January 18, 2011

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A Year of Rumiko Takahashi Week 3: Akane and Ranma's Early Days (Ranma 1/3 Vol 2 and Vol 3)

My year-long look at the work of Rumiko Takahashi continues here. A great creator deserves a whole year of examination! You can find all of the posts here.

Now that the main players are in place, things can really heat up in this romantic action comedy. As Ranma and Akane try to figure out if they like or hate each other, characters appear out of nowhere (sometimes literally) to offer their romantic affection to the athletic Akane and her dual-gendered fiance, Ranma.

Follow along here in the early days as we learn that Ryoga really does have a reason to hate Ranma, contests in this town have a way of getting entirely too dangerous (and too romantic), and that competitive ice skating is a lot more interesting than it looks on television. If that's not enough for you, just wait till you step into the shower with Shampoo, the Chinese Amazon. (On second thought, maybe that's not such a good idea.) It's all here in the second and third volumes of Ranma 1/2!

We're still in the part of the series I've read before several times, but I think if anything, the jokes are even funnier and more meaningful, as I can now see some of the little things that Takahashi was slipping into the narrative from the beginning that was not as easy to notice the first time (or even the second time) around. The relationship between Akane and Ranma feels like a classic comedic case of love-hate on the surface, with a lot of "I don't like you but that doesn't mean someone else gets to have you instead" going on in the narrative. Ranma and Akane will fight various characters in order to prevent them from getting to date the other. Beneath that idea, however, is something more. Let's look at that for a minute or two.

Because there's so much going on with the action and jokes, it's easy to lose track of how Ranma and Akane are feeling about each other. Ranma fights Ryoga as a matter of personal pride, sure, but he only seems to care about the tussle when Ryoga gets the hots for Akane. Similarly, while Akane may punch Ranma at every opportunity, she's not willing to give up on him, even in the face of the extreme danger Shampoo personifies. As early as the ice skating team up, we see Ranma and Akane working together to defeat their common enemy, and the results are both well-executed and touching. There's several vulnerable moments there, especially in the dialog of the two characters, that show Ranma and Akane really do care for each other.

Provided, of course, they let their pride down long enough to admit it. One of the things I'm looking forward to seeing once we get past the volumes I've already read is whether these two can put aside their differences and admit they actually like each other. It's what all good love-hate romantic couples do in the end--the question is whether Takahashi goes that route or keeps them apart to further the humor.

The interesting part of all this is how Takahashi manages to wed the romantic interests to the action, keeping things as shonen as possible. We rarely slip into thoughtful romance, and most of the time, it's ridiculed in the jokes, such as when the male skater Mikadao fantasizes each of his encounters with the women he meets, including the female version of Ranma. (Kuno, who returns in the next set of story arcs, similarly has outrageous ideas about love that are made up of easily-burst bubbles of sentiment.) All of the characters who want to form romantic encounters do so out of either storybook notions or crazy traditions. Thus it's easy for a boy to laugh at the silly idea of love as long as the main characters refuse to acknowledge that it could happen to them.

Given that the rejection of love as personified in a shojo manga, the use of love as a way to drive the comedy (so many male characters falling in love with the girl Ranma, for instance), and the fact that affection is seen almost as "icky" by both the boyish Akane and the main character (Ranma), it's going to be interesting to see if Takahashi can transition things to make it palatable that Akane and Ranma should get together. The seeds are definitely here in these early stories--I'm just not sure if the plan is to have them take root. Time will tell, and if all goes well, I should find out here in a month or two.

Beyond the setting up of the pattern of romantic attraction and repulsion that will drive a lot of the stories in the volumes to come, this set of chapters also shows that things in Ranma 1/2 will move at a manic pace. No sooner is the Ryoga storyline postponed than we meet the deadly gymnast who will stop at nothing to be the champion, giving Akane a foe as a change of pace. Following hot on the heels of that bout, Ranma and Akane battle first the skating pair, then Ryoga, then Shampoo, who literally bursts in at the end of the skating storyline. It's plotting at a breakneck speed, which I guess is pretty normal for 1988 but feels so packed now in this era of stretching stories out as long as possible. Best of all, the blending here is almost seamless, as both characters and readers transition quickly to meet the new menace, whoever he or she may be. My question is why Takahashi can do this, but other writers can't?

Ranma 1/2 is such a fun read, filled with wit, battles, and a romantic pairing that works--even if they try hard not to admit it. I'm enjoying re-reading this series a lot, and I hope I've encouraged a few people to pick this one up if they haven't already. Next week, we'll concentrate on just how outrageous the ideas in the manga start to get, as if they aren't already!