Ranma Saotome is sixteen years old and one of the world's greatest martial artists, having been trained non-stop all his life by his greedy irresponsible layabout father Genma. As an example of Genma's antics, many years ago he promised Ranma's hand in marriage to one of the daughters of his old friend Soun Tendo. Ranma doesn't take this well, not really being interested in girls. He's a loud-mouthed insensitive jerk who lives to fight, although in fairness he's also kind-hearted and honest to a fault.
Akane Tendo is sixteen years old and the youngest of Soun Tendo's three daughters. She's an excellent martial artist, although hardly in Ranma's league, and the unanimous choice of her two elder sisters to marry Ranma as soon as they clap eyes on him... or, to be precise, "her". Due to an unfortunate accident with a cursed Chinese spring, Ranma and Genma are doomed to turn into a girl and a panda respectively when doused with cold water. Hot water turns them back to normal. Akane is a sweet girl, but with a savage temper. In her first episode she knocks her new fiance senseless with a table, which is fairly typical of their relationship from then on.
These, by the way, are the show's most normal characters.
Seven seasons and the equivalent of an eighth in OVAs and movies, totalling 75 hours' worth of slapstick comedy. That's a lot of Ranma! Conventional wisdom calls it a Takahashi slapstick-fest that continued too long and eventually got stale, but I disagree. If you don't go nuts and try to watch it all at once, the later seasons have as much to impress as the early ones.
Rumiko Takahashi's comedy formula, you see, is well-nigh indestructible. Urusei Yatsura ran still longer on identical lines, while even Maison Ikkoku is similar structurally although completely different in tone. Each show has a central couple who are fated to be together (Ranma+Akane, Ataru+Lum, Kyoko+Godai) surrounded by an ever-growing cast of weirdos. If things are getting slow, add more characters! There are always plenty to choose from in the manga. To an extent, such shows *are* their characters. Your reaction to Ranma 1/2 will depend on your feelings for the cast and how much you enjoy watching their antics.
In fairness I didn't get as emotionally connected to the Ranma cast as I did in Maison Ikkoku. Their love triangles are played for laughs, not heartbreak. Once you're past season 1 it's basically a slapstick show with wacky martial arts... in fact a little too much of the latter for my taste. Ranma wants to be the world's best fighter and if someone beats him, he won't sleep or rest until he's worked out how to overcome their techniques. The result is a glut of "Ranma vs. Comedy Fighter of the Week" episodes.
That's not the show's only problem. It's a Ranma 1/2 rule that extremely old characters will be: (a) two foot tall, (b) unbeatable in combat, (c) annoying. The two main offenders are Happosai and Cologne, who initially wound me up something chronic. It also doesn't help that Happosai and his perverted antics get far too much screen time, although episode 55 helped by time-travelling back to their youth and showing them as real people. However if you overlook the superhuman midgets, it's an impressive cast. You've got the psychotically reality-resistant Kuno family. 1: Tatewaki (he knows he's wonderful and so does the rest of his personal private universe). 2: Kodachi (scary delinquent with a fondness for killer reptiles and poison, albeit slightly saner than her brother). 3: their father (be afraid; be very afraid). Shampoo is a super-cute Chinese Amazon who isn't beyond the occasional murder attempt. Ryoga has the strength of an army, a puppy-like devotion to Akane and the brains of an eggplant... I could go on for hours.
However the heart of the show is Ranma and Akane, though I'll admit to a soft spot for Ukyo. It's fascinating to see the delicacy of their evolving relationship. They fight, bicker and vehemently deny romantic interest in each other... but they live and go to school together, spend all their time together and in pressure situations would do absolutely anything for each other.
Ranma is basically a macho dickhead, but also one of the show's most altruistic and tolerant characters. Thanks to his peculiar upbringing he seems to have a problem with relationships; he doesn't seem to need friends and he's genuinely not interested in other women, though Akane often has trouble believing this. One of the show's best jokes is female-Ranma being girly (e.g. episodes 49 and 82), because it's so wildly out of character for him.
Meanwhile Akane is a sweet girl... underneath. Unfortunately she has a vicious temper and a talent for martial arts, which is a dangerous combination when Ranma's being abrasive. She's also the world's worst cook. She's more honest about her own feelings than Ranma is, but she's also more sensitive about insults and personal comments. Long before the end of the show it's clearly driving her crazy that she'd be open to a much closer relationship, if only Ranma would ease up a bit and admit a thing or two.
