Ranma 1/2 Manga
Where do you begin with trying to review Ranma? Loved by many, hated by many and even with a lot of people, myself included, who alternate between the two. Regardless, this is undoubtly one of the most well known and popular manga series in both Japan and around the world.
How does it work? Well, it's written by Rumiko Takahashi who has an excellent sense of the bizarre and an ability to summon up fun characters. She's excellent at comedy and action, yet at the same time can have complex human undertones to her characters. Her manga tend to have a strong sense of a very domestic reality, on top of which a thick layer of weird is added.
In this case we are called to witness the joining by marriage of two families. The three daughter Tendo family offering brides to the single male child Saotome family. The couple inheriting the wealth and traditions of both families. That's the normal bit, now lets get onto the weird. To start with the family tradition is firmly based around martial arts. With one of the Tendo daughters and the Saotome child, plus both fathers, being super-humanly capable martial artists. There's also the fact that they've never met each other, he's only trained in martial arts rather than social skills and she's an agressive tomboy leading to the fact that the relationship goes to pieces almost immediately (at least on the surface).
It's still not weird enough...so the addition of cursed springs comes into the story. Located deep in the Chinese wilderness each of these pools has a tragic legend of someone or something drowning in them. Anyone who falls in the pools changes into this alternate form when exposed to cold water, and returns when doused with warm water. It seems that Ranma, the male child fell into the drowned woman spring, while his father fell into the drowned panda spring. Needless to say this adds immensely to the weirdness.
But it's still not enough, and it needs something to keep the story going outside of the domestics. There are basically two elements, the first being that it seems Ranma (and Akane, the Tendo daughter) have a talent for attracting the romantic attentions of other stupidly talented martial artists...with ranma having not less than three fiances for much of the story. Add in there's no shortage of friends, allies and competitors (many of whom have multiple forms) and the complexity goes through the roof. Trying to graph the relationships in Ranma has brought many to tears. There's a huge cast, they're all talented and they're all knee deep in the delightful complexity that is the Ranma series.
The second part is absurd martial arts competitions, which gives a new arena in which to play, new characters, and a new chance for Ranma to demonstrate his (or her) skill. There's been martial arts tea ceremony, take away delivery, figure skating and french dining. Nothing is too serious to be turned into a silly but entertaining martial arts. Indeed even the personal conflicts are more like a slightly deadly game between this insanely talented assembly. The whole ambience is light and entertaining with a rich vein of humor and occasional delightful character moments. And Takahashi knows how to do this well. The popularity of this series, and its characters, being absolutely no suprise.
And this is also the problem. Being quite light there are times when it seems so silly and frivolous as to be unreadable. In other words not all of the stories work. Likewise the series became popular and ran for 38 graphic novels. There is certainly a serious possibility that this affected the depth, complexity and interest of the author in the material. It is beyond question that it discouraged much sense of resolution, with the characters not solving their disagreements or changing their positions that much after they are introduced. Or, to put it another way, the stories are episodic while the players are relatively static...which can begin to feel like a bit of a torment. As a result many people hate the series, many doubt the value of collecting it and few will deny it has some low spots (although they seem to differ greatly from person to person).
As for the production of the manga, well, that's another source of argument. Rt's style is very open and seems very simple compared to some of the more complex styles around today. The panels are open, detail is often abstracted and there's a somewhat casual feel to it. On the other hand this does make it read quite fast (perhaps not a positive given the manga is so expensive in the west) and there's actually a lot of skill hidden in the lively linework and strong sense of personality and expression of the figures. There's definitely more skill than a first glance may suggest, and the rich sense of character means it bears re-reading quite well. It should also be mentioned that the action is generally excellent, with complex and novel examples of extreme martial arts being represented with great style and economy of frames. In the end it is a personal thing but given the opportunity this will almost certainly provide an enjoyable read.
I must also mention that there is a suprising amount of nudity and fan service in this manga. Given that Ranma is frequently changing from male to female, and the strange people he meets, this might not be too suprising. However, given that it is not particularly eroticised it shouldn't be a big deal. It certainly might come as a suprise to uptight western parents though, so I guess a warning is worthwhile.