Ranma ½ (Season 2: Anything-Goes Martial Arts) Box Set Review
Those of you who read my review of the Ranma ½ first season box set may begin to suspect addiction at this point, but really, it's nothing serious. I can stop at any time. Honest. Then again, maybe it's for the best that Viz is gearing up to release the third box set instalment in August…
For those who didn't catch that review – and for whom the word 'Ranma' sounds suspiciously like a type of fast-cook noodle – a quick recap of what the show is about (primarily teenage shapeshifting martial artists locked in love triangles) and where it came from (yes, Japan) may be in order.
Introduced in 1987, Ranma ½ might have been 'just another' in a long line published by that powerhouse of Japanese manga, Sunday Shonen Comics… but for the fact that it was one of Rumiko Takahashi's projects and as such possessed her peculiar brand of genius. Within two years, the series had gained such a following that a Kitty Films (Fuji TV) undertook to produce an animated version which (after a somewhat shaky start) ran successfully through 1992.
Although Takahashi kept turning out the Ranma ½ manga until 1996, it's really these animé renditions that caught the attention of Western audiences and ended up making this show one of the best-loved of its genre, world-wide. Viz Communications has secured all the distribution rights in the US, and has also set about the task of producing English translations of the lot. (More on this later.) The company has organised the show into seven seasons and this most recent box set release contains all 22 episodes from the second.
So why all the fuss? Well, it's a combination of things. First, there's the key premise of the show: people can be cursed to change shape when splashed with water. This may seem quirky enough in itself, but to really squeeze maximum comic effect from it you need to ensure that these alternate forms run the gamut from cute furry (and fluffy) animals to, yes, a complete change of gender for the eponymous lead character.
However, what really makes the show isn't so much the schtick (though we may love it), but its huge cast of likeable characters. Anyone familiar with Takahashi's other work can vouchsafe that she has a gift for making her audience sympathise with both the (de facto) protagonists and the (ostensible) antagonists alike. And it can only help that she's populated the Ranma ½ universe with teenage martial artists who all seem to have their hearts set on getting their hearts broken in the messiest romantic entanglements this side of China.
The second season follows the continuing (mis)adventures of Ranma Saotome and his (main) fiancée, Akane Tendo. A spate of new characters are introduced, some destined to become regulars (Cologne, Mousse, and Happosai) and some not (Mikado and Azusa). Nor does there appear to be any limit to Takahashi's creativity when it comes to inventing 'martial arts' contests for Ranma to try his/her hand at… there's both a Martial Arts Figure Skating Competition and a Martial Arts Takeout Delivery Race in the first four episodes alone! Add to this a couple of interesting revelations about Ranma & Co.'s past, and you have all the makings of a great season.
1: 'The Abduction of P-chan'
Introducing: Azusa, Mikado
Ah, Azusa…having already established a few borderline nutters (case in point, Kodachi), Takahashi graces the show with its very own kleptomaniac. Here's a little girl with a propensity for becoming instantly infatuated with any common object, giving it a 'cute' name, and then making off with it. Unfortunately this works for not-so-common objects (like black piglets) as well, as Ryoga discovers to his dismay.
2: 'Close Call! The Dance of Death…On Ice!'
Having failed to secure the return of P-chan by reason, Akane and Ranma have agreed to compete for him in a Martial Arts Figure Skating Competition. There are only two small flaws in this otherwise excellent plan… one, Azusa and her partner Mikado (the 'Golden Pair' of Kolkhoz High School) have never been defeated on the ice… and two, Ranma doesn't really know how to skate!
3: 'P-chan Explodes! The Icy Fountain of Love'
Introducing: Kolkhoz Fashion Club
No, don't worry… P-chan doesn't literally explode. As the 'Charlotte Cup' (Azusa having given P-chan a girlie name, yes) gets underway, Ryoga's jealousy over Ranma skating with 'his' Akane reaches an all-time high, so he concocts a plan to substitute himself as her skating partner. This doesn't quite come off, though, and he finds himself teamed on the ice with an altogether different girl.
4: 'Clash of the Delivery Girls! The Martial-Arts Takeout Race'
If you watch enough Ranma ½, it doesn't take long to discover the thing Genma (Ranma's dad) is most famous for: his gluttonous appetite. Unfortunately for Ranma, during their many long years of training in distant lands, Genma once promised his toddler to a guy in exchange for some fish, then (after eating his fill, of course) reneged on the deal and scarpered. So when the man shows up at the Tendo Dojo with his now-grown daughter Kaori and demands Ranma fulfil his marital obligations, it's up to Akane to win the ensuing contest or lose her fiancé!