The Ranma-Akane relationship provides the show's only real character development. If it weren't for them you could watch the episodes in any order, or even jump between different seasons without noticing. However because of Ranma and Akane, it felt wrong to watch the first movie after the OVAs instead of during Season 6 where it belonged. At first Ranma and Akane hate the idea of being engaged to each other. However by the end of Season 3, they've come to assume that they'll get married and all their arguments stem from this (unspoken) basis. They don't love each other until Season 4, though of course you've practically got to murder them to drag forth the evidence. Then by the end of Season 5 it's in the open. Episodes 110 and 112 respectively confirm Akane's and Ranma's feelings, though neither of them can bring themselves to admit it out loud. It's fascinating that as late as episode 149, Akane's high as a kite at confirmation that Ranma really is the one for her - even just through a silly food-divination trick - and in their own ways they were both nervous about it beforehand.
However usually all this is barely an undercurrent. Whenever the subject comes up in company, they're both adamant in disclaiming any interest in the other and saying loudly that they don't care, it's nothing to do with them, etc. The anime is about action, comedy and outrageous guest-stars, although the manga is more character-based. When Ranma cracks his head and turns girlie in episode 49, Akane can't handle it ("please turn back into a stubborn insensitive jerk!"). Ranma 1/2 isn't about deep character studies, though if you're patient you'll be rewarded with a few such moments from time to time.
Ranma 1/2's seven seasons are not the same. Season 1 is the most character-based, with lots of multi-part stories and stronger roots in Takahashi's original manga. That's the most serious season, after which things get lighter and sillier, although paradoxically Season 4 makes a partial return to Season 1's seriousness, despite other problems. There's a stretch that year where the animation gets cheap and even a clip show (ep.71). I smell a budget crisis.
Season 5 is the weakest, but not for the commonly cited reason. The show wasn't getting stale. 'Twas simply bad writing. This season has dull stories, cop-out endings and one episode that makes no sense. However even this season gets strong at the end, resting the satellite characters somewhat and turning its focus back towards Akane's family: Nabiki, Kasumi and Soun. Season 6 is also strong and Season 7 concludes with an end-of-school feel. Old friends return (some of whom we hadn't seen for years) and there's a concluding two-parter that's both completely ridiculous and emotionally weighty. It's rather good, actually.
Then there's "Season 8". Ranma 1/2's one-off specials run longer than many shows' entire TV runs and are a mixed bag, capable of being terrible or superb. The films are okay and the OVAs are often hilarious, featuring some of the show's strongest episodes, but it's fascinating to see how easily they can fall into being flat-out wrong. The first two OVAs are like bad fanfic, overplaying the Ranma-Akane relationship, throwing in too many characters and for the first time indulging in fanservice. The TV show was full of nudity, but only for the sake of comedy. The main offender's usually Ranma, to whom feminine modesty doesn't come naturally (though you'll get a strong reaction if you actually grab something).
As an aside, Ranma 1/2 is slightly unusual in that its anime is all part of the same continuity. Other long-running series like Tenchi Muyo often indulge in reboots and alternate retellings. A good watching order is:
- Season One: 1-16, 25-27, 17-18
- Season Two: 19-24, 28-40
- Season Three: 41-64
- Season Four: 65-88
- Season Five: 89-112
- Season Six: 113-118, first movie, 119-136
- Season Seven: 137-153, second movie, 154-161
- OVAs: 1-8, third movie, 9-11
The reason for the reordering of some early episodes is that the ratings for Season One were disappointing. The production team thus played silly buggers with the episode order, bringing forward the introduction of popular characters and eventually cancelling the show outright for a later relaunch. Ranma's a very episodic series and fairly resistant to this kind of thing, but the story comprised in episodes 25-27 needs to go back in Season One where it belongs. Also the third movie (One Flew Over The Kuno's Nest) is only 31 minutes long and often gets mistaken for a twelfth OVA episode, which is how it was released in the West.
It's easy to see how Ranma 1/2 lasted so long. It has its low points (Happosai, too much martial arts), but I don't feel that the later episodes are weak. It helped that I took breaks of at least a month between every other season, though. Nevertheless some of my favourite characters don't show up for a while (Ukyo, Gusenkyo, the Principal) and I wouldn't want to watch the OVAs without knowing all the cast. Unfortunately the show has no conclusion. Maison Ikkoku and Urusei Yatsura saw their final manga chapters animated, but Kitty Animation went out of business in 1996. However by the nature of the show, this isn't a problem. We all know that Ranma and Akane will marry in the end!
Ranma 1/2 is another hit for Rumiko Takahashi, both in Japan and in the West. It's lighter fare than Maison Ikkoku and more accessible for Western audiences than Urusei Yatsura. It's not perfect. It's not a ten out of ten, but it's a solid eight that kept me happily watching for 75 hours.