkoku, then Ranma ½, then she went on to make Inu-Yasha and then Rin-ne. For context, the ‘worst’ of those is ‘merely’ the 15th best-selling manga of the year when it came out, with around 3 million copies sold. That’s her least successful major work, and she dotted in amongst these titles are a bunch of short stories and tv scripts. There’s a bestselling series of short stories that she just belts out when she’s bored.
This style, this aesthetic was replicated and mimicked as she became successful, and that success led to people copying her story style and making their own derivative, sorta-similar, sorta-different media in the same kind of content churn. You can draw a pretty direct line between the success of Takahashi-style media and the fillertastic 90s anime of the OAV generation. I think there’s a pretty reasonable case to be made that Tenchi Muyo‘s entire franchise is an attempt to do Ranma ½ But Star Wars.
When Ranma ½ took off, other work of hers got attention too, which meant that Maison Ikkoku and One Pound Gospel were also distrbuted based on her name recognition, and that meant that if you were a consumer of anime and manga media in the English speaking world in the 1990s, you may have had your Gundam and your Patlabor to draw on, but there was a big chunk of the landscape that was occupied by Ranma ½ and things that looked like Ranma ½.
Ranma ½’s creator isn’t just Takahashi, though; and I don’t mean to refer to her editors or her assistants! Ranma ½ is a series that for a time there had a presence in the fanfiction landscape so outsized that it was kind of one of the ‘big two’ series. Not only was Ranma ½ getting an enormous amount of postmodern paratextual fan engagement (fanfic), it was also used like it was an ingredient unto itself. There’s even a TVtropes article about how very common it was for a time there (like ten plus years) for every different series to get crossed over with either Sailor Moon or Ranma ½. There are a lot of fans whose first major creative experience was making Ranma ½ fanfiction.
I mean, I did.
I think I did.
In hindsight I think I may have only ever co-written with people, which is probably for the best. It nonetheless means that there’s a large portion of people for whom the experience of fandom wasn’t Naruto cosplay or convention turnout, but was instead making and sharing pure-text fanfiction on newsgroups, and no matter what you were into, you had to wade through lots of Ranma ½.
Once upon a time I said the bulk of Ranma ½ isn’t in Ranma ½. This isn’t just fanon – fan theories that most fans accept to the point where it can be assumed to be true or maybe even is mistaken as being true. This is also the way people saw the complex web of relationships in the series (and we’ll get to it), how they perceived the inner lives of the characters, or the fundamental mechanisms of the martial arts. All this stuff is represented in the manga (and anime and movies and fanfiction), but it’s not defined. Plus the story is huge! It’s so huge that it’s entirely possible to be a fan of Ranma ½ and to also be completely unaware of major characters because you just didn’t get to that stretch of the manga where they were the most important!
I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that Ranma ½ is not a thing on the landscape of our anime and manga fan culture. It is a part of the landscape. It is fundamental and structural. There are whole realms of ettiquette in the anime and manga fandom that some people learned and passed on that they got from Ranma ½, and its fans. There are tagging systems and fan terms that I saw come into being that hadn’t existed previously, because people wanted to make sure they could avoid Ranma ½ content.
Ranma ½ was a piece of media so influential that it became part of our infrastructure.
Okay, that’s where it came from, and you may get that it’s important, but the basics of the series an introductory frame that has been written and rewritten for decades of fanfiction:
Akane Tendou is an ordinary tomboy school girl with two sisters and a dad, who informs her that his old friend Genma is coming to stay, bringing his son Ranma with him, and that Akane and Ranma were going to be engaged to get married. Akane is naturally annoyed by this, but when Ranma arrives, she’s a girl (and an asshole) and Akane discards the idea of the engagement because it’s 1987 in Japan. Then, the twist: Ranma is in fact, a boy, but he’s been cursed to turn into a girl whenever splashed with cold water, and hot water turns him back.
What follows is a series of stories about being live-in friends with a martial artist wild child who changes gender and has a neverending string of enemies and friends coming to find him, mostly operating around the gimmick of him having been a total dick to them at some point in the past. Expand this formula until those enemies are friends and then those friends have enemies come to find them and you kind of have the loop of how this story goes. It’s a lot of complicated stuff but mostly told in small self-contained stories of Whacky People being Whacky, which includes a mechanised armour suit, invisibility, endless hair growth, soul vore, age changing, extremely racist depictions of Hawaiian-Japanese people, energy blasts and a Phoenix blowing up a mountain. Some of these stories were big and sprawling and dealt with serious monstrous threats to the main characters, and sometimes they went to the beach and fought on surfboards.
You might also wonder why I’m bringing up this series now, in my self-declared writing on Pride Month. Well, it’s because there aren’t a lot of works like it when it comes to representing the experience of difference in gender and the individual relationship to that gender, and there sure aren’t any that are also fun or good series in and of themselves.
