Genre: Martial Arts comedy
Read again? Hai!
I first got turned on to the animated ("Anime") version of this back in 1996. I'd say the Anime version is somewhat funnier, but both are driven by slapstick violence and physical gags.
There are some 36 volumes in the novels ("Manga"), each divided into nearly stand-alone "chapters." Think of them as episodes in a sit-com, where you don't really have to watch everything to understand a story in the middle. But it does help, especially with Takahashi's insane list of characters.
We're introduced to up-and-coming teen-aged martial arts master Ranma Saotome and his father Genma. They're scrambling through the streets somewhere in Japan, beating the hell out of each other. Well, actually, we meet a red-haired girl and a giant panda beating the hell out of each other.
Then we cut to the lovely home of Soun Tendo and his three teen daughters Kasumi (the domestic one), Nabiki (the schemer), and Akane (the martial-arts badass). Soun is excited, for today his old friend Genma Saotome and his son will return from a long trip to China, where they learned the secrets of Chinese martial arts--and today, Ranma will be given the chance to choose his wife from one of Soun's three daughters.
As he's explaining this to the girls, there's a loud racket at the door--the guests have arrived! Well, a red-haired girl and a giant panda have arrived!
Turns out that these are the very guests Tendo has been waiting for; Genma turns into a panda when he's hit with cold water. Ranma--macho, arrogant Ranma--turns into a red-haired hottie. Hot water turns them back. They fell into cursed pools somewhere in China.
Takahashi has an excellent hand--I really like her drawing style. Granted, the stories and situations are aimed more at the teen and twentysomething market, and many of the stories are romantic comedies, but Takakashi's also taking a swipe at martial arts as a whole, because just about everyone is a martial artist in these books. You've got martial arts figure skating. Martial arts pizza-making. Martial arts gymnastics. Martial-arts hair care products. Martial arts cheerleading.
Then there's the cast of characters; in addition to those mentioned already, some of the most memorable are:
Happosai, a martial arts master and panty thief.
Ryoga, the guy with no sense of direction, and who turns into a potbellied piglet.
Shampoo, the Chinese girl who must marry Ranma or kill him. Turns into a cat.
Tatewaki Kunou, the guy who wants Akane and girl Ranma--and wants to kill boy Ranma.
Kodachi Kunou, the girl who wants boy Ranma--and wants to kill girl Ranma.
Ukyo, one of three Ranma fiancees, who can kick your ass with a spatula!
The interactions of these seemingly insane people are what drive the story and make me willing to pop for ten bucks per book.