Anyone who's spent a period of time reading manga will be familiar with the concept of the "Big Three" - the veritable franchises of Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece. Even if you don't read them, you will surely be aware of them - it takes some skill to avoid them when One Piece is the best-selling manga in history with over 345 million tankobons sold (that's three for every man, woman and child in all Japan!) In the shrivelled and vestigial organ of UK anime fandom, where making scarcely a thousand sales is sufficient for a title to be acclaimed a barnstorming blockbuster, the Naruto and Bleach sets go a long way towards keeping some companies profitable and pumping a measure of life into our limp member. We mustn't forget though that for all their prominence now, the "Big Three" are a relatively recent phenomenon that only grew into their sprawling media circuses during the Noughties - One Piece began in 1997, Naruto in 1999 and Bleach in 2001. There were other great pillars of manga and anime before the Big Three built their temple: if you were getting into anime in the late Nineties you were more likely to be familiar with Dragonball Z and before that you may have experienced one of Rumiko Takahashi's stories.
While the obsequiously fawning tone of the author bio in the back of the book (her works are so vivid as to defy classification and exist in their own elevated plane of a "Rumic World", apparently) might make it hard to believe due to the unreality of hagiography, it is nonetheless quite right and truthful to say that Rumiko Takahashi is one of the Grandes Dames of the manga world. Leaping into a sprint right out of the gate by winning the Shogakukan New Comics Award for her very first published manga Those Selfish Aliens in 1978, her titles like Urusei Yatsura, Maison Ikokku and Ranma 1/2 itself were hugely successful throughout the Eighties and Nineties and helped make Takahashi one of the wealthiest mangaka in the business. InuYasha capably stood between the columns of the "Big Three" until its conclusion in 2008, and while Takahashi may not be quite at the height of her powers - her current manga Rin-Ne has sold a "mere" six million copies - a bad day for Rumiko would be a brilliant day for everyone else. Just to give an example of how widespread Rumiko Takahashi's fame and influence have been, last winter when I was working in Norway I found a shelf of twenty volumes of Ranma 1/2, translated into Bokmal, in a municipal library in a rural village!
Ranma 1/2 was one of Viz Media's strongest-performing imports during the Western anime and manga boom - while its release of the original series has been discontinued for a number of years, Viz Media now brings us this omnibus edition re-release of the manga, with smart cross-promotion timed to lead into the arrival of the anime version on Blu-Ray over in the USA. Is it a half-assed cash-in, though, or a full-on triumph?
Soun Tendo, sensei of a Tokyo martial arts dojo, is in something of a bind. His wife has passed on and with only three daughters - the comely, comported Kasumi, the cool-customer Nabiki and the tomboyish fighter Akane - he has no way to secure the future of his dojo. However, as luck would have it, a letter arrives that his good friend and fellow martial artist Genma Saotome - with his son, Ranma - are returning to Japan after a long voyage of discovery honing their own formidable martial-arts skills overseas to make good on the two men's pledge to marry their families together and so allow the dojo to be safely passed to the next generation. One of Tendo's daughters is to be married to Ranma, and Akane is appalled to find that her sisters shove her forwards for the duty. Akane wouldn't seem at first to be the most promising catch - she's quite pretty and something of her school's queen bee but she hates men, and half the reason she's such a good martial-artist is that she has to fight her way through all the boys desperate to ask her out each morning on her way to school. This might not be as insurmountable a problem as it first appears, though - when Ranma arrives, a surprising discovery is made. While he was training in China, he fell into a magical pool, and now he is subject to a terrible curse... whenever he is splashed by water, he loses some things and gains others... transforming into a girl! Hot water turns him back into a boy (at least, until the next flying kick sends him spinning into the garden pond), but a girl who hates men and a man who is half-woman sounds like an ideal match. The course of true love ne'er did run smooth, though, and Ranma and Akane are going to find it a rocky courtship as all manner of other suitors vie for both of their affections! It's just as well that they're both martial-artists, because their skills will be regularly put to the test... and when there are no other crazy interlopers to fend off, they can always focus on knocking the stuffing out of each other instead.