5: 'You Really Do Hate Cats!'
In the face of Tatewaki Kuno's mounting frustration over his inability to defeat Ranma in single combat, the Kuno family's ninja servant Sasuke begins spying on the Tendo Dojo for a weakness he can report back to his master. Amazingly, he finds one… but no one warned him that this flaw has an hidden upside too!
6: 'This Ol' Gal's the Leader of the Amazon Tribe!'
Introducing: Neko-chan, Cologne
When a package from China arrives at the Tendo Dojo with a cute white kitten inside, everyone assumes it's a present from Shampoo to Ranma… of course, not one readily appreciated by our favourite ailurophobe. However, things get even dicier when Shampoo's great-grandmother Cologne arrives with only one goal in mind… getting Shampoo and Ranma married, as per Amazon law. (This is all laid out in Season 1, in case I've lost you.)
7: 'Behold! The Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire Technique'
It's over the course of these few episodes that we're introduced to another key concept in the Ranma ½ universe: if you've studied martial arts, the older you are, the more dangerous you can be. Cologne may not look like much of a threat, but she's learned a few things in 300 years… like how to strike the 'Full Body Cat's Tongue Point', which makes Ranma completely intolerant to hot (or, for that matter, lukewarm) water. So if Ranma wants to ever be able to change back into a boy again, he's going to need to master a new technique that promises to grant him the speed necessary to snatch the cure from Cologne.
8: 'Enter Mousse! The Fist of the White Swan'
Time for Takahashi to play the cartoon myopia card. It seems the stream of arrivals from China will never cease as Shampoo's childhood playmate Mousse shows up in Tokyo, still hoping to make good on his long-time crush on her. He's not exactly thrilled to discover that she's already chosen this Ranma guy for her fiancé, so he plans to get him out of the way using his (not inconsiderable) martial arts skills… that is, as long as he doesn't lose his glasses.
9: 'Cool Runnings! The Race of the Snowmen'
The Tendos and Saotomes try to leave the mounting chaos of Tokyo behind for a skiing holiday… only to find that Shampoo and Cologne have opened a mountain branch of their 'Cat Café' restaurant and are sponsoring (yet another) contest. But can Ranma afford to ignore it when the prize includes the cure to his 'Full Body Cat Tongue' problem?
10: 'Danger at the Tendo Dojo!'
Introducing: Dojo Destroyer
The Tendos have received an ominous challenge… the Dojo Destroyer has set his sights on taking their dojo sign (in a symbolic sense, shutting them down). He'll arrive in only a couple of days and Ranma and Akane, being heirs to the place, are expected to defend its honour. This normally wouldn't pose a problem… except that Ranma's off on a date with Shampoo (trying to get his hands on something which he hopes will cure his curse forever) and Akane's injured her dominant hand in a resultant pique of jealousy. Can she manage, in her weakened state, to fight off the Dojo Destroyer by herself?
11: 'Ranma Trains on Mt. Terror'
Ryoga, having returned after a long absence involving heavy preparations to defeat Ranma, is shocked to find himself easily overcome by his childhood rival. Seeing that this is because of the unfair advantage Ranma now possesses in the form of the 'Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire' technique she taught him, Cologne decides to teach Ryoga a different attack in her repertoire: the 'Breaking Point' technique. Naturally, it's not all altruism… she figures that if Ryoga can gain enough confidence to beat Ranma, maybe he'll hook up with Akane after all and remove the one last obstacle to Shampoo's marrying Ranma.
12: 'The Breaking Point? Ryoga's Great Revenge'
I'll say one thing for Ryoga… he's dedicated. It's not easy mastering an advanced technique that essentially involves a 300 year-old Amazon granny hurling giant boulders at you all day long (which you're expected to shatter with a single finger), but his dreams of being with Akane see him through the gruelling training. Now it's time for the final showdown… but little does he know that Genma's been spying on his training and reporting back to Ranma!
13: 'The Abduction of Akane!'
Thought Mousse was a one-shot character? Think again; he's back and has had time to come up with a plan involving kidnapping Akane and using her as bait to lure in Ranma. But can he really have brought back cursed spring water from Jusenkyo in China? And what's with this knife-throwing duck, anyway?
