Ranma ½ (Season 1: The Digital Dojo) Box Set Review

The Show

The comedic universe of Ranma ½ (Ranma Nibun no Ichi) is one of the best known and wildly-popular in the grand animé pantheon. Based upon Rumiko Takahashi's fan-favoured manga [Japanese comics] series that ran from 1987 to 1996, this animated version played on Japanese TV from 1989 to 1992, spanning 7 seasons by its completion. This recent offering by Viz Video includes the entirety of the first broadcast season… 18 episodes in total.

So that's where it came from… but what's it all about? Well, here's the back of the box taking a stab at it: "The story of a BOY who turns into a GIRL, a FATHER who turns into a PANDA, and the STRANGE CHINESE CURSE what did it to 'em." I suppose Viz can be forgiven for trying to make the description punchy rather than explanatory, but let's try that again, shall we?

The basic premise on which Ranma ½ operates is that somewhere in China there is a parlous place called Jusenkyo, dotted with cool springs. Over the course of millennia, unlucky creatures have drowned in many of these, at which point each spring in question has become magically cursed. Any person falling into that particular spring will – when splashed with cold water – assume the form of the creature that drowned in it so long ago… but will revert to his normal shape again when doused with hot water. So that's the curse. Where's the comedy?

Ranma Saotome is a gifted (and tremendously cocksure) teenage martial artist who has just returned to Japan from a decade-long training mission his father Genma insisted they start back when he was just a child. Alas for Ranma, one of the last stops on that long journey was dreaded Jusenkyo… where in the heat of battle they knocked each other into different cursed springs. So when the show opens with a busty redheaded girl fighting a panda through the streets of Tokyo, you're prepared for almost anything. Which brings us to the punchline…

After Genma and his long-time friend Soun Tendo had completed their training under the same master martial artist, they agreed many years back that Genma's son should one day marry one of Soun's three daughters… and the two should inherit the dojo and carry on the proud tradition of the School of Anything-Goes Martial Arts. Unfortunately for the two scheming dads, none of their children think much of this pre-arranged marriage lark, so when Soun's youngest (and rather tomboy) daughter Akane is matched with the aquatranssexual Ranma, things are primed for precisely the sort of merry chaos that obligingly ensues.

Naturally, it's impossible to resist revisiting a concept as good as Jusenkyo, so over the course of the series a number of other characters visit the cursed springs and have their own mishaps. Which means that this show is rife with shapeshifting teenagers who all seem to fall hopelessly in love with either Akane or Ranma (either gender). Ranma ½ is most definitely a comedy and many of the show's jokes are made at the expense of the eponymous lead character as he/she tries to deal with a zany circle of friends. It's not all about farce, gender jokes and shapeshifting though – there is a storyline developing in the background which pulls you in and gets you really involved with the characters. Many feel that the first few seasons of Ranma ½ saw the TV show at the height of its form, and this box set serves as an excellent introduction to the Ranma ½ universe.

Episode Guide

1: 'The Strange Stranger From China'
Introducing: Ranma, Genma, Soun, Kasumi, Nabiki, Akane
Peace in the Tendo household is shattered by the arrival of a panda and a pig-tailed girl! Can this really be Genma, Soun's fellow disciple of the School of Anything-Goes Martial Arts, and his "son", Ranma?

2: 'School Is No Place For Horsing Around'
Introducing: Tofu, Kuno
It's only Ranma's second day back in Tokyo when he discovers he's expected to attend high school like all of the other kids his age. But is Furinkan High ready for the likes of Ranma?

3: 'A Sudden Storm of Love… Hey, Wait a Minute!'
Upperclassman Takewaki Kuno has had a thing for Akane for a while now, despite her complete lack of interest in him. He obviously isn't thrilled to discover Ranma's now her fiancé… but things soon get even more complicated!

4: 'Ranma and... Ranma? If It's Not One Thing, It's Another'
The ever-scheming Nabiki (Akane's sister) takes advantage of Kuno's multiple infatuations and embarks on a money-making venture involving Akane and Ranma.

5: 'Love Me to the Bone! The Compound Fracture of Akane's Heart'
Introducing: Daisuke, Hiroshi
Ranma's relationship with Akane alters somewhat when he realises that she has a crush on someone else. Alas for Akane, the guy in question is smitten with an entirely different girl…

6: 'Akane's Lost Love... These Things Happen, You Know'
Ranma, seeing how depressed Akane is at the hopelessness of her crush, takes some time out from teasing her and instead actively tries to cheer her up for a change.

