Ranma ½ started as a manga in 1987 by Rumiko Takahashi and was adapted into an anime in 1989.
Ranma ½ is essentially a sitcom with a backdrop of martial arts. Whenever the storylines wane, a new character is added to reignite the zest in the series.
Ranma Saotome was raised by his father (Genma) who wants Ranma to carry on his legacy of the “Anything Goes” martial arts. As a result, on a training mission to China, Ranma and his father fall into the cursed Jusenkyo springs. Because of this, whenever Ranma is splashed with cold water, he transforms into a girl and only hot water can change him back into a boy.
This is why the title is “Ranma ½“ as he is half-boy and half-girl. Ranma is also 16 years old, so he is just learning his identity. While he is growing into a man, he’s simultaneously growing into a woman.
The gender study alone is poignant and well ahead of its time, but that’s not the part I want to focus on . Instead, I’m analyzing hot water vs. cold water and steam as a recurring symbol of Ranma’s destiny.
Steam is so important in Ranma’s journey because it’s indicative of hot water, which is liberation from his curse.
Hot water (and subsequently steam) is usually portrayed with boiling water, a spa, or bath. The spa and bath settings are important because they require a nude element — which is an openness. The boiling water is also symbolic though as it is used for tea which is a peaceful drink that’s often shared with others in Japan.
The other reason steam is so important is that, it must be man-made; intentionally conceived. To have hot water, someone must make an effort to heat it. Despite the hot springs that caused the curse, hot water is not naturally occurring (for most of us in everyday life).
There’s a positive and negative side to this.
The Negative: Fighting the Inevitable
The negative is that Ranma feels like he’s fighting destiny since cold water is so much more abundant. The ocean is massive and surrounds Japan, and when it rains, it’s unavoidable. Ranma feels hopeless because, despite being the successor of “Anything Goes” marital arts, he cannot fight against nature — no matter what tools he uses.
In short, Ranma does not have control in his life.
Unfortunately, this isn’t limited to the curse. Ranma didn’t have control of his life even before the curse since his father has thrust everything upon him.
The “Anything Goes” martial arts is symbolic of him trying to be liberated (i.e. you’re allowed to do anything to succeed), but even then, it’s a path that was forced upon him by his father. It’s also his father that promised his son, Ranma, to his friend’s daughter.
Genma arranged Ranma’s marriage to Akane Tendo (and also to Ukyo) and, as a result, the enemies Ranma accrues are due to this engagement since everyone at their high school is in love with Akane. They too are fighting for liberty from this prearrangement.
Ranma can’t choose his own path in life because his father and the universe have screwed everything up for him already; he feels like every else controls him like a marionette.
Ranma feels like he’s fighting an impossible battle; he’s waging war with the universe and he can’t win. He feels helpless because he never chose this.
Even the men who become his rivals, become his rivals because he was already locked on a path. Tatewaki Kuno fights Ranma because he’s betrothed to Akane; Ryoga Hibiki fights Ranma because he thinks Ranma intentionally screwed him over, when it was just coincidence (not fate).
Shampoo falls in love with him due to a misunderstanding and Mousse hates Ranma because Shampoo is in love with him.
It’s an endless cycle of circumstances outside of his control. This is further demonstrated in the characters who don’t know Ranma’s curse.
Kuno sees his female counterpart and falls in love, but simultaneously he hates the male Ranma because he’s betrothed to Akane. Meanwhile, Kuno’s sister, Kodachi, loves the male Ranma and hates the female, so it works vice versa as well. What Rumiko Takahashi effectively demostrates is that everyone is halved. There’s a good and a bad side to everyone — and a lot of grey in between.
When Ranma sees the fragments of these people, he’s torn because he can A) empathize, but B) regain some control. He will purposely alter his ego to avoid negative confrontations and in that sense he has control over how people react to him. However, he feels like accepting his dual identity is embracing his curse and he would rather be whole — not realizing he already is.
The Positive: Making the Choice
The negative makes destiny seem like it’s working against Ranma, but the positive ensures that Ranma has a choice in his fate.
Hot water requires effort to make and very seldom does Ranma boil water himself. It’s the people he has opened up with — those that know his plight — that are preparing hot water to save him. It’s not a fluke of the universe when Ranma is changed back into a boy, it’s his friends and family that aim to protect and save him. They want him to feel whole.
By being honest about his curse — being “nude” symbolically — Ranma’s friends are able to help. His fractured self is remedied by the people he’s intimate with in life. This is what makes steam such a crucial symbol, because people work to make it happen for Ranma.
The fact that hot water must be made is what allows Ranma control over his destiny. It is a choice to change back.
This is even exemplified when he walks precariously along the railing to school in the morning. He knows there’s a cold river just below, so he’s tempting fate to rob him of his male body. But he wants to control his own body and have faith in himself to not let that happen; to not fall off the rail.
Rumiko Takahashi makes a brilliant recurring joke to add in the love/hate relationship of Ranma and Akane. The joke being she’s such a bad cook that she can’t boil water — as though to imply, she can’t save Ranma. So when she does save Ranma, it’s clear that there’s a higher power at work. Secretly, the universe is on Ranma’s side.
So it may seem like a bad thing at first, but all these people help push Ranma into accepting who he is regardless of whether it’s a male or female version.
PS. As an aside, it was such a bummer to lose Sarah Strange as Ranma’s (male) voice since it played with the gender politics meta-textually. When she left (to pursue an acting career) and they replaced her with Richard Ian Cox, the male Ranma lost a lot of his softness.
Created by Rumiko Takahashi
Fuji TV, Viz Media, & Madman Entertainment
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