Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Nerima: The Real History of Ranma 1/2

(Sean here. This is a guest post by Stefan Gagne, better known as Twoflower. Stefan was the person who got me into Ranma, and hence manga, in the first place, so is also the perfect person to write a MMF post regarding the series.)


A little under two decades ago, I attended an overnight anime festival at a friend's house. This was back when the amount of translated anime available was quite limited, and we had to pool together a pile of VHS tapes for communal watching if we wanted to watch anything at all. Didn't matter if it was good or bad, so long as it was Japanese, and we could understand what they were saying.

During this rampage of mecha, pop idols, and comedy built around a completely different cultural axis of humor, I was exposed to a weird little show which started with a redhead beating up a panda in the middle of a rainstorm. It was confusing. It was amusing. It was gripping. This was my first taste of Ranma 1/2, Rumiko Takahashi's martial arts romantic comedy.

It would become my fanboy obsession for nearly a decade.

It had it all: comedy, fighting, romance, fascinating characters, familiar patterns, things you could hook into again and again. I wrote endless amounts of fanfic for it, under my moniker, Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne -- much as others were doing at the time, while the series was hot. Romance stories, dramatic stories, character portraits, elseworlds, *cough* self insert romantic dramatic portraits in an elseworlds, and so on.

For years, I wrote these stories, I watched the show, I bought the tapes. I played the characters in online roleplaying games. I was right there in the beating heart of Ranma 1/2 fandom. And eventually... I gave up on it.

I came to the realization that the fandom that had sprung around it was watching the series in Coke bottle thick rose colored glasses.

Through the eyes of fandom, the series was a DRAMA. It was about people fans knew and cared for, desperately yearning for love, trying to find resolution in their tumultuous lives. Cursed teenagers looking for cures. Destined romances seeking to overcome the obstacles in their path. Lost boys who just needed to be found...

In every fan's eyes, there were one true pairings, and there was light at the end of the rainbow. Their struggles mirrored ours, and were thus deep and meaningful.

But in reality, Ranma 1/2 was a paper thin slapstick comedy built on mutual hatred, indifference, amorality, and endless failure for the amusement of the audience. Funny, to be true, but still not the work of great weight and wisdom that it was being heralded as.

Let's take a look at what was ACTUALLY going on in Ranma 1/2. Here are the rules of the series, at the core.

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RULE #1. EXPRESSED AFFECTION IS ALWAYS WRONGHEADED.

Many characters profess deep spiritual love for someone. Often, for someone they just met five minutes ago and have nothing in common with, often someone who doesn't even know they exist. Hardly a great basis to start a relationship on, but that's just the root of the problem. The end results are worse.

In Ranma 1/2, anyone who claims to love someone will never, ever be loved back by that person. Be it genuine disinterest or abject emotional denial, it won't see resolution, and the fallout is intense. Mousse loves Shampoo; Shampoo hates Mousse. Ryouga loves Akane; Akane barely knows Ryouga exists. In fact, the best these suitors can hope for is NOT to be beaten to a savage pulp on a regular basis by their supposedly destined true love.

There is only one two-directional romance in the series, Ranma and Akane, and even that is so tsundere that it makes Asuka look positively sedate. Ranma routinely insults Akane, Akane routinely beats the tar out of Ranma, both of them deny any affection whatsoever, and whatever feelings they have are buried under piles of miscommunication and passive aggression.

Only near the tail end of the manga do they have ANY sort of peace. And they're the supposed "true love at first sight" pairing.

Is it really any surprise that fanfic's been written about the two ending up in horrible spousal abuse scenarios?

RULE #2. EVERYONE HATES SOMEONE TO DEATH.

Nearly every character has one or more blood rivals who hate them and crave their utter destruction. ("Obstacle is for killing," and so on.) These rivals will scheme, plot, cheat, and do whatever it takes to triumph over their enemy -- even when their hatred is barely justifiable on any level. Being a martial arts comedy, rather than cold blooded murder this takes the form of beatings and attempted beatings.

