Here is the answer to a great hypothetical question: What if a female version of Toshiro Mifune's character from Yojimbo got mixed up with the sort of character that could have been played by 1970s kung fu legend Angela Mao? If all those references went over your head, here's another way to put it: Take two roles usually occupied by male characters, the ronin and the knight-errant of kung fu, swap their sexes, and drop them into one misadventure after another. The results are consistently hilarious, and so Tsukikage Ran works both as a love letter to its source material and a mutation of it, an homage and a sendup alike.
They hit the road — and the road hit back
The setup for the show, an original creation by director Akitarō Daichi (Jubei-chan, and the superlative Now and Then, Here and There), isn't complicated. On the one hand, we have a wandering (female) samurai — tall, taciturn Ran, whose only companions are the roads beneath her feet and the sword at her hip. Like many rōnin protagonists, she's unflappable; surround her with armed enemies and the most emotion she'll display is annoyance at having a nice, lazy day ruined. But flash a jug of saké in front of her, and watch her eyes light up and her fingers get grabby.
On the other hand, we have Meow (possibly also "Miao"?), a self-styled heroine of justice with more kung fu skills than brains, more enthusiasm than discernment, and an order of magnitude more words and actions than Ran. While Ran seems content to drift through life and drink when the money's there for it, Meow wants very badly to be someone's hero, and she often is. Very badly.
The mechanic for the way their paths cross is the basic formula for most any episode in the show. Ran and Meow run into each other by accident, typically in a town where there's some nefariousness afoot. Meow is usually the instigator for uncovering such things, since she never, ever leaves well enough alone and never, ever knows when to quit. Sometimes it's Ran, but not because her unshakable sense of justice leads her to dispatch evildoers; it's because she was looking for a good place to get soused and she learned about what bad tidings were going down behind the scenes, and then her unshakable sense of justice blah blah.
Such is the setup for one of the early episodes. Ran ends up in a town where alcohol is banned, finds the local speakeasy — where Meow is also getting plastered on their nigh-undrinkable liquor — and learns the whole arrangement is a cynical attempt to sin-tax the local alcoholics to pay for the town's upkeep by way of indulging in their illegal vice. It would be far less cynical if the one who had banned liquor and the one running the speakeasy weren't the same person. For Ran, the exploitation of suffering is bad enough, but the offenses being committed against her palate are even worse. What's sly is how the show puts those two impulses in balance, by having Ran come to the aid of one and all by way of helping the poor fellow conscripted to brew saké for the speakeasy. We're never in doubt that Ran has a sense of justice about the things that matter; it just takes her a little time to warm up and get involved.
Meow has the opposite problem; she can't help but get involved. Half the time she's a trouble magnet, and the other half the time she's the embodiment of that Shel Silverstein line about how some kind of help is the kind of help we can all do without. Once, when on the verge of starving, she breaks open the donation box for a temple (it was an accident ... sort of), discovers a cache of gold coins, lives high off the hog with it for a few days, squanders it all with Ran's help, ends up working off the debt, and gets embroiled in shenanigans with two thieves poking around for a map of buried treasure. Sometimes it's all about her vanity, as when an artist of dubious scruples recruits Meow to pose for her, and Meow blunders across a kidnapping ring in the process. Sometimes it's sly commentary on the changes set to sweep Japan, as when Meow happens across a would-be scientist trying to harness electricity (she imagines he has a thing for her), and babbles at Ran about how the country has to modernize!
Samurai honor's easy; comedy's hard
This is all very funny, with Meow supplying pratfalls and physical comedy, and Ran providing deadpan rebukes and perking up whenever the promise of a stiff drink enters the picture. What's surprising, and heartening, is how the show's construction and deployment allows it not to simply exist at the level of a genre joke. It's not using its ingredients to mock the underlying material, but to do justice to it. It tries to tell actual stories, not simply set up and play off a treadmill of gags.
Most of the episodes follow a pattern to fulfill this. At one point Meow blunders across an abandoned baby, and her first reactions are broad comedy: She's a mother!? Then she and Ran assume responsibility for the poor thing, and bicker over who would be more suited for the job. Then comes a truly serious turn, as Ran insists they find the real mother, and Meow insists on taking responsibility for the baby herself — right impulse, wrong occasion. This leads to, as you can imagine, a reconciliation with the real mother, and one of the cycles of separation and reconciliation that punctuates Meow and Ran's relationship. The pattern is simple enough: what starts as an occasion for comedy by degrees turns into something more serious, and doesn't feel betrayed for having been approached by way of a comedic situation.
I always get nervous when any show uses a gender-reversal as a hook, because it typically assumes just reversing the gender of a common character type is by itself funny or interesting. It's not; it's just the lead-in for any number of other possible situations where you find real humor. Ran has a few episodes where the fact of the characters' femininity is a hook — e.g., Meow and the artist — but the material never just stops there. And while there's a smattering of gags about which of the two is more "womanly", they're more an expression of Meow being vain generally than they are anything misogynist or mean-spirited.
One particularly hilarious episode has Ran and Meow getting entangled with a toweringly tall European woman with wide-eyed pretensions of becoming a samurai, and also with no idea of what Japan is really like. It's a great sendup of the way Westerners get smitten with Japan and try to co-opt it rather than face it on its own terms (see also: Peepo Choo), but again it's not mean-spirited. It doesn't say the woman in question is a bad person for trying to do this, only that she's misguided and needs to get her priorities in order.
Samurai cinema, and the popular literature of samurai adventure, typically pitted noble lone wolves against either not-so-noble lone wolves for the sake of testing their own skills, or against the corrupt and the greedy in the name of protecting the helpless and powerless. Tsukikage Ran follows both the storylines and their flavor, right down to the enka tune used over the opening credits. But it doesn't compromise that material by dint of being "comedic" and thus running the risk of not taking its own material seriously. Case in point: Ran doesn't kill unless it's absolutely unavoidable; most of the time she uses her sword like a club a la Himura Kenshin, or dispatches bad guys with a few smart judo blows. If she had been an indiscriminate killer, that would have added an ugly, unseemly undertone to the goings-on — it would have made it all unfunny, and have made Ran into the wrong kind of character to put at the center of this material. The show understands what it's drawing on, and how to leverage it, in a way that's worth treasuring.
Tsukikage Ran was one of a slew of titles distributed Stateside by Bandai back when it had a North American division. When Bandai closed up its U.S. branch, those titles went out of print. Many perennials in that list (Cowboy Bebop, for instance) were eventually relicensed, but Ran fell through the cracks, and has regrettably remained lodged there since. Used copies of the individual discs or the omnibus collection show up from time to time. However, as of this writing, the show is available on the Tubi TV streaming service.