7: 'Enter Ryoga, the Eternal "Lost Boy"'
Introducing: Ryoga
Who is this guy Ryoga, and what's his beef with Ranma? When he shows up at Furinkan High, it turns out he's been seeking vengeance on Ranma for quite a long time now...

8: 'School Is a Battlefield! Ranma vs. Ryoga'
Introducing: Furinkan High Chemistry Club
When the time finally comes for Ryoga to trade blows with Ranma, he gets a lot of unexpected help from strange quarters… but even with Nabiki taking bets on the outcome and the entire chem club plotting against Ranma, neither of the combatants can guess how it will really end!

9: 'True Confessions! A Girl's Hair Is Her Life!'
Introducing: P-chan
With Akane's hair accidentally lopped down to a bob, she gets over her crush just in time to find a new object of affection, which she adopts on the spot as her pet. But where did this extraordinarily cute black piglet come from, anyway? (Yes, P-chan is my favourite character.)

10: 'P-P-P-chan! He's Good For Nothin'
Just why is Ranma so upset about Akane allowing P-chan to sleep in her bed? And does it have anything to do with his growing antagonism towards Ryoga? Still, when Akane's pet abruptly goes missing, it's up to her and Ranma to get it back again.

11: 'Ranma Meets Love Head-On! Enter the Delinquent Juvenile Gymnast'
Introducing: Kodachi
Kodachi (the Black Rose) considers herself the most dedicated gymnast in the high school competition circuit. After all, how many other gymnasts are committed to winning by whatever means necessary?

12: 'A Woman's Love Is War! The Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics Challenge'
Kodachi has fallen head over heels for Ranma, which adds another layer of tension to the upcoming gymnastics challenge, as she and Akane agree that whoever wins the match also gets boy-Ranma. Which becomes a bit more complicated when Akane is injured and girl-Ranma has to compete on her behalf!

13: 'A Tear in a Girl-Delinquent's Eye? The End of the Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics Challenge'
In the conclusion of this three-episode arc, Kodachi pulls out all of the stops, using every dirty trick she knows in order to defeat Ranma in the gymnastics ring. But can she really pull it off, even with P-chan's assistance?

14: 'Pelvic Fortune-Telling? Ranma Is the Number One Bride in Japan'
Introducing: Kin
When Tofu's mother shows up and seems intent upon getting her son married as soon as possible, the entire Tendo household mobilises in an effort to save him. So the question becomes, who will best satisfy mom's meddling notions of a bride for Tofu: Akane, Nabiki, Kasumi… or Ranma?

15: 'Enter Shampoo, the Gung-Ho Girl! I Put My Life in Your Hands'
Introducing: Shampoo
Ranma really should take more care whom he bests in battle… case in point, this Chinese chick, Shampoo. Her Amazon law compels her to kill any woman who defeats her in single combat... and to marry any man who does the same. One small problem, though: she hasn't sussed that boy-Ranma and girl-Ranma are the same person!

16: 'Shampoo's Revenge! The Shiatsu Technique That Steals Heart and Soul'
Shampoo, sensing Akane as an obstacle to her marrying Ranma, uses a special attack consisting of a shampoo formula and a scalp massage that erases all of Akane's memories of Ranma.

17: 'I Love You, Ranma! Please Don't Say Goodbye'
Poor Shampoo. When Ranma finally succeeds in restoring Akane's memories of him and demonstrates incontrovertibly to Shampoo that he is "actually" female, she is too confused to do anything but return, heartbroken, to China.

18: 'I Am a Man! Ranma's Going Back to China!?'
Pretty much at the end of his tether, Ranma decides he's going back to China in search of a cure to his "condition". Genma tries to talk him out of it, and this flashback episode recounts all that's happened since that fateful day at Jusenkyo.

As mentioned earlier, this TV show dates back to the end of the 80s, and as such many may have doubts about the quality of this transfer. I'm pleased to report that Viz actually did a very good job with the video on these DVDs. Although not quite perfect, the colours are generally bright and solid and the lines are crisp and rarely show any hint of aliasing. That said, there is a certain visual softness to Ranma ½, which I believe is an unavoidable consequence of the style of drawing chosen by Rumiko Takahashi for this series. (Those familiar with her earlier work – e.g., Maison Ikkoku and Urusei Yatsura – may miss the sharper/harder look of that animé, but I'm not sure it's a fair comparison.)

