It is difficult to downplay the impact of Rumiko Takahashi on her medium. She has multiple smash hits under her belt whose influence can be traced across comics and animation. For a generation of American fans, her creations Ranma 1/2 and Inuyasha alone were the platonic ideal of “anime” for years. Her style was unavoidable, and her craft undeniable, yet for all her commercial success and popularity, she doesn’t often get her due in discussions of comic history in the West. She has been nominated for an Eisner lifetime achievement award no less than 3 times now, but has yet to win. Part of this is in the reluctance of some Western comic scholars to fully deal with the impact and influence of specific Japanese artists rather than a vaguer “manga style” that can then be either waved away as a “fad” or used to prioritize Western artists who “popularized” certain aesthetics over the original artists. Part of it also has to do with the fact that Ms Takahashi’s work is often thought of as “girls’ comics” and the unfortunate reality is that media “for girls” tends to be undervalued despite critical or commercial success it may accrue. Anyone growing up during the early days of Adult Swim will remember the bumpers, dripping with contempt for their own audience and show, agonizing over how Inuyasha was almost single-handedly keeping them afloat when it wasn’t a cool guys’ show. It didn’t matter how much action, boobs, or violence her work had, some Americans simply couldn’t see it as anything other than “girly.”
If there is one aspect of Rumiko Takahashi’s work that has been given attention in the west, it would be the gender dynamics of her martial arts farce Ranma 1/2. For queer people of my generation, Ranma 1/2 was often the first exposure to what the kids today call “gender feels.” Ranma 1/2 arrived in the US right at the start of the book store “manga boom” and its 38 volumes were a Borders staple. The plot of Ranma 1/2 revolved around the titular Ranma Saotome, a martial artist who is cursed to turn into a girl whenever exposed to cold water, and back into a guy when drenched in hot water. Ranma’s father (who turns into a panda due to the same curse) arranged a marriage between Ranma and his best friend’s tomboy daughter Akane, who is a martial artist herself that claims to despise men. Through a series of accidents and misunderstandings, Akane and both of Ranma’s forms end up picking up an increasing amount of desperate love interests and stalkers, all getting in the way of the classic “will they, won’t they” romantic drama. The comic features many of Takahashi’s calling cards, such as sudden cut-away gags, ever-escalating farce, martial arts parodies, paraprosdokian jokes, and Archie comics-esque love triangles. But what Ranma is most known for is the “gender bending” humor. It was this reason that so many pre-transition kids were dawn to the comic. Behind the cute characters, wild action and humor there was the promise of escapism for something many of us weren’t really ready to address.
And yet, Ranma 1/2 actually made pretty poor escapism for most trans readers. Ranma despises his curse, and many of the stories revolve around his attempts to lift it or resist the idea that it makes him “less of a man.” Many of us readers couldn’t help but wonder what Ranma’s problem was. After all, what boy WOULDN’T want to be a hot girl instantly if they had the option haha, I mean, right? The answer, of course, is “cis boys” and “haha you really thought you could fake your way into being a boy” but still… Ranma wasn’t an ideal to shoot for. He obtained his “womanhood” by accident and it didn’t really change that he was a man. He made use of femininity to win martial arts battles (and he absolutely enjoyed wearing the clothing and playing the part beyond that) but there was still never any question as to his “real” gender or to the rest of the cast’s ability to accept it. At best, Ranma was cis boy who learned to like wearing girly clothes, but ONLY if it was in the body deemed appropriate by everyone else. There’s quite a few jokes about people who know of Ranma’s curse suddenly becoming scandalized because “girl” Ranma was suddenly hit by hot water and now “boy” Ranma was caught in the same dress they had no problem with him wearing a second earlier.
In theory I suppose this just goes to show the absurdities of trying to define even fictional gender by way of biological essentialism. Ranma is always Ranma no matter what their appearance, and any “masculine” or “feminine” trait others try to pin them down with are just as reflected in every other character. But in practice, it could be frustrating how little our own experiences, fears or desires were reflected in Ranma. I don’t want to make the mistake of extrapolating my own experience as a “universal trans” one, but talking to other queers of my generation who grew up as “Borders mushrooms” in the manga aisle makes it clear to me this was not just a personal trend. For a lot of queer people of my generation, Ranma was a rite of passage, but one that you outgrew and replaced with the myriad actually and intentionally queer works that came out since then. This fact had felt like well, WELL worn territory in queer anime fan discussion as well, without much more that needed to be said.
So consider my surprise when I found there WAS a character from Rumiko Takahashi’s earlier work that DID make a good trans analogue. Perhaps too good of one.
