The Hellscape of Being a Woman in Ranma 1/2

In 1989 there was a TV series in Japan based on a manga called Ranma 1/2.  I would remain ignorant of it until about 1995 or 1996.  The game shop my boyfriend (now husband) haunted had started carrying anime videos because some company had figured out a way to get the mouth movements to match for dubbing more cheaply.  They also edited more lightly for American audiences than Star Blazers, Battle of the Planets, or the three headed monster that was Robotech in the US had been.

Logo for Ranma 1/2 videos with a Panda, a pig, and Ranma both as a boy and a girl.

And, yes, before you shout me down.  I know that the voice acting is better in the original Japanese.  But I’m dyslexic and I actually care about character and story.  I read slower than the spoken word.  Subtitles go by too fast even for my husband to read aloud, let alone for me to read.  Watching subtitled movies, especially one with face paced dialog is emotionally crushing.  So, unless you tell wheelchair athletes at the Boston Marathon that they aren’t getting the “real” experience unless they actually run it, shut up.  The voice acting means nothing if I can’t figure out what they are saying.

As I was saying, the local game shop (RIP “Games People Play”) was carrying dubbed anime videos.  My boyfriend was part of a circle of friends who were very into anime.  In fact, before we ever met, he and some friends had penned a list that was The Laws of Anime partly inspired by their physics classes and the horrible violations of physics present in all amines but especially those late-seventy, early-eights battle-fest shows. (Side note: I’m really bumbed it’s hard to find this list with all the orgional credits in it.  Why do people do that, strip out the credits?)  You can still find the list floating out there on the Internet, though it is somewhat dated as the style of anime has shifted a great deal since the Fist of the North Star was popular.

Where was I?  Right?  Boyfriend really into anime…  I grew up watching the aforementioned Star Blazers, Robotech, and Battle of the Planets.  Yet, I struggled to enjoy the videos my boyfriend and our friends were watching because–subtitles.  When Viz started releasing videos on VHS, dubbed, it was a solution to a major problem.  A good deal of our spare cash was spent on those videos.  In that stack was Ranma 1/2.

Recently I was moved to rewatch Ranma 1/2 because my copies arrived of Henry Lien’s two Ranma on ice skates carrying Akane on his back.Peasprout Chen books about a martial arts, ice skating school.  It stirred fond memories if martial arts flower arranging and other oddities that Ranma assumes he can do better than anyone else because the words “martial arts” is part of the description.  And, oddly, for the most part he can.

Ranma 1/2, which is now streaming on Hulu in both dub and subtitle formats.  I will say it ages better than the first few seasons of M.A.S.H. has but it has some definite quirks of its time and culture.

Ranma is a boy.  He and his father are obsessed with “Anything Goes” martial arts.  One problem, about a month before the first episode Ranma fell into a cursed spring, the Spring of the Drowned Girl (very tragic story).  Now, when he’s dosed with cold water he turns into a red headed girl.  Hot water returns him to normal.  If feels like this should have been created by an American toy company pushing cheap color changing plastic.  No, this was a Japanese original.

It’s a slapstick comedy, filled with the usual misunderstandings that could be easily resolved if, say, a letter was sent ahead warning Mr. Tendo that Ranma is suffering from a special condition. And, of course, much of its humor stems from wild deformations of cultural and social practices, say, arranging the engagement of Ranma to one of the Tendo girls without the permission of Ranma or Akane.

And that is also where we move into the hellscape that is being a woman in the Ranma 1/2 universe.  While Ranma and Akane complain about their arranged engagement, everyone threats it as a done deal. The Ranma 1/2 universe is one where your parents can arrange a marriage for you, to merge your martial arts schools and allow the Tendo school to continue. Or sell their child for a really good fish dinner.

But wait, Akane is a very capable martial artist.  Why is she not viewed as a viable heir to her father’s school?  Yeah, that one isn’t an deformation of Japanese practices and beliefs of the time.  It isn’t even played up for laughs.

Ranma’s first day at Akane’s school… wait, did I mention this is an arranged engagement between high school students?  They are both sixteen, folks.  So, you think sexual Kuno standing with a bamboo swordharassment is bad in the real world?  In the Ranma 1/2 universe you might find yourself having to fight of suitors.  Kuno, the school’s kendo champion, has declared that he will not allow anyone to date Akane who cannot defeat her in one-on-one combat.  Akane is greeted every school morning in front with every eligible boy in the high school. She must battle her way past each of them, including Kuno, to get into school.  She easily beats everyone, day in and day out, though it is hinted that Kuno might be letter her win.  One thing becomes obvious through the course of the series, Kuno is dumb as rocks.  Oh, wait, two things, Kuno is in fact extremely good. He’s an equal to Ranma at the start of the series.  Akane proves repeatedly able to beat them both when she is angry, which she is often.