Die-hard fans should be aware that Viz used the dub masters when they went to make these DVDs… which means that you're stuck with hard subtitles for the opening and ending songs on each episode (not to mention many signs and placards throughout the show). Although this is a very minor quibble, it does seem a bit of a shame – but at least Viz have included titles without subtitles as one of the DVD special features.

Again, you have to consider the age of the source material here to make a fair assessment of the sound quality on this box set. The fact remains that this show aired back in '89, so hoping for more than mono out of the original Japanese language track is a fool's game. The English language track from the Viz dub-version videos is a more recent product and was recorded in stereo, however.

So you're left with a choice: you can either have audio directionality or the original (and excellent) Japanese voice acting… but not both. Without getting into the eternal sub/dub holy war, I'll point out that I opted to listen to all 18 episodes in Japanese and found that the dialogue was crisp and dropout-free. For fairness, I also audited a couple of the episodes in English and found that, yes, the sound quality seems slightly improved. However, there really isn't enough in the way of stereo separation to compensate for the wooden English voice acting.

OK, I know there probably are a handful of people out there who prefer the English dubs of Ranma ½, but I'm not one of them. But the nice thing about getting the DVD box set is that you now have the option to compare the sub and dub versions on the fly, where before you had to choose which VHS version to buy. So find out which one you like better!

Viz isn't one of the leaders when it comes to wowing its intended DVD audience with great menus and special features. While Manga has put out a number of great looking DVD titles with classy menus and extras (e.g., Blood: The Last Vampire) and even AnimEigo has set a trend of including extensive cultural and linguistic liner notes with each release, Viz Video seems to still be finding its footing in the new medium.

Which is not to say that Viz made no effort at all here. The menus on the 4 DVDs in this box set may seem a little utilitarian, but they are nicely animated (rather than static and boring), and when a selection is made, there is an amusing cut sequence. My only actual complaint is that the Ranma ½ opening theme music that loops in the menu background only gets about halfway through before cutting out abruptly and starting over. Perhaps this is a quirk of my DVD player, but I don't think so. So much for a graceful fade or a complete song loop.

So are there any extras at all? Well, yes, though not nearly as many as you would hope for from a box set. The ones that are present are desirable, though, so good on Viz for including them. Specifically, they have provided four "text-less" opening/closing segments (the bits with the theme music, you know?) from the sub masters. It's nice to be able to watch them without having all of the hard subtitling blotting out the background animation. And there is a separate credits section (static pages) covering the Japanese voice cast, etc. (Yup, that's it.)

Seeing as Ranma ½: The Digital Dojo is a box set, it seems only fitting to give some attention to the packaging. This is one place where I feel they've done an excellent job. For one, Viz has made the sensible choice of providing an individual amaray case for each of the 4 discs in this set, rather than opting for the oft-reviled "gatefold" packaging so commonly seen with animé (particularly Hong Kong imports). Although some might complain that standard cases limit the artistic possibilities a bit, the fact remains that amarays are very durable and will still be around and in good condition when your average cardboard gatefold has long since succumbed to wear and tear.

Besides, Viz didn't skimp on the artwork here. Each of the four individual cases prominently features a different character from the main cast – Ranma (girl-type), Akane, Ryoga, and Shampoo – in bold colour over a pale background detailed with bits of the English-version manga. Trust me, it looks stylish. There's also a sleek cardboard slipcase to store all four Amaray cases in, featuring Ranma (boy-type) on the front. The good news for fans is, I've seen the proposed cover art for the soon-to-be-released [April 2002] Season 2 Box Set, and it looks like Viz is taking pains to use a consistent theme throughout. Very professional of them. (For the curious, it's Akane on the cover of the S2 box.)

It's hard not to love having classic animé like this on those addictive shiny discs. Kudos to Viz for their obvious commitment to bringing out the entirety of Ranma ½ on DVD. Some of us are still hoping for more in the way of special features, of course, and there will always minor niggles like the use of the dub masters or the reshuffling of the order of certain episodes, but it's not a bad first effort at all. The video quality is solid, the audio quality is no slouch either, and the packaging looks fab. However, the real reason you'll want to buy this set is just to kick back and enjoy the story. Beware, though… Ranma ½ can be bloody addictive.

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