Rewatching Ranma 1/2 Twenty Years Later: First Impressions

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Although Ranma 1/2 technically came out (at least in its first incarnation) as an anime in 1989, I was first presented with its manga in the summer of 1997. As a queer trans girl, it would seem that the story of a boy who turns into a girl would be interesting to me. In fact, I only read and watched it casually. It could never hold a candle to Takahashi Rumiko’s other work, Maison Ikkoku, or my own beloved Kimagure Orange Road by Matsumoto Izumi.

Like many of my generation (folks barely just across the border into the “millennial” demographic, but perhaps truthfully bridging the gap between Gen X and Cold Y, Noah Smith claims I’m firmly in Gen X), I spent early childhood in the 80s and early 90s watching Starblazers, Voltron, and Robotech, and entering into my adolescence, there was the “new hotness” of DragonBall Z and Sailor Moon. It will seem horribly gendered, but I had no interest in DBZ, instead I was immediately drawn to Sailor Moon. That story has been told by many others and many ways already, and as much as I still love SM today, and outwardly show it, it’s undeniable that Kimagure Orange Road has been the most influential anime or manga in my life. But back to Ranma 1/2.

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In the summer of 1997, I left Austin, Texas (a city I wouldn’t realise how much I loved as a teenager until I no longer lived there) for the North Dallas suburbs. After my parents, my two cats, and I had moved into our new house, my parents went for a drive around the neighborhood. To my surprise, when they returned, they brought news of a comic book store to which I could easily ride my bike. My mother had a further surprise, two of the old style VIZ Media comic book issues (flipped and in the size of standard U.S. comic book pages): Maison Ikkoku and Ranma 1/2.

My mother, it seems, had made a horrible mistake. I kid, because I probably would have found a way to discover more anime series regardless, (I found a Blockbuster where I quickly devoured things like Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D, Bubblegum Crisis, and all the Tenchi Muyo I could get my hands on), but I devoured those two thin issues like in tens of minutes, and was out on my bike and towards the comic shop as fast as I could peddle. And on that fateful day, I discovered not just the small variety of VIZ Media titles, but I also found Kimagure Orange Road Volume 14 in the original Japanese. Despite the fact I could not even read it, I just felt I had something special.

As for Ranma 1/2, I continued to track down past manga issues, collect further ones, and even managed to track down VHS tapes from a variety of sources (including an Asian market that, in retrospect, was probably renting bootlegs and not VIZ Media licensed material). It’s hard to recall my emotions after so many years, but I feel like I thought of Ranma 1/2 as mindless entertainment. At that time, there were so few series available, that I consumed whatever I could get my hands on. I also think I felt somewhat betrayed by the fact that Ranma didn’t really want to be a girl, and in fact, seemed pretty annoyed by being one. If I was looking for gender variant role models, Ranma wasn’t it.

I did participate, along with Sean Gaffney and others, in writing Ranma 1/2 fanfiction, but it was never my primary series. That was definitively Sailor Moon. In fact, I will be honest, there’s a good chance that as my Ranma 1/2 viewership was always piecemeal (I never did get through most of the episodes or manga, although I owned all the movies) that much of my “knowledge” of the series and its characters actually comes not from canon itself but from “fanon” (was that even a word in the late 90s? Sean?). If so, I may find myself surprised as I “rewatch” the series (perhaps actually “watch for the first time” in a very real sense).

[The next section spoils the first episode of Ranma 1/2.]

Having now watched the first episode, my initial thoughts are: I remember liking Akane, but I don’t like her with fresh eyes. She’s genuinely nice to Ranma when she believes he (and from this point on, I will refer to Ranma always as “he” regardless of his sex, because his gender identity is clearly cisgender boy) is a girl. Ranma, who has some clearly sexist hang ups, honestly reacts very well to Akane’s overture, and I think they are very much a like and could have been really good friends. This means I’m inclined to also think charitably of Ranma himself.

Akane, while understandably upset to find a strange boy in her bathtub, reacts completely inappropriately to the revelation that Ranma changes sexes when exposed to various temperatures of water. That’s an awful lot to take in, but Ranma is still the same person, and Ranma seems to spend a significant amount of time in his female form, which means (as much of the humor of the series confirms) he is often subjected to misogyny and is the clearest cut case of “provisional male privilege” that it is possible to construct. Ranma’s own behavior in response is definitely a case of “two wrongs don’t make a right,” but it would have been great to see a case where Akane continued to treat “girl-Ranma” as the “real” Ranma.

I think very little of Akane’s father, and even less of Genma, Ranma’s father. I already consider Genma clearly abusive and many of the faults to be found in Ranma are likely due to Genma’s behavior, some of it merely ridiculous, much of it harmful. Akane’s father is just weird. But he clearly has something of a screw loose if he’s just going to let Ranma choose one of his daughters as a wife with literally no knowledge of what kind of person Ranma is. I vaguely recall that Tendou seemed to genuinely care about his children’s welfare, but that doesn’t seem like a very caring thing to do.

Am I interested in continuing to watch the series? Actually, to my surprise, the answer is yes. I’m intrigued enough to watch it with a critical eye I didn’t have twenty years ago. Specifically, I’m looking forward to watching it with a developed queer feminist lens that I didn’t have as an early adolescent. At the time I struggled to articulate my girlhood, few understood what they were seeing, and most fought it. I wasn’t like Ranma, Ranma’s boyhood is undeniable, something I absolutely never had and openly denied, but I’m curious if I missed messages about girlhood or womanhood from Ranma’s dilemma. I wonder what lessons Ranma might learn or if he learns nothing at all. I’m also curious to view Akane as the foil, and see what messages about girlhood might be gleaned from how she interacts with Ranma.

Already there is an implication that Ranma and Akane are more alike than either would wish to admit, and perhaps that might be because they both transgress gender norms in similar ways. But will either of them ever notice?

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