A bit of personal history now: although nowadays I review manga, historically I've not actually been all that much of a comics reader. When I was younger the only comics I read with any regularity were Sonic the Comic (which I enjoyed but threw away in disgust when they started reprinting stories) and Warhammer Monthly (which got discontinued) - I didn't even start picking up 2000AD until I was 19 or 20, and it felt kind of like a geeky obligation. The original run of Ranma 1/2, which I found in the school bookshop of all places, was perhaps my first introduction to manga and it really rattled my brain. It must be said that when you're 14 the chance to see a bit of girl-nipple in a comic book was sufficient for it to be declared a towering accomplishment and a literary masterpiece that would resound down the ages, but past that adolescent attitude Ranma 1/2 really opened my mind to the diverse potential of manga and showed me something, new, fresh and exciting - not just through the simple novelty of big-eyes-small-mouths art but tangibly and lastingly different. A great deal has already been said about Ranma 1/2 in many other places over many years, and I'm not sure that there's all that much that I myself can add to the pile, except give my own endorsement that Ranma 1/2 justifies its public perception as a modern classic - spirited, lively, and energetic, Takahashi's soft lines give it plenty of bounciness to keep both the action and the comedy bounding forward with lots of momentum. The kung-fu fightin' is entertainingly over-the-top while still remaining borne from the characters' skills rather than relying on magical ki or power-beams blasting everywhere, giving it a lot of movement (Ranma's Chinese-style clothing also gives it some distinctiveness on the page too). The comedy is also well-balanced as a battle of the sexes without getting too hung up on sexuality - there is some nudity, but while sex is implicit in some interactions it remains modest and conventional. Ranma also doesn't trap the story in a rut of mooning over what he is - he has no identity crisis, he's a boy who's just sometimes a bit top-heavy. I'm not sure that Ranma 1/2 is a manga that could even be made nowadays - I have a fear that half of it would just be stammering milquetoast embarrassment from the main characters around the bath scenes. Ranma 1/2 though has a cheerful confidence that is good-natured and light-hearted, and rather than any implausible immediate attractions you can trace a real developing arc in him and Akane continually butting heads and then finding themselves slotting into each other's grooves.
The original editions of Ranma 1/2 were oversized, but this new release has been reduced to the size of a standard volume - it looks neater on the shelf but it gives the art less impact, although the black-and-white reprints of the original colour pages are clearer here than they were in the original which did seem a bit smudged. The new Ranma 1/2 also comes with a new translation - the most visible difference is that most signs and background text are repainted in English whereas previously they were only captioned. The English sound effects from previous editions remain (and they've been redrawn too, I like the effort that Viz has put into this) - I think that these are wonderful, helping to really energise the action with the immediacy of fast recognition and they're a great asset in giving the manga a general sense of cartoony fun and helping to visualise the scene mentally too. I wish that more manga could do this nowadays, rather than interrupting your read to squint for a tiny caption at the edge of the page. The translation itself is by and large very similar to the old one, but there are a number of a small changes for the worse - for instance, the Tendo Dojo is now the home of "Anything-Goes Martial Arts" whereas previously it was "The School of Indiscriminate Grappling", which more clearly communicates the innuendo and makes a better joke. That said, things like these are really only small scattered niggles and don't seriously detract from a very readable script which gives each character clear personal voices.
The other main difference of this edition is that it is presented unflipped, reading right-to-left as in the original Japanese whereas previous releases had been mirrored to read a more familiar Roman left-to-right for more international mass-market appeal. This frankly isn't that big a deal to me - it's the same art either way - but Viz Media consider it to be a key feature important enough to announce on the blurb and in these post-bubble days where we're reduced to a rump of enthusiasts I can understand why you need to appeal to the purists.
If you're an established manga reader who has already experienced Ranma 1/2 then this re-release doesn't bring that much new to the table, really only making cosmetic changes which don't on their own justify a new purchase; if you're a fan you still might like to indulge in a copy to see the interesting comparisons between editions. It has been several years since Ranma 1/2 was on our bookshelves, though, giving time for a new generation of readers to come into the medium and ensuring that there are still plenty of people who have not yet had an opportunity to see a golden-age Rumiko Takahashi manga - to new readers then, I would happily say to go on ahead and buy. Ranma 1/2 is a light, easy read of knockabout fun and it's been entertaining to see it come round again.