Home > Series Reviews > Tenchi Muyo, pt 2 – Terrible Children

Tenchi Muyo, pt 2 – Terrible Children

Unlike the innumerable shows that have been lost to the ravages of time as their ardent fans grew up and forgot about anime (or grew up and found other, more alluring anime), Tenchi Muyo is still a show familiar to the anime fan. Heck, the third OVA, which completes the original storyline and brings the episode total up to 20, wasn’t even released until 2005. It’s also even more bizarre and incredulity-stretching than its forebears, which is another reason that I’m only talking about the first two OVA series.

The varied nature of its spinoffs is present even in the original 13 episodes, which run the gamut from straight-up action-adventure to farce to situation comedy, even though it maintains a comedic tone throughout. For me, Tenchi Muyo cemented the idea of an anime as a genre in itself, a multi-genre show with a tone that veers sharply from comedic to serious with alarming frequency. It’s a trend that continues today in shows like Ookami-san, Asobi ni Iku Yo! and Mayoi Neko Overrun!, to name just shows that we’ve covered for this site.

The space pirate Kagato has powers roughly comparable to Ryoko, but spends less time teleporting and more time hovering menacingly

Really, it’s easy to see the shape of the future that was to come in Tenchi Muyo. In many ways, it was the precursor to a lot of the harmful (to my mind) trends that have come to define modern otaku anime. In here are the seeds of virtually everything I’ve spent the last five months condemning about anime: the sexualization and objectification of female characters, the ridiculously contrived premises, the shameless commercialization, the bland male protagonists, and the tone deaf plotting.

Tenchi Muyo escapes these common failings through the utter quality of its production—and by arriving ten years before many of the things it did were pervasive or extreme enough to problematic. Indeed, compared to most modern anime, Tenchi Muyo is no less a breath of originality and creativity than it was 18 years ago.

But is that okay? I mean, in Tenchi Muyo I see the genesis of the same problems I rage about every week in otaku shows—the sexualization of 2D girls, contrived, credulity-stretching plots that can’t be whitewashed just by calling it a ‘cartoon’, a relatively colorless, everyman protagonist, and some horrible plots that never should have gotten past the first draft.

Mihoshi is an officer in the galaxy police, but only through nepotism. She's too useless—both at her job and as a character—to mention further

I mean, the show does have some of the risque titillation common to anything aimed at teenage boys but, barring some bathhouse nudity, it’s PG stuff. I mean, usually when I watch a modern show heavy in the fan service, I feel violated. Like the show is forcing its female characters into debasing situations for my enjoyment, prostituting them to sell DVDs or body pillows or whatever.

Tenchi Muyo treats its characters with respect, because it knows that its characters are all it has (other than the freebased insanity of its setting). It won’t sacrifice its characters’ dignity for a quick flash of the breast or an accidental breast grab or any of the tired cliches of modern anime. It just has no problem showing its characters in skimpy outfits (or no outfit at all).

This does mean the show suffers from the “why are they always in the bath?” syndrome common to shows that want to service their fans but without compromising the show’s integrity—particularly in the second half. The girls do spend an inordinate amount of time in the bath (although not as much as in Tenchi Universe, which does so enough to make fun of itself for it) and there’s an occasional fan service moment elsewhere, but it’s clear that, unlike so many shows today, scantily clad anime girls are not the reason for the show’s existence, they’re just an extra feature (such as it is).

The Light-Hawk wings, the ultimate manifestation of the power of Jurai's royal family, are one of the elements common not only to every Tenchi series, but many of the other series from creator Masaki Kajishima

The point of the show is really to be an enjoyable multi-genre romp. The first OVA (episodes 1-6 of the American TV broadcast) is mostly an action-adventure show, although admittedly a bizarre and wacky action-adventure show with a mostly-girl cast. Each episode has some sort of adventure in it which just happens to introduce the next new characters. Given the huge cast, it takes the first five episodes to introduce every character, setting up a fantastic sixth episode where the incredibly powerful space pirate Kagato attacks, kidnaps Ryoko and leaves it to Tenchi to save the day.

After that, there are a few sitcom episodes about various everyday circumstances that pop up, as well as Ayeka and Ryoko’s attempts to win Tenchi’s heart, and then the shows goes off the rails its second, far stranger story arc, which features another mad scientist’s attempt to one-up Washu in the service of a being that seems to be a transdimensional goddess with a hidden agenda related to the secret of Jurai’s power.

You’ll notice that there’s little mention of romance above. That’s because there’s very little of it in Tenchi Muyo. Where most shows with a bevy of girls hot for one guy obsess over that one fact, basing the entire show around which one he’s going to choose (or which ones will kill him if he doesn’t choose them), the ‘many girls crazy about one guy’ aspect is a pretty minor part of the show. Sure, Ayeka and Ryoko fighting over Tenchi is a major character point for both of them, but Tenchi’s interest in them is either purely gentlemanly or scared and confused, depending on their moods.

The scene where Washu ties up Tenchi in lab equipment and tries to give him a handjob wearing a nurse costume was mysteriously cut from its American television broadcast

Tenchi Muyo is, in other words, a show for teenage boys looking for action, rather than otaku obsessed with fantasies of 2D girls. Its interest in boys doesn’t go any deeper than the average kid in his early teens: he’s fine with looking at the pretty girls, but he has no idea what he’d do if they showed any interest.

