When I read Ranma ½ during my first year of high school, I fell in love with Rumiko Takahashi’s signature expressive art. I loved her colorful cast just as much, always getting caught up in over-the-top situations. Like many people, I remember it fondly. Yet the older I get, the harder it is to ignore some of the most problematic aspects of the series, especially how it deals with femininity.
[Editor’s Note: In editing this piece, we struggled to find a way to talk about the series’ conceit in a way that was trans-inclusive. Eventually, we decided that for readability, it would be best to discuss the series in the terms it defines for itself: that the main character is a boy who “becomes a girl.” While many trans anime fans over the years have repurposed the series as a trans fantasy, my adolescent self included, it feels important to acknowledge that the series itself is not particularly inclusive on the subject of gender fluidity—indeed, it is often actively transphobic. While this piece is about the series’ treatment of cis women, we wanted to include this note for the sake of trans readers. —Vrai]
Ranma ½ revolves around a boy who, after falling into a cursed hot spring, turns into a girl when he’s splashed with cold water, while hot water returns him to normal. Thirty-eight volumes seems like more than enough time to flesh out a character, but even though Ranma regularly alternates between his two bodies, he never really explores what being a girl means to him. Instead, his development centers almost exclusively around his progress as a martial artist, with a few moments dedicated to the development of his relationships.
Throughout the series, Ranma’s transformations remain superficial, and he regularly uses his female body as an object to further his goals. It is a distraction to win fights against the perverted master Happosai; a disguise to prevent Ryoga, one of his many rivals, from making moves on his fiancee Akane; and so on. Most of the time, his female body is used as comedic relief—or worse, a handicap.
Since Ranma ½ is both a martial arts and a harem series, there’s naturally a cast of interesting female characters. The fact that they’re skilled martial artists, however, serves mostly to add a destructive, borderline deadly nature to their fights over Ranma’s affections. They even go so far as to actually destroy his house on one occasion.
Akane Tendo, the strong, albeit physically slow “tomboy,” serves as his primary romantic interest. As the main female character, she rarely joins the fights over Ranma, in part thanks to her no-nonsense attitude. However, she often ends up at the center of the conflicts because of her relationship with him. The more troublesome fiancees enter later, including Shampoo, the devious Chinese Amazon; Ukyo, Ranma’s childhood friend and okonomiyaki chef; and Kodachi Kuno, the eccentric rhythmic gymnastic.
Each girl fights Ranma at their introduction, yet we rarely see them participate in serious battles after that. Those are reserved for Ranma or, if Ranma needs any allies, his rivals Ryoga and Mousse. That leaves the girls’ fights against Ranma and each other as the only testament to their power. Discouragingly, they all lose the former embarrassingly fast, and the latter aren’t taken seriously.
Despite Akane’s passion for martial arts and daily training, their encounter in the first chapter can’t really be described as a fight; it was mostly just Ranma effortlessly dodging her strikes. Ukyo and Kodachi had more elaborate fight scenes, but those had their own issues. Ranma only takes Ukyo seriously when he believes she’s male due to her boy’s school uniform, but the battle ends quickly when he accidentally exposes her breasts.
Even worse, Ukyo soon challenges him again, angrily claiming that she “could never embrace her femininity” thanks to how he and his father broke their engagement when they were small. Those are serious accusations, yet ultimately superficial; as soon as Ranma calls her cute, her anger dissipates. Having Ranma validate her is all it takes for her to let it go and start pursuing him romantically.
Shampoo is the most frustrating case. As a Chinese Amazon warrior, she has impressive agility and overall skills. However, we only see her use those skills as part of her schemes to force Ranma to marry her or in her fights with her rivals. Shampoo’s village has a tradition: if a female outsider defeats you in battle, kill her. If they’re a man, marry him. When Shampoo fights Ranma in a tournament in her village, he, in female form, easily defeats her with a single kick. Once she finds out Ranma is actually male, tradition requires she marry him. It’s the classic trope “best her to bed her”: strong women, often warriors, can only accept men stronger than them as partners, furthering the idea that women need male domination.
