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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, July 30, 2011


In the last installment of this series I wrote of the comedy-adventure INFERIOR FIVE:

The plots of INFERIOR FIVE, too, are clearly meant to stress incongruity over agonic action. I noted above that the heroes sometimes do win battles, but generally it's out of sheer dumb luck rather than through skill.

I don't mean by that to suggest that all comic superheroes-- or even all comic heroes generally-- must be inept at winning battles. Though it's almost a given that in the adventure-mythos the hero's fighting-skills are better than average, superior fighting-ability can be seen in the protagonists of many dramas (ranging from RICHARD III to STAR TREK), ironies (WATCHMEN, possibly Hammett's "Continental Op" stories), and comedies such as POPEYE and POWERHOUSE PEPPER.

This time, however, I want to compare a comedy-adventure and an adventure-comedy that possess many similar elements (including a hero of amazing abilities), and yet still manage to come down on opposite sides of the divide.

Of the two, my selection for comedy-adventure will be the better known: Rumiko Takahashi's RANMA 1/2.

In BUFFY THE MYTHOS SLAYER I defined RANMA as a comedy thusly:

A better example of the superhero put forth as pure comedy might be Rumiko Takahashi’s RANMA ½ (1987-1996). Though the adventures of Ranma Saotome vary between high adventure and low sitcom goofiness, the constant focus of the series is the how Ranma and his reluctant betrothal Akane “discover” the depths of their feelings for one another and become reconciled to them. These characters are no more married at the conclusion of the series than Buffy is, but the final story does at least feature an attempt to get them married, even if it descends into comic chaos.

I noted in the next paragraph Ranma's superhero-like qualities: that he can punch through stone walls and defeat numerous adversaries with super-powers. He does this not through standard superhero powers but through an almost magical system of martial arts. Despite these extraordinary abilities, Ranma's normative activities are those of typical Japanese high-schoolers: sports, attending classes, et al. He and his father (seen in the illustration as a panda bear) permanently live with the Tendou family, and by agreement of the Tendous' father and Ranma's old man, Ranma and Akane are betrothed. Neither teenager accepts this declaration, though naturally both of them do actually like each other but won't admit it, etc. Akane, in fact, is very nearly the only character ever seen regularly beating Ranma up. This stems not from her equal possession of martial skills-- quite the opposite, in fact-- but because Ranma won't fight back against her. This ethic usually extends to all members of the feminine gender but on occasion Ranma makes exceptions when faced with truly skilled female opponents.

Ranma sometimes has extended fantasy-battles with supernatural creatures, like the winged bull-man seen here. Nevertheless, though Ranma always wins these altercations when it comes down to a test of strength and skill, the dominant theme of RANMA 1/2 is not the invigorative effect of the *agon* but the jubilative appeal of the incongruous. Most of the cast-members, like Ranma's part-time panda-bear father, undergo bizarre transformations of one kind or another. Takahashi often uses Ranma's fighting-skill as a means of ending the incongruity and returning to normality, but often Ranma is flummoxed or made foolish in some way even when he triumphs.

A very different aesthtic pervades Nobuhiro Watsuki's RUROUNI KENSHIN (1994-1999), however, even though many identical comedic elements appear throughout the series.

Watsuki presents the reader with a Mejii-era martial artist, Kenshin Himura, who is one of the great masters of the sword. His past is a great deal more haunted than Ranma's, in that Kenshin's duties to his former masters of the old Shogunate included using his sword for assassination. Dispirited by killing, he wanders into a small town and is taken in by Kaoru, a young female kendo artist. As with the Ranma-Akane relationship, Kaoru is nowhere near Kenshin's skill-level. Nevertheless, any time he pisses her off, she clobbers him soundly. It's not always clear whether Kenshin lets it happen because he won't fight women or because her audacity always takes him by surprise.

The series does have its share of comic misadventures, and like RANMA accumulates a large support-cast of characters, many of whom possess skills comparable to Kenshin's. However, humor is generally introduced to break the tension of the serious battles to come, even as RANMA uses adventure-tropes to briefly put its comic characters into what seems like serious situations before the story returns to the usual hijinks.

Moreover, Kenshin's battles are part of a larger plotline that develops over time, as to what forces will rule Japan during the Mejii era. The focus on large-scale conflict is the indubitable obverse of Takahashi's focus on RANMA, where the small-scale world of home and neighborhood take precedence over the world at large.

Both serials keep elements of adventure and comedy in play on a regular basis. But in each the respective authors clearly signal to their audiences that one mythos dominates all other potential rivals.

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