So it has come to pass. As the great Stephen Tobolowsky once said that was something to the effect of, “When you take a Japanese cartoon, which is in it’s very nature, iconographic, and translate it into live action, you could be in sucky territory.” NTV’s one-shot live-action Ranma ½ has aired, and for what it’s worth, at least demands a few words before heading off into the ever growing sea of anime/manga adaptations that have come and gone with middling to poor results. So going in, my hopes were pretty near to at gutter levels. Especially when considering 2007’s Maison Ikkoku special starring Misaki Ito, it was something I wasn’t ready to be burned by again. As stated via The Wandering Kaijyu, Japan’s history with live action adaptations have often performed in the manner of the way Hollywood once treated their once watercolor product; as safe, campy, and often incongruous throw-away works with little emphasis on story. And while that practice does indeed continue in many instances, films have only recently begun to mirror the originals, or at least begun to be treated with a certain amount of reverence by filmmakers with an eye for what made such characters appealing to the masses. So when it came time for the Japanese to take on what is obviously a large Rumiko Takahashi property, one that is far more over the top & beholden the the drawn page, concern was plastered across the table- late 1980s- early 1990s appropriate, in bright neon.
(For those curious as to my initial worries upon the announcement back in May, go here.)
So how does it stack up? Well, to be fair, perhaps it may be important to place focus on the fact that I’ve been a Ranma ½ apologist since it’s US home video release through Viz back in the mid 1990s. While not the best Takahashi creation, it’s certainly one of the most accessible, and remains something of a dopey cure-all in my home. And it was largely due to Furinkan’s wild, weird, stupid, and often neurotically hopeless characters. Story was often an afterthought, while the animation staffs did an interesting dance around Takahashi’s bizarre & sugar-infused tribute to martial arts cinema, romantic comedies, and the culinary arts in order to fashion what was perhaps one of the more enduring properties in the legendary mangaka’s output. It is perhaps my biggest “guilty” pleasure, and I truly stand by it, even as the world has moved on significantly. All that baggage included, it’s perhaps best to say that for all my initial worry, Ranma ½ comes pretty close to capturing the spirit of the original despite the limitations inherent in J-dorama production value. While definitely hurt by unexpected, grafted elements, what it does get right, it does so with a surprising amount of sensitivity.
In this incarnation, Furinkan’s own Tendo Dojo of Anything Goes Martial Arts remains in deep need of new members, when a fateful postcard arrives, detailing the coming of dojo master Soun Tendo’s oldest & best martial arts pal, Genma Saotome is to visit with his also practicing son, Ranma. The hope being that young Ranma would be willing to marry one of Tendo’s three daughters, and carry on the dojo into the future(all arrows pointing to the youngest, the punchy, tomboyish, very reluctant Akane) . Plans are dashed almost immediately when the Tendo family find a panda at their front door, not to mention Akane, meeting a fiery young female redhead martial artist sporting the name of the boy she simply refuses to marry, Ranma Saotome. The confusion is explained by way of a tragedy that befell the two men as they traversed China to perfect their training, only to fall into the cursed springs of Jusenkyo, springs with the ability to curse those who fall into them to be affected every time they come in contact with varying temperatures of water. Genma, becomes the hulking, yet huggable panda. While Ranma..in a crushing blow to his boisterous ego, becomes a girl when hit with cold water. Needless to say, this is the tip of an even crazier iceberg as this curse becomes trouble for not only the Saotomes and Tendos, but to anyone else who encounters them as they seek desperately for a cure. But amidst all this trouble, could true love blossom despite being put upon by family elders?
So there are a few things worth pointing out that I did like. Surprisingly, the casting is possibly the biggest triumph that could be noted here. Upon initial reports, again concern was my first reaction, but now I can totally see where they were coming at this from. Partcularly the cast at the Tendo dojo. Katsuhisa Namase does a great eternal worrywart in Soun Tendo, while Arata Furuta makes for an impressively voiced loafer in Genma Saotome. Kyoko Hasegawa is a very grounded Kasumi Tendo, while Maki Nishiyama is a fun (albeit questionably reinvented) sister in Nabiki. But the real surprise is in the casting and treatment of Yui Aragaki as Akane, and the impressive work by Kaku Kento/ Natsuna as Ranma/Ranko. It’s the relationship that serves the balance of the entire story, and the performances here are primed and ready for an actual feature film. It’s almost stupefying how well they got it right in this instance. There are moments that evoke the best in Ranma’s original incarnations, and the casting is probably as good as it could ever be (even barring height, which was originally primed to be a nit-picky round in my chamber). The crew even goes so far as to implement some famous moments into this series with both actors, and the fan meter is almost primed to explode when these moments are witnessed. Aragaki’s Akane is not only easy on the eyes, but captures very well the conflicted, at times volatile character she originally was on the page. Kaku’s boy-Ranma is believable as the cocky, insolent wall of stubbornness that is as much hero, as is butt of quite the number of gender-warping jokes the show has to offer. Still the likeable dope. And speaking of likeable, Natsuna’s Ranko (Ranma’s girl-type form) is as spot-on as one is willing to hope for. Filled with the right amount of spunk and swagger, she does a great job capturing a lot of Kaku’s mannerisms, whilst implementing her own style for when Ranma is coerced into going “undercover” to seek answers to what may cure him. The most successful material in the whole piece is what they cribbed directly from the manga and anime, right on down to Akane’s coming of age arc regarding older(and far more domestically inclined) sister Kasumi, and the ever kind & flustered Tofu-sensei(Shosuke Tanihara).
So where does this all go wrong? Well, not unlike so many live action adaptations, this one also falls victim to attempting to create a new villain to wrap the special around, one that has little bearing on the core plot, no matter how much the writers attempt to sandwich it into the story. It’s a faceplant move that almost kills the show’s momentum when we are subject to it. With the MacGuffin being an amulet hanging around Akane’s neck, the new villain is primed to open up a hidden spring, and unlock it’s secrets for himself. I won’t go too far into detailing anything more of the antagonist in this special, except to say that it is the biggest misstep imaginable. To make it worse, it’s completely unnecessary considering that they introduce one of Ranma’s greatest rivals, the rich, obsessive-bordering-on-batcrap-insane rich-boy Tatewaki Kuno early into the show. The very notion that they would sidestep this character, in order to make room for a villain that is not only dead on arrival, but borderline offensive, is virtually poisonous to the entire 90 minute running time. It is a bad idea, and little can undo the damage, except for the leads who do their best with what they’ve been saddled with. There are also problems regarding the establishment of rules regarding the use of water (Case in point- a bath scene midway. Very distracting.), and how it works on Ranma. The martial arts scenes are brief, and only middling as to be expected. And the update to the character of Nabiki Tendo is something so egregious that I couldn’t help but wonder if it was demographics that spurred that one on. A sign of the times, perhaps. But seeing as how she has remained a favorite character, one with an intelligence and zeal that often dwarfs the entire cast, one wonders if this was the brightest decision. Especially considering how much more leverage an independent girl like her would have in the world now. Making her into a hostess-gyaru type seems reductive. Also still not sure why Gosunkugi is even in this special.
There are also nuggets of fun strewn throughout. Plenty of moments that will make fans smile, from Ranma being unable to manage his…er..problem just walking down the street, to Genma’s panda-fu. There is even an unexpected call-back to Scott Pilgrim Versus The World, a film/comic that paid plenty of tribute to manga/anime such as Ranma 1/2. There are even shots interspersed her that were very reminiscent of Bill Pope’s work on that film, which was more than welcome. There is even a tiny Ryoga Hibiki gag in there for those paying attention.
So yes, this rare attempt is far from good, let alone perfect. But it is also a nice look at what could be, and I suppose this is where Japanese adaptations are at the moment. So many great characters in the Ranma universe to be mined, and all we have here is merely one sprinkle on top of a very large, tasty sundae. Like many firsts, it’s a mishmash of potential without the full delivery. Hints of a promising broth, rather than a full bowl of nabe. Despite several creative decisions, there is a pretty good Ranma 1/2 cast and crew at work here. One can only hope someone out there is listening.