Rereading the Stack: Ranma 1/2

Series Info
Title: Ranma 1/2
Author/Creator: Rumiko Takahashi (Inuyasha, Rin-ne)
Media Type: Manga, Anime
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance, Martial-art fantasy

So that's Ranma... and that's also Ranma.

So that’s Ranma… and that’s also Ranma.

A lot of people in the anime circle might have heard Rumiko Takahashi from Inuyasha, the alternative-universe fantasy story about a girl and a half-breed demon, but before she wrote Inuyasha, her biggest hit was Ranma 1/2, a martial-art fantasy story told as slice of life, a series which I think is still the most influential of all her works, and I’m not just talking about the number of copies sold.

For me personally, Ranma 1/2 was my gateway manga. I watched the anime series on Saturday mornings, usually after breakfast because food was choking hazard while watching Ranma Saotome and Akane Tendo going about their lives. Since the anime series never followed through with the storyline, and they didn’t have to, I bought the manga and began reading them obsessively. Again, food was choking hazard.

What is intriguing about this story is that while it is a romantic comedy about two teenagers who can never get along in the same vein as You’ve Got Mail (the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan one, by the way), Ranma has a giant predicament: he is half a girl.

Screech. Halt. Stare. Yes, I just said Ranma is half a girl.

Ranma 1/2 is set in a fantastical world that is sort of like ours but not really. In this world, there are a group of hot springs in China called the Cursed Springs which turns anybody who falls into a well into the creature that cursed that particular well. Ranma happened to fall into the Maiden Spring while training in martial art with his father. Now every time he is doused with cold water, he turns into a red-head, C-cupped version of himself.

The choice of making the lead protagonist a girl half the time led to speculation that the author intended for the series to be a commentary on gender. It turned out she just wanted to have fun, and my ten-year-old self agreed with her decision wholeheartedly. Ranma 1/2 is a rom-com of extremely unlikely situations with quite an amount of drama, and that was what made it so addictive.

My current self, however, sees more into it than it is intentional. I don’t think it is a direct commentary on gender like Otomen, but the topic inevitably has to come up from the premise. The fact that the protagonist can change his sex at will (or sometimes against his will) makes it a fertile ground for the discussion of gender identity, sexuality, and shows our perspective on related topics.

What related topics? Here are a few I can think of from the top of my head.

1.The Romantic Trope of Love as Something to be Won

I have to say I am glad this trope is not as prevailing in the shape and form as it once was twenty years ago when the series was first published. But since we still have the Bachelor and the Bachelorette, I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon.

I have to start with this one because it glares us in the face the moment we are introduced to Ranma and Akane. They were both teenage martial artists, both proud and independent individuals, betrothed to each other by their parents who are best friends and thought the idea of their children marrying are kinda cool. Ranma and Akane, of course, were never consulted about this and only found out that they are engaged the day they were supposed to meet for the first time. It was also the day Ranma and his father moved into Akane’s family home and in effect moved into her life.

That is how Ranma is introduced to Akane’s morning routine, which involves literally fighting off suitors. Akane, despite not being a super hot chick by today’s standard, is cute, athletic, and popular to the point that Tatewaki Kuno, Captain of the Kendou team (the manliest of all sport in Japan) and the biggest misogynistic idiot to ever exist on the surface of the Earth, announces that only those who can win against Akane in a fight have the right to ask her out to control the number of suitors in school.

So she kicks every one of their sorry asses every morning and develops an anger management problem.

The first thing that is established about Akane is that she hates guys to the point of being misandric because of the immature behaviors her fellow classmates show towards her. She is the idol, the goddess, the ultimate prize for the winner, but never really Akane Tendo to them. Ranma was just as unlucky as Akane in this department. His female self attracts the attention of quite a number of guys, most notably our dear Captain Tatewaki Kuno, who pursues her/him with the same attitude he has when he pursues Akane: to get her as his prize. To say Ranma is annoyed by the attention towards his female self would be a massive understatement.

The usual reaction to people flirting with Akane.