That’s right: one of the progenitors of the harem genre isn’t much of a harem show at all, at least from a romance standpoint. It’s just one more element tossed into the melange of crazy that is Tenchi Muyo.

There are some things that I can fault the show for, though, both in the context it was made in, and in its effect on its descendents. The main thing is that Tenchi marks the first appearance I know of the bland viewer-insert everyman protagonist. Sure, Tenchi is some kind of chosen one, able to manifest the latent power in the blood of Jurai’s royal family in previously unheard of ways, and he the heroic type, who’s undergoing crazy swordsman training at the Shinto shrine his grandfather runs, but he’s also a bit of a stupid louse.

Princess Sasami, Ayeka's sister, is always shown with some cute animal. She's the only competent one of the bunch

And compared to the strong female characters running amuck in the show, he’s dopey and dull. Clearly, this show is not about Tenchi, but the girls. Indeed, one of the translations of the show’s title is ‘No need for Tenchi’. This is the main problem Tenchi has that would also become the crippling flaw of the rest of the harem genre: if a show is mostly about the girls chasing after a boy, then the boy naturally has to recede into the background, making you wonder why all the girls are so interested in the boy in the first place.

And really, it’s not something you care about when you’re watching the show, because it’s so much fun. It’s only afterward, when you’re thinking about what you’ve watched, that you begin to wonder.

Because Tenchi Muyo isn’t a show that stands up to that kind of scrutiny. Don’t let the balls-out insanity of its world or its convoluted plot and familial relations fool you: Tenchi Muyo is a simple, dumb show at its heart. But it’s a simple, dumb show with a lot going on and a lot going for it; it’s a show that manages to be immensely entertaining ridiculousness for 13 episodes.

But that doesn’t mean every episode is a winner. While there’s at least one thing in every episode that made me laugh or otherwise entertained, there’s still a couple of bewildering stinkers even in a 13 episode OVA series where viewers paid by the episode.

What the heck?

For example, there’s the episode where Tenchi and the girls are left to care for Tenchi’s baby cousin for a week or so. Why its mother would abandon it with four strange women who are inexplicably living with her nephew is beyond me, and why anyone thought this was a good fit for a space fantasy adventure is beyond me. All I know is that I’d be angry if I bought an entire video tape for one episode, only to learn that it was a stinker like this.

There are some weaker moments in the second half, mostly where the writers try to do situation comedy rather than action. Have I written about how contrived and not funny sitcom plots based on misunderstandings are? There’s a particularly bad example of this in the second half, where Tenchi gets angry at Ryoko and Ryo-ohki thinks that means Tenchi hates him/her too. Yes, there’s an entire episode devoted to Tenchi massaging the feelings of a strange cat-like creature. Granted, it is a strange, cat-like creature capable of destroying him from orbit, but it still grates on me.

Ryoko and Ayeka try to learn how to woo Tenchi by reading girls' comics. It's funny when they do it; less so when it happened in Asobi ni Iku Yo!

Some of these problems are mitigated by it being a show carefully crafted by creative, talented staff, but does Tenchi bear the blame for its descendents, whose main failing is that they take its best ideas to poorly thought-out extremes? Was Tenchi Muyo the last step before the slippery slope into moe, rampant fan service and an onslaught of tedious cliché?

I’m torn, because on the one hand, very few shows have managed the balance of humor, action and strong characters that make the show as entertaining as it is. I can only think of two, Full Metal Panic and Hayate the Combat Butler, which are even close in terms of being a quality all-encompassing meta-genre anime.

On the other, the knowledge that this show was probably influential in everything I hate about anime kind of sours the whole experience for me. I have no idea how influential Tenchi Muyo actually was, but in it I can see traces of the shows that have become a weekly reminder of the depths to which anime can sink. All the nostalgia in the world can’t wash that away.

Tsunami, the sentient spirit of the tree Sasami is bonded to becomes a major character later in the series

That inspires another question: am I just the problem? Was there a crotchety old anime fan in 1992, complaining about these new OVAs and their harems and T&A, and how they just can’t compare to the serious anime of the 1980s, like Mobile Suit Gundam? I mean, Tenchi is unarguably a quality show, but K-ON! is made with as much love and care, by people just as talented.

Maybe I’ve just gotten too old to appreciate the charms of moe anime. Maybe the problem is with me, that I’m just not the right kind of fan to enjoy the pleasures of these shows. Because, in a medium aimed squarely at teenagers and college students, I’m increasingly becoming the old man in the corner, shouting about the good old days. For goodness’ sake, look at all I’ve written about Tenchi Muyo, a fine show, but one perhaps too tinged with nostalgia.

All I can do is call them like I see them, and Tenchi Muyo is a fine show. Despite a few warts, despite what may be an unfortunate legacy, it’s still an excellent piece of entertainment that is still worth watching, even after 18 years.

  1. Bill Lange
    September 27, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    Well written posts, you made some great points. I too was a huge anime fan 10ish years ago who was absolutely obsessed with Tenchi Muyo, but began to drift away over time.

    I know you didn’t cover this in your posts, but it’s worth mentioning that the guy who seized control of the series, Masaki Kajishima, basically ruined the franchise by tinkering and retconning anything he felt like. OVA 3 barely made any sense, and the “spin off” Saint Knight Story is only tangentally connected to Tenchi Muyo at all.

  1. March 30, 2012 at 3:18 am

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