Squeezing Decency out of Mediocrity: The Tenchi Muyo Movies, Part II

And we all thought Tenchi would never get laid.

To recap: the Tenchi Muyo franchise is, by and large, pretty insufferable. Tenchi, the story of an awkward, indecisive teen who somehow has babes from all over the universe clamoring for his attention, helped curse us with the otaku wish-fulfillment harem genre from which we’ve yet to escape. But somehow, Tenchi Muyo in Love, the first Tenchi movie, shed a lot of what made the series so painful and became a pretty decent film.

The next film in the series (excepting Manatsu no Ibu, a one-hour film set in a different Tenchi continuity) was 1999’s Tenchi Muyo in Love 2, or Tenchi Forever, as it was titled in the US (apt, as even though this was the last film, the franchise would go on, well, forever). Tenchi Muyo in Love 2, once more directed by Hiroshi Negishi, moved even further away from its roots. While the first film included the time-worn Tenchi tropes (though in less-annoying form), the second seems to actively rebel against them.

The film begins Tenchi-ly enough: the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, and the whole harem is out sweeping leaves. As usual, Ryoko and Ayeka start to argue; unusually, Tenchi says “fuck this” and wanders off into the forest. There, he stumbles upon a tree he’d never seen before. A woman appears inside it and beckons him in, and Tenchi is transported into an alternate universe in which he and this woman named Haruma live together in the city, are engaged, and even have sex.

Yes, Tenchi finally does the deed, and it’s not with either of his main love interests: it’s a ballsy move on the part of Negishi and screenwriter Masaharu Ayano, and it’s only one of a few game-changers.

For example, this is ostensibly the sequel to an action-packed, time travel-filled film, but consider the average scene in Tenchi Muyo in Love 2. We oscillate between Tenchi and Haruma, who live in domestic tranquility, and Ryoko and Ayeka, who work as waitresses while searching for Tenchi. The scenes are heavy with dialogue, much of it somber. Cuts are slow, and for a while, not a whole lot happens. The few scenes that pass for action involve Ryoko chasing Tenchi down a street until a bus goes by and she loses track of him. Mainly, we see Ryoko and Ayeka learning to get along and reflecting on their relationships, both with Tenchi and each other.

Things start to come crashing down when Tenchi keeps getting headaches and feeling out of place, while Ryoko and Ayeka discover Haruma was once the lover of Tenchi’s grandfather (a fine bit of retconning if there ever was one) whose spirit lived on in the tree under which she was buried. Finally, they’re able to break through into Haruma’s world, but only one can go and fetch Tenchi back. In perhaps the most emotionally satisfying moment in the entire franchise, Ayeka admits that Ryoko should be the one to do it and, by extension, the one to be with Tenchi (forever). In this version of the Tenchi universe, at least, these characters finally make a choice.

Many Tenchi fans were bored with this film’s dialogue-laden scenes and somber tone. What bores me, though, is that a series based on a love triangle never delivers a conclusion. During this film, one gets the idea that Hiroshi Negishi was getting a little bored with the whole enterprise himself. Though I’m not trying to dub the director of Burn Up W and Amazing Nurse Nanako an auteur, I think this film takes Tenchi Muyo to far more intelligent and mature places than it ever really deserved.

11 Comments

  1. I dunno man, have you actually seen Amazing Nurse Nanako? It’s incredible.

    On a more serious note, I always enjoyed this movie for offering the ballsy, mature take on the characters that it does, as well as the closest thing that the franchise will ever get to a definitive “choice” between the principal heroines. I especially like the ending theme and credit scroll for the same reasons.

  2. The very first Tenchi Muyo anything I ever saw was the first movie, not because it aired on Sci-Fi Channel before everything else but because I bought it pretty much sight unseen on DVD due to the fact that Christopher Franke did the music for it and I recognized the name from his work on Babylon 5. It was okay, but that was my first and only Tenchi Muyo purchase.

    I summarize all major Tenchi Muyo storylines with the same four word sentence: “Tenchi meets another girl.” That incidentally came about as a result of Tenchi Forever–the film marketed as the decisive ending–failing to provide a decisive ending. God, I’m so glad I never was a big fan of this thing. It was colossal in the 90s.

    Still, I can’t rest TOO assured. I always liked El Hazard more! To be fair, the only El Hazard I ever saw in its entirety was the first OAV series, so the alternate timeline descent into mediocrity was not something I was on board for.

  3. El Hazard had a pretty interesting world to play in, but much like Tenchi it really only ever served as a backdrop and was rarely expounded upon.

    I think that’s part of the initial appeal of both shows. They give you the setup for what could be a fairly expansive and detailed playground for these characters and then just cock tease you until you figure out their clever ruse. At least El Hazard didn’t really over stay it’s welcome, AND has a real ending in it’s original incarnation.

