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Review: “Ranma 1/2 Vol. 1 & 2” A Double Knock-Out, or Forfeit?

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Ranma 1/2Ranma Saotome is a youthful martial artist, pedigree of the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts. Akane Tendo is the inevitable heir of the Tendo Dojo, and a strong and focused martial artist in her own right. Their parents have conspired to get the two to wed, leading to a unification of the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts and the Tendo Dojo, but there’s two major problems with the plan. Ranma and Akane spend more time hating one another than showing any signs of affection, and Ranma’s got a little bit of a curse going for him…or her. When splashed with cold water, Ranma turns into a girl. Splash with hot water, and he’ll make his way back. Cursed springs in China may be a problem for Ranma’s worlds, but is it a blessing for fans of comedy/action series? Ranma ½ is a legend of the industry, but does VIZ Media’s new Blu-ray release of Volumes 1 and 2 show the imperfections of the industry two decades past, or is it a proper tribute to one of the masters of the genre?

Your knowledge of Ranma ½ will invariably date you, and place your history of Japanese cartoons in a certain timeframe. For this reviewer, ads of Ranma ½: Hard Battle for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System intrigued an eight-year old, and a chance finding of it in a bargain bin at KB Toys led to many hours of admittedly sub par (in comparison to Street Fighter II Turbo) fighting combat, with the promise and hope for nudity (the ad featured comic pages, including an all-too-frequent shot of female Ranma peering at her new chest). If you know series creator Rumiko Takahashi better for Urusei Yatsura and Maison Ikkoku, you’ll probably be a bit older, more used to the fansub industry when it existed with VHS trades. If you’re more familiar with the Inuyasha era (mainstay of Adult Swim, temporary of Toonami, and the epilogue series The Final Act airing soon), you’re probably a bit too young to remember blowing into a cartridge to play one of the few legit releases of the franchise in the early 1990s (as a humorous aside, the first SNES title was heavily reworked into Street Combat, a title that replaced the cast with clowns and robots, amongst others).

Ranma 1/2 1
Ranma 1/2 1

If you know Ranma ½, though, you’re at the beginning of the modern anime industry. VIZ started releasing the series in both VHS tapes and comic books (and later, actual graphic novels and DVDs), and they’ve kept the franchise alive continuously in some capacity since the early 1990s. This also benefits them as they have much of the material released in both Japan and America over two decades. It’s one of the iconic titles for the brand, and it also set a bar for the upcoming Sailor Moon release (one highly-desired for a mass-market, appropriately-priced, uncut and accurately-dubbed major multimedia franchise).

Their knowledge and intimacy of the franchise is evident, especially when you look at the extras. On both sets, you get 23 episodes, next episode previews, and clean openings and endings. By sheer length alone, the sets are comparable to The Simpsons, one of the highest bars to reach for animation on DVD since the inception of the format. Both volumes include parts of We Love Ranma, a mini-documentary series that explores the impact the show had on both industry veterans and regular fans, while the first volume adds a highlight reel and panel from NYCC 2013. Both volumes are packaged in an incredibly-nice collector’s box that includes a booklet. Volume 1 features a 64-page booklet with an episode guide and a bit of the early manga to get people interested (which is significantly nicer than scans on the disc, which other companies have done for equitable concepts). Volume 2 features just the episode guide. For the completist, it would be nice to see original promos for the show, commentaries, and fact tracks (inquisitive minds want to know why the voice of female Ranma changed early on), but you know that a serious effort has been made to make this the ultimate release of the franchise when the Blu-ray makes apologies for some convention footage dropping in and out and explains that a track suddenly switching from English to Japanese means that the item you’re seeing had never been dubbed.

With many more volumes (143 episodes of this series, 18 of another, 3 movies, nearly a dozen direct-to-video specials, and even a live-action special means that there are a few more volumes to be released at this rate), they might also be saving more for later. In fact, the only annoyance that anyone could have with these sets is that they default to “English Audio”, not “English Audio with Subtitles for Music and Text,” which will lead you a few episodes of not understanding what signs say (an actually important aspect of one character) before you menu-dig and figure out what you’ve been missing. If you want to look into the technical aspects, the Blu-ray is that special sort of amazing that can only be found with animation that was cel-painted and cleaned up. Parts of the special features even show how bad or forgettable aspects of the original VHS releases would be in comparison to the new iteration.

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 10.00.22 PMAll of this would be for naught if the series was not entertaining. Taking a look at 56 episodes over these six discs and two sets, there’s definitely a pattern that’s established.

  • Ranma and Akane have to do something for school or the dojo.
  • A would-be suitor is either introduced or returns to gets involved with the goal of stealing either Ranma or Akane’s love interest away.
  • These actions lead to a unique fight (such as one in a giant frying pan, or avoiding the deus ex machina of the shape and gender changing of much of the cast).
  • One of the leads has to, apparently begrudgingly, save the other, revealing their true feelings for a split second.
  • Something is said that snatches any sort of genuine nicety away for a status-quo-returning gag.

These actions may be contained to one episode, or spread out over a small arc, but they keep things pretty roundabout and predictable. Takahashi may have become better at planning long-form stories with Inuyasha, or this may be a construct of the television show, and the source comic book might not be structured the same way. It’s not offensive, and the mix of episodic and mini-arc delivery systems makes it a mix between the aforementioned Simpsons (one episode features a plot that’s tied up enough by the end to not majorly affect following episodes, but small changes might accrue over time) and Dragon Ball Z (an incredibly long-form series that makes it near-impossible to pinpoint what actions took place in which episode). Thanks to this mixture, it’s a show that works both for the modern, Netflix-induced concept of marathon sessions, but it could also work on a weekly basis; maybe not one episode a week, but an arc wouldn’t be too hard to consider as a mini-movie on lazy Saturday afternoons.

Ranma 1/2 4One thing to point out is that the cast is very, very progressive for the time. Female Ranma is never shown to be weaker than her male counterpart (although, there may be a few social/psychological bits that hold their character back, such as discomfort or a frequent shirt destruction), and Akane is an effective powerhouse of her own (though, as the non-titular romantic target, she does fall into Damsel In Distress mode more than desirable). Many of the supporting cast are women that find their own strength, whether an incredible skill at a unique martial art, manipulating others to reach their own goals, or even just supporting their family. The men are no slouch either, but thankfully the series existed before the term “friendzone” could be used to make any of these unlucky in love to tip their fedoras when they’re defending honor of ladies. While Sailor Moon would come soon after, giving the first real modern “Girl Power” series, that series would largely keep things powered by friendship, magic, and love, keeping the fights at a distance. Ranma ½ keeps combat brutally in the foreground. Kicks, punches, and other actual fighting skills may be enhanced by agility and powers that only belong to Kryptonians or cartoon characters, and a few characters have notable gags that don’t really work for reality, but the series definitely keeps things bloody and bruised. Characters are frequently shown training, and it’s effective. It’s not “fighting in gravity ten times stronger than Earth with weighted clothes” insanity that Dragon Ball Z goes to, but “get in the dojo and do that one movie 100 times until you might master it once” realism.

Ranma ½ may have been largely out of sight for the past decade, but this set puts it on a pedestal higher than before, and truly uses the medium to make it the best release it’s seen on these shores. With a recent live-action special, upcoming premium action figures, and new releases of the manga, Ranma’s resurgence is befitting of the martial arts master that he — or she — is.

NOTE: Images are taken from Neon Alley and do not represent the quality of the Blu-ray release.