Ranma 1/2, OAVs
This review of the Ranma OAV's covers the first 6 episodes of the English language release. The reason for this seperation is that these 6 episodes actually were a complete OAV package in Japan, that I only have access to these 6 for review and that there actually are some differences in flavor. If I can get them all at one time I'll see if it's worth combining the reviews.
Are you familiar with Ranma from the long running manga spanning 38 volumes? Or perhaps you've seen the 161 episode anime series? Or more likely you haven't given VIZ's prohibitive pricing of the material when it was first released to the western market. In any case without the foundation, which introduces a sprawling cast of unruly martial artists, there's a whole heap of in-jokes you're going to miss. The essence of it however is that it's a domestic comedy following life in the Tendo family, who run a martial arts dojo. Ranma, a brilliant but somewhat immature martial artist is meant to inherit the dojo once he takes the hand of the tom-boyish Akane, who's a martial artist herself. However, given their personalities, this is a path fraught with peril.
That's before you consider the rest of the cast, a huge range of weird people with exotic martial arts skills who somehow manage to get drawn into the life of the main characters. Some love Akane and thus want to kill Ranma, some of them love Ranma and thus want to kill Akane, and many of them have even more exotic desires. Ranma, being unable to resist a challenge, gets drawn into one strange adventure or conflict after another. And this is all overlaid with Rumiko Takahashi's marvellous touch for character, comedy and crazy situations. This is after all the series that gave us such wonders as martial arts tea ceremony or martial arts french dining.
Okay, seems simple enough right? However this is also a world in which martial arts are not bound by boring laws such as physics or logic. For a sufficiently skilled practitioner anything is possible, which opens another broad range of story seeds. One continuing story concerns the existence of magical pools in a training ground in China. Whoever falls in them will, when doused with cold water, take the form of whatever creature first influenced the pool, with hot water turning them back. Ranma fell into pool of drowned girl, which gives him fairly immediate gender issues. Turning a hose onto the cast will generate cats, pigs, ducks, panda and even some more exotic beasts. Some of them even manage to keep it a secret to an extent, allowing them to be two characters in the manga. It's more than a little crazy... but it's a lot of fun.
The first tape contains "The curse of the contrary Jewel" and "Tendo family Christmas scramble". The first concerns Shampoo coming under the effect of a piece of jewellery that turns love into hate. Her new found hate for Ranma making him strive to win her back, which shakes up various other characters. The second is basically a huge cast piece as a broad range of characters, and their feuds, are invited to a christmas party at the Tendo Dojo. It has too many characters in too little time and the highlight was clearly meant to be a song by the female cast... which is a lot less impressive in English. The Shampoo story is possibly the closest in spirit to the many of the stories that occurred in the manga.
The second tape is called "Akane and her sisters"... which is somewhat odd, because the story "The one to carry on" takes up both episodes on the tape. It involves two young girls who believe Soun Tendo has both adopted them and encouraged them to take up martial arts. When they challenge Akane and Ranma, and win, the two mains have to reconsider their strength and ability to work together if they want any chance of a comeback. It's nice to have an episode in which Akane is the focus character as she was often overshadowed in the manga. The story progression is a bit all over the place though.
The final tape, "Like water for ranma", contains "I'll be the One to Inherit Mother's Recipes" and "Stormy Weather Comes to School! Growing up with Miss Hinako". The first has Kasumi, the one who keeps the Tendo family functional, falling sick. When Akane, infamous for the lethality of her cooking, says she'll take over things get really scary. But with her mothers recipe book, a visit from Ranma's mother and some compeition from Ranma to spur her on nothing will make her back down. The last episode introduces a character from the manga and explores the rather exotic martials arts power she possesses, which will force Ranma to get rather intimate if he hopes to defeat her.
As can be seen there's no unifying thread between the stories. They also have no specific location in the timeline of the previous events, although it is assumed you know all of the characters. This means that each story is more than a little pressured by the 30 minute running time. While many of the episodes have their origin in the manga they also tend to change it quite a lot, generating somewhat or entirely original stories. For example "The one to carry on" is entirely original.
The only problem is that they're not really all that great. The manga was pretty lightweight itself and the anime takes this even further. It's partly because it spends more time on the physical comedy and action than the manga did but it's also because it lacks the depth of character than the manga could manage. Even in the weirdest adventure part of the pleasure of Ranma was watching the reactions and inter-actions of the characters. It's echoed here, but it just doesn't have the artistry of Takahashi that made it all work. And to be honest even in the manga there were some periods where it ran out of energy. As such, while it's reasonably entertaining, it's inferior to the manga and ultimately unsatisfying. This used to be aggravated by the manufacturers determination to have only two episodes per tape, I've no idea how (or even if) it is sold these days.
The other part of the problem being that the action components, the story being filled with crazy martial arts, is well beyond the ability of this show to animate. This show just doesn't have the budget so where there should be action it uses every trick in the book to simplify it. Dust clouds hiding the action, repeated motion, still frame, low frame count, simplified character art and a general lack of imagination in choreography above that. This combines with the somewhat old style, which is strongly derived from the manga (which is itself quite old now) and the relatively pale coloring to make it unimpressive animation. Even character work, which the somewhat shoujo style seems intended to support, is frequently weakened when they ham it up and deform the characters for emphasis. The voices, which are always going to be a problem for a show with such a huge cast, are a mixed bag. Some of them are good, mostly the subdued or cynical ones (male Ranma, Soun, Kuno, Genma, Nabiki) but the energetic female voices (Akane, female Ranma) just don't seem to work in English. Meanwhile poor shampoo (A lively female with a chinese accent) seems to have set her voice actor a challenge she had little hope of victory in. Mind you the script, as befits the relatively shallow touch for character, doesn't help that much.
I should also mention that the Ranma manga has no sex but more than a little incidental nudity in it. This series happily includes this element but also coarsens it a little, which means it could be an issue for some people, especially if you were planning to watch this with young children. Ranma was actually aimed at a teen audience anyway, so I'm not sure young kids would be interested anyway.
A collection of stand alone stories made to capitalize on the popularity of the source manga. It helps a lot if you know the background, the sprawling, feuding romantic confusion between weird teen martial artists that the author has created, but you can still enjoy it without that knowledge. The older animation, while true to the manga, isn't that impressive though and the stories are very light weight.