Gender bending slapstick anime fun.
I've been a casual fan of anime for some time. Anime, for those who aren't familiar with the term, is Japanese animation. Rather than being relegated to Saturday morning kiddie fare, anime often holds a prime time slot on Japanese television and is programmed for adults. Heavy Metal is pretty close to its style so far as American animation goes. Back in the mid '80s I met some friends who were real fanatics for this fare, and got a crash course in it. Back then things were pretty primitive for American fans. My friends would get imported VHS tapes and scripts, and then with some hard work using Amiga 1000 and 2000 computers would do their own translations and create the subtitles themselves. Otherwise they just would just watch it without understanding a word. Speaking for myself, I enjoyed the experience much more when I actually understood what was being said.
Among the anime I was exposed to back then was the beginnings of what would become a popular comic and television series called Ranma 1/2. The basic story, so much as I could make it out, was of a pair of young martial artists betrothed by arranged marriage, named Ranma and Akane. The two fight like cats and dogs, but you get the feeling they still care about each other. Ranma has a little problem though: it seems he fell into a cursed pool and now the curse turns him into a girl (a cute one too!) whenever he is doused with cold water. Hot water changes him back to male. Things get even more interesting as other characters enter the mix. Some of them are in love with Akane, even though she is betrothed to Ranma. Others are in love with either the male or the female versions of Ranma. The martial arts is often reminiscent of Mortal Kombat where people can jump several stories up and land without a scratch, and where each martial artist seems to have some special technique which looks quite a bit like magic. It has a style all its own, however, and is charming and often hilarious, with a combination of slapstick humor and romantic comedy.
That was where I left anime for quite a few years. Though I saw a fair number of different anime films during that time (I especially liked Vampire D) I hadn't seen Ranma in a long time. When I heard about a box set of episodes coming out soon, on DVD and with an English track, memories came flooding back and I decided to get back into it. I found out there were two Ranma films already out on DVD and quickly got my hands on this one; the first Ranma motion picture. The folks at Pioneer have been the custodians of anime it seems, and this is a pretty good DVD. It's sure better than the VHS upbringing I got with the series.
The first thing I figured out on watching Ranma 1/2: Big Trouble in Nekronon China is how much the series went on in the years I missed. I'd seen only perhaps the first 15 episodes and much has changed. For one thing, it seems a lot more people have taken a dip in the cursed pool since I left, since several of the characters are cursed. Unlike Ranma these folks turn into various animals when they get doused with cold water; varying from Ranma's father who turns into a giant panda bear (who still sips tea and plays Go) to pigs and cats. Makes for quite a party if a sudden rainstorm catches them. Fortunately the disc has as an extra feature a section which shows all the characters, tells about them, and what their curse is if they are cursed. Without it I found myself floundering a bit trying to figure everything out. There are two pages of such character listings; I recommend first time viewers only look at the first page before viewing as the second page are characters you are properly introduced to in the film. The first page has the characters who have already been together awhile and the film assumes you know who they are to some extent.
Other things haven't changed though. Ranma and Akane are still betrothed but not married, they're both still about high school graduation age, and many of the adventures and romantic entanglements are the same. Soun, Akane's father, and Genma, Ranma's dad, are the leaders of the Anything-Goes Martial Arts studio, and plan on the couple taking over the school someday. Both fathers are disciples of Happosai, a martial arts master, liar, thief, and lecher who spends much of his time stealing lingerie off clotheslines it seems. The school, the town, and the people within it make up the setting for the film and series.
The plot, despite the many characters involved (and there are many), is pretty simple. Akane seems to get kidnapped a lot, and this film is no exception. It seems at exactly the wrong moment Akane has gotten her hands on half a scroll, when a band of Chinese called the Seven Lucky Gods Martial Artists show up with the other half. Unfortunately the bearer of the scroll must marry the leader of the Seven Lucky Gods, a handsome chap named Kirin who wields a deadly set of chopsticks. Now Ranma and the whole gang must take ship and chase them all the way back to Nekronon, China to rescue her. Plenty of adventures and arguments punch up a fairly straightforward story.
The animation is gorgeous. For those unfamiliar with anime they might be a bit surprised at the style. Bodies are well represented, and the women are shapely, but the facial characteristics are distinctly anime. Overly large and round eyes, with very small mouths and noses are the general fare. Perhaps I shouldn't call the animation itself gorgeous, since the movement isn't as fluid as we have become accustomed to in some more modern examples such as Tarzan. But settings and characters are extremely well drawn and detailed; in fact there was a time or two when it looked almost real. Colors are bright and varied, and I found myself accepting the fanciful world without a thought.
The disc itself is a mixture of good and bad. The great detail and color of the original stays intact without bleeding or blooming. Edges are sharp without edge enhancement problems, except for when the camera pans. Characters themselves can move without artifact, but when the camera view moves jagged edges come to the forefront until it stops. Fortunately the camera angle doesn't change that much and is pretty quick when it does, so it's not something I consider overly serious. The transfer is full frame; unfortunately I have been unable to determine the original aspect ratio. Since this is based on a television show I'm used to seeing it in full frame, but I have to wonder if this isn't cropped from a widescreen showing in the theater. Some scenes look like they may have been cropped. What is occasionally more troublesome than the artifacts is the quality of the film print, which has a fair number of nicks and scratches. It's not a prevalent problem either, but notably at the beginning credits and in a couple of wide shots they're very noticeable.
The sound is very well done considering it is Dolby Surround. Both English and Japanese stereo tracks are included, as are English and Japanese subtitles. The English dub I listened to was quite clear and distinct, without noticeable mouth movements betraying the dub. In that respect the animation fares much better than Japanese live action films dubbed to English. The dialogue and sound effects were quite clear, though with a dynamic range that doesn't challenge either end of the audio spectrum. The music came off a bit thin but it wasn't bad.
The extras department isn't anything to write home about, but it's pretty good as well. The aforementioned character bios that bring you up to speed also have clips from the film showing each character in action so you can set who is who in your mind easily. A Story entry on the menu basically tells the plotline to the movie, without spoilers. Sort of a text trailer. The actual English language trailer is also included, along with the original Japanese ending, which doesn't tie things up quite so much at the end. Both the Japanese and English voice actors are listed, along with a couple pages filled with conceptual drawings for the film to complete the package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I don't have any large complaints, only small ones. The artifacting in the transfer and the quality of the source print are minor quibbles. As for the film itself, you have to take things in the spirit in which they are given. The story is often silly and simplistic, but that is part of its charm. The animation is lovely but not what you would call state of the art. Both the story and the animation are typical for anime and suits the audience it was made for, along with legions of anime fans here in the US. There are indeed many anime fans here, and I'm sure many of them know far more than me about it and this series for that matter. I hope I've done a fair job of representing the film.
I'm reviewing this disc from a rental; unfortunately I don't know for sure about the packaging. The initial release of this disc had it contained in a jewel case (yuk) but word is that Pioneer was switching to an Amaray Keep Case as it did for the sequel. It might be a good thing to check on before purchase.
Anime fans likely already have this disc, along with the sequel film called Ranma 1/2: The Movie 2: Nihao My Concubine. I was quite pleased with the film and got more than a few laughs from it, and fan reviews seem to think the sequel is even better. I look forward to giving it a shot and a review. For those not yet exposed to anime, give it a rental. I think it's a fun little romp and makes for a pleasant evening.
Pioneer is commended for bringing this foreign offering to the US and giving us a very nice alternative to VHS. All involved with the Ranma series are likewise commended for making a fun story that has lasted a long time and kept a large fan base. Case dismissed.
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