Back when I was in my comic reading infancy my world was full of nothing but superhero, and superhero style storytelling. My uncle bought me my first comic at a young age, an issue of Amazing Spider-Man, and afterwards allowed me access to his collection from childhood. I became hooked, my mission in life became getting my hands on comics whenever I could. Unfortunately for a kid with a limited allowance and transportation reliant on an adult, not to mention the increased hyper-violence of 1990s comic storytelling, obtaining comics was no easy feat.
Regardless, my copies of Spider-Man, Spawn, Brigade, Youngblood, and the like were well loved, quickly becoming well-worn. Saving the world, big beefy dudes throwing fists, although there were different flavors they all had the same kind of thing going on. But me being a desperate reader, I took what I could get, and if my world was nothing but superheroes that was just fine.
And one fateful day my entire world was turned upside down. My cousin called me and told me about a comic a friend had lent him. He told me it was about a father and son pair of martial artists, one of which was a panda, and the other could turn into a girl. There was another martial artist who could turn into a pig, and yet another who turned into a cat. There was combat ice skating, martial gymnastics. Before he was done describing this bizarre comic my head was spinning. Not once did my cousin mention a world in peril, or anything close to what I knew to be true of comics at that point. All I knew was that I had to read this mysterious story.
Like many anime and manga fans, Ranma ½ served as a gateway to an entire universe of undiscovered territory. Serving a little bit from an entire banquet of genres it offers a little something for everyone. Comic fans with an expert palette can certainly pick apart each genre through every sampling, but no flavor in Ranma ½ is pure, lacking a taste of at least one of the others. It is a romance, comedy, martial arts, gender bender, drama, and plenty of other genres beyond that. The magic of Ranma is its ability to combine this menagerie into a coherent package. While it may stray into one generic category for a few pages, it never strays far enough away from any one to feel like a specific, individual category. Fans of romance lacking an interest in martial arts are never left feeling betrayed for very long, because where the story might lean towards one category, the others are ready to lean in and pile up along side it.
In particular, the comedy aspect is the most pronounced of the category buffet. Gags and punch lines are never too far behind the serious action and drama, and also serve as a fantastic buffer for romantic tension. The volume of love interests, crushes, and betrothals chasing Ranma and the supporting cast is seemingly endless (by the time Ukyo shows up I mapped it out to something looking like a octahedron), and all the while wreaking havoc through the story every time there’s even a hint of romance.
Thankfully Takahashi’s expert comedic punctuation is capable of delivering a laugh in the middle of any situation. A character might be fueled by determination and revenge, prepared to commit unspeakable atrocities in the name of vengeance, and suddenly find themselves the butt of a banana peel gag or the like. This ruthless adherence to drop-in gags ensures the story never gets too serious, and keeps the reader in a constant state of anticipation. After a few chapters, and getting used to Takahashi’s flow, you begin to know intrinsically that a joke could be a panel away, maintaining an aloof state above all the serious bits. On the other side, the constant focus on humor and jokes pushes more emphasis on genuine drama, making it more noticeable and highlighting its importance.
Nothing is truly immune from the power of comedy in Ranma, and the infinite realms of martial arts is further proof of that. If this comic was a view of the world in a microscope, just about every aspect of life has the potential to become a disciplined art. Gymnastics, Tea Ceremony, Okonomiyaki, all unlikely subjects to have offensive capabilities, yet somehow have a natural feel when they become part of the story. Perhaps it’s due to Takahashi’s unyielding desire to pull laughs out of the reader, and for that reason even the most unlikely activity being used for combat is believable. Nevertheless, each one adds suspense to the drama, while being utterly hilarious.
I’m truly thankful my introduction to manga (and subsequently anime) was through Ranma ½. Not only did it greatly expand my horizons, it allowed me to accept that a comic can be more than one or two cut and dry genres, that it can be whatever it wants to be, even if that something is confused and messy. And just as I did to my favorite superhero comics, my copies of Ranma were read, reread, and re-reread until they had all rounded corners and the glue on the spine was coming apart. 20 years later, and a whole galaxy away from my original perspective, this masterpiece holds up in ways I never could have imagined. It feels fresh and new, even though I committed the story to memory page by page. What I may have missed when I read it before is as bright as day now, and what I remember from the past is even better than before. For turning me into the manga fan I am today, I will be eternally grateful to Rumiko Takahashi, and her gender and species bending cast.
Hopefully the new editions will welcome an entirely new generation of readers to the world of manga.
Ranma ½ is available now in 2-in-1 editions from Viz Media.