Usually, this hate stems from "I love X, X loves you and not me, so you must die." Ranma is on the receiving end of most of these, of course, being the alleged protagonist. Of course, being ultra-macho Ranma, he welcomes all this hatred as a chance to use his martial arts skills fighting off his enemies; he never seeks any other type of resolution beyond hoping they'll go away or pounding them senseless. He's not mature enough for anything else, and, well, see Rule #3 later
on.

There are no friendships to balance out all this hatred going around. Ranma and Akane have no friends, aside from two generic background characters each who only exist to occasionally tease them about their relationship problems. There's no anchor of human compassion in this sea of loathing. Even Ranma's own parents consist of an amoral madmen who routinely tortured and abused him in the name of martial arts training, and a mother who has vowed to murder him if he fails to live up to her standards.

(In her favor, Kasumi never has an unkind word for anyone. But she's generally window dressing, there to smile and do the laundry and cook and clean, and doesn't offer any actual, meaningful compassion and counsel.)

No, the best you can hope for in Ranma 1/2 is either indifference or temporary alliances.

The latter is the only form of loyalty to be found. When a common enemy arises, usually "The Bad Guy of This Movie Or OVA," that's when rivals unite. Typically, though, the bad guy needs to do something drastic like kidnap ALL the girls, or have some MacGuffin everybody wants. Only then can problems be put aside in favor of turning en masse on this one enemy... and once that's done, it's right back to the Circle of Hatred, as if nothing ever happened.

RULE #3. NOTHING EVER HAPPENS, EVER.

Nobody actually learns anything, nobody communicates, nobody matures. Time does not pass. School years don't go by. Every day is exactly the same, with the same battles, the same schemes, the same problems.

This is situation comedy at its purest. Episode by episode, storyline by storyline. You could hack a few dozen chapters out of the middle and nobody would notice save for missing the first appearance of the occasional returning guest character. Zero sum input, zero sum output.

The real countdown clock for the series is not any sort of ongoing plot -- it's Rumiko Takahashi's desire to beat her previous record for continuous volumes of a series. The series went on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on as long as she felt like writing it.

Only at the very end is there any resolution with Ranma and Akane... namely, a wedding that's promptly attacked with high explosives by all the blood rivals from rule #2 who are upset about the end result of rule #1. The more things don't change, the more they stay the same.

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In short, Ranma 1/2 is a series powered by hatred, driven by violence, and going nowhere.

Oh, it's still quite funny, don't get me wrong.

Total sociopathy is actually a pretty good formula. Most American sitcoms revolve around the cast being a bunch of wacky misanthropes. They don't usually solve their problems with violence, but they still backstab and scheme and miscommunicate. Flawed characters who can't sort out their own emotional baggage are funny as hell -- their efforts will fail, their directions will be misguided, their insane plans will collapse. It's all in good fun, ESPECIALLY when someone loses an eye.

But the disjoint between what fans WANTED Ranma 1/2 to be (a powerful dramatic romance), and what it actually was (a simple and amusing misanthropic slapstick comedy) was staggering. That's where the problem lies; not with the series, but with the beast that grew around it, trying to solve its problems or deny they ever existed.

You'd have whole communities built around various ships, all claiming to be the one true romance, despite NONE of the romances including the official one ever really going anywhere. Fanfic was written to resolve this conflict between what the fans craved and what the series wasn't actually providing. Cities burned and nations crumbled under the rampaging armies of otaku with differing views on the true destinies of the cast of Ranma 1/2. ...okay, maybe not THAT bad.

Fandom can be a wonderful thing. It can bring people together, making human connections over a shared love of a thing. It can inspire sparks of creativity, driving people to study and interpret and play around... and Ranma, being shallow as a kiddie pool, sure had a LOT of room to interpret and play around. In a way, that was its greatest strength, and its greatest weakness.

