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, given that it derives from an essentialist concept of gender being immutably connected to genitals. 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 about a boy who “becomes a girl” when splashed with cold water.
Content Warning: Discussions of transphobia, dysphoria, gender essentialism, queerphobia, toxic masculinity, and abusive parenting.
Anime fans under 25 are unlikely to be familiar with Ranma 1/2. A screwball martial arts comedy by the same author as Inuyasha, the manga ran from 1987 to 1996, with a 161-episode television adaptation that was one of the first anime series licensed in the US. It follows a sixteen-year-old martial artist named Ranma Saotome as he deals with a wild and wacky assortment of love rivals, magic curses, and truly ridiculous fighting styles.
Ranma 1/2 has its fair share of highs and lows (some of which have already been discussed at AniFem), but the most famous aspect of the series is that Ranma turns into a girl when splashed with cold water and then turns back into a boy when splashed with hot water. This “magical sex-change” is often the only thing people know about the series. Yet while Ranma 1/2 is officially the story of a cis boy dealing with a body-morphing curse, the series also accidentally provides a resonant allegory for transmasculine identity.
Bodies and Minds: Ranma and masculine identity
Much of Ranma 1/2 focuses on Ranma and how he navigates having a body that sometimes presents as female, especially when he and his father return to Japan so that Ranma can meet his fiancée, an as-yet-undetermined daughter of his father’s friend in Tokyo. The two older daughters are quick to volunteer the youngest, Akane, for bride duty, since she dislikes boys and Ranma is “half girl.”
Neither Ranma nor Akane are pleased about it, but they grudgingly accept the situation, especially when a parade of increasingly troublesome love interests begin showing up for both of them. Much to his discomfort, some of Ranma’s other suitors are boys who either don’t know about the curse or don’t care.
While other characters occasionally refer to Ranma as a crossdresser, his continued use of masculine language and his stated goal of finding a way to remove the shapeshifting curse and stay male permanently indicate that, while his body may be read as female at times, he sees himself as a man with some unfortunate physical idiosyncrasies that are out of his control.
He also seems to have complex and conflicting feelings about the attractiveness of his female form. Ranma has a competitive personality and is not above using his good looks to his advantage in either form. He gets deeply offended when someone calls him ugly, but he is also clearly uncomfortable with people seeing him as a woman and tends to react with violence when someone expresses interest in him in that form.
For example, at one point Ranma loses a contest to promote a local business because the boys at school recognize him as “the frumpy girl who smacks people if they get too close.” His solution is to disguise himself with a wig and a costume in order to outdo his opponent on sex appeal. It works, but does not bring him satisfaction in the end.
When I discovered the series at age 14, I was coming to realize that I was probably not a girl, but I was still figuring out what that meant. Ranma, who refers to himself with the brash masculine first-person pronoun “ore” even when he has breasts, seemed like a good analogy for my own situation: I was like Ranma when he can’t access hot water.
Fighting Off the Feminine: Ranma’s struggle with toxic masculinity
Toxic masculinity is an under-discussed issue among trans men, and discussions about toxic masculinity tend to gloss over the ways in which trans men are susceptible to it. To put it simply: it is difficult to feel sufficient in one’s masculinity when being insistently referred to as “miss” and “ma’am” and therefore it’s easy to fall into overcompensation, sometimes to the point of misogyny.
For me, it seemed that in order to have people take me seriously as a man, I needed to get rid of or minimize anything that might come across as feminine. I trained myself to swear more, I switched from ballet to martial arts, my wardrobe became dull and ill-fitting, and I neglected my physical hygiene. I wanted to be “normal,” and I had internalized a rigid and uncomfortable framework of what that meant. This sentiment of needing to overcompensate for one’s perceived gender ambiguity is strongly reflected in Ranma, as it often is for trans men early in the transition process.
Many of Ranma’s issues with toxic masculinity can be traced to his father, Saotome Genma, a martial artist of the Anything-Goes School. Years ago, Genma made a pact with his wife to take their then-toddler son on a years-long training mission to make him a “man among men,” swearing that if he were to fail, both he and Ranma would commit ritual suicide.
Since Genma is an objectively terrible person who could not plan his way out of a paper bag, Ranma has spent much of his life getting dragged from place to place, dodging the results of his father’s poor decisions. Genma has subjected his son to traumatizing training methods that caused physical and mental harm, used him as a bargaining chip in his self-serving schemes, and is even the reason Ranma gets struck with the shapeshifting curse in the first place.
And, on top of all of that, in the very first episode we see him throw his son bodily into a chilly garden pond and then berate the kid for his lack of “manliness.” It should come as no surprise that these abusive gendered expectations have led Ranma to have some toxic views on gender.
To Ranma’s credit, he has zero respect for his father and is not shy about talking and fighting back, but the boy is stressed. He visibly overcompensates for his insecurities by being hyper-competitive. He equates competition and winning with masculinity, to the point where he will pursue them even when it involves things that are explicitly feminine and counter to his goals and identity. He also has complex feelings about hitting women even in self-defense, resulting in women repeatedly assaulting him, which the series largely treats as a joke.
Japanese culture associates liking sweets with women and children, and the anime shows Ranma is no exception—he loves ice cream, but won’t be seen eating it in his boy form. He’s never been taught to ask for help short of throwing himself at someone’s mercy as the last possible option, and so he regularly runs himself into the ground and won’t ask for assistance. Even the language he uses is aggressively masculine to the point of rudeness; he rarely uses honorifics and refers to people with insulting nicknames. Given all that, perhaps it’s easy to see why I saw my own experiences so much in him.
