February 1, 2011

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A Year of Rumiko Takahashi Week 5: Let's All Get Silly! (Ranma 1/2 Vols 4 and 5)

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.

Written by Rumiko Takahashi
Illustrated by Rumiko Takahashi
Viz

Obviously, as anyone knows who's ever picked up a volume of Ranma 1/2, this series is pretty silly. You have cursed springs creating half-man, half-pandas who work as assistants for chiropractors. Not exactly drama on the level of Barefoot Gen, or even Nana. Everything is taken to a farce-level extreme, and that's part of what makes this manga so much fun to read.

However, when you get to these two books, the series really goes off the reality track and into a world of silliness that's just out of control. It's like Takahashi sat down with each chapter and said to herself, "What can I do to make this even more outrageous than it was about five pages ago?"

Let's start with the events of Volume Four. Over the course of thirteen chapters, the insanity builds to a fever pitch. We start with the idea that Ranma is deathly afraid of cats (great job putting him in a cat suit in that cover), and in a move clearly inspired by the Three Stooges, Ranma's fear eventually turns him into a cat-like creature (who can still change gender, of course) capable of mass destruction. That's good, because he needs it to battle Shampoo's crazed grandmother, who will do anything to get Ranma to marry into the family, including manipulating the very ocean itself.

Not enough zaniness? How about dressing Ranma's father in drag, a fight where yet another rival/suitor literally strips Ranma in girl form while the boys (who know of Ranma's condition) try to prevent Akane from keeping things modest, or maybe even that Ranma spends several chapters as a girl wearing a bathing suit that says "boy" on the front? Please note that I almost got through this paragraph without mentioning that there's a watermelon slicing contest where everyone--including the prize--get into the act.

Just about every page turn in Volume Four has some kind of joke or wacky action or both. There's the usual slapstick, verbal banter between anyone and everyone, and I think it's one of Takahashi's best-paced sections of Ranma 1/2. She even slips in more of the romantic subplot, almost under the reader's nose. Look carefully, and you can see this is the issue where Akane really starts to show she might not have a problem with being Ranma's wife--as long as she still gets to hit him over the head now and again.

Volume Five picks up where four left off, continuing the battle between Ranma and Cologne, the matchmaking grandmother. Then we get another Ranma-Ryoga fight, where Ryoga gets an extreme fight makeover. It's a bit tame by the standards of the action going on around it, because right after this, Takahashi tries to make a monkey out of Ranma by having him duel a chimp in a martial arts tea ceremony.

Yup. A martial arts tea ceremony.

With a monkey.

This is why I love Takahashi and this series, because that's not even the best part of the volume, which is saved for last. Because we've firmly established that the universe containing Ranma and company is nothing but a land of ever-escalating ridiculous martial arts challenges, it doesn't shock anyone, including the reader by now, that there's a local martial arts takeout competition, and of course Ranma, Shampoo, and Akane all get in on the action. Their destination? Kuno's house, because it wouldn't be silly enough if they just fought each other and raced to a stranger's place. Oh no--add another suitor/rival to the mix, because anything less would be too normal.

(Yes, I just wrote that a martial arts takeout competition would be too normal if it didn't have an extra layer of complication added on top. It's amazing sometimes what you end up writing in a blog post.)

What's interesting to me about all this, however, is that the entire cast, from main characters like Ranma to bit players, such as a contest announcer or the other students at the high school, take each and every bit of ridiculousness in stride. Normally in a comedy, someone is the person on the outside. They look at what's happening and cannot believe that a bride would run away or that your future father in law is a CIA agent who gets into silly situations or that there's a law firm that looks like most of its lawyers came from an institution. Ranma 1/2 doesn't have that.

Sure, there are "straight man" characters who tend to just be along for the ride, like Akane's father. But even he sees all of this as normal, never blinking when people burst into his house for all kinds of reasons. His only objections come when Ranma might not marry his daughter. Given all the destruction around Ranma, you'd think he'd be happy to be rid of him!

Based on the start of the series, I think Takahashi might have intended to keep more characters in the dark and use the traditional comedy model. By this point, however, it's like she's thrown out the rule book, and indulges in whatever zaniness her mind can access and her pen can draw. Instead of following a few silly characters, she's decided that we should ALL get silly, and join in on the fun.

That makes things a lot more interesting, because I tend to get annoyed by comedies that belabor secrets for comic effect. Takahashi doesn't hide anything in here, except maybe Ranma and Akane's true feelings for each other. Everything else is fair game, and makes Ranma such an outrageous story. The reader is definitely better for it.

Next week, we'll discuss the one part of Ranma I really can't stand: Happosai the Letch. Ugh.