February 8, 2011

, , , ,   |  

A Year of Rumiko Takahashi Week 6: Nobody's Perfect (Ranma 1/2 Volumes 6 and 7)

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

No matter who the creator is, no matter how good a particular work of that creator is, no matter how much you rely on that creator, there is no avoiding it: At some point, they're going to come up with something you don't much care for.

Mark Waid even got me to read Legion of Superheroes, but his run on Fantastic Four never worked for me. Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers of Victory was seven degrees of separation for me in terms of my enjoyment of the sprawling series that went nowhere, and this is a man who usually is spot-on for me.

Which brings me to this part of the story of Ranma 1/2.

Over the course of the 6th and 7th volumes, we are introduced to a lecherous little troll of an old man named Happosai, former mentor to Ranma and Akane's fathers and soon to be an entirely too frequent thorn in the side of just about everyone in the world of Ranma 1/2. His whole gag is being so consumed with lust, he's always trying to cop a feel, sneak a peek, or steal intimate garments from anyone female.

This would be annoying enough on its own, but it's compounded by the fact that this old geezer's lust centers on teenagers rather than adults. Happosai's antics aren't funny--they're essentially criminal and absolutely creepy. And he won't go away either, playing a large role in both of these books. Maybe this is just one of those cultural differences. Maybe it's a matter of personal taste. I'm honestly not sure. I just know that the little creep gets on my nerves almost as badly as he grates on the people in the manga, and I don't think that was quite what Takahashi had in mind when she devised him.
The whole idea of Happosai as an unmitigated lust machine really grates on my nerves, not the least of which is the fact that he doesn't even fit into the theme that Takahashi has established for Ranma villains. Perhaps I'm overly desirous of the formulaic, but one of the things I like about Ranma 1/2 is that there is a sense of the familiar about premise and story. A comedy works best when it sticks to the script, and I feel like Happosai is off book, taking Ranma 1/2 away from what makes it such a good story.

The humor of Ranma 1/2 lies in the romantic tension between Akane and Ranma. All of the verbal wordplay, slapstick, and comedy pivots on the axis of their relationship. Do they really love each other, deep down? Maybe (I'd say probably, based on my admittedly limited sample of evidence), but they'll both be damned before they admit it. Thus, we have a lot of great comedic moments, as Ranma and Akane refuse to admit to liking each other but will go to extreme lengths (most of which are hilarious) to ensure that the engagement stays intact.

It's bizarre that a tomboy and a cursed boy-girl are the focus of so much attention, but no one said a comedy ever has to make logical sense. What I do know is that the best Ranma 1/2 stories use this as their centerpiece. Ranma and Akane can work together, sure, but just like Tom and Jerry, they're best when they are at each other's throats. The big problem I have with Happosai is that instead of dividing Akane and Ranma, he gives them a common enemy, with no tension of desired romantic affection. (Happosai certainly has lustful intentions towards the two of them, but again, that's really just disgusting and not at all funny.) I'm sure the intention is a change of pace, but there had to be a better way to accomplish it.

Despite my dislike of these volumes, there are some funny moments. Akane's terrible cooking gets some laughs, as we also see the return of the Black Rose, who refuses to let Ranma out of her life, even as her brother Kuno wishes he'd go away and the "pig-tailed girl" would stay. Romeo and Juliet gets an appropriate trouncing, and the theme of the cursed springs pops up in several places. (One of these weeks, I want to talk about Takahashi's use of running gags. Don't let me forget.) It's extremely impressive how Takahashi manages to weave her ever-growing cast in and out of the narrative. I just wish these stories weren't spoiled with the image of a man who gives me the creeps popping up over and over again.

Fortunately, Happosai's part in the world of Ranma will be reduced a bit as time goes on, rotating into the series of antagonists that plagues Ranma almost like a batting order. I really wish he'd go away entirely, but as an occasional annoyance, he's relatively tolerable. As with any creator, not everything is going to be perfect in the eyes of every reader. Don't let Happosai turn you away from Ranma 1/2, because there's some great new players just around the corner who fit the antagonist mold far better--and with far funnier results. Next week, we'll consider the character rotation choices in Ranma 1/2. I hope you'll join me then!