Ranma doesn’t want to be engaged any more than Akane does.  Ranma want to go back to China to find a cure for his curse.  Also, there is an issue that he might already be engaged–several times over, all unintentionally on his part. That is a thing in the Ranma 1/2 universe, defeat someone in a martial arts battle and you might find yourself engaged.  Your father is hungry? He might sell you for a bowl of soup.  As the series goes on the fiancé’s pile up. As do the love triangles.

It gets worse.  See, Jusenkyo, where the cursed spring of the drowned girl (very tragic story) lies is home to a plethora of cursed springs.  The people who transform with cold water accumulate faster than fiancés in this TV show.  Which would be fine if people were honest and upfront about who they are and what they transform into.  But, this is a comedy, so–no.

Akane finds the cutest little piggy she names P-chan.  She cares for P-chan and even lets Akane sleeping with P-chan.the little pig sleep in her bed with her.  Can you see what is coming?  P-chan is actually a boy name Ryoga.  Ryoga was accidentally pushed into a the spring of the drowned piglet (very tragic story) by Ranma.  Ranma wasn’t even aware he did it, but Ryoga had been tracking Ranma across China and into Japan, determined to get revenge.  Ryoga has a preternaturally bad sense of direction, which is why it takes him so long to find Ranma.  But, on meeting Akane, Ryoga finds a better pastime, being close to the object of his new love.  Oh, yes, he doesn’t end up in Akane’s bed by accident.

Then we have Ukyo, one of Ranma’s fiancés, arranged when they were six years old.  Ukyo is left behind after her engagement because Ranma’s father forgets her.  And she is mocked for being abandoned by her fiancé.

So, let’s tally it up so far:

  1. Arranged, engagements at an age the children are too young to consent.
  2. Winning a battle against someone can result in unintentional engagement.
  3. That cut pet you found might be a boy in disguise.
  4. Despite being one of the three best martial artists in your city, you can’t possibly head your father’s martial arts school when he dies.
  5. A boy, who have no relationship to you, will dictate who dates you. People will LISTEN to him and follow what he tells them to do.
  6. Despite saying no, repeatedly, you have to fight your way into school every day through a wall of sexual harassment. A wall of men, no one ever offers to help you with until Ranma makes an half-hearted offer.

I haven’t even touched on Happosai, a pervy old man who steals women’s underwear. Pervy old man with woman's bras in his bag. Or Kasumi, Akane’s oldest sister, who is the very model of a perfect Japanese woman, polite, accommodating, and gentle.  Or Nodoka, Ranma’s mother, who is sworn to help kill her husband and son if Ranma isn’t made a “man among men” by his father’s training.

It is also a hellscape for Ranma, forced to swim to China from Japan. Sold several times for food. Forced to do increasingly dangerous and poorly thought out “training exercises,” Ranma developes a phobia of cats so profound encountering a cat can trigger a mental break.  All played for laughs.  Because that is how patriarchy rolls.  Patriarchy is as harmful to men not in power as it is to women.  Patriarchy is less about male power and more about the power of a ruling class.  Genma, Ranma’s father, is the source of all of Ranma’s pain.  The difference between Ranma and Akane, though, is if Ranma survives, he can graduate up to the rolling class.

As much as the Ranma 1/2 universe if a hellscape for both then male and female characters, the truth is the horrors are all a result of misguided, selfish, and downright stupid acts of the men in leadership roles.  If you know your Yidish shlemiel is the klutz who trips and spills his lunch. The shlimazel is the poor unlucky person who gets dowsed with that lunch.  In the Ranma 1/2 universe the women are forever working to fix what the men have broken, ever chasing their fiancé or revenge.  The men do harm left and right and often so casually they don’t even realize what they have done.

Don’t get me wrong.  Its still funny and creative.  And I’m having fun watching, unlike when I rewatched Robotech and realized how bad Minme is.  If you found one of the later versions of the Laws of Anime, I was once the dissenting voice in Ohio about Minme.  I fully recant.  Minme is a bimbo.

Ranma 1/2 fun as long as I don’t stop to think about what it means that Genma sold his son for food multiple times, once leaving a child bride he was supposed to raise behind, forgetting she existed once he got what he wanted… Like I said, hellscape.