When people (okay: me) say, they don't make anime like they used to, they're not so much saying that current anime is worthless as they are saying you find certain attitudes in older anime that are harder to replicate in newer ones. Sometimes that means a cheesy approach that was best grown out of anyway, but it also means a certain sweetness, a lack of both pretense and mean-spiritedness it's becoming harder to reproduce with a straight face. Ah! My Goddess was like that; most everything Studio Ghibli does is still like that. And Ranma 1/2 was definitely like that. No, not was: is.
Turning people on to a show more than a decade old is tougher than it looks, for the same reason many people I know won't watch any movie older than they are. (Anything without color is twice as much a losing proposition.) Ranma 1/2 debuted in 1989 and premiered in English in 1993, making it a solid twenty-five years old by absolute and twenty-one years old by relative standards. Precious few anime titles originally issued in English are older than that, and very few of them at all are worth coming back to twenty-plus years on.
Ranma more than makes the cut, not least of all because it is genuinely funny — it's hard not to notice how many comedies these days actually lack, y'know, comedy — and because it has something else common to many of the comedies in that foundational / gateway age of anime in the West: it's got a good heart, and it doesn't make you feel creepy for having enjoyed it, even when it veers into gently risqué territory. The two seem mutual.
Everybody was kung-fu (kempo, wing chun, judo) fighting
For martial-arts student Ranma Saotome -- he of the "Anything Goes School", a parodic echo of Bruce Lee's "no way as a way" school of Jeet Kune Do — everything started to go south around that time his father took him on a trip to China. That's when he and Dad mistakenly ended up taking a dunk in a cursed pool where various poor souls are said to have drowned ages ago. Now every time they get doused with water, they turn into an embodiment of whatever died in that pool. In Dad's case, a panda. In Ranma's case, a girl. Dousing them with hot water reverses the spell, but the water heater in their house spends a dismaying amount of time being out of order.
This was all bad enough, but it gets worse upon Ranma and Co.'s return to Japan. Seems some time back, Ranma's father had arranged a marriage between Ranma and a girl, Akane Tendo, whose brick-breaking aptitude with martial arts makes her generally unsuited to marriage for most men. Ranma and Akane mostly can't stand each other as people, but have a grudging respect for each other as fighters — something that surfaces early on when Ranma discovers the stampeding horde of boys that attempt to Zerg Rush Akane first thing before school in an attempt to win her hand. Akane is having none of that, and can wipe the walls with her opponents just fine without Ranma's help anyway, but she can't help but be impressed by her would-be fiancé's skills. The fact that he can change into a girl is one of the few ways she has of evening the score, so to speak, but even there we can sense Akane feels a germ of compassion for him.
Not that Ranma notices most of the time, since from what he sees, Akane only has eyes for Dr. Tofu, the cheery, bespectacled bonesetter and masseur who is drafted in to repair the damage done to most every cast member (all too often, it's Ranma) during one of their periodic dust-ups. And Tofu himself only has eyes for Akane's yamato nadeshiko sister Kasumi. And the school's champion kendo student, Kuno, has (boiling mad, obsessive) eyes for Akane — at least until he lays said eyes on female Ranma. None of this is helped by the, ahem, intervention of Akane's scheming sister Nabiki, who does things like sell candid snaps of both of them and hawk ringside tickets for whoever's trying to clobber Ranma this time. It has to be said that the show gets more than a little mileage out of female Ranma being a drool object by others, but again it's handled in a way where the emphasis is on the absurdity of the situation, not its kink factor.
It's not as if there's any shortage of contenders for Ranma to keep his life interesting. Kuno is only the first in a relentless parade of grudge-holders, obsessives, loonies, would-be romantic rivals, and endless others. Some are folks out of Ranma's own past, whether or not he knows it. Consider Ryoga Hibiki, he with the umbrella and absolutely no sense of direction, whose existence has become devoted to tracking down Ranma and getting even with him over a perceived snub. (The fact that Ryoga himself is a victim of the cursed springs only complicates things further.) Or Shampoo, the Chinese Amazon whom Ranma defeated when in female form and now seeks revenge ... but only on the female half of Ranma. (She fell into the springs as well, and in her alternate form, a cat, scares the bejesus out Ranma without even trying.) Or ... and the list goes on.
Maybe they should try and make them like they used to
When people describe a story's premise as being "like clockwork", and are not being derogatory, they typically describe a story where each piece is well-understood by the audience as it's deployed, and — in the case of a comedy — where the laughs come from the ways those different pieces collide. Ranma 1/2 works like that: it sets up a few basic rules, devises a colossal series of permutations on those rules, and whenever it runs out of possibilities, coughts up some new ones by way of introducing a fresh character. Anyone familiar with Rumiko Takahashi from her other works (most likely InuYasha but also Urusei Yatsura) will recognize this dynamic. In InuYasha, though, it eventually ended up becoming a kind of perpetual motion plot machine where a great many things happened but not much was ever accomplished ... at least, not until the franchise's welcome had long since worn out.
Ranma runs long, and in time it too starts to tax the attention span, but it doesn't end up becoming anywhere nearly as interminable as InuYasha. For one, it's consistently funnier (Ranma is avowedly a comedy; InuYasha is at core a fantasy drama shot through with some comic relief), and like the author of the work, a product of an age and a mindset where comedy didn't have to be inherently mean-spirited to be funny. Granted, just about all forms of humor come at someone's expense, but the best of it punches up, not down (as someone else once puts it). It's funny to watch Ranma's various nemeses get their comeuppance because they're too pigheaded to deserve anything else, but the only times we're invited to laugh at Ranma himself is when he plants both feet on it and has clearly earned it. Most everyone in the show is flawed — shilling for warped — and that makes them all the more the butt of each other's jokes, and also in some ways the objects of sympathy in the long term. It's the kind of humor that's sly without edging over into heartlessness.
Another reason why the show holds up a little better is how there's far less of a sense of hard-earned plot developments being held forever over our heads. It's easier to dip into Ranma and watch it periodically without feeling like you're obliged to make a completist-level commitment to it. Most anime created these days (as of 2014) tend to either make the whole of the show unfold as a single arc — conventional episodic TV seems stuck in that mold, too — or with each episode as a one-shot throwaway. The latter is too disposable to have anything more than a superficial investment in; the former forces you to either make long-term commitments or drop out entirely.
I wonder now if the balance Ranma 1/2 strikes between larger plot and smaller-scale entertainment ambitions was as much a product of its age as the attitude and atmosphere that informs the show itself. They really don't make them like they used to, and a big part of why is because attitudes about how a show needs to be constructed, and to what end, seem to have drifted in directions not always amenable to making it more fun. But it's nice to know we now have such an artifact back in print and ready to be rediscovered.