14: 'Ranma vs. Mousse! To Lose Is To Win'
The kind-at-heart Akane – feeling sorry for Mousse despite his earlier abduction of her – tries to convince Ranma to throw the next fight against his near-sighted opponent, so that the latter might at least look good in front of Shampoo for once and maybe get her to agree to a date. Of course, there are two not-so-minor obstacles to this plan… one, Ranma's pride… and two, Shampoo's deviousness.
15: 'Enter Happosai, the Lustful Lecher!'
Soun Tendo and Genma Saotome have kept awfully quiet about the origins of the Anything-Goes School. After all, who taught them martial arts when they were young men? Could it be they're hiding a dark, shameful secret? (Remember what I said about old geezers being the most deadly? Let's just say we've found a date for Cologne…)
16: 'Assault on the Girls' Locker Room'
This episode begins the three-part 'Japanese Jusenkyo' story arc, which involves a lot of fun set pieces. The first involves Ryoga's discovery of a map leading to a fabled Japanese version of the cursed Chinese springs of Jusenkyo. Ranma quickly appropriates this, hoping to find a nearby Naannichuan (Spring of Drowned Man) and thus ditch his girl half permanently. Wouldn't you know it, it turns out the 'spring' is directly beneath the girls' locker room at Furinkan High School. And with Akane on the warpath against Happosai's prior incursions, just how are Ranma and Ryoga going to get in?
17: 'Kuno's House of Gadgets! Guests Check In, But They Don't Check Out'
For reasons which will become clear once you've seen the above episode, Ranma & Co. have only succeeded in getting one-third of the way to the Naannichuan. Fortunately Cologne draws upon 3000 years of Amazon lore to work out where they need to go next. Which gives Takahashi a great opportunity to revisit those wacky Kunos. However, one can't just gatecrash the Kuno ancestral estate… if the warren of secret traps it represents doesn't dissuade Ranma, then the fact that it's the residence of Tatewaki Kuno and his sister Kodachi (both of whom are in love with one of his/her forms whilst detesting the other – and not realising they represent the same person) really should.
18: 'Goodbye Girl-Type'
With a bit more help from Cologne and Akane (and after a great deal of trouble with Happosai), the gang have at last located the source of the Japanese Naannichuan… and you can bet Ranma's not the only guy interested in diving right in. But are looks too good to be true?
19: 'It's a Fine Line Between Pleasure and Pain'
Although it's already been established that Akane is a terrible cook, this is the first episode that uses it as the central plot device. You see, Akane spent hours in her 'Home Economics' class baking cookies for Ranma, but he won't even try them. Worse yet, he seems all too willing to give Kodachi's cookies a try! What she doesn't realise is that the Black Rose is blackmailing him with a compromising snapshot…
20: 'S.O.S.! The Wrath of Happosai'
This episode hints at the true menace of Happosai… and precisely the reason Soun and Genma tried to escape their master's clutches so many years ago. After Ranma manages to inflame the old goat's anger, he's forced to leave the dojo until Happosai calms down. In the meantime, he hatches a plan which unwittingly reveals the (in retrospect, rather predictable) source of all Happosai's battle energies.
21: 'Kissing Is Such Sweet Sorrow! The Taking of Akane's Lips'
Introducing: Furinkan High Drama Club
After years of putting up with being typecast into boyish, fighting roles, Akane is thrilled when the Drama Club asks her to play Juliet in their amateur production of Shakespeare's famous tragic romance. Unfortunately, things look black when both Kuno and Happosai hear about it and decide to vie for the role of Romeo. Ranma finally throws his hat into the ring when he discovers that the grand prize for the winning performance is a chance 'to see China'. With dreams of getting a paid trip back to Jusenkyo to cure his 'girl problem', he goes all out. However, as he never read the play, he's unaware that Romeo is required to kiss Juliet…
22: 'Bathhouse Battle! We're in Some Hot Water Now'
When the boiler breaks down at the Tendo Dojo it looks like it will be a few days before the repairman can pop round to fix it, so Nabiki and Akane head over to the public bathhouse. Of course, when Happosai catches wind of this, Ranma's roped into going as well to make sure the old lecher doesn't sneak off to the women's side to ogle the naked girls. (Ah, the old schtick is the best schtick.)
The show is presented in its original TV aspect ratio of 4:3 and – as Japan, like America, uses NTSC – in its original broadcast standard as well. Which means that there's very little that can go wrong in the transfer to DVD, assuming the original video masters are in good condition. Which, thankfully, they are. (Despite this, Viz still took the trouble of adding a polite note to the disc liner sheets explaining that small glitches are unavoidable and do not reflect the full potential of the DVD format.)