You can’t say Ranma and Akane aren’t a team when fighting off unwanted attention.

This trope does not only apply to women in Ranma 1/2. The male Ranma got pretty much the same treatment from his female suitors. Despite him being rude to Akane (mainly because she is rude to him first), Ranma is actually a pretty nice guy, an attitude that is surprisingly due to him being raised mostly among men. I always have a feeling that Ranma doesn’t quite know how to act around girls, so he settles with being more reserve and tries to be nice to them, which makes him much more pleasant than, say, Tatewaki. And a number of girls who come into close contact with him take to him almost immediately.

Again, have the girls ever asked for Ranma’s input before they proceed to fight among themselves for him. No, they never have.

And because of the idea that love is something to be won, Akane and Ranma are constantly pestered by each other’s suitors. The first mention of Ranma being Akane’s fiancé leads to him fighting Tatewaki in his first day of school and almost every day after. In all honesty, Ranma doesn’t want to be involved in the competition for Akane’s hands, but he can’t avoid it. Same goes for Akane with Ranma’s female fans.

By spending so much time on this trope, the series ultimately showed why it doesn’t work and ultimately why Ranma and Akane works despite the fact that they never go easy on each other. They might fight each other a lot, and probably through that they become very perceptive about one another. Ranma will offer to be Akane’s punching bag if he thinks she needs to let out some steam (and it isn’t like Akane is going to seriously hurt him anyway). And Akane, on the other hand, will always be on Ranma’s team, offering him a helping, if sometimes unwanted, hand.

2.The Rape Jokes

There isn’t any rape in Ranma 1/2, or the series would never have made it to 9:30 am slot on Saturdays, but it does have sexual harassment in its various forms which usually result in hilarity of one kind or the other. Of course, nothing physical happens, but the use of date-rape type of drugs, mind/behavior-altering substances (read: love potions), and kidnapping and withholding kind of situation? Plenty here.

The young-me wasn’t disturbed by these stuffs back then because I knew nothing bad would happen to any of the characters. The God Almighty Takahashi wouldn’t let it go that far. The old-me, however, sees these situations as real and knows how far they can go and to what consequences. They stop being funny because they are not funny in the real world where nobody is there to stop them from going too far.

However, because the disturbing nature of the situation and the subsequent reactions, sexual harassment in Ranma 1/2 actually reflects quite a lot of what we think of those situations. The one I remember most keenly is probably the closest to rape Takahashi had gone. It happens after Ranma, male, saves the life of Tatewaki’s sister who is unfortunately just as much of a psycho as her brother and smarter to boot. She promptly becomes infatuated with him and decides to drug and rape him to get the point across.

Thanks to her vanity, i.e., checking and refreshing her makeup at the last moment, Akane is able to save Ranma before anything truly devastating happens. But then Akane turns around and accuses Ranma of ‘asking for it’.

What stunned me is how candid Takahashi went about victim-blaming in that scene which makes me realize how many societies accept this as norm, that the victim is to be blamed for the rape. In the very same scene, she showed us how utterly disgusting and mean it is. Ranma isn’t ‘not fighting hard enough’, he is drugged to the point where he can barely move his head although he is still conscious and is really fighting back with all he has. He also isn’t ‘asking for it’ by saving her life. Any decent human being would have done that. He is clearly taken advantage of by the girl he presumed is in need of help (and she does to a point). The same goes for any rape victims. They weren’t ‘asking for it’. They weren’t ‘not fighting hard enough’. They were taken advantage of. The people who should be on the receiving end of the shouting are the rapists, not the victims.

3.Sexualization of Breasts

Ranma 1/2 the anime doesn’t have much of these, but the manga had plenty of uncensored breasts that anyone reading this series should do so in the privacy of one’s room lest the person be called pervert in public.

I remembered being uncomfortable about this when I first read the series because the subliminal message about breasts in the media was that they are sexual organs. I kind of have to look away at times but it was hard to do because sometimes Ranma’s C-cups were just too glaring to ignore. It took an older me (not this-old me, but quite a few years older) to understand that those breasts weren’t meant to be sexual. It is just Ranma walking about bare chest in exactly the same way he did all his life as a guy but in a female body.