As the fiancees enter the fray, it becomes clear that Ranma ½ follows a typical shonen ideology: men are stronger than women. However, even ignoring raw physical strength, skill comes with time, hard work, and training, regardless of gender. The male characters’ competence leans largely on this ideology, although much of that is because they get all the upgrades and training arcs, while girls’ skills get stale as they continue to play support. When Ranma ½ takes itself seriously, it favours male power. This becomes painfully clear with the introduction of Prince Herb, son of the dragon king.
Prince Herb appears to be a powerful woman at first. When they fight, Ranma can hold his own. However, he’s later revealed to share Ranma’s gender-switching curse. He condemns the limitations of his female body, and the series validates his views when Ranma fights against his male form, because that’s when the battle gets serious. The way his gender affects his power level reinforces the idea that women are weaker, less capable fighters.
This story arc reveals the series’ obsession with manliness, which also takes the spotlight in the arc about Ranma meeting his mother. When Ranma was a baby, his parents made a deal that his father Genma would take him on a long training mission and turn him into “a real, manly man” or else father and son would commit seppuku.
When his mother Nodoka reappears, she intends to carry out this promise, which understandably makes Ranma scared to tell her about his curse. For most of her arc, she only sees him disguised as Ranko, Akane’s female “cousin”. When she finds out the truth near the end of the series, she’s only able to accept him by diminishing his femininity, recalling all the times Ranko saved her. “This child is a real man,” she decides, attributing Ranko’s qualities of strength and reliability to manliness.
Yet despite its flaws, I still love Ranma ½. It shines most when it focuses on eccentric comedy, but viewed through an analytical lens, it has many faults that can’t just be hand-waved away as comedy. To explain why I still enjoy it, I must get personal. One of the major reasons is that, even though many of the characters are victims of toxicity and gendered expectations, I still found inspiring qualities in the girls.
Ranma and Shampoo often make fun of Akane about her body, and though it upsets her in the moment, she stays confident and maintains her boundaries. Some readers might dismiss her as a damsel or a brute, but I often found myself connecting with her. As someone who’s not very traditionally feminine, I’m often drawn to the “tomboys.”
Akane has an inner strength that, regardless of authorial intent, I find admirable. I would most likely be very self-conscious in her position, but no matter how often she ends up the butt of a joke, she never stops trying. Since failure never truly discourages her, she motivates me to try to overcome my own self-consciousness and try harder too.
Akane isn’t the only girl who inspired me. Ukyo is a talented, determined small business owner. As a great okonomiyaki chef, she found a way to market her abilities and profit from them. Nabiki Tendo, Akane’s older sister, is ruthless and quick-witted, always finding ways to get what she wants. Even if her obsession with money is generally played for comedy, it’s remarkable how effortlessly she finds openings to do her business. As a constant overthinker, I have a hard time taking risks. Seeing these independent young women using their skills to (sometimes shamelessly) pursue their goals encourages me to be more proactive.
The series also recognizes some of Ranma’s questionable behavior via Akane’s criticism. For instance, when Ranma use his female body as an object to manipulate master Happosai, Akane calls him out on it. Ranma’s the type of character that never really learns, but on the rare occasions when he realizes he’s gone too far, Akane is usually involved. Ranma and Akane bicker almost constantly, but when things get serious, his feelings for her can ground him, if only for a moment.
Ranma’s relationships with the women in his life are what leads to two of the most touching moments of the series: when Ranma cries because he’s finally able to reunite with his mother, and when he faces a future without Akane. Ranma’s uninhibited display of raw emotions, something that rarely happens in the series (unless it’s for the sake of a joke), makes these moments deeply touching.
Ranma ½ often has to be forgiven and it doesn’t always deserve it. It reinforces stereotypes and cisnormative views on gender, its approach to femininity is shallow, and the way it holds up masculinity is often toxic. Even so, I enjoy some of the silly, over-the-top gags and, of course, the strength of the female cast. Even if they don’t participate in major battles, they are still active characters who all get a chance to shine. After all, this story is first and foremost a comedy, and they contribute to some of the funniest jokes of the series. Without them, Ranma ½ certainly wouldn’t have the same appeal it still has for me today.