Did you miss that? Let me restate: this is a series that ran for ten years with a main character who changes gender regularly.
I’ve talked in the past about showing trans characters in media can be challenging because of the way our language invisibles gender in our day-to-day lives while simultaneously highlighting it. In terms of narrative design, gender is directed inwards, while romantic or sexual orientation is directed outwards; a character’s gender and how it relates to them could be an entirely internal mystery, something a hypothetical other could never have any clear impact on the story (and that’s why I can see an argument for how Dipper Pines is a trans boy). We express orientation by who we interact with, but we tend to express gender in terms of how we assume other people should treat us.
What that means is that in a story, it’s often super hard to show characters’ relationships to gender if that story isn’t about gender itself. Ranma ½ is one of those rare stories that is a story about gender, but also features a sea monster getting hit on the head with a rock and a minotaur questing for back magnets.
The reason I brought up Rumiko Takahashi at the start is, well, partly because it’s worth remembering that Ranma ½ is still the work of a human born in the 1950s Japan, and gay people didn’t have housing discrimination protections until midway through Ranma ½‘s production. Only partly though, because I’m going to talk about ‘the author’ of Ranma ½, and I need you to remember I’m talking about that author as a voice behind this collected work, and not actually talking about Takahashi at all. Barthes style, the author is dead, and I speak of a ghost. When I talk about ‘the author’ here, I’m talking about nobody; I’m talking about a collective authorial voice for this series, which is really the work of at least one woman over ten years, but in reality also had to deal with editorial oversight and the involvement of assistants and print restrictions.
Still, I have a model for this ghostly author, and I think that it makes sense to talk about them when you view the series as a whole. Specifically, I think the authorial voice of Ranma ½ is not a pro-queer or anti-queer actor, but specifically, someone asexual and aromantic, trying to replicate the dynamics of relationships through observation, and seeing them all, on every level, as completely ridiculous. These two characters are engaged but if one’s a girl, they become uncomfortable about it, and that’s ridiculous. But if one of them becomes a boy again they’re uncomfortable about that change, and that’s ridiculous.
Most of the time, a character’s dynamic is shown a few times from a few different angles; even one-shot characters or lesser-used characters are repeated from time to time. Konatsu and Tsubasa can be seen as commentary on one another, of how people treat what they perceive as girls, and how attraction and interest in same changes based on entirely arbitary aspects of information, not necessarily changes in presentation. Nothing about the person of Konatsu changes when his shirt comes off, but the characters around him have a completely different opinion of him and his motivations, because they see an inherent difference in a boy or a girl’s behaviour.
I am also fully aware part of this idea of the Asexual Author Ghost is also that I just can’t be very close to the mind of Takahashi; I never read Ranma as she wrote it; I read it as it was processed through editors, then through translators. There are some things that translate poorly, and jokes are one of the hardest things to translate well. That means I tend to see the series with a lot of gentle leeway, where the response to most fan theories is ‘I dunno, maybe?’ whereas once when I was younger I’d get into fights that didn’t mean anything.
This is part of why fanfiction authors loved this series, mind you. There’s just so much stuff that gets looked at twice and then left unresolved – ideas explored, checked, but then the narrator goes ‘I dunno, I don’t care’ and moves on.
I hope you can appreciate by now that one of the challenges of talking about Ranma ½ is the mindblowing scale of the thing. This article started out as a treatment of the general themes of the story, which required a context for the greater story, which required talking about the phases the narrative moved through and then the larger story chunks and what resulted was a mammoth of an article, an unwieldy thing I wasn’t happy with because it also missed a bunch of important details.
I feel at times like I might make a set of Story Pile articles about particular Ranma ½ stories. It’s a fun topic. I like it. I like talking about it. But I think if I was going to do that, I’d need to first set about explaining what it even is, to put it in a context. And that’s what this wound up being.
Now, if you’re a reader familiar with me via Twitter (which is most of you), you might know that I’ve talked about Ranma ½, but you’ve also probably seen Freyja ‘Catra’ Erlingsdóttir giving her thoughts in long-form rereading of Ranma ½. I bring this up because Freyja and I are both media scholars, we both care about context, and lenses, and recognise that media is intepretation and all that, and when it comes to Ranma ½, our takes are pretty much completely polar opposites.
Anyway, I just want to credit her, because she’s the one who got me started on revisiting this topic, and I am absolutely thinking about things she brings up, even if my take on them is completely different. You should check out her take, it’s a good thread, it’s interesting, and it’s certainly a great way to approach Ranma ½, a martial arts manga with a man who tries to win a martial arts tournament by eating an onion off his head with a prehensile tongue, with a modern queer perspective.