In the end, there's the manga, there's the show, and it is what it is. By this point in history there are anime fans right now who weren't even alive when otaku were watching the old Viz tapes of Ranma 1/2. What the legacy of the show will be, long after its initial perspective has faded, remains to be seen.

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Stefan Gagne is an indie game developer and original fiction author, and long time fanfic writer. He works as a webmaster in his day job and is currently working on Anachronauts, an original genre mashup adventure series. He does not hate otaku, honest.

10 comments:

  1. How about the real history of Ranma 1/3: Notes From The Closet?

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  2. Dear Anonymous: how about actually discussing the post and the manga rather than mentioning bad parodies of it?

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  3. While I liked Ranma 1/2 as "yay, more anime" back in the day when anime was scarce, I never really thought the source material was really all that well written once the premise was set up. Part of that, I think, was that I discovered fanfiction so quickly (just reading; I've never been able to write a decent story myself). Rumiko Takahashi created a world with an interesting premise and some (mostly one-dimensional) characters, and the fanfiction community took the premise and came up with dozens, hundreds and eventually thousands of continuations, what-ifs, alternate universes, crossovers, and anything else they could imagine. Sure, a lot of it was crap, but a lot of it was, IMO, much better than the original. My mind, I think, quickly filed "Original Ranma 1/2 manga/anime" in the same category as "OK but ultimately boring Ranma fic".

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  4. You've pretty much nailed it. The fans of it don't want more fanfic of the same. They want resolution.

    Man, there's a psychological study in the making... >_>;

    I actually am that sort of fan. But that's mainly because your #3 is the reason I can't stand 99% of 'comedy'. Like the piping on the Enterprise labeled 'GNDN', sitcoms Go Nowhere and Do Nothing.

    What I've read of Inu-Yasha seems like a reversed Ranma. Ranma was 90% comedy and 10% drama. IY is the other way around. Do IY fics have more comedy than drama? I've never actually read any. >_>;;

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  5. See, this is why I am not an otaku, and I don't mean that with offense. The idea that there are are long, drawn-out battles over the drama of a Looney Tunes-level comedy baffles me.

    People actually took Ranma seriously? You've got to be kidding, right?

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  6. Ahahahahahaha, you have NO IDEA. See my post tomorrow.

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  7. Rob, it's important to note that there is fanfiction of a serious and dramatic tone for anything you can think of. Dragonball Z had quite a following, heck, I'm sure there is fanfiction about many zany comedy series.

    But Sean is correct that Ranma was uniquely unmotivated towards resolution for a series. I think thats why so many fans liked writing fiction for it, it was an excellent springboard for ideas... and with the amount of ideas that Takahashi threw away for the sake of comedy, there's probably still a lot of fiction that could be written.

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  8. Ranma1/2. It inspired some of the best fiction I have ever read. Utterly awesome! The power of the manga/anime lies in the potential waiting to be realized. It made potential great writers wanting to write how they envisioned their muse in full glory.

    --palelurker

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  9. ...and that's why I gave up on Ranma 1/2 after season 1. I really liked it; I thought it was hilarious. (This was also my first anime knowing what anime was.) But as I spot checked throughout the manga and the OAVs, I saw nothing happening. So finally I asked people on a forum if Akane and Ranma ever got together, or if Akane figured out who P-Chan was, or if *anything* ever went forward, and got a resounding, "NO." At that point, I gave up, since there would never be any resolution.

    I still own season 1 on DVD (replaced my old VHS), plus the OAVs and the movies since they were fun for what they were. I just have no interest in anything future.

    Plus this way I can avoid any tv mention of Happosai. :P

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  10. When I first heard of Ranma as a kid, I thought the series was a little too wacky.

    Now, after reading this, good grief. I understand its popularity and I have noticed the fans coming up with theories regarding certain characters (i.e. Ryoga).

    I might have to research the fanbase for Ranma at some point...

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