Ranma ½ and Queer Subtext: Is the anime truly progressive, or accidentally transgressive?

Ranma's boy and girl version in front of the screen, Ryoga as a pig and Genma as a panda in the background

Ranma ½, aired back in 2014 on Animax, was a rather queer experience (pun intended). It revolved around quite a few popular anime tropes that we even see today, namely harem and the tsundere archetype. What’s even more astonishing is how the author, Rumiko Takahashi, was not only a pioneer for both, but also one of the main reasons why these tropes became so popular.

While I enjoyed the anime with the unadulterated innocence of a child a decade ago, I have recently rewatched the series with a much more educated perspective and have come to notice the ironically overt queer subtext in the anime. While the anime is not as progressive as I hoped it would be, it still subverts quite a few sacrosanct gender views and norms, and we shall discuss them from hereon.

The Titular Problem: Ranma “½”

Ranma being strangled by Shampoo, while female Ranma tries to save him; Akane is smirking, Ukyo is staring at the ordeal blankly
Ranma and his suitors (& suffering) || © Studio Deen

The plot is fairly obvious. Ranma Saotome is a 16-year-old boy who turns into a girl when splashed with cold water. Why?

His father, Genma, had separated him from his mother as a child and gone off with him to train in martial arts to become a “man amongst men” (close contender for the worst father in anime, much?) Their adventures led them to Jusenkyo, the Chinese cursed springs, where a series of unfortunate events (read as Genma and Ranma’s complete ignorance of safety protocols) led them to falling into separate cursed springs and gaining a curse each: while Genma turns into a Panda when soaked with cold water, Ranma turns into a girl.

They travel to Japan to become freeloaders at the Tendo household, Ranma and Akane Tendo get forced into a future marriage contract, and hilarity, catastrophe and epic martial art fight sequences ensue.

The main conflict of the anime is therefore this: Ranma is torn between his two selves- his male and female versions- and he must find a way to “break the curse.” This “curse” has multiple connotations, which we shall discuss in the next section.

Ranma ½ isn’t the trans-positive narrative you think it is

4. The “curse” of femininity

Ranma ½ Season 7, EP 156, Ukyo, Shampoo and female Ranma looking at their bosoms and feeling angry, surprised and saddened, respectively
The Battle for Miss Beachside (& bosoms) || © Studio Deen

The entire plot of the anime revolves around Ranma’s denial of his female self- he DOES NOT want to be a woman, he wants to “break the curse.” Not only is femininity viewed in a negative lens by him, but he openly rejects it– and despite his denial and rejection, the femininity is still forced upon him- it is, after all, an irreversible curse.

Ranma views himself as a boy with unfortunate physical disabilities that makes him seem otherwise at times. He is in behavior, and at heart, completely masculine. This very notion cancels out the transgender nature of his dual existence, which we shall discuss further.

3. Forced feminization and how it differs from being transgender

 

Akane pouring boiling water from a kettle on female Ranma
Ranma getting drenched by Akane || © Takahashi Rumiko

“Forced feminization” refers to the idea of imposing gender roles usually identified with women, upon unwilling men, for the sake of humor, as a joke or as a curse. It is defined by its lack of choice, identification, and agency. Hence, it is “forced” upon the typically male character.

This is where it differs from the transgender identity– the individual has the agency to identify oneself and declare oneself as the preferred gender- and then the transition, physical and/or social, ensues.

Ranma never “chooses” to be a woman, his condition is quintessentially a “curse” (as is explicitly mentioned in the anime and the manga source material). His female self is, therefore, a forced condition that he actively rejects. This is against the very nature of being transgender.

2. The conflation of gender and sex, Ranma’s gender dysphoria and the similarity with the transgender experience

Nabiki groping Ranma's chest in his female form
Nabiki “examining” Ranma || © Studio Deen

One must remember that Ranma ½ is purely based on the traditional notions of gender and sex; as in, gender is defined by “what is inside one’s pants.” The difference between gender and sex is one of the most important teachings of Queer theory. This already establishes that Ranma ½ was never meant to be a transgender narrative true to its queer origins.

  • However, Ranma does suffer from gender dysphoria, albeit only when he is in his female form. When splashed with cold water, he ends up in a body he doesn’t feel like he belongs in, in a social position he does not want to be in.
  • This is very similar to the gender and social dysphoria that transgender people suffer from- constantly feeling a disconnect from one’s assigned body and societal roles.
  • When he is in his female form, he is sexualized, constantly referred to as “she” instead of his preferred pronouns “he” and in a way, his existence is simply equated with his genitals- an experience all too familiar for transgender individuals.

