I'd been expecting a train wreck, but surprisingly it's okay. I quite liked it. The cast are good, the story works and it's immeasurably better than abominations like the Maison Ikkoku live-action TV specials a few years earlier.
The first ten minutes are annoying, but things settle down after that.
Firstly, what's Ranma 1/2? It's one of Rumiko Takahashi's manga/anime blockbusters, running for nearly a decade in the 1980s and 1990s. The main character, Ranma, is a martial artist and rude idiot who transforms into a girl when water gets poured on him. (He fell in a cursed hot spring in China and he'd love to find a cure for his gender-bending.) His father, Genma, is similarly cursed except that he turns into a panda. It's a comedy, obviously, and it built up a huge supporting cast over time, almost none of whom appear here. There's no Shampoo, Cologne, Mousse, Ukyo, Ryoga, Happousai (thank goodness), Pantyhose Taro, Kodachi Kuno or her mad, mad headmaster father. Instead, we're mostly focusing on the core cast from the start of the franchise. We have:
1. The Tendo family. Soun's the father of Akane, Nabiki and Kasumi. Because Soun and Genma are: (a) old friends, and (b) reprobates, they agreed long ago that Ranma and Akane would be engaged to marry each other, but never got around to mentioning this.
2. Tatewaki Kuno, the son of the school's deranged headmaster (currently on holiday). He's one of the best things in the anime/manga, because he's so psychotically oblivious to everything outside his extremely strange head. His brain would melt if it touched reality. He lives in his own little world, where Akane and Ranma are in love with him and he has no choice but to accede to their desperate love for him, while also proving his superiority to all fighters in Japan. Here... he's okay. I quite liked Kento Nagayama and he has some funny moments, but Kuno shouldn't be this forgettable. Anime/manga Kuno is the funniest character in the show, dominating every scene he appears in. His equivalent in this TV special is probably its biggest missed opportunity, but he's not actually bad.
3. Dr. Tofu, which is quite cool. He's a character who all but disappeared early from the franchise, but the show was better and more emotionally grounded when he was around. Akane's in love with Dr. Tofu, even though she knows he's only got eyes for Kasumi. (Here they reveal that he's also a martial artist. I can't say I'm a fan of that decision, if only since the show's already got martial artists coming out of its ears... but okay.)
4. Hikaru Gosunkugi, which is kind of amazing. He's almost a manga-only character. The anime invented Sasuke Sarugakure and kept giving him Gosunkugi's role in episodes, not introducing the latter until Season 6.
This special's mostly about Akane (Yui Aragaki) and Ranma (Kento Kaku when male and Natsuna Wantanabe when female). Akane has good chemistry with girl-Ranma, but is hostile to boy-Ranma and at first their wedding looks doomed. Later, though, they unbend a bit. It's reluctant and rather sweet, in its way. It helps that Ranma quite often saves Akane from trouble. Their unfolding relationship is what you're really watching here, although there's also a Baddie Of The Week plot that's throwaway and slightly regrettable. (Nearby is another cursed spring, but it's being targeted by a group of camp gay martial artists who've drawn costume inspiration from the Blue Oyster Club in Police Academy. Yes, I'm afraid so. That spring can turn you permanently into a man, you see, which is of obvious interest to Ranma.)
The TV special starts horribly. Why does Japanese TV do things like this? Admittedly they soon wake up and stop being silly, but 90% of all sane viewers will have stopped watching by then. It's the kind of attempted comedy that suggests that the target audience is four years old. Katsuhisa Namase's mugging as Soun convinced me that I was watching trash within the first ten seconds, yet later you'll realise that he's actually quite a good performer.
Alternatively, here's another example. Kasumi's cooking. Soun rushes in excitedly and puts his hands on the kitchen table, nowhere near the stove, the pans, the worktops or anything like that. Kasumi immediately carries over a huge hot metal pot and puts it down on her father's hand, resulting in sizzling sounds and steam. It's hot. She's causing him injuries and he's going to need treatment for those burns. Soun, though, doesn't notice. Akane says, "Dad." Soun looks at her. He looks at his hand. Comedy pause. He still hasn't noticed that he's in pain. Only then, as if he has to see pain to feel it, does he roar in hammy agony. His hand's now burned and red, so Akane takes him to the sink and puts it under the tap.
"Akane, that's hot water," says Kasumi.
Again, Soun has a little comedy pause before becoming aware of the pain.
I wanted to kill Katsuhisa Namase at that point. Oh, and Dr Tofu can sod off and die when he's trying to eat Kasumi's bento box.
The special soon stops being annoying like that, though. It'll never lose its slightly silly tone, e.g. comedy sound effects or the scene where Genma and Soun can't recognise girl-Ranma because she's wearing a pink wig. However the cast bring it alive. Akane was undoubtedly the hardest role to cast, given all the sides to her character. She's a rough, abrasive fighter (which would in itself have made your average J-pop bimbo look laughable) and yet the actress will also have to be likeable, sympathetic and capable of unfolding romantically towards someone she can't stop arguing with. Yui Aragaki pulls it off. She's decent rather than brilliant, but she can be by turns sweet, rude, obnoxious and everything else that's required. I believed in her, which is important since Akane's arguably the real main character here, not Ranma.
Natsuna Watanabe is similarly impressive as girl-Ranma, in a role that could have been just as risible if badly cast. (She's a violent, foul-mouthed boy in a girl's body, but she's also charming and by far the more likeable of the two Ranmas. Watanabe pulls off both of those simultaneously.)
Of the others, Kento Kaku is a bit too thin and pretty-boy to look like my idea of Ranma, but that's not his fault. His performance is quite good, even though at first he's more like a six-year-old trying to look tough. Arata Furuta looks perfect as Genma. Katsuhisa Namase is a lot of fun as Soun, usually having good instincts on how far to push his overacting. There's no one here I'd call bad.
The martial arts looks good. We're watching a silly comedy, obviously, but the fighting's all-important in this franchise. The panda always looks a bit stupid, though, even though it's quite a realistic costume. (You look at it and can't help but think "it's a man in a panda costume".) The special's family-friendly and has absolutely no nudity, even in a girls' locker room scene that would have been funnier with at least a girl or two in her underwear. Ranma's blundered in. D'oh. (Ranma 1/2 is at root a comedy about playing with gender roles, even if it later degenerated towards being a martial arts show, and Rumiko Takahashi has never been afraid of including toplessness or nudity in her stories. She's not in charge here, though.)
I'm not wild about the special's approach to gender roles, though. It's central, obviously. I'll give them credit for realising that and trying to build themselves around it thematically, but I don't like the execution. They make a big deal of girl-Ranma being weaker than boy-Ranma. This surprised me and I've just googled it, only to find that it was indeed present in the original. However since I hadn't remembered that fact, I'd guess that this is the first time it's ever had this much emphasis. The script tries to build this up into a heroic realisation, with Ranma fighting against a belief that it's impossible to win as a girl, but in practice this comes off as clumsy and a bit rubbish. It stops short of being offensive, but it's not great. The camp gay cannon fodder and villains don't help either.
As a whole, though, despite a few lumpy bits, I think the special works. I believed in Akane and the Ranmas. The romantic angle is quite nicely done. I'm not frothing at the mouth and I'm happy to accept this as a worthwhile version of Ranma 1/2. Far, far better than I'd been expecting... but don't let the first ten minutes beat you.