Ranma ½: Big Trouble in Nekonron, China Review
Ranma ½: Big Trouble in Nekonron, China was my first peek into the zany worlds of Rumiko Takahashi (justly famous for her work on this, Urusei Yatsura, Maison Ikkoku, Inu Yasha, etc.), and it was with those fond memories that I sat down to watch the DVD for this review. I'm happy to say that the film is still as entertaining as ever. What it probably isn't, however, is the best introduction for Ranma ½ newbies.
Back when I first saw it, even with a friend giving me a blitzkrieg run-down of the key cast and their various relationships, I kept wondering just what was going on and who all of these other characters were supposed to be. In fact, as this movie was produced towards the end of the Ranma ½ television series' run, its first few minutes sees cameo 'walk-ons' – or should I say 'dash-ons'? – of almost the entire secondary cast! Thankfully, none of these supporting characters play a role in the principal action of the movie, so you can safely ignore them if you're new to this game.
At 74 minutes of running time, you're in for a decent session with the Anything-Goes School of Martial Arts, as all of the core cast (save the notable exception of Ukyo) find themselves on an unexpected rescue mission to China. No, this time it doesn't have anything to do with the cursed springs at Jusenkyo (which, for the uninitiated, are responsible for the weird transformational powers many of characters possess). Instead, as is so often the case, the culprit is the conniving old letch, Happosai.
As it turns out, many decades ago he gave half of a magical scroll to a Chinese restaurant proprietor in lieu of payment and blagged that it would bring happiness to the holder. Of course, nothing of the sort ever transpired, so eventually the great-granddaughter of the original recipient, Lychee, sails over to Japan to settle the score. When she and her battle elephant Jasmine finally locate Happosai, it comes as no shock to anyone that it's the entire Tendo household that gets to suffer the consequences.
Not that it's really her fault what happens next. By an immensely unlucky coincidence of timing, the bearer of the other half of that particular scroll (Lord Kirin) comes looking for it just after she hurls it away in frustration. And – very predictably in the Ranma ½ universe – it's Ranma's fiancée Akane who happens to have picked it up that very minute and who consequently gets kidnapped to serve as Kirin's bride back in Nekonron, China. (Everybody with me so far?) So the gang from Furinkan set off to rescue Akane, but the going promises to get a bit rough considering they are squaring up against the Seven Lucky Gods of Martial Arts... and on the latter's home turf to boot!
Like many animé films dating back a decade or more (this particular one was produced in 1991), Big Trouble in Nekonron, China features a 1.33:1 aspect ratio (and therefore a non-anamorphic DVD transfer). However, the average viewer will probably be less troubled by this than by the discovery (quite early on, in fact) that there's no small amount of print damage throughout this film. This takes the form of dust specks and lots of scratches, but fortunately most of the time these are just a minor distraction. As for the usual bugbears of animé DVD encoding – graininess, rainbowing, etc. – this movie doesn't look bad at all. So a slightly mixed bag, but above-average.
In addition, be aware that the video used on this disc comes from the Viz dub master, so expect to see lots of hard-subbed signs and the like. (Nor is the original Japanese intro segment available anywhere on this DVD, so you'll be viewing lots of English credits over the opening animation, alas.) Also a bit on the strange side are the subtitles themselves, which are done as white with a blue outline... which has the unfortunate effect of rendering the text a kind of faint lavender colour.
Another thing to look out for – more of an observation than an actual problem – is how Viz handled the closing credits scroll on this disc. Essentially there are three different versions of this sequence to watch, two of which play automatically at the end of the film and one you have to go find under 'Extra Stuff'. The first credits scroll is basically the original Japanese one, but 'squished' vertically into something resembling a letterbox aspect ratio to make room (in the bottom black bar) for a the English lyrics translation of the show's ED theme ('It's Love!')... which appears as non-optional subtitles. The second credits scroll repeats all of the cast and production credits in English, which is very handy although aesthetically it leaves a lot to be desired. Finally, if you want to watch the credits precisely as they originally appeared at the end of the movie in Japan, then you have to duck over to the disc's extras menu.
