August means that it's time for another Old-School Month, and today's review is both apt and nostalgic. It's a work from a newly minted Eisner Hall of Famer, beloved by many an older manga fan, and (no joke) was the first review I ever wrote.
RANMA 1/2 (Ranma Nibun no Ichi), by Rumiko Takahashi. First published in 1987 and first published in North America in 1993.
One day, Soun Tendo gathers his three daughters together: motherly Kasumi, boy/cash-crazy Nabiki, and hot-headed tomboy Akane. Soun's old friend Gendo Saotome is returning to Japan after many years with his son Ranma, and one of the girls must become Ranma's fiancee to ensure the survival of the Tendo School of Indiscriminate Grappling. Akane is the unlucky winner, but she thinks her luck has turned around when their family is greeted with not a man and his son, but instead a man-sized panda and a girl named Ranma.
After an accident in the bath, Akane learns the truth: Genma and Ranma have been transformed after falling into some specifically cursed springs while training in China. When Ranma and Akane aren't fighting with one another, they have to face off with the pompous kendo champion Kuno and Ranma's hopelessly directionless rival Ryoga.
With Ranma 1/2, Takahashi took a lot of what worked with Urusei Yatsura and refined upon it even further. That means we get another romantic-comedy with a cast of dozens, a lot of gags, and a lot of fighting, but this time with martial arts!
I wish I could say that I cared for Takahashi's approach to romance. She's long been known for her belligerent brand of romantic tension, but for me she's always put too much emphasis on substituting fighting for flirtation. I'd argue it works less here than it did in Urusei Yatsura, which at least had the excuse of Ataru being a covetous, contrary lech. Here the fighitng-as-romance gets in the way of more than a few character-building moments for Akane. It's like everytime she gets a quiet moment to reflect upon herself or her situation, Ranma comes along and acts like a jackass, pissing her off and starting the fighting anew. It's a shame because I like Akane. While she is very much a tsundere, she gets enough nuance to make her appealing instead of irritating. Plus, between Ranma's antics, her dad's plans, and the horde of boys at school trying to win her over, she's got more cause than most tsunderes to be annoyed with the world.
Thankfully, she counters this with a lot of good humor and good action. The gags themselves aren't necessary great - I would dare say they are already starting to get a bit repetitious, even in this first volume - but the pace is brisk enough that none of them linger long enough to annoy. Plus, Rachel Thorn's translation (made under her old name) brings an additional level of wit and charm. Even then, there are already some stand-out moments, such as Kuno's increasingly bizarre romantic delusions or Ryoga getting lost for a week in an attempt to reach a sparring spot 500 yards away. None of it is complex, but it's all delivered in a confident style that has proven to stand the test of time.
The cast here is drawn in Takahashi's signature style: big-headed with short torsos, long legs, with great dark blobs of hair. While their similarities in style grow with the cast size, they're all still attractive and expressive as hell. With this series, Takahashi really starts to show off her knack for drawing action scenes. She takes a very clean, crisp approach to them, using a well-balanced combination of backgrounds, blank space, and general composition to convey motion without leaning upon speedlines and screen effects. It's an approach that later shonen mangaka like Hiromu Arakawa would take to heart and it's one that I absolutely love.
Ranma 1/2 is looking only to deliver a wacky, action-packed good time and for the most part it delivers. While Takahashi would eventually exhaust these ideas in later volumes (to say nothing of later series), it's an extremely charming beginning.
This series is published by Viz. This series is complete with 36 volumes available. All 36 have been published and are currently in print and available digitally.