Tenchi Muyo OAV

TenchimuyocoverWhen you look at this series critically, examining all its elements divorced from the emotional attachment you may have for the characters, you come to one stark realization: this is some weird crap. We have an ancient space pirate who happens to be made from some sort of sentient muck, a cat/rabbit/spaceship, and made out of this self-same muck, a little girl who is part tree, and a spate of beautiful women all in love with the most boring chap in all of Japan.

The story is fairly familiar in the annals of anime – it’s been told enough damned times: Tenchi Masaki, (aforementioned dull Japanese guy), breaks into a cave behind his grandfather’s shrine to find an ancient demon imprisoned there. The demon turns out to be space-babe Ryoko, a pirate that was locked in the shrine by Tenchi’s ancestor, Yosho (who looks a great deal like grandpa). As the series progresses, more extraterrestrial ladies come to Tenchi’s side: Ayeka the princess, her little sister Sasami, Galaxy Police officer Mihoshi, and genius scientist Washu. And guess what? They all fall in love with Tenchi.

I’m going to be charitable, and assume that all of these women loving Tenchi despite his essential blandness is just part of the joke. Hell, Tenchi himself seems absolutely perplexed by the attention he gets from these ladies. And this is fairly consistent with the level at which this OAV series (really two series packaged together) is pitched – despite the space-faring and acts of heroism and melodrama that form what little plot Tenchi Muyo can lay claim to, the series is essentially a goofy romantic comedy, whose humor is based on the misplaced affections of its characters.

When the series recognizes this focus as its strength, Tenchi Muyo can be delightful, if never brilliant. The essential romantic triangle in the show is between Ayeka, Ryoko, and poor Tenchi. Both struggle fruitlessly to win the wholly disinterested Tenchi and the series is the most fun when these two crazy cats are causing trouble for everybody else because of their made pursuit of the boy. You see this a lot in my favorite episode of the whole series, “The Night Before the Carnival.” The entire episode is taken up with the bizarre machinations the girls go through, from trying to use manga as guides to earthly love…to placing booby traps on Tenchi’s door to trap the other girl, to try and win him, who seems alternately confused or frightened. This leads to a pitch-perfect punchline when both girls find out they’re too late for the exclusive rights to
Tenchi’s bed.

(Warning: The following complaint is a little more spoiler-ridden than most of my reviews. Proceed with caution.)

Where Tenchi Muyo really tends to fall apart is when it decides that it needs to have an overall plot. This is done poorly, and several times over. The last-minute inclusion of big bad space guy Kagato to round out the first OAV series (episodes 1- 6) not only feels tacked-on and silly, it’s handled without the humor that the rest of the series has, and so has no foundation. The dichotomy in tone is too great, and Kagato is too poorly explained and introduced. When Tenchi becomes Mr. Tough Guy to protect his girls (“I’d rather die than forsake any one of them,” he shouts during the climactic battle with Kagato), it comes out of nowhere but necessity of plot. We haven’t really seen him display any affection towards the girls (except perhaps Sasami) before this time, so Tenchi as hero falls flat for me.

The second OAV series’ attempt at creating a villain is even more half-baked. Dr. Clay is about as mediocre a villain as I’ve seen in anime – his motivation is cryptic and his actions plain goofy. Worse, since there is no earthly reason for his intervention in the series in the first place, the episodes he is in (yeah, all two of them) require an ungodly amount of exposition that in the end leads nowhere.

(End of semi-spoiler rant.)

What is left to enjoy in Tenchi Muyo, then, are the sometimes wonderful characters. Each of the girls that come to Tenchi’s shrine have distinctly lovable quirks, even when they’re annoying as hell. It doesn’t hurt that the character designs, by series creator Masaki Kajishima (Photon, Dual