Subtext Versus Text: Explicit gender variance and queerphobic attitudes in Ranma 1/2
All that having been said, Ranma’s status as a subtextually trans character is almost definitely accidental, and Ranma 1/2 is by no means a progressive or queer-friendly series. There are two characters—Ukyo and Tsubasa—depicted as explicitly gender non-conforming (GNC), and Takahashi’s treatment of them shows that she was neither particularly knowledgeable nor interested in trans or queer issues.
The series introduces Ukyo Kuonji as a boy, as the character first challenges and defeats Genma, then transfers to Ranma’s school wearing the boy’s uniform. Ranma recognizes Ukyo as his childhood playmate from ten years earlier, seemingly one of the few genuine friendships he has had. He’s surprised when Ukyo challenges him to a fight, and even more surprised when Ukyo’s shirt gets torn, revealing breasts.
Later, the audience learns that Ukyo’s father owned an okonomiyaki cart that was to be her dowry when she and Ranma married; but Genma, predictably, fled with Ranma and the cart, leaving the heartbroken six-year-old behind. Ukyo proceeded to “give up on femininity” to pursue martial arts okonomiyaki and get revenge. She attended an all-boys school, generally wears men’s clothing, and also refers to herself as “ore.”
While she’s a likable and sympathetically written GNC character—she values her friendship with Ranma, is one of the less-violent characters in the series, and generally has better things to do than get involved in romantic drama—she doesn’t appear to actually identify as a man. English-speaking readers may recall the phrase “giving up on femininity” from the recent Queer Eye series, where it was used in reference to a woman who had given up personal goals for marriage and family home-making to focus on her work as a hospice nurse and doesn’t spend much time or effort on her appearance.
Pursuing a career and dressing poorly (or androgynously) are explicitly de-gendering activities for women in Japanese culture. So it’s not necessarily a sign that Ukyo has realized she isn’t a woman; just that she’s not pursuing a traditional feminine life-path or upholding the expectations for feminine presentation. “Gender non-conforming” or “masculine woman” would be a more accurate description of where she sits. She’s also straight, showing a primary attraction to men.
But while Ukyo’s gender non-conformance is seen as a non-threatening personal quirk, Tsubasa Kurenai is an example of just about everything one shouldn’t do when writing a gender non-conforming character. Ranma 1/2 first introduces Tsubasa as Ukyo’s unwanted female suitor from her old school. The crew assume that Tsubasa thinks Ukyo is a boy, so Akane tries to get rid of Tsubasa by revealing Ukyo’s gender. This does not have the desired effect, because Tsubasa already knew that Ukyo was a girl—indeed, Tsubasa only likes girls.
Believing that Tsubasa is a lesbian, Akane reacts with horror. Then, later, when Tsubasa’s affections shift from Ukyo to Ranma, he takes advantage of the situation to try and “fix” Tsubasa by showing up to their date as a boy.
Queer subtext is generally an unaddressed elephant in the room of Ranma 1/2, but when it does come up, same-sex attraction is always painted as something wrong or scary. Tsubasa’s refusal to date men makes everyone uncomfortable, even though Akane herself has expressed the same sentiment with the same level of vehemence and physical violence; and Ranma has always hated receiving attention from men even when he is intentionally flirting with them to further some goal.
Eventually, we learn that Tsubasa is AMAB (assigned male at birth) and uses homophobic slurs to deny a queer identity. Tsubasa, in their own words, is “a normal guy who wears women’s clothes.” Ukyo had forgotten to mention that the school where she’d met Tsubasa was an all-boys school.
While Akane seems confused but comforted by the reveal, Ranma is furious. He thinks Tsubasa has made a fool of him and “tricked him” into believing Tsubasa was a girl. This, combined with Tsubasa’s habit of pursuing women while disguised as a mailbox, tree, or traffic sign, reinforces transphobic narratives about how trans people are predators trying to deceive others; a sentiment that plays out as real-life violence against AMAB people with feminine presentation.
To make matters worse, Tsubasa insinuates that Ranma should be on good terms with them since they both present in feminine ways. It apparently doesn’t register to Tsubasa that Ranma has not chosen his feminine presentation. Tsubasa is also homophobic toward Ranma, citing Ranma’s date with them as evidence that Ranma is gay.
The episode is, frankly, a mess, and further evidence that Takahashi made no effort to consider real-life queer people while writing her magical sex-change manga.
Outdated But Appreciated: Ranma 1/2 then and now
Looking back at Ranma 1/2 thirty years after it first aired, the series has not aged well. It’s outdated for its depictions and treatment of women and the very real trauma that the characters inflict on each other. Characters with queer subtext are consistently homophobic, and gendered norms are assumed to be universal and sacrosanct.
And yet, by depicting a cis male character who retains his gender through a magical transformation, the pain and awkwardness of the resulting gender dysphoria resonated for me, both as a teen and today, and makes a good parable for the messy and sometimes toxic process of coming to terms with a transmasculine identity. Ranma does not transform into a cis woman, but a trans man, and his vulnerabilities are still relevant even if the way that he navigates them is not.
The series is deeply flawed, and I don’t think it provides a healthy model for coming to terms with one’s trans-ness. I don’t know if I would recommend it for a young trans man today, not without significant caveats and discussion. But I can still appreciate it—not just for the martial art silliness and upbeat music, but also for the vocabulary it gave me when I needed it most.