Squeezing Decency Out of Mediocrity: The Tenchi Muyo Movies, Part 1

Tenchi Muyo. What anime fan of the 90s has not encountered this monstrous franchise in one of its many forms? Tenchi began as a six-episode Oriental Animation Video, which begat two further OAV series, two alternate-universe television shows, three movies, two manga series, a spinoff OAV and two television series starring the series’ jailbait character Sasami, another spinoff TV series about the Galaxy Police and, most recently, a fantasy OAV about Tenchi’s half-brother. Between all this stuff, I count at least five separate continuities, giving Tenchi the honor of having the most unnecessarily complicated canon this side of the Star Wars Expanded Universe.

Thing is, it doesn’t fucking matter. Reading the Tenchi Wikipedia entry is deceptive, because it leads you to believe this is a complex and dense “multiverse,” an insult to Jet Li films everywhere. In reality, Tenchi can be summed up in two words: harem show. In fact, it has the grand “distinction” of being the granddaddy of harem shows. Maybe it wasn’t the first, but it certainly popularized the genre. Yes, this is the Japtoon that spawned shit like Love Hina and Girls Bravo. It’s a brutal legacy.

Things vary slightly depending on which version you’re watching, but basically, Tenchi is a high-schooler who lives with his father and grandpa at a shrine. One day, he accidentally releases a space pirate named Ryoko, who’d been sealed behind the shrine for hundreds of years. Or, if you’re watching the TV series, she crash-lands there after a space battle. In any case, she falls in love with Tenchi. Why? For the same reason anyone falls in love with the protagonists of these harem shows: the pure otaku fantasy that an attractive, aggressive woman would fall in love with a spineless dude without any effort required on his part.

Just one woman isn’t enough, though. Awakening Ryoko leads to a whole mess of space chicks coming to earth and, for some reason, living with Tenchi. Most notable is Ayeka, a member of the royal Jurai family (it’s a space thing) who also falls for Tenchi, but is somehow related to him. Awesome.

In case it isn’t clear, my regard for this series is not high — though, to be fair, it is less offensive and more entertaining than its harem successors. Surprising, then, is the fact that the two Tenchi Universe films shed a lot of the nonsense and become really decent entertainment.

The first film, Tenchi Muyo in Love, was released in 1996, shortly after the conclusion of the Tenchi Universe TV series. It follows that series’ continuity, and was directed by Hiroshi Negishi, who manned the series. Negishi’s credits read like a laundry list of popular but vapid 90s shows: stuff like Saber Marionette J and R, Burn Up W and Amazing Nurse Nanako (earlier in his career, Negishi was the animation director on the Colony Drop favorite Roots Search). For the record, in this film, his work is reflective of his TV and OAV background: it’s workmanlike and competent, if lacking in flourish.

The film begins with a fairly exciting scene at the Galaxy Police Headquarters. The Galaxy Police have been holding this intergalactic super-criminal named Kain for hundreds of years, and he’s finally figured out a way to bust out. Kain, who looks like a kabuki mask swimming in a floating black cloud, makes quick work of GPHQ, sucking it into some kind of time-space vortex, then heads for earth. On earth, Tenchi is hanging out at home when his hand starts to pull a Marty McFly, fading from existence.

See, the only way the Galaxy Police were even able to squeeze the super-powerful Kain into their prison those hundreds of years ago was with the help of the Jurai family, from which Tenchi is descended. Kain decides to get his revenge by killing Jurai descendants and, for reasons on which the film is not entirely clear, starts by going back to the 1970s and killing Achika, Tenchi’s mother.

Thankfully, one of the many woman in Tenchi’s harem is a scientist named Washu, who figures this out and devises a plan to send the gang back to the 70s and save Tenchi’s mom.

My Back to the Future comparison isn’t entirely facetious. Tenchi is in a similar situation to Marty, able to see his parents as they were in their teenage years, going to school, sharing their hopes and dreams for the future and awkwardly flirting with each other (Tenchi, though, doesn’t have that whole “mom-wants-to-bone-him” problem, despite what the film’s title might suggest). I suspect Negishi had a lot of nostalgia for this period; the school Tenchi’s parents attend is idyllic, with flowers that are in full bloom and classmates who are just so nice to each other.

The Tenchi tropes are still here: Ryoko and Ayeka bicker, Mihoshi acts like an idiot and Sasami is just as cute as a button. Moé. Thankfully, however, this is all toned town in favor of forwarding the plot and providing some reasonably three-dimensional characterization. Tenchi’s parents have some great, quiet moments as they establish their relationship and plan their future. And there’s some heartwarming stuff between Tenchi and his father, too, as they fight together to save Achika (who, incidentally, is played by Megumi Hayashibara, due to a Japanese law requiring her to make an appearance in every anime produced in the 90s). There are some legitimate human moments here, folks.

This isn’t a perfect film by any means. As mentioned previously, the direction is competent, but not mind-blowing. The music, by Tangerine Dream-er Christopher Franke, is pretty weak. And, of course, we never fully escape the fact that this is Tenchi Muyo, with all the “meh” that comes along with it. But considering its origins, it’s a stunningly decent film.

Next time I’ll discuss Tenchi Forever, a film that veered even farther from the original Tenchi blueprint and infuriated many fans in the process.

6 Comments

  1. I’ll throw in a pre-emptive “Urusei Yatsura is not a harem show, it’s the anti-harem show before harem shows existed” statement.

    Personally speaking, while Tenchi Muyo was the first popular harem anime (though the manga for Ah/Oh My Goddess dates back to the late 80s), I pin the blame for harem anime (and thus, the ascendancy of moe to its current status as a Dread Spectre Chaos God) on that piece of shit, no good motherfucker Kimagure Orange Road for codifying and popularizing all the garbage character tropes and situations that embody such series to this day.

    Despite promises to put an end to matters once and for all, Tenchi Forever–like the rest of Tenchi–can be summed up in four words: “Tenchi meets another girl.”

  2. To this day the only Tenchi Muyo I’ve seen has been snippets of the original and Universe back when they were broadcast on Bay Area PBS affiliate KTEH in the late 90s. Of course, KTEH’s infamy in regards to Japanese animation will always be their distinction as the first television station in America to air Evangelion (which I watched in its entirety back-to-back with Red Dwarf)

  3. Still have my VHS copy of this I snatched when Blockbuster started giving away all their anime tapes…

    Tenchi Universe was very harem-y, but it had some nice action moments that made up for, or at least justifies watching it. So, maybe there is a balance?

  4. It makes me feel uncomfortably old to realize that Tenchi has joined a number of once-keystone franchises in the fandom in total obsolescence, not ignored but simply forgotten by new generations of Japtoon fans. This was our garbage, and damn it, you should suffer it too!

  5. I miss the days of going to Camelot Music and oogling the Tenchi Muyo Laserdiscs. Only to later settle for the VHS, and ultimately sell it on ebay.

  6. Just came across this looking something else up. Wow… what a way for memories of a movie rendition of a series I actually liked on Toonami to get torn to shreds like a steak in a dog’s mouth.

    It deserves EVERY bit of shredding.

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