And yet it's hard to imagine Ranma ½ looking better than this. Those of you whose first introduction to the show were grainy third-gen fansubs are simply not going to believe your eyes. Even if you've seen some of the VHS releases of the show Viz has put out, their quality pales in comparison to what has been achieved on these DVDs.
Does this mean it's perfect? Well, no, but you can't fault them for trying. Colours are mostly strong, with only the occasional scene that seems a bit washed out. Contrast is excellent throughout. On the whole, I would say this season has a sharper look than the last, which may mean Viz gave the transfer more attention this time around… or may simply reflect the quality of the masters.
Artifacting only reared its ugly head once as far as I could tell, and that was in the intro segment. Coincidentally (or perhaps not, as I had at least 22 chances to spot it), this is also where I noticed some colour bleeding. In fact, while we're on the subject of minor niggles regarding the intro, the one problem that anyone with eyes will find impossible to ignore is the wild rainbowing/shimmering effect that happens when the new logo Viz created for the show zooms onto the screen.
It looks – how shall I put it? – awful. It's hard to believe that the same team that did such a good job on the video transfer and the DVD menus would idly stand by and let this pixellated monstrosity open every episode. It seems to me that all they would need to do is redraw it at the higher resolution to begin with and then scale smoothly down… but instead they seem to have taken a very small design and just pixel-doubled (and –trebled, and –quadrupled) it to make it larger. By contrast, the original Japanese TV logo is elegant and subdued, and can be viewed by running the 'Textless Intro Segment' from the Special Features menu.
Setting that aside, however, the picture on this box set is amazing, and the occasional flaws warned of in the Viz disclaimer are ones the average viewer is unlikely to ever notice.
Most of my observations regarding the sound quality of the Ranma ½ first season box set still apply. That is, you're still stuck with choosing between audio directionality (the English Dolby 2.0 dub track) or the better voice acting (the original Japanese mono track). And again, having listened to the entire season in both English and Japanese, my recommendation remains to go with the latter.
This time around, though, there are reasons beyond mere personal preference to ditch the dub and see the sub (unless you speak fluent Japanese, of course, in which case subtitles are silly). The fact is, while the original Japanese audio track had no problems to speak of – with excellent and voice clarity and crisp sound effects – something strange happened when the mixing boys at Viz remastered the English version for these DVDs… they got the sound levels a bit wrong.
If you turn on the English dub and watch the episodes one after the other (as I did for this review), you'll notice that the volume is all over the map. Some episodes come across as really quiet while others are considerably louder. Of course, if you really despise subtitles and don't mind keeping your finger on the volume control of your remote, there are certain compensations for going with the English track… like clean channel sep and nice transitions between the right and left soundstages. It's just a shame about the dynamics.
I see definite progress on the menu front. Compared to the relatively basic (albeit nicely animated) menus on the first season box set of Ranma ½, Viz has put some effort into glamming it up a little for this release. I've included some snaps from a few key screens to give you an idea of what I'm talking about. (One case in point is the Scene Selection menu, which is a marked improvement over its predecessor on the previous box set.)
As you can see, each primary menu is themed a different colour… but more than this, the menu backgrounds incorporate high-resolution scans of the English-version Ranma ½ manga Viz also publishes. This is an exceptionally nice touch as it ties in with the beautiful packaging the company has created for the DVD box sets (which see below).
Although part of me wishes the menus on these discs were animated, in all probability this would have made things a bit busy in such an image-rich layout, so the static pages may indeed have been the best way to go. Of course, the side benefit of static pages is that they load fast and permit the viewer to rocket through the menu options without waiting for transition videos to play, so it's a breeze navigating your way around. Nor are there any ambiguous highlight colours, which often plague animé DVD menus.
So far, so good… but I'm afraid I still have a quibble. The Ranma ½ opening theme music that loops in the menu background only gets about halfway through before cutting out abruptly and starting over. (Yes, this is the exact same problem I had with the menu music on the first season box set.) I don't mean to harp on this point, but for many fans the show's theme music is something they find themselves humming or singing along with... and so it's very jarring to have it just die a death halfway through.