  4. I’ve never felt the need to watch any Tenchi. I caught part of an episode running on Cartoon Network and it just…well. It’s not for me.

    I knew to be wary simply because it was an AIC/Pioneer joint. It screamed to the nascent American anime market “remember Urusei Yatsura? THIS is JUST AS GOOD!!” and no. Just no. I got burned bad by Kishin Corps (remember THAT?) because it was screaming “Hey, it’s retro just like Giant Robo! YOU’LL LOVE IT” and no, I actually ended up hating it. And Moldiver. Don’t see anyone talking about Moldiver nowadays, do you? I enjoyed the hell out of Phantom Quest Corp. but of course THAT one got cut short and never reached its full potential. And then there was Dual. FUCK YOU AIC! “Hey! It’s like Evangelion meets Tenchi! YOU’LL LOVE IT!”

    *pant pant pant*

  5. @Jason:

    I agree that it’s too bad more wasn’t done with El-Hazard. I always thought that it had a great and believable backdrop, and it could have been a major jumping-off point.

    EH:TMW had a slow start, and some low points humor-wise, but it benefited from what was in my opinion a great dub, and good writing. Of course the whole premise has been done before, but EH: TMW’s most memorable aspect was definitely the world itself. From the Bugrom, to the cats as armor, to the different tribes and locations. It’s really too bad that it didn’t have as much success as Tenchi Muyo.

  6. Feel like I’m walking into a minefield blindfolded here…

    I did like the first TENCHI OVA, but that’s pretty much the only Tenchi I’ve watched. I do like the movies more.

    To Daryl: Props for recognizing Christopher Franke as the composer for the first TENCHI film! It was a pretty big deal back then because of his work on B5. And I also ended up liking EL HAZARD more (the first OVA series) than TENCHI.

    To Steve: Jeez, man, what good will screaming “#&*@ YOU, AIC!!” do? It’s about as useful as some jamook on AICN writing “Damn you Michael Bay” 50 odd times on a talkback…in other words, it won’t do s#^!.

    But that’s just me….

  7. Marc: you got out of Tenchi when the going was good. The first OVA gives the impression they’re creating a world and going somewhere with it, but in the second OVA you just get to watch them lose their focus and, slowly, their budget. By the end they have to have a talking-heads epilogue (in still frames!) to tell you what happened in the last episode because they couldn’t animate anything else.

    I didn’t bother with the third OVA when the first episode, after all those years, was a recap. From what I hear I was completely right in doing so.

  8. Well, it’s time I confessed this, and here’s as good a place as any: I liked Tenchi Muyo back in the 1990s.

    In truth, it was really just the first movie I liked, and watching the TV series killed a lot of my interest. I was even more put off by the OVAs and later shows because every female character wanted bland ol’ Tenchi. At least the Negishi-directed parts of the series were more like Archie comics than harem anime.

    I think the third film was the last part of the series I watched, and it seemed as close to an ending as the whole thing was ever going to get. By then, of course, I really didn’t care.

    Looking back, I was into Tenchi Muyo for about eight months or so, but that was long enough for me to buy a Kiyone pencil board and put my name in a Tenchi Muyo character-popularity poll that’s probably still online someplace.

    Oh well. I’m not sorry I liked Tenchi Muyo. Everyone chases after mediocre things as a teenager, and it’s only by embracing that mediocrity that we develop better taste.

  9. Marc, I’m sorry to offend but I stand by my comment.

    AIC was the Gonzo of the early ’90s. They seemed to be built on crushing dreams and shattering hope. From my (biased and limited no doubt) perspective they seemed to be in business solely to copy ideas and make SHIT ASS ANIME ARRGGGHHHHH.

    And because it was backed by Pioneer it was everywhere. EVERYWHERE!

    OTOH I do have to give Pioneer props, those early releases were sure packaged pretty and some nice extras. Very Japanese of them.

  10. To Dave: Thanks for that. Looks like I was spared a lot of heartache; and I still treasure the first OVA series.

    To Steve: No offense taken, but…y’know, I still stand by my comments. 😎

    Still, it is good that you mentioned that your view of AIC is biased–that earns you a huge amount of respect in my book, especially since you mentioned that. Most folks would never say that. I guess I have to be honest and say that my view of AIC is biased in the _other_ direction–as in I liked a lot of their productions, and I did see most of them while studying art and animation (hence my bias).

    You are right about Pioneer, though. They did have amazing packaging and extras. Some years ago I was writing anime reviews for a now defunct site, but Pioneer sent out the best stuff for review. The extras were incredible–jeez, the review package they sent for their LUPIN III release was off the wall–a Lupin watch, soundtrack CD, fake cuffs and fake sideburns (I am not kidding here!)…they were the best.

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