Women of Mangaka: Rumiko Takahashi

Rumiko Takahashi characters banner

It’s Women’s History Month, so let’s talk a bit about a woman who’s made some, and may finally get recognized for it. Through March 16, voters for the Will Eisner Comics Hall of Fame will be deciding on whether the fourth nomination for Rumiko Takahashi is the charm. Takahashi already has an impressive awards shelf, with the Shogakukan New Comics Award, two Shogakukan Manga Awards, two Seiun Awards, and Comic-Con’s own Inkpot Award, but this nomination may finally get her a prize you can’t put on a shelf: being the first Japanese woman (and only the fifth Japanese person overall) to make the Comics Hall of Fame. Takahashi’s literally storied career, entering its forty-first year, covers aliens, panty thievery, love polyhedrons, monsters and spirituality, and puns. Lots of puns. . .

An Origin Story of Aliens, and Sunday

Though sources differ on how much of an interest Rumiko Takahashi had in manga as a child, she began in college, studying Japanese literature and drawing in a manga circle putting out doujinshi (fan comics). It only took a year before she enrolled in the manga school run by Kazuo Koike (best known in the US for the manga Lone Wolf & Cub, adapted into the Babycart movie series). Koike would be an influence both in the mechanics of producing hundreds of pages of manga quickly and in the importance of considering character when writing story.

At twenty, Takahashi published her first work in the magazine Shonen Sunday, “Katta na Yatsura” (勝手なやつら, published in English as “Those Selfish Aliens”). Takahashi tells a short science-fiction comedy romp involving a hapless Earthling who becomes a human hot potato, with every competing group shoving an increasingly powerful bomb in his body. “Those Selfish Aliens” establishes Takahashi’s career-long penchant for over-the-top hilarity, speculative fiction leanings, and simple, cartoony style, echoing that of the prior generation’s Osamu Tezuka. It also established a foothold with Shonen Sunday, who would continue to publish many of her works, and its parent company, Shogakukan, who would be the link across the ocean to her English publisher, Viz Media. Along with several other short stories, “Those Selfish Aliens” was released as the first volume of her Rumic World collection in 1984, and in English in 1995.

Making Visual Noise: Urusei Yatsura

1977 also marked the start of her first longer work, Urusei Yatsura (うる星やつら, That Noisy Bunch/That Bunch from Planet Uru. It’s a pun. She loves puns). Ostensibly, it’s about an oni-inspired alien race set to invade Earth, who agree to hold off if an Earthling tags their “it.” (In Japan, the “it” is called “oni”—yes, this is also a pun.) In actuality, it’s more about the long-running love polyhedron centered around Ataru, a womanizing Earthling, and Lum, the cute alien who is literally electrifying. Like a number of shonen series that followed it, Urusei Yatsura is less about a single storyline and more about watching the meanderings of an ever-increasing cast of larger-than-life characters.

Unlike a number of shonen series, Takahashi didn’t shy away from romantic trappings, putting the Ataru-Lum entanglements front and center. And despite its sci-fi basis, the series is heavy in Japanese mythology, an ever-present element in her future series as well. Urusei Yatsura saw moderate success in Japan over the next nine years and thirty-four volumes. In 1989, a young Viz Media, prompted by American fans of the fan-subbed anime, began releasing the manga in English, but it never saw the success needed to see the full series released. It’s understandable: the manga market in the late ’80s and early ’90s had not yet reached the presence it has today, and the heavy Japanese cultural influences and difficult-to-translate puns would have made it harder than usual for the series to find a footing. Yet this hasn’t stopped Urusei Yatsura from finding a foothold in America’s anime culture, being well-known especially to older fans and convention cosplayers flaunting Lum’s trademark tiger-stripe bikini.

Urusei Yatsura Super Best CD cover, Urusei Yatsura by Rumiko Takahashi, manga published by Shogakukan/Viz Media, CD published by Pony Canyon,1999.
You recognize her, even if you didn’t realize it.
Maison Ikkoku: Odd Man In

Around the same time Urusei Yatsura was taking off, Takahashi started a second bimonthly series, Maison Ikkoku (めぞん一刻, Apartment Building Ikkoku/The Apartment Building at a Moment in Time). Unlike the SFF romantic comedy of Urusei Yatsura, Maison Ikkoku is a contemporary series set in an apartment complex focusing on the trials and tribulations of Yusaku as he attempts both to find his purpose in life and to woo his widowed apartment manager, Kyoko. Classified as a seinen (older boys’) series, Maison Ikkoku discards the speculative elements and tones down the humor, drawing instead from Takahashi’s experiences sharing an apartment with her two assistants. Despite the considerable difference in tone, Maison Ikkoku enjoyed a similar level of success in Japan, and greater success in the US, with both a complete release starting in 1993 and a rerelease in 2003. However, Maison Ikkoku never drew the cultural permanence that Urusei Yatsura did, establishing itself as a sort of middle sibling—hard-working, but rarely noticed.

Takahashi brought both series to an end in 1987. Bracketing the end of two sagas and the beginning of her next, the next several years saw Takahashi release more short stories and some smaller series. One-Pound Gospel, a work about boxing and Catholicism (yes, really), started in 1987 and ran for the next ten years, while Mermaid Saga, a darker work focusing on the Japanese mythology of immortal but deadly mermaids, started three years prior. In a way, both of these works foreshadowed what was to come: Mermaid Saga’s darker tone and mythological influence would later be seen again in Inuyasha, and the slapstick action/sports would emerge again alongside the next epic-length work, Ranma ½.