While Ranma and Inuyashi are the two most famous in the West, Rumiko Takahashi’s first hit had just as big an impact. Urusei Yatsura set the template for a number of anime conventions that would follow. It has been cited as the first examples of “moe” and “tsundere” (which are anime nerd terms that refer to specific ways characters illicit feelings of affection from their audience). Its stylish use of limited animation, strong character posing and layouts, and its beautiful backgrounds were a big influence on Japanese animation to come. It even impacted Western animation, thanks to the circulation of VHS bootlegs passed around art schools and universities. Its cult status among animators, and animator’s tendencies to wear their influences openly and strongly, meant that even cartoon-watching Americans who grew up without any exposure to anime would still find some of its characters and aesthetics familiar.
Urusei Yatsura also set the template for Ranma and Inuyasha’s later “will they/won’t they” relationships and for the over-the-top farce of Ranma. The plot revolved around halpless pervert Ataru Moroboshi, who is simultaneously the luckiest and unluckiest boy in the universe. In the first story, while saving the world from invasion in a game of tag, he accidentally ends up engaged to Lum Invader, the tiger-skin bikini clad alien/oni princess. Originally, Lum was only going to make this one appearance, with the engagement being a sudden over-the-top and unexpected gag ending that is forgotten by the next episode (another Takahashi calling card), but the character proved so popular with readers that she was brought back by the third story and became the focus of the series. The central source of drama in the series is how Lum tries to woo Ataru, who tries to avoid admitting he cares for her while simultaneously hitting on every other girl in the series. Like Ranma, Urusei Yatsura has almost three dozen volumes of comic under its belt and a sprawling cast. While most of the core characters remain in focus for the entirety of the series, its normal for others to drop in and out of favor. Some characters turn up for just a chapter or two, never to be seen again, while others might make a reappearance years later. Still, its surprising for a new character to become “promoted” to the core cast too quickly. Yet around halfway through the series, one character manages to show up and almost immediately become a member of core cast for the rest of the run. She is also the character that led me to write all this in the first place, Ryuunosuke Fujinami.
Ryuunosuke feels like a trial run for the later Ranma. She’s a martial artist who looks quite a bit like Ranma to begin with, but more than that almost all her stories revolve around gender-based farce. First introduced as a guy having a violent, martial arts-fueled falling out with their father, it is quickly revealed that she is really a woman whose father has been trying to raise as a guy. All she wants to do is wear a dress or a sailor suit uniform to school and be recognized as a woman, but her father insists that she instead be his male heir and that he will not let her dress as she likes unless she can defeat him in combat. When I first got to the Ryuunosuke chapters, I saddled up for standard Ranma-esque farce. But then something unexpected happened as I read more of Ryuunosuke’s struggles. Ryuunosuke’s antics and tragic farces didn’t feel like those from her later manga descendants. It felt like a comic farce about an actual trans woman.
Part of the distinction is in the lack of fantastical elements. While Ranma is suddenly cursed with the occasional “wrong body” after 17 years of cisdom, Ryuunosuke grew up with an abusive figure telling her she had the wrong body and mind in spite of what she knew. Ranma is a man turned into a woman, Ryuunosuke is a woman who society will not let express that. While Ranma’s goal is to return to the body and social position he lost, Ryuunosuke’s goal is to feel comfortable being, and then be recognized by society as, a woman. Ranma’s story is based around someone stumbling into wacky gender hijinks. Ryuunosuke had that thrust upon her from before she was old enough to know what gender was. Wether Ranma is “truly” a boy or a girl depends on the gag that needed to be told, but either way Ranma would be a cis man or “magically” a cis woman. There was no question Ryuunosuke was a girl, and the question of her being a cis or a trans one was immaterial. Trans women are not men who SUDDENLY become women after a lifetime of being men, they are women who were told they were men and had to learn to see through that lie.
One of the most common forms of early Ryuunosuke story involve her trying to learn how to be more feminine from one of her classmates, only to have them misunderstand and assume she is a handsome man asking them out on a date. I’m sorry, but this whole premise is already extremely trans. Trying to make friends with, or even date, women who embody traits you want to convey yourself is an INCREDIBLY common early trans experience. Its not always easy to sort out which are feelings of attraction and longing for someone and which are feelings or longing to LOOK or act like someone.
