Tenchi Muyo – The Past is Stranger than You Thought
It’s always dangerous revisiting a favorite show from childhood. The best thing you’d ever seen when you were eight is likely to play out differently to your adult mind.
That’s why it was with some trepidation that I went back to Tenchi Muyo. It was, in many ways, the show that really got me into anime. I wanted to revisit that first series to really strike a chord with me and see if it holds up. As it turns out, it definitely does.
Tenchi Muyo wasn’t the first anime I ever saw, but it was the first show I was genuinely a fan of. Admittedly, it isn’t really a show from my childhood, since I was 14 when I first saw it, and already starting to outgrow cartoons that weren’t The Simpsons.
Gundam Wing’s violent giant robot battles and mature (for cartoons) story that took itself way too seriously has piqued my interest in those weird Japanese cartoons, though, so the laid-back ad for a new show, Tenchi Muyo, got my attention.
The actual show turned out to be anything but laid-back. Tenchi Muyo is a wacky, fast-paced action comedy about a human boy who is actually the descendent of the royal family of a race of humanoid aliens with superpowers. So, not much different from most of the teenage wish-fulfillment fantasies of anime of that period. It’s the hero’s journey with a high school protagonist and some science fiction, right?
Well, it does differ in offering a little more of the other important area of teenage wish-fulfillment: sex. In today’s hyper-sexualized anime world, where censored nudity means DVD sales and the best way to establish yourself as an artist in the fan world is to draw pornography of popular characters, which the creators quietly allow because it builds fan support and gives them a pool of artists to draw from, it’s easy to forget that this is a fairly recent development.
Tenchi Muyo came during the OVA (Original Video Animation, the Japanese acronym for direct-to-video anime) boom of the late 80s and early 90s. As the tape player became a fixture in most Japanese homes and demand for anime increased, direct to video titles flourished, allowing for the creation of lots of new and original series.
Since they were direct-to-video, they were free of the broadcast standards that kept extreme violence and nudity off the air. Tenchi Muyo takes full advantage of the latter, although compared to the modern fan service anime, it’s entirely innocent. It’s bad enough that Cartoon Network had to digitally paint swimsuits onto some characters for its afternoon broadcast (and horribly alter the dialogue to match), but still less sexy than a typical R-rated movie sex scene.
Tenchi Muyo is, if not the first, certainly one of the earliest popular examples of the harem subgenre of anime. Basically, it means that the show’s main cast, outside of hero Tenchi, consists entirely of comely girls competing over his affections.
It’s an inherently unbelievable idea that seems contrived no matter how it’s conceived, but also presents and opportunity to show attractive anime girls slavishly devoted to a blank protagonist designed as an audience stand-in. Given the exploitative and uncreative nature of anime, this means it has been done to death repeatedly, by talented and unimaginative hacks alike (but mostly by hacks).
The romantic pursuit of the main character is normally the main focus of shows like this, but in Tenchi, it’s mostly a setup for comedy antics. While the female characters are drawn to be attractive, they’re not written to appeal to the audience. This was 1992, not 2010. The girls have the depth and believability of sitcom characters, with broadly-sketched personalities that make them fodder for jokes, not romance.
The characters all fit to broad comic archetypes. Fugitive space pirate Ryoko is the licentious older woman, drinking freely and trying to seduce Tenchi into sexual exploits. Prudish alien princess Ayeka is her foil and chief rival, pursuing Tenchi despite being the half-sister of his grandfather. Space police officer Mihoshi is a ditzy blond girl, Ayeka’s sister Sasami is the cute little sister and, err, Washu is a mad scientist (and creator of Ryoko) with some weird fetishes who acts like a girl despite being thousands of years old.
In case you couldn’t tell from the brief character descriptions, a bevy of girls falling for Tenchi is the least of the show’s problems. I enjoy the strange and bizarre more than most people, and Tenchi is pushing it even for me. The world the show takes place in is more space fantasy than science fiction, and pushes the envelope of believability even given the generous confines of the genre. Ayeka’s (and Tenchi’s) people, the Jurai, form symbiotic bonds with sapient trees to extend their lives into virtual immortality. The trees also can grow into gigantic spacecraft capable of interstellar travel. And the royal family has mysterious powers that allow them to manipulate energy and, ultimately, the very fabric of reality.
Ryoko is a manufactured woman, made out of Washu’s ova and a psychic aquatic stem cell hivemind. She can manipulate energy seemingly at will. This also means she can teleport, something she uses a great deal in everyday life. She also pilots an interstellar spaceship which transforms into a cat-like being that is also the show’s cute mascot character, Ryo-ohki.
I could go on, but I have other things to write about. Tenchi Muyo is a weird show, with one of the more unique settings in science fiction, period, and one that feels bigger than the small bits you get in 13 episodes. It was a revelation to a 14-year old who thought Star Wars was the best thing ever, because Tenchi Muyo cribs most of what’s cool about Star Wars—energy swords, space ships, crazy aliens, strange metaphysics vaguely derived from Eastern religion—and then throws it into the mix with a ton of other insanity.
That was a thought that came up a lot when I was watching the OVAs: I would watch another Tenchi Muyo show. There have been a lot of them already. In fact, the number of spin-offs, remakes and alternate takes on the show have given rise to a sprawling anti-continuity among Tenchi’s universe.
I only saw the three main shows as a teenager—Tenchi Muyo, the original OVA, Tenchi Universe (Tenchi TV in Japan), a TV series that takes place in a separate continuity and Tenchi in Tokyo, the strangely non-harem show that is also in a separate continuity and mostly ignored due to terribleness—and of those, I’m only writing about the OVAs, but the sheer amount of Tenchi Muyo material that has been put out is worth mentioning.
In addition to three spin-off series, there are also four movies, innumerable comics, radio dramas, novels and a video game (which I remember being excellent. More anime licensing tie-ins should be turn-based tactical RPGs) spanning genres like magical girl shows, noirish detective fiction and the original flavor insane space fantasy, in the almost two decades since the original OVA’s release.
It’s such a broad and expansive franchise that I really can’t think of an easy point of comparison. I mean, sure, there’s been a ton of Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who media, but most of those hew pretty closely to the essence of the original work.
Even among anime franchises, I can’t think of any series that’s been home to such a broad swath of tones and genres. Gundam spans a vast array of continuities, but it mostly sticks to mecha action (and goofy super-deformed antics), and Dragonball is always relatively the same.
In terms of setting and plot, Tenchi is unique, even though it stands among a host of imitators and copycats. In part 2, I’ll write a little bit more about the show’s legacy, and why I think it still stands the test of time.