Ranma ½: A Bridge Between Gender and Oceans

In overall tone and theme, Ranma ½ picks up where Urusei Yatsura left off as a slapstick romantic comedy, drenched in Japanese mythology and peppered with a cast of madcap characters that expands faster than a tribble left alone. While the series is supposedly about a boy cursed to turn into a girl when splashed with cold water and his quest to end the curse, it’s really more about whether he will or won’t get together with the tomboyish martial artist he’s kind of engaged to. And whether or not they can fend off the massive field of suitors pursuing her, him, and, uh, the other her. While often marketed as a shonen series for its comedy and martial arts action, it’s one of those works that successfully appeals to several traditional markets by also putting heavy weight on its relationships.

Cover art for Ranma 1/2 Song Calendar, Ranma 1/2 by Rumiko Takahashi, manga published by Shogakukan/Viz Media, CD published by Pony Canyon, 1992.
If I put relationship lines on this, you’d think I drew you a spiderweb.

If you thought her previous two series were successful, Ranma ½ blew them both out of the water, both in terms of straight sales (selling more volumes than the previous two combined) and cultural permanence—on both sides of the Pacific. The series was first brought to US shores in 1992 by Viz Media, who had been struggling to find a footing in the fiction market after failing to break into the comic market—Ranma ½ put that struggle to bed and prepped Viz Media to become the manga juggernaut it is. Most any fan who came of age during the 1990s will at least know of this series (and many of them will probably have strong opinions on where the ship slashes go). Love it or hate it, Ranma ½ is to Takahashi what Dragonball is to Akira Toriyama: the series that made them a cultural icon, that would influence future artists.

Or at least, so we thought, until Inuyasha came out.

The Dog Star Rises: Inuyasha

Inuyasha (犬夜叉, Inuyasha/Dog Demon) is to the 2000s and beyond what Ranma ½ was to the fans of the decade prior. In it, Kagome, an ordinary (“ordinary”) middle school girl discovers a time warp in her family’s well that sends her 500 years to the past, where she meets the titular half-dog demon, Inuyasha. While similar to her previous long series in many ways (large cast, moments of comedy, will-they-or-won’t-they), Inuyasha sets an overall darker tone much closer to Mermaid Saga, with a past world filled with the various demons and monsters of Japan as a much more deadly threat than Lum’s lightning strikes or Ranma’s anything-goes martial arts. It also sticks to its central plotline a lot more closely: Kagome and Inuyasha’s quest is to piece together shards of a shattered mystic jewel, fighting off the various evils that hunger for its power. Takahashi avoids the meanderings that her other series have by tying nearly all of the problems Kagome and company run into (most notably, the Big Bad, Naraku) to the shards and their effects.

Inuyasha by Rumiko Takahashi, published by Viz Media, 2003.
Not the way to find out you need a new water filter.

Inuyasha became Takahashi’s longest running series (fifty-six volumes) but hasn’t yet seen the sales that Ranma ½ has. Still, for all the ubiquitousness of Ramna ½, I feel like it’s more of a keystone for the VHS fansub generation than the Adult Swim and Crunchyroll generations who know Inuyasha more. By sticking a little more closely to a central plotline, keeping the cast a little smaller, and taming down some of the bawdy humor that fills her previous works, Inuyasha is the work of a storyteller who has matured and improved. So perhaps it’s only a matter of time before it’s Inuyasha that becomes Takahashi’s legacy instead.

But Wait, There’s More: Rin-ne, and the Future

Even though it feels like Inuyasha just ended, with the last episodes of the anime airing in the US in 2015, Takahashi finished drawing the series in 2008. She immediately sprang onto her next project, Rin-ne (境界のRINNE, Kyoukai no Rinne/Rinne of the Boundary) which just drew to an end in December 2017 after forty volumes. Rin-ne, a comedy work involving a girl who can see spirits helping a half-shinigami boy solve supernatural doings, feels similar in a lot of ways to Takahashi’s previous works. Unlike her previous works, it does so without doing anything new and following old paths that have drawn criticism in the past. (Unlike her previous works, there isn’t even any pretense at a central conflict: Rinne’s primary motivation is to not be dirt-poor.) Perhaps because of this, it just hasn’t gained the foothold Ranma ½ or Inuyasha did: it has slower sales and a shorter anime run than either of them (despite being a slightly longer manga than Ranma ½) and Viz, while carrying the manga, opted to let the anime license go to Sentai Filmworks instead. Or maybe it just slid under the radar while the Inuyasha boom was still going on in the US.

Since the end of Rin-ne only a few months ago, things have been quiet. It’s possible that Rumiko Takahashi could simply retire at this point: her career just celebrated its fortieth year. But I imagine we’ll see another release in Shonen Sunday in a few months or so, establishing a new long-running series. And whatever it is, it’ll likely be filled to the brim with loud arguments, “it’s complicated”s, at least one pervert, Japanese supernatural beings, and underneath all that, messy characters with plenty of feeling.

And puns.

Lots of puns.

Tia Kalla

Tia Kalla

Longtime writer, temporary office minion, and nerd of all trades, tiakall is a fan of lengthy subordinate clauses and the Oxford comma. She enjoys plants, cats, puns of varying quality, and making cannibal jokes before it was cool.