Queer themes in anime (Japanese animation) and manga (Japanese comics) are nothing new. Yaoi and yuri feature (usually) fetishized depictions of gay relationships for straight audiences. Bara manga depict gay men for gay audiences. And, for better or worse, Japanese kids are learning about the LGBTQ community through anime and manga.
But Japanese children aren’t the only kids learning about queerness through anime. Sailor Moon showed gay kids around the world a healthy lesbian relationship (even if some translations confusingly called them “cousins”). And if some of those Sailor Moon fans wanted to get a little deeper into anime, their next stop was most likely Ranma 1/2.
Ranma 1/2 is about a teenage boy, Ranma, who’s been studying martial arts since he was a child. As the series opens, Ranma’s setting up at his new home: A dojo run by his father’s friend and his three daughters. One of those daughters, Akane, has been selected to be his bride in an arranged marriage.
There’s one wrinkle — thanks to a mishap while training, Ranma and his father both fell into cursed springs. The curse: When one falls into one of the springs, they’ll take the form of whatever drowned there whenever they’re doused in cold water. Hot water reverses the curse, at least until the next time they’re covered in cold water. (Which happens more frequently than you might expect.)
As it turns out, Ranma’s father fell into the Spring of Drowned Panda, and turns into a panda whenever he gets wet. Ranma, on the other hand, fell into the Spring of Drowned Girl, and changes sex when he comes in contact with water. Hijinx ensue.
And ensue they did: There are 161 Ranma 1/2 episodes. That doesn’t include the 15 video games, three feature films, 12 original direct-to-video specials, a live-action series and another nine fan-club specials. Like many anime, Ranma 1/2 was based on a manga — which lasted for 38 volumes over nine years. Ranma 1/2 was created by Rumiko Takahashi — the celebrated cartoonist behind popular series InuYasha among many others.
We’re not going to lie — Ranma 1/2 wasn’t a particularly nuanced look at gender. Ranma’s curse was more often used for laughs, putting him in awkward situations often involving his breasts. Of course, the show started in 1989 (and was first translated to English in 1993), so the fact that the word “problematic” is built into the show’s framework shouldn’t be surprising.
It’s actually more surprising that Ranma 1/2 occasionally did have somewhat insightful storylines about the difficulties of gender. As Aurora Tejeida points out, in one storyline Ranma’s confused by homoerotic dreams featuring a character with a crush on Ranma’s female form — even after learning about Ranma’s curse.
While Ranma 1/2 isn’t the only anime to deal with trans issues — the outstanding Wandering Son is a better choice for that — it was one of the first. And in a pre-Steven Universe time, kids had to find queer role models where they could get them. (Aside from Steven Universe, trans kids pretty much have the short-lived SheZow and that’s it.)
For some ’90s kids, Ranma 1/2 was a first look at the idea that someone can be a gender that doesn’t match their body’s sex, and for that reason alone, it’s important. Here’s hoping for more shows for children of all stripes, so kids don’t have to make do with imperfect role models.