That is not to say Ranma 1/2 doesn’t intentionally sexualize breasts. It does sometimes with the typical ‘bigger breasts are sexier’ undertone. However, it points us to the absurdity of doing so through Ranma. As a child I didn’t think that little display as anything aside from ignorance, but as an adult I actually think Ranma has a point. Breasts are not something inherently sexual. Our cultures make them so. That’s why women’s breast are obscene in public and breastfeeding can cause a ruckus while guys can walk around bare chest and it would be perfectly acceptable (unless they do it in the work place). Again, I own it to Ranma 1/2 to make me question what seems blindingly obvious in our cultures but actually doesn’t make any real sense unless you take into account that most of the world’s cultures are patriarchal, which means that men control what they sexualize but women don’t get much say in the arrangement.

4.Biological Sex, Sexuality, and Gender Identity

This topic just comes with the premise of the story. You have a lead character who can change sex at will. Is he a guy or a girl?

Ranma is, of course, 100% a guy even in a girl’s body wearing a short frilly skirt acting all cute and girly. And the readers know those acts don’t mean anything because we know Ranma. We know what he is capable of, including dressing up and acting like a girl to get what he wants.

That is not to say Ranma himself is all grounded and doesn’t have a problem with being half a girl. He has plenty in the beginning. It is clear that being able to turn into a girl gives him an identity crisis. He won’t wear anything that vaguely girly on his girl body. He hates being treated like a girl even though he can’t possibly explain his situation to everyone he encounters. But he eventually gets over it. He begins using his female body when the occasions call for it. That takes an understanding of his own identity and some level of comfort in his own body to pull it off.

You might think this should have made the young-me very confused. Surprisingly enough, it never did. Of course, my understanding of gender and sexuality was wibbly-wobbly if not non-existing at that age, but to the young-me Ranma is a guy but most importantly he’s Ranma. Nothing else aside from that really mattered.

As an adult, though, I think Ranma having a female body does matter but to no one else aside from himself and to nothing else aside from his relationship with Akane. Ranma was trained to be tough and self-reliance. He never allows himself to be anything else especially in the beginning because it would contradict what he was told all his life that being a man is about. Having a female body creates a loophole for him and allows him to be vulnerable. A scene that best illustrated this was when Ranma just comes out of a clinic and his legs’ muscles give up on him. Akane offers to help, but Ranma flat out refuses even when he can’t even stand. Annoyed but also sympathetic to his plight, Akane douses Ranma in cold water so he would be in a girl’s body and so not draw attention or ridicule as she piggy-backs him home. Ranma, being off the hook from the pressure of being a man, allows Akane to help him.

Akane, on the other hand, was conditioned by her experience to fight men not being open with them. That is why her relationship with Ranma starts out rough. When they become friends, the fact that he is a guy still prevents her from forming a deeper emotional connection. Ranma’s female body gives her the loophole to be vulnerable around him while not feeling like she was being threatened or behaving out of character. It takes some time and some shared experience before she can get past Ranma as a guy to just Ranma as Ranma.

They don’t hug, unless someone’s life was in danger and Ranma is a girl, and even then…

Although, Ranma constantly looks for a way to have a fully male body, in the end I don’t think it matters so much anymore. Being female doesn’t worry him the way it used to and Akane honestly doesn’t care. And I don’t think the audience care either. We are just happy that they recognize their feelings for each other even if they still fight and argue all the time. And I think that’s the best part of Ranma 1/2. It liberates us from the idea that sex or gender are more important in a relationship than the person while throwing both misogynistic and misandric ideas in our face and makes us laugh about it. And I think that’s the genius of the series. I know it wasn’t Takahashi’s intention to do so, and all I’ve said might be completely unfounded. Ultimately, Ranma 1/2 is a romantic comedy, and it’s absolutely fine reading it just as that.

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