Ranma is a cisgender boy who is forced to turn into a transgender boy, and he does not enjoy it one bit. Is there a similarity with the transgender experience? Yes. Does that make this trans-positive? No. You will see why soon.

1. Tsubasa Kurenai: the culmination of transphobia and queerphobia as a whole

Tsuabasa crreping up on tourists at the beach, disguised as a mailbox, while ranma and akane stare in horror and disbelief
Tsubasa Kurenai delivering Okonomiyaki || © Studio Deen

Tsubasa Kurenai is introduced as the unwanted “female” (it’s a bait) suitor for Ukyo, who herself is a suitor for Ranma. Everyone thinks this is so because Tsubasa mistook Ukyo for a boy- they assume showing Ukyo’s womanly bits would get rid of Kurenai, but no- Tsubasa doubles down on the fact that she ONLY likes girls.

Akane is disgusted by the fact, horrified, even. Ranma even shows up to a date with Tsubasa to “fix” her. As we can see, same sex attraction is vilified every time it comes up. Tsubasa is considered deviant for her refusal to date boys. This is extremely hypocritical as Akana herself is said to hate boys, and yet she is never vilified for it. It is her character trait that gives her individuality, and she is not hated for it. Why is it then, that the same disregard for men that Akane is lauded for, Tsubasa is hated for? (The answer is TERF mentality, we discuss this further on.)

Tsubasa later reveals that “she” is actually a “he.” Oh, so Tsubasa is transgender. WRONG. Tsubasa said that “he’s just a normal guy who dresses up as a girl.” Oh, so he’s a drag queen, how progressive! WRONG.

Not only does Tsubasa use homophobic slurs to deny a queer identity, but he also pursues women disguised as a tree, a mailbox, and a traffic light. Ranma furiously claims that Tsubasa “tricked” him. This pushes the harmful transgender stereotype that trans people are “tricksters” and predators who only use gender as a disguise to hurt women. This notion is actually used in real life to justify violence against female presenting AMAB (assigned male at birth) people.

Ranma ½, therefore, is riddled with transphobic and queerphobic undertones, clearly visible through the representation of the trans-coded character Tsubasa Kurenai.

Is Ranma ½ completely regressive then? Yes and no.

Akane tendo, looking disgruntled with a sakura mochi in hand in Ranma ½ season 7, EP 156
Akane Tendo: The Battle for Miss Beachside || © Studio Deen

Rumiko Takahashi has written quite a few gender non-conforming female characters in Ranma ½.

  • Ukyo is a martial artist who specializes in making okonomiyaki. She is first introduced to us as a boy, but later reveals her gender identity. Even so, she doesn’t conform to the traditional gender roles. She pursues her career, and is therefore, at least in Japanese culture, a “masculine woman” of sorts.
  • Akane, too, is a comically violent female character who “hates” men. She cannot cook, lacks a womanly temper and touch, and openly declares her disregard for men. She is still the central female character and widely loved.

The characterization of both Ukyo and Akane is pretty feminist, and that is the point- feminism and transphobia can co-exist. In fact, the very difference in the treatment of Tsubasa and the other female presenting characters shows the Trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) tone of the anime and manga.

Did the author do it willingly? Who knows. What I can tell, however, is that although the author did try to subvert traditional gender norms (transgression), the anime is still stuck in a sacrosanct gender binary, and perhaps this story was never written keeping in real life queer characters in mind- it was never meant to be a trans-positive narration.

Final Thoughts?

Ranma ½ is, at the end of the day, a comedy. However, that does not discredit its social commentary, IF it had any to begin with. Humor is, at the end of the day, the best device to make controversial, sensitive, and taboo topics more palatable- be it through satire, stand-up comedy, or, like here, body swap humor.

This anime was never meant to be a progressive narrative for the queers. It was only meant to make us laugh. However, it still managed to normalize the concept of gender fluidity directly or indirectly, even if only as a comic device, to be used way farther in the anime industry. I, for one, found solace in the representation, no matter how wrongfully done, and still look to Ranma ½ for a quick light-hearted laugh and a good time every now and then. It does have harmful connotations, but at the end of the day, Ian Cox should just stick with Inuyasha; Darren Pleavin takes Ranma ½ for me.

Jokes aside, Ranma ½ was, according to the aforementioned discussion, truly never a trans-positive narrative to begin with, despite its attempts at societal subversion.

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