A Year of Takahashi Week 11: Comedy Gold (Ranma 1/2 Volumes 13, 14, & 15)

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

Oh my.

I learned a long time ago not to read things that are funny in public, because I am a man with a big belly laugh. It echoes right through my entire body, and I can make a dead audience seem lively if you entertain me. Once, I had to put Terry Pratchett back in my bag because I was making a scene on the bus with my guffaws.

All this is to say that I haven't laughed so hard at things in a comic book as I did in these three volumes of Ranma 1/2 in a long, long time. Maybe I was easy to entertain that day, maybe these are just some of the best stories in the series. Maybe I was getting tickled by the Invisible Man at the time I was reading. The world may never know, though I think the last one is unlikely. Regardless, these three volumes are some of the best comedic comics writing I've seen. I'm going to do my best to explain why.

While Ranma is a shonen title, like any good comic writer, Takahashi gives all ages some things to chuckle over, definitely pitching a few of the jokes over the heads of the younger readers. My favorite example of this in these volumes (although by far not the only one) is when Akane's father schemes to get Ranma and Akane alone. There are a few lines of dialog, and then a visual gag that clearly implies an adult theme.

The sort of idea is right out of the Looney Tunes playbook, and right in my wheelhouse in terms of enjoyable comedy. I know I've mentioned the fact that Takahashi's Ranma 1/2 reminds me strongly of the Chuck Jones style of visual comedy, but it's never more in evidence than in these three trades.

Consider the fact that, giving up all pretense of reality, Ranma and his crew must battle a crooked gambler who picks on children, an idea that's funny enough on its face considering he beats the pants off of the whole family (save one). This gambler's defining feature?

He looks like the King from a deck of cards, right down to a first appearance where his hands are facing up and down, like in an official deck. And of course he's taken completely seriously, because we just got finished with a story arc where Ryoga becomes almost unbeatable due to having an artist draw a silly picture on his belly.

Ranma the character is more Daffy Duck than Bugs Bunny, but the style is undeniably reminiscent of the classic animated shorts I grew up with (and I'm betting Takahashi did, too). Like Daffy, Ranma is always trying to get a leg up on the people around him, but it often backfires on him. If we're going to make a parallel between Ranma and Warner Brothers, that's the place to look.

Take the story arc in Volume 14, another hilarious romp, where a local set of springs has an obstacle course every year. The winner gets to go to a spring of their choice. Naturally, Ranma is slow to understand why this would help him, but all those similarly cursed are not nearly so dense. Soon it's a free for all in the manner of an all-star comedy movie as Ranma pairs up with Shampoo, Ryoga joins Ukyo, and Mousse gets Akane as they battle across increasingly ridiculous traps, my favorite of which might just be the whirlpool, because it's triggered by Mousse accidentally unplugging the stopper, in a classic sight gag.

Over the course of this race, Ranma changes his allegiance multiple times, managing to anger whoever he's with at the time. Takahashi plays with the foibles of this mini-section of the cast, keeping each true to their personality while making some interesting revelations, particularly on the part of Akane, who is again starting to show in these volumes that she's not as opposed to Ranma as she might pretend to be. Of course, in the end, it's Akane Ranma pairs with until the bitter end, when all Daffy-like characters must realize that Porky Pig always the day.

The whole thing reminds me of some of the latter-day cartoons where characters take on roles and team up to make viewers more interested. (Anyone here besides me remember the Laughalympics?) The jokes fly fast and furious and Takahashi's visuals are just detailed enough to make the gags work, whether it's chain-mail bathing suits or snapping crocodiles.

If there was any doubt that Takahashi can do visual tricks when she wants to, however, it's all gone by the time you get to Volume 15, where she stretches her abilities to bring fear into the Tendo Dojo. It seems that Ranma's father isn't the only parent who makes stupid promises. When a man who can give those crocodiles from the obstacle course a run for their money shows up and speed-eats his way through the panels, one of the Tendo daughters is fated to be turned into a double-jointed jawed freak.

But never fear, Ranma is here, and in a sequence of events that ends up with Mr. Tendo in a French Maid's outfit (can you hear me laughing just typing that?) and Ranma pulling a bait and switch, even the biggest mouth will end up with egg on its face. It's a physical comedy tour de force, complete with a food fight worthy of the Three Stooges.

After all this insanity, Takahashi does take it down a notch with the final arc, where we get back to the idea of just how Ranma and Akane feel for each other. Nibiki calls their bluff by offering to take over the engagement, leading to monetary profits for her and physical danger for just about everyone else around her. While Nibiki might be more feminine, it's clear she's not a match for the rambunctious Ranma. The reset button get hit pretty quickly here, but there are some interesting undertones that await further exploration.

All in all, this was a great series of comics, and those who don't want to read 36 volumes but like the general premise could probably jump in and read these three on their own and enjoy them quite a bit. They are definitely my favorite Takahashi stories that I've read so far.

Next Week: A look at the changing dynamics of Ranma's cast as we approach the halfway mark.