Mediations of Japan: Ranma

This column comes courtesy of my kids. 10 and 8, respectively, they are suddenly gaga over “Ranma”. I can’t begin to tell you why; though I can begin to explain what and how.

What Ranma is, that is, and how it fits into the world of ReDotPop.

Ranma is a manga — or it was, until it became reincarnated as TV show. But, we’ll get to that later. For starters, you should know that manga. are Japanese pen and ink comics — which often start in magazine, newspaper or book form. Manga, itself, is a MAJOR industry: two decades ago, a billion dollar business — and that was before the runaway cross-over success of Sailor Moon and Pokemon in the last part of the 1990s, with all of their television and movie spin-offs, clothes, food, trading cards and sundry school supply tie-ins.

Manga, of course, is not just for tiny tykes. As most of you know, sararimen avidly rifle weekly tomes on the trains to and from work, high schoolers grudgingly stash their favorites upon entering daily cram school sessions, pornographic web sites devote pages to comic representations in the characteristic Japanese style, and a variety of professions employ cartoon renderings to impart basic concepts with nary a wink, flinch or blanch of embarrassment. In a word, manga is pervasive and weighty. It is not just an economic spur and fluffy pastime; it is also a filter for societal content. Which is why we bother to bother with it here; for ReDotPop is concerned with nothing if not how the raw material of Japanese culture is circulated through popular media.

Like its illustrious predecessors, Ranma began small: as one “corner” in the popular periodical, Shonen Jump, about ten years ago; only after years of cultivating a following was it reinterpreted for television. That’s what my kids are busy consuming today: the animated version (“a-ni-may” to ReDotPoppers) broadcast weekly on afternoon television. And since the Monday airings tend to interfere with our oh-so-Japanese, keep-em-chugging-on-the-treadmill, all-court-press, after-school regimen of violin, ballet, swimming, soccer and piano (poor kids), for recompense (some might say survivor’s benefits) I periodically accede to being dragged down to the video store to rent a stack of past episodes. By now there are hundreds. Not to mention the computer games, CD “soft”, and assorted stickers, trading cards, clothes, lunch-boxes, backpacks, etcetera, they pester me to buy, bearing the likeness of Ranma and his supporting cast: his father, Genma; his heartthrob. Akane; her sometime rival, the noodle shop proprietress, Shampoo, and Ranma’s own rivals for the attention of these women: Yoga and Kuno-sempai.

How to explain Ranma? Well, let’s start with a couple of images. The one on the left — the young strapping male — is Ranma. And the one on the right — the young supple female is… Ranma? That’s right. Ranma is your typical teenage tale of gender-blending, your run-of-the-mill story of post-adolescent sexual trans-migration. ReDotPop, it turns out, is rather well-endowed in that regard — but we’ll cover that a bit further on. As for how Ranma was blessed enough to become both male and female, the answer is that he was cursed. Accompanying his father during a spiritual trek to China, Ranma encountered a vengeful ghost who decreed that whenever the two come into contact with water they would be transformed: Ranma from one sex to another, and Genma from ascetic master of martial arts into a pudgy panda. Yoga, who went in search of Ranma years later, apparently encountered the same evil spirit. Regrettably, his punishment was not nearly as felicitous: when contacting water Yoga is converted into a pig.

Bizarre? It gets even stranger. Apparently not everyone in the cast is aware of this transformational malady. Ranma’s mother (and Genma’s wife), for instance, is clueless as to why the bath room her husband just entered is suddenly occupied by a furry beast. And, why is there a strange girl sitting in the tub that Ranma just sat down in? To other characters, though, the transformations (of Ranma, say, from boy to girl) are by now a yawn. Ranma’s sprouting breasts and voice change (along with his suddenly gendered speech) passes without so much as a pause in whatever task Shampoo or Akane are presently engaged. Interestingly, their knowledge of his dual gendered status doesn’t diminish their ardent wish to become Ranma’s sweetheart.

While there is some cross-species migration going on, gender-blending is the fulcrum of this cartoon. For one, it enables any number of opportunities for slapstick — as when Kuno-sempai (who is Ranma’s bitter rival for Akane’s affections), spies the female Ranma in the bath and immediately falls head over heals for her. As you may intuit, showers, saunas and tubs are favorite sites for liquid contact, as they not only enable transformation, but the licentious and copious display of (mostly) female anatomy. This is ReDotPop, after all: a breeding ground for sexual (and often sexist) display.

Of course, skin works for the elder audience — the high school kids that Ranma was originally targeted for — but how to explain the appeal to my (decidedly younger) kids. First off, let’s set aside the prospect that my progeny are simply developmentally advanced: their friends share the same general obsession. One explanation may lie in the normal process of sorting through sexual identity. Although I can’t remember back that far, ten seems about the time that one might be puzzling through what it means to be “male” and “female”. There might be something comforting — even wickedly fun — about not having to choose, or worse, having identities imposed on you by “the adult authorities”. Maybe these youngsters are excited by the liberating prospect of being both; maybe they find it less anxiety-ridden. I’ve tried going to the source on that one — asking my kids what’s up. But the most I get out of them is: “I don’t know… Ranma is strange… but its way cool, Dad.” My kids being so full of insight.

One thing I do know is that Ranma is not a cultural anomaly. It isn’t some brilliant, but unaccountable mutation sprung whole and radically confrontational from the cultural womb. ReDotPop — and the cultural history it is predicated on — is chock full of gender blending. From kabuki (classical) theater — where men play the roles of women — to takarazuka (cabaret) theater — where women play the roles of men — one encounters a long, storied, publicly-countenanced tradition of gender-melding in Japan. In accounting for this support, scholars routinely note that sexual ambivalence is an important part of Buddhist tradition. They also observe that gender confusion has been a staple of many Japanese cultural products–beginning with religious rites where cross-dressing and gender impersonation were firmly enshrined from the beginning.

In his fascinating study of heroes and villains in Japanese popular culture, Ian Buruma observed the ubiquity of gender confusion in Japan, referring to such representations as “the third sex”. This tradition has carried into the present; the most recent example being Izam — a rock singer complete with stylish skirts, shaggy red hair and painted lips and fingernails. Certainly, this male crooner was no more bold or inspired than than Boy George nearly two decades his predecessor. And, like Boy George, Izam ran hot for about twelve months–inspiring a rage of teen mimicry — only to plummet into disfavor and virtual shunning with the break-up of his band, the renunciation of his clothes and colorful highlighting, and his marriage to a young woman from a wealthy family.

It was in the wake of Izam’s demise that Ranma experienced its meteoric ascent. Was that confluence merely coincidental, or is there something in Japanese culture that yearns for mixed gendered representations? I’d like to believe so — certain that, if it’s true, ReDotPop will surely play a major role in perpetuating the cultural value. But, when I tried that prospect out on my kids, they scrutinized me long and hard, before turning back to the TV.

Then the ten year-old said: “I don’t know… Dad is way too uncool.”

To which the eight-year old replied: “Yeah”

Then they threw water on me to see if I’d transform.