Sure, a minute or so is plenty time to make a menu selection, but that's not really the point, is it? Considering the professionalism demonstrated in the other aspects of this DVD release, there's no technical reason why Viz can't loop the full three-minute version of the theme song (or at least find a graceful point to fade out before restarting it). Here's hoping the season three box set will finally address this small problem…
On to the extras… which are somewhat limited, it's true. Then again, I generally judge animé on a slightly different scale from blockbuster films in this category simply because it can be difficult for Western distributors to obtain bonus materials from Japan to flesh out their DVD releases.
The good news is that Viz has slightly expanded the selection of Special Features from what was included on the first season DVD box set. The new extras include a nice Line Art Gallery and a Cast List / Actor Profiles section. The former is certainly welcome, albeit brief (only 12 production sketches are available). Moreover, Viz sensibly opted to display the line art full-screen; unlike some animé discs that frame their sketches in a smaller 'box' on-screen, these images are large and clear enough to actually read the notes written in Japanese on each board (well, on my 27" TV at any rate).
The Cast List section (see picture) identifies the American and Japanese voice actors who played the key roles in the series, and each of the names on the English language side is linked to a quick Actor Profile. It would have been nice if Viz had done the same for the original Japanese cast, as many of them are famous voice actors in Japan and most fans would like to know what other projects they have worked on. For example, Kikuko Inoue (Kasumi) is just as well-known for playing Belldandy in the animé series Ah My Goddess!. The amount of research required to find out this information is very minimal, so perhaps Viz will expand this section on their next instalment.
Still provided are the textless opening and closing segments, which are fab. It's so nice to watch these 'Ranma ½ music videos' without all of the text credit overlays blotting out the animation. (Although when they say 'textless', they mean it… with the exception of the original Japanese Ranma ½ logo which appears on the intro segment, there's no text to speak of. Which is mildly unnerving as you watch the closing segment and see all of this white space on the screen that must have originally been occupied by the Japanese language credits.)
Although I haven't found any 'easter eggs' on the discs, there is another 'special feature' that wasn't given any press… Viz has included the bridging segment which bookended the advert break when the show originally aired on Japanese television. This is a decidedly cute pair of seconds-long animations which depict Akane, Ranma, P-chan, and Genma (in panda form). Done in the chibi style (as opposed to the standard look of the show), it's all very cartoony and charming. The only drawback is that Viz decided to plunk down its English version of the Ranma ½ logo right on top of Akane! Oh, well…
In my review of the last Ranma ½ box set I mentioned how much I liked the packaging. Well, nothing has changed… except the colour. Whereas the Season 1 box set was themed around a cool bluish-green colour, Season 2 has opted for a warmer orange-peach hue.
Otherwise, everything is as it was, which is to say 'stylish'. Of course, this time the sturdy cardboard slipcase holds five Amaray cases (instead of four), which highlight Azusa & Mikado, Cologne, Mousse, Happosai, and Kodachi respectively. The artwork is still absolutely gorgeous, and the various action poses are all anchored by the pale manga-print screens mentioned earlier.
Oh, one tiny change which is worth mentioning… Viz are using a different type of Amaray case from last time. The cases in the first season box set all had troublesome disc hubs which were difficult to extract the DVDs from, and left you wondering if you were flexing the discs too much in getting them out of their cases. This time around they're the nice 'yin-yang' press-down hubs that make the whole process a snap (and a lot easier on the discs, too!).
I have to say, I don't think the packaging can get much better than this unless Viz goes all out and starts printing collectible booklets or somesuch. In light of this, even though DVD Times doesn't have a specific category for packaging, I'm going to bung some extra points onto the Extras score in recognition of the good job they've done with this. By the by, I've seen the planned cover art for the Season 3 box set slipcase, and it's Ranma-chan over a silver-grey background.
Do you like animé? Do you like to laugh? Then just go buy this box set already. Seriously, though, if you're a Ranma ½ fan you're going to love this. In almost every respect – the sole exception being the audio – Season 2 improves upon the already-good product that was the Season 1 DVD release.
With all of the main characters by now well-established, these 22 episodes can focus more on plots and amusing back-stories. There are several multi-part story arcs this season, and a couple of one-offs which are plenty entertaining in their own right. Yes, Viz has played its usual tricks with rearranging the order the episodes are shown in, but the only major effect is that whole Azusa & Mikado storyline has been promoted, whereas originally this season opened with the Kaori episode. So no biggie.
I'm still hoping Viz will be able to continue expanding the Special Features section on these box sets, as I'm sure they must have access to more relevant bonus material. But the trend (from these two seasons) is definitely upwards.