As we've grown to love with animé DVDs, this is a bilingual disc so the holy wars regarding which version to purchase (dub or sub) are at long last relegated to the dustbin of history. This review provided me with my first ever opportunity to hear this film in the original Japanese... and it's great. Of course, I've seen the English dub of Big Trouble in Nekonron, China a few times before on VHS, so that too sounds perfectly normal to me, which is weird. Regardless, the music and sound effects come across great in either language, so you'll probably be happy with either.
That said, a few things to watch out for. I have only my usual complaints with the North American voice actors that produced the English dub, so I won't belabour the point here. (For those who haven't read my other Ranma ½ reviews, it's my opinion that the dub VAs haven't quite captured the spirit of the characters they portray, whereas the Japanese VAs generally seem to be spot on with their deliveries.) However, a new annoyance in this department is the main character of Lychee.
In the Ranma ½ universe, anyone hailing from China is doubly-burdened. One, they all get silly names (those in the recurring cast were all named after cosmetics, while the newcomers in this film are named after foodstuffs). Two, they're all forced to speak with some linguistic impediment, be it a broken form of the prevailing dialect or (for the more bookish or formal roles) a heavily-stilted one. This joke is fine as far as it goes, but the dub actor for Lychee obviously didn't get the memo, and couldn't maintain a consistent mode of speech (or accent, for that matter!). She starts out trying to affect a posh English accent, then ends up alternating randomly between that and the usual 'broken English' style that you normally get out of Shampoo. So that could certainly have been a lot better.
It has to be said, this disc sports some remarkably ugly menus. I'd normally be willing to cut Viz some slack on this in light of it being one of their earliest DVD releases (back in 1998)... but not four months later they put out the second Ranma ½ film and the menus on that disc were easily an order of magnitude better, so it's clear that someone in quality control was asleep at the switch the first time around. Anyway, the adjectives of choice here would include 'blocky', 'static' and 'slow'. Although there generally is some sort of background music sample looping beneath each menu screen, it's seldom catchy and you'll soon grow tired of hearing it if you sit staring at the options for very long.
The selections available from the main menu include: 'Start Movie', 'Language & Subtitles', 'Characters Information', 'Story', 'Extra Stuff', and 'Viz Information'. Amazingly, there is no scene selection menu whatsoever! (Which is a curious oversight, as the movie itself is broken up on the disc into 25 chapters, handily outlined on the liner notes sheet provided inside the Amaray case.)
Under 'Characters Information' are capsule bios of no less than 18 of the film's characters, the first set including most of the recurring cast of the TV series, while the second covers some of the ones specific to this particular movie. Each bio screen includes a bit of text about the character and a short video clip featuring him or her... which is generally not the best way to approach this particular idea, as not only do the video clips give away events in the film itself, but they are visually distracting to those viewers who might be trying to read the actual character summary.
The two-page 'Story' synopsis does a decent job of explaining the film's premise, but as a slightly-better version is already found on the back of the Amaray case one has to wonder why Viz thought it was necessary to bung this on the DVD itself. However, it is relatively spoiler-free, so feel free to read it before watching the movie if you like.
Under the 'Extra Stuff' menu is included: the original Japanese ending, the cast list (broken down into 4 pages, 2 each for the Japanese and North American VAs), the English trailer (1 minute long), and conceptual drawings (amazingly meagre at only 2 pages total... each cramming in as many characters as possible, rather than doing something more generous like devoting an individual page to each so that the sketches could be displayed larger and in better detail).
Finally, the 'Viz Information' option takes you to a screen where you can find out more about the various products that Viz Communications sells, including their magazine line (Animerica, PULP, and Manga Vision), graphic novels, comics, videos, and other merchandise.
Big Trouble in Nekonron, China was the first (and remains the longest) of the three 'movies' based on this popular animated TV series. (For the curious, the second film is Nihao My Concubine and the third is a half-hour short focusing on Kuno and a phoenix egg which Viz has released as part of its Ranma ½ OVA collection.) Of the three, this is also my favourite and features some truly superb moments of comedy coupled with a decent storyline. I'm glad to have it in my DVD collection and confidently recommend it to any animé fans out there.