No embarrassing stories about how I misunderstood the character dynamics of this one the first time I saw it. (Un)Fortunately I saw this one well into my awareness of Ranma, so I didn’t go thinking Ukyo was Mousse’s grandmother or something silly like that.
When I first saw the OVAs and movies, Nihao, My Concubine was pretty low on my list. It wasn’t that I thought it was bad or anything, but at the time it felt like lesser Ranma. Sure, it had all of the major players on board, but the actual story just wasn’t all that interesting. And to be honest, yeah, the story itself is still pretty low-tier Ranma. Some dude with a bunch of martial arts henchmen wants to marry a woman like his mother (who he never really knew), so he kidnaps a bunch of women. The main Ranma women happen to be a part of his “bounty,” so rescuing hi-jinks ensue. Naturally, Akane ends up being “the one,” so the final showdown boils down to Ranma needing to save Akane. You know, just like the first movie.
It’s one of those not-so-great-on-paper scenarios where, if you just go at it from that sort of plot-first perspective, it’s not really going to work. But watching it again for the first time in probably 20 years and with fairly fresh eyes, I may like this one a little more than Big Trouble.
What works here is how all of the major characters get their own little character-centric beat. It’s a bit like my favorite of the OVAs, the one with the Tunnel of Lost Love, where characters get paired off in key moments so as to play off of natural (or unnatural) dynamics. The opening sequences shows everyone hanging out on the beach doing their thing. We get a Ranma/Ryouga frenemy fight, with Kasumi giving her brilliant and clueless insight into their relationship. We have the Shampoo gang and Ukyo all setting up their shops on the beach, predictably being unable to chill out without turning it into a business proposition. Happosai is Happosai, for better or for worse (so, yeah, totally for worse). Kuno’s hapless routine is in full swing. Soun has a complete meltdown when Kasumi and Nabiki go missing. While it isn’t a great introduction to these characters, given the fact that this movie was released during the TV series’ final season, it plays like a decent farewell. If you know and care about these characters in this format, this may very well be that big goodbye. Yeah, there were still a few TV episodes left, but the series kinda fizzled at the end. And since we weren’t guaranteed the dozen or so OVA episodes that came over the next few years, yeah, it likely felt appropriate at the time for everyone to get one last hurrah in before the end– or before you went back to just reading the manga.
Funny enough, outside of the expected Ranma/Akane focus, it’s Nabiki who gets the best moments in this movie. Given the movie’s plot, where some dude wants a bride and is having women compete to become the queen of his island paradise, Nabiki goes all in. She couldn’t care less about the little kid playing prince, but she does care about the power that comes with being the monarch of a tropical island. She’s already taken to bossing around the prince’s servants, commanding them to serve her every whim as she preps for the competition. And once all chaos breaks out and the martial arts servants start trying to claim consolation brides for themselves after Akane’s picked as “the one,” Nabiki ends up having her “fiance” literally answering to dog whistles and rolling around on command. Yeah, the dude was already some dog-like monstrosity, but only Nabiki would see through all of that and actually have the gumption to make the guy her pet.
We get a few other cool moments. The Ryouga/Ukyo interaction isn’t anywhere near as good as in the Tunnel episode, but their little argument is pretty great. Ryouga’s focused on finding Akane and stumbles upon Uyko in the same room with the monkey/Lupin wannabe flunkie. Ryouga couldn’t care less about Ukyo, but Ukyo insists that he help her. He’s far from her first choice too, but he better damn well do what he should do while he’s here. It’s one of those moments where the writers of this movie play off of the “yeah, it’s never gonna happen but we want it to happen” shipping vibes these two give off, and it all works pretty well in that sitcom-ish sorta way. Nabiki and Kuno get a similar moment, where Kuno “saves” Nabiki from her little boy toy pet. Their not-relationship is better established in the series proper, so it’s less of a “forced” thing than it is playing off of an existing joke, but it’s cool nonetheless. And, yeah, Shampoo and Mousse get a moment too, but their moment is only really cool because the henchman they fight has a pretty memorable gag about him that I won’t spoil.
The big Akane/Ranma moment actually works really well. The “bad guys” own a spring that can turn anyone into a man permanently. Obviously, Ranma and the other guys with curses see this as a way to cure their ailment. It’s why Ranma works extra hard in his girl form to win the competition (which also leads to some good Ranma-trying-to-be-feminine-and-is-too-good-at-it moments). But during the finale, Ranma and Akane find themselves hurdling towards said spring. Yeah, it’ll cure Ranma, but it’ll also turn Akane into a man, something neither one of them wants. Ranma doesn’t hesitate to destroy the spring in order to save Akane from getting her own curse. It’s a good way for him to show that he does care without taking that extra, unnecessary for such a light show, step in outright professing his love. Outside of sacrificing his own life, that really is the ultimate sacrifice Ranma could make for someone. And given this could have been something of a finale, it really works.
Shame the actual conflict leading to that moment isn’t all that. These guys are even less interesting than the Lucky Gods from Big Trouble. They’re just some guys on an island, and the main one misses his mom who he never really knew? Eh.
Despite that, and the lack of a really cool original character like Lychee and Jasmine, the character beats in Nihao make it stand out a bit more. It’s the way these characters bounce off of each other that makes Ranma 1/2, not so much the actual stuff they do and deal with. It still isn’t high-tier Ranma, but it’s pretty darn cool and better than I remembered.