August 16, 2011

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Year of Takahashi 16: Ranma Gains Plot, Loses the Joke (Ranma 1/2 Vols 22-24)

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

Welcome back to the Year of Takahashi! It's good to get started again, and know that I have a reliable way to finish up the year. When last we left, I had finished Vol 20. I did read Vol 21, but honestly, nothing about it really stood out. So we're moving ahead to volumes 22-24.

In this set of trades, Ranma and company meet a new set of foes who have ties to cursed springs, and that of course means they must be added to the list of foes Ranma must fight. But has Ranma finally met his match in these enemies, who seem to embody the spirits of animals rather than men? And do they hold the key to salvation for the many members of the cast who are cursed?

If Ranma can make it past this new trio of terror, he's got problems back at home as the Hawaiian principal has hired a new teacher with a deadly secret--one that could end the entire school of anything goes martial arts!

Finally, Ranma's always played fast and loose with his relationship with Akane. But what if someone came around who truly loved her for who she is? A young man with a troubled mind and a heavy burden returns to Akane's life, and it just might be time for her to move on, once and for all. Can Ranma sit for that? Probably not!

There's adventure all around in these three volumes of Ranma 1/2!

During the Rumiko Takahashi Manga Movable Feast, we discussed the fact that Takahashi works without a net, letting her whims dictate what's going on with the characters. That's very much the case here, because while we definitely have references to past events (such as Ryoga's rock-busting powers or Akane's inability to cook), the tone of the book has changed. Instead of having loose plots that set up all sorts of insane hijinks, there are two very solid stories in these three books, separated by a silly interlude that would have worked perfectly fine before but now seems out of place when comes to what is immediately before and after it.

Part of what I've always enjoyed about Ranma is the madcap, fast and loose with reality nature of the series. While there is definitely a lot of physical comedy in these volumes, along with verbal banter, running gags, and of course lechery, it doesn't drive the story. Instead, it seems like it almost drags down what could be dramatic storytelling, particularly in the case of Akane's relationship with Shinnosuke.

In the first main story, Ranma, Mousse, and Ryoga are all drawn into a battle with horrendously powerful creatures that, in a twist on the Dr. Moreau trope, are descended from actual animals who were tortured by a sadistic group of humans in order to create a breed of superior humans. This is a plot right out of one of Takahashi's darker manga, and while it makes for an interesting twist on the cursed springs, feels incredibly out of place when you're looking at a series where the violence is so comedic, characters can basically be hit with a ton of bricks, Coyote-style, and come up with nothing more than a large goose egg on their head. ,

Instead, we have characters with only one motivation, and it's not something silly like acquiring panties or winning a competition for ramen noodles. It's power, plain and simple. The villains this time are evil, with the main character, Master Herb, a look at what Ranma would be like if he ever wanted to use his abilities to gain control instead of just to have a good time. Sure, we get some jokes in, like how the henchmen are distracted by breasts because all pleasure is denied them, but it's as a relief from the darker nature of the arc. When Ranma and his allies make comic mistakes, they aren't funny this time--they stakes are just too high. Hell, Ryoga basically dies, and the story is so serious we don't even get a joke about him losing his way to heaven. That's how different this one feels to me--an obvious joke is eliminated because it wouldn't fit the tone

The story itself is excellent. There are some plot holes, but it moves so fast only a re-reading for review would catch it. The story also cements Ryoga as being probably the only person in this cast who has any moral center, and shows once again that when this group of squabbling, bickering martial artists actually work together instead of against one another, they can defeat any foe that comes their way.

There's just one problem: That's not Ranma 1/2.

It's why, despite having Happosai and the Pincipal, two of the most annoying characters in all of Ranma, the middle story is my favorite. It seems that Happosai accidentally created yet another character who can change. Instead of water, however, the transformation is triggered by the anger of others, making a sweet little teacher into a Hulk-like Amazon who can drain the power of those around her. As character after character falls to her seeming invincibility, we're treated to a number of cases of mixed intentions, misinterpreted scenes, comedic violence, and just a hint of perversion--in short, what makes Ranma sing as a series.

In this lighthearted romp, we also get a team-up of characters, but because this is full-on comedic Takahashi, it doesn't work and only the craziest idea can solve the problem--sort of. As things get stupider and stupider and the premise even more insane (I love her origin story!), I was reminded of just why Ranma is one of my favorite manga. Takahashi's comedic timing is perfect, and she's continually tweaking the nose of Superhero comics over and over again with this one, right down to secret identities. It's a tour de force, and one of my favorite arcs of the whole thing.

Unfortunately, it's all too brief. We're soon taken into yet another serious story with comedic elements that seem out of place as Akane decides to be a monster-killer (the Tendo's spurious claim is that they defeat such things) like the rest of her family and is soon involved in a tender love story of sacrifice that is undermined by adding a comically amnesiac romantic lead and a gigantic monster that has a soft spot for alcohol and women.

The story is unusually tightly plotted for Takahashi. There are no gaping holes to be pasted over and the story flows in a traditional manner from introduction to conflict to climax and anti-climax. I'm not sure I've seen Takahashi ever do that in a story arc before, though she has so much material out there, it could just be I haven't encountered it yet. Again, however, this just seems so odd for the characters. It's hard to have anarchy in such a story, and even the completely unnecessary addition of Ryoga to the mix doesn't shake the solid nature of the work. I found myself wishing for something incredibly stupid and funny to happen, like a second monster or a giant drain plug or something similarly wacky, but it never materializes, which is a shame.

I did like this arc a lot more than the one that leads off these volumes, however. The monster they face has quite a few comedic elements about it, including a great breakdown of its tongue's sense-spots. The amnesia provides for several running gags, and the idea that someone thought to put an exotic petting zoo next to a mystic lake ends up giving us some good banter and visual gags. Because we're in a more serious context, we also can also explore Ranma and Akane's feelings for each other. The only thing is, every time we go down this road, it seems to be forgotten quickly. Should be interesting to see how it goes from here.

This was a hard entry to write because while I think this is some of the best storytelling we've seen in Ranma 1/2, it doesn't play true to the 20 volumes that came before it. That leave me torn--do I hope for a return to the zany, or embrace the more serious tone? I'm really not sure yet. We'll see what happens as time goes on. This is one of those things that's just going to take further reading. Oh, darn!