On said date, Ryuunosuke becomes fixated on the act of eating a girly-looking parfait. Consuming something that society had held up as “feminine” and therefore “not for you,” no matter how innocuous it seems, is often a terrifying step for newly-out trans women. The fear of being “exposed” if you reveal you “like things like that” is very real. As is the fear that admitting you like something only “stereotypically feminine” will be used to prove you’re not “really” a woman, but only posing. Of course Ryuunosuke isn’t a woman because she likes parfaits and other “girly” things, or because she likes fighting and other “manly” things. But being able to say “I am a woman AND that means I can like what I like or not” feels both good and terrifying at first after a lifetime of being told that everything you are drawn to paradoxically proves you are not a “real” man OR woman.
Before Ryuunosuke’s gender was revealed, it was hinted at by Ataru’s strange reactions toward her. See, Ataru is a giant pervert who is incapable of doing anything other than hit on every woman he meets. So NATURALLY he felt strangely drawn to hit on this “strange boy.” Even after Ryuunosuke came out as a woman to her new school, Ataru was the only boy who’d consistently hit on her. The fact that Ataru kept trying to grope her was “PROOF” she was really a woman! Yet that was in no way comforting proof to Ryuunosuke, because Ataru is a gross piece of sexually harassing shit. So the only masculine presence in her life (and in some stories, the only person period) that unequivocally accepted and treated her like a woman was a creepy chaser who only wanted to sleep with her. That is also, you guessed it, EXTREMELY FUCKING TRANS. It is hugely depressing when you’re in a position where you know you’re only being gendered correctly as part of someone’s fetish or desires. That you’re having your fears and insecurities used against you to try and convince you to accept yourself as nothing other than a sexual object. The potential excitement and joy Ryuunosuke might feel at being gendered correctly becomes tainted because of who Ataru is and how he then treats her, and it serves to only drive her further away from being able to make the kinds of changes in her life that she can.
There’s also this whole exchange. As someone who has only recently started to be gendered correctly by strangers, I can tell you that, 100% objectively speaking, without any hyperbole or irony, this is the single most accurate depiction of a trans girl reacting to being gendered correctly on the street for the first time in the entire history of sequential art. It is difficult for a sequence of panels or the character therein to become MORE trans than Ryuunosuke has here.
Because Ryuunosuke isn’t “meant” to be trans as we would describe it today, this means that her transness isn’t a joke. Ryuunosuke still suffers many indignities, but the humor is not directed AT her the same way Takahashi would later direct jokes AT queer characters. Anytime overtly trans or queer characters appear in Ranma, it is to be made into jokes in a way that is very different than the gags above. The fact that Ryuunosuke stumbles into being a trans analogue actually helps her be a good one, because it means that she’s the only queer character created by the author that isn’t then being torn down or mocked. Instead she’s a character the author actually has sympathy for, even as she puts them through ridiculous farcical situations… at least until Ryuunosuke stumbles into being TOO queer.
Make no mistake, Ryuunosuke becomes queer. As. Hell. Which is no small feat considering some of the horrors of Rumiko Takahashi’s cartoon sexual politics in the 80s and 90s. Several stories are based around other cast members, often older women authority figures like Sakura the school nurse above, trying to help Ryuunosuke “become a true woman” by getting a boyfriend, only to be stymied by her “confused” interest in women. Her inability to like any of the boys presented, as well as her accidentally stumbling into crushes on other girls, is presented as just another gag, but there’s a sinister edge to it too. The idea that she will only ever be seen as a woman if she’s a straight, and sexual, woman, is one that real queer women have unfortunately had to hear for before. The fact that it always comes from authority figures, and the fact that her true desires get used against her, are equally painful. These are all things queer trans women have thrown at them. Any time Ryuunosuke is honest about her attractions, it is thrown in her face as abnormal and something to be used against her. Of course, its totally ok for legions of underclassmen girls to have a crush on her, because its seen as a normal, temporary thing. She’s just an “unthreatening guy” that those younger girls will outgrow their crush on and graduate to “real men” soon enough. Anytime a character like, say, Shinobu accidentally reveals they may return Ryuunosuke’s feelings, it is played for laughs and dismissed as an aberration just as much. Rumiko Takahashi teases the idea, showing Ryuunosuke and Shinobu out on what appear to be dates and standing together in group shots, but when it comes time to end the series they must dutifully be paired off with “appropriate” matches. this means Shinobu gets stuck with a weird, completely left-field stalker in a magic bunny costume (look, its comics) and Ryuunosuke gets an even worse fate.
Before the series ends, Ryuunosuke is paired off with the daughter of her father’s friend in the kind of wacky arranged marriage story that would become Ranma’s bread and butter. Throughout the farce, Ataru keeps commenting on how strange it is that he doesn’t want to molest this new woman. Of COURSE this ends up being “evidence” that Ryuunosuke’s betrothed is actually a “man raised as a woman” by a shitty dad who wanted a daughter in an inverse of Ryuunosuke’s backstory. Even more “of course” this new character is played not as an accidental trans man, akin to Ryuunosuke’s accidental trans woman, or as a queer woman herself. Instead, the character is played as a “perverted crossdresser” who is able to beat Ryuunosuke in a fight and tries to trick her into “taking advantage” of him. Everyone around them approves of this, as of course this is the “perfect” match for Ryuunosuke. Like many other pieces of queerbaiting fiction to come, it is perfectly alright to dance around the idea of queerness, but when push comes to shove it has to make sure everyone is paired off nicely and that the “deviants” are kept apart so they can at least masquerade as “normal.” It fucking sucks, in other words, and thankfully we don’t need to suffer more than one volume of this before the series ends, with poor Ryuunosuke suddenly demoted to a background figure for the last storyline.
There’s also the fact that these comics are only readable in English through very old and unofficial fan “scanlations.” This means a lot of subtext and nuance may be lost or changed. When Ryuunosuke exclaims “I’m not a perv, got it!!” in response to accidentally letting slip her crush on Shinobu, we the modern Western reader do not know the original Japanese context, but we also do not know the original fan translation context either! Who translated it this way and why? With official translations there are sometimes notes or interviews to explain why certain words or phrases were chosen, or how stories might end up changed through localization. With unofficial work, that kind of information can be a lot more difficult to find unless the fan translator explicitly includes it in the released work, and even then it can be very ephemeral as these comic scans are passed from sketchy website to sketchy website.
I should note that I’ve talked about the relationship between these works and a certain subset of Western queer reader in the context of a fairly specific time period, but I am not able to comment on its original context. LGBT people in Japan are not new, not even just the T. At the same time, Japan’s history and relationship with marginalized queer groups, and with the representation of those groups in media, is not identical to countries in the West. It would be reductive to either ignore the reality that queer people have always existed in Japan, or to ignore the fact that Western ideas about representation and gender are not always directly applicable. That is why I am not here trying to examine Rumiko Takahashi’s work from a lens of “how does it fit in the context of Japanese LGBT history?” The history of LGBT issues in Japan is a much bigger topic than I am qualified to cover, and there’s no shortage of brilliant Japanese LGBT already discussing that history and that context. I wish it was easier for us in the West to access and share the work and writing of queers in other countries, especially when the dominant anti-queer voices of all countries so often conspire to keep us from doing so. I don’t come here to bury Urusei Yatsura, or to make grand proclamations about Rumiko Takahashi’s feelings (either back then or today) toward any LGBT issues. I don’t personally believe that Rumiko Takahashi ever set out to write a “trans story”, in either a positive or negative way. I highly doubt it even crossed her mind back then other than as a wacky “unrealistic” thing to be laughed at. But at the same time, there is value in rediscovering and reclaiming older work. As noted earlier, it does not matter if Ryuunosuke is “truly” cis or trans. In her, Rumiko Takahashi inadvertently stumbled onto a formula that even well-meaning allies intentionally trying to write trans characters screw up on. Studying why Ranma attracts but fails to resonate, and why Ryuunosuke works despite her era and creator’s intentions can provide clues on creating new, intentionally queer work. More than that, there is value in examining how non-queer, even conservative and cruel work can, and is, given new context by new groups of readers that find it.
Rumiko Takahashi’s characters rarely get closure, even when their series end. Like ambiguously queer, teenage Charlie Browns, they are destined to keep repeating the same failures over and over until they or their creator dies. Ryuunosuke never gets to wear her clothes, or feel comfortable describing her needs without needing to clarify she is not a pervert, or accept she can give up on her horrible father. That is the strange, existential tragedy of many comedy comic stars. But Ryuunosuke is fictional, and the readers who draw meaning from her gags are not. Ryuunosuke doesn’t need to do any of those things, but many young women do.
These stories came to us divorced from their original context, and were adapted into a new context based on the need of the reader. The audiences of those bookstores and scanlation websites were secretly full of marginalized queer kids, adrift after the intentional destruction of their own history, the suppression of their culture and the deaths of their potential mentors. We were forced to rebuild without even the knowledge that there had once been something beautiful built before, something that we would have inherited if not for the hatred our country had for us. Accidental trans narratives and niches within subcultures are a form of survival. Ryuuunosuke’s true closure will be in the creation of new stories, the celebration of new trans artists and creators, the reconnection of disparate queer cultures, and in future readers having the space and history to feel comfortable being whatever kind of woman they need to be.