Welcome to the fourth article of Watson Watches (the Retro Edition). If you’re reading this and have no idea what I’m talking about, this is the follow-up series to a bunch of interview-style articles published in 2014. The idea was to introduce Watson – who at that point was completely new to anime – to some specific titles and then ask him some potentially interesting questions. We’re doing the same thing this time around but with one important difference: all the anime I’ll be getting Watson to watch were released before 2000.
Just for fun, we’re also going in reverse chronological order. Previously we tackled the 1992 magical-girl fest Sailor Moon, and this week we’re going further back in time with 1989’s Ranma ½. As per usual, Watson watched everything on his own without looking anything up online and the following questions were given to him afterwards.
Let’s try something a little different this time around. Rather than telling you when Ranma ½ first aired I’m going to have you guess a rough estimate. Based on the show’s sound and art style, around what time do you think it aired and why?
Purely from the haircuts I would guess the 1980s, sometime near the end of the decade. There are other things that indicate that (see later) as well, but given the above question I would point specifically at the art style. The colours are more basic and less sharp than what I’ve seen in other shows; I would say they’re more muted and almost pastel in places. There are more curves, and definition and detail also seem reduced – but actually that’s not quite true, is it? The native resolution looks like 400×300, which would be about right for TVs of the 1980s. It also forces different techniques to be used for showing details in a screen area that is small by modern standards. Technology has moved on since then of course, so the art style does have a somewhat dated look. I do wonder what something made today for the same resolution would look like.
As for the sound, it is similarly less complex. There seem to be fewer sound effects at any one time and they seem more “natural”, for want of a better phrase. As I mentioned in the Sailor Moon article there is also a noticeable difference in terms of clarity and crispness, which I associate with older shows. I don’t think that does the show any harm mind you, but the lack of complexity in sounds does take a bit of getting used to.
In comparison to the stereotypical early/mid-90s anime art style of Sailor Moon, do you personally find Ranma ½ to be more or less visually appealing?
More appealing, simply because we’re avoiding the bold and garish special effects. The backdrops and characters could look quite good in Sailor Moon but the rest of it headed for a sort of visual overload at times. In Ranma we get the same almost painted-looking backdrops and characters, but we aren’t assaulted by transformation sequences that make eyes bleed. Nothing of value was gained by that, in my opinion, so I’m glad we’ve gone back to a time before it happened.
In terms of actual content, was there anything else that dated the series for you?
When the date of a show is relevant (like it was in Kuroshitsuji), I’m usually on the lookout for how objects are portrayed. Technological objects such as vehicles or communication devices are a good way of telling when something is set, and so are the styles used for buildings and signs. The presence or absence of written material and its style can also tell you a lot. Stepping back a bit, all of those things will influence the world that is portrayed in the show too. So the attitudes of the characters when they encounter them can also be quite telling.
I feel uncomfortable saying those things are content, however. I would usually think of content as the story that’s being told, or the experience being created for the audience. With this particular question I suppose we can go from there to “can I imagine this show airing today?”, and the answer is no. HELL no. Even if we think of it as something intended purely for adults, I still can’t see it getting any traction. The sexualisation and gender transformation of characters renders it unsuitable for kids, and how those themes are portrayed wouldn’t be acceptable for adults in today’s world either.
Which I’m not entirely sure is a good thing, now that I think about it. Ranma ½ treats these things as a bit of a joke, playing them for incidental comedy value… but in a weird sort of way that actually feels fairly inclusive, given the context it operates in. Everyone is being played for comedy value so it doesn’t really stick out. These days I can’t imagine a gender-swapping character appearing as anything other than a hero. But not everything needs to be a paean to how marvellous these people are or what wonderful qualities they have; and constantly putting them on a pedestal does a disservice if inclusion is our actual aim. As I mentioned before in the comments on Kuroshitsuji, sooner or later we have to treat people as people, and if equality means anything then we also have to accept they can be flawed, provide comedy material, and generally play the same roles as anyone else. A sort of dreadful po-faced earnestness which cannot tolerate certain portrayals of its favoured groups does no-one any credit. So while Ranma ½ probably wouldn’t get made today (probably, this is Japan we’re talking about after all), it’s almost refreshing to see these ideas used so openly.
Ranma ½ mixes a lot of genres: at times the focus is on action and martial arts, at others it switches to bizarre slapstick comedy, and romance plays a hefty role here too (to say nothing of the fantastical gender-bending). Do you think all this works together, and what were your favourite and least favourite aspects of the show?
This might come as a surprise, but I didn’t actually think half of those genres applied. Maybe it’s just the episodes I saw but the martial arts, while they appear central to the whole conceit, are in my opinion just an exotic form of window-dressing. They don’t drive the story, they aren’t what the main characters are occupied with day to day, and while they do form a kind of conflict source they don’t actually resolve anything. To me they seem more incidental to the show than anything else despite how much people talk about them, and were included only to add an air of exoticism. Perhaps I’ve just been desensitised to casual violence by decades of TV and movies, but they just didn’t seem that important to the show.
Nor was the romance obviously playing a hefty role in the show, although to be fair I could see signs that it might be going to ramp up as time went by. However, it looked like while it might be a major subplot it wasn’t going to be the basis of the whole thing. That basis in my opinion was going to be comedy. There was plenty of slapstick comedy, yes, and I thought the gender-bending was going to be played in that way as well. Ranma changes from one gender to the other at an inopportune time, people rush around to conceal the truth, amusing misunderstandings arise, hilarity ensues. It’s a script we’ve seen for centuries, going back at least as far as Shakespeare, and it never fails to get a laugh. Community theatres around the world have benefited from it at their Christmas pantomimes (to our eternal sorrow), and it would surprise me not in the slightest if it was used here as well. What I really thought I was watching though was some sort of precursor to the slice-of-life comedies. The weird guests, school setting, and casual attitude towards unrealistic violence and manipulative behaviour all made me think it was going be something like another comedy anime set in a school (although I certainly wasn’t expecting it to reach the same high standard).
Does it all work together? Eh… kind of. We’re at the point where we’re essentially seeing ideas flung at a wall to see what sticks, and these are the ones that didn’t fall off. They don’t conflict with each other, and if it really is a comedy then they could provide a valuable palate-cleansing between scenes – no-one would be expected to take it seriously in any case, so why not throw it all together? But by the same token they don’t exactly complement each other, and if Ranma ½ is expecting to be taken relatively seriously as a coherent whole then they’re not doing it any favours.
My favourite aspects of the show were the comedy elements – I have a weakness for humour of the absurd, and the combination of that with slapstick comedy worked pretty well for me. I didn’t think much of the sexual elements of the show, though. The nudity and revealing clothing didn’t do anything worthwhile for it, and there was no need to have Ranma get groped periodically. That was tasteless at best.
As I’m sure you noticed, Ranma ½ involves a lot of casual nudity. Did this surprise you and were you in any way offended by it?
Yes, it really was a surprise. For one reason or another I think of most anime as being made for minors, and seeing this casual nudity came as quite a shock to me. And I have to say I found it a bit offensive, too. I wouldn’t have minded so much if it was treated matter-of-factly, as a sort of natural element of the setting. Naked bathing is a thing in Japan and other places, so it doesn’t have to receive leering attention. But it did – in fact, it was sexualised. Whatever the show is trying to be (and as I said above that issue is yet to be determined), that was unnecessary. What is it for? Adding some mindless titillation for viewers? The kids who I presume were the intended audience wouldn’t get anything from that, and anyone who is “mature” enough to enjoy those elements and yet watches a kid’s show for that purpose must have a rather disturbing psyche. I just couldn’t see why it was included, and the fact that it was just exasperated me.
This was actually a very difficult choice. Soun Tendo, the girls’ father, was a very appealing character. He might not be one of the main characters but he is a good comic element, casually stirring up trouble for everyone else with a sort of blithe unconcern. He’s quite a troll, and I like that he also seems to genuinely care about his daughters as well. However he is beaten in the comic-relief stakes by Genma Saotome, who spends most of his time as a giant panda. To be fair I would too if I could, and even just his presence in a scene makes it take a step towards the humour of the absurd that I find so appealing. When he actually starts doing things I found it almost impossible not to laugh. So Genma gets my vote for best character.
Worst character was also a bit of a contest. Tatewaki Kuno took the lead early on, being a complete dickhead in practically every way it is possible to be one (seriously, take another look at his haircut). His monstrous arrogance may in fact be his single redeeming characteristic, as it renders him incapable of believing anything that goes against what he has already decided must be the case. That led to some amusing moments as the show progressed. So I was all set to nominate him as least favourite, when suddenly Nabiki Tendo out of fucking nowhere. Nabiki had always looked and sounded a bit sly, but a few episodes in she abruptly showed what a manipulative and exploitative little baggage she is. She went as far as taking revealing pictures of both Ranma and her younger sister Akane to sell to Tatewaki, sending her bitch-score skyrocketing, and somehow Tatewaki and Ranma ended up taking the blame for it. Nabiki definitely takes the ‘least favourite’ character award, and I can only hope she gets some sort of comeuppance later on.
You watched 5 episodes of this. Will you be going back for more?
My immediate response was “ha ha ha, no”, but for a moment I was seized by doubt. Did I like Genma enough to see more of his panda-antics? Would Soun’s trolling make the show bearable? And is the prospect of Nabiki getting her richly-deserved smackdown sufficient to keep going and see where it all ended up?
Ha ha ha, no.
Question of the post: Got any other questions for Watson, or just any general comments? Let us know your thoughts! As always, anything aimed specifically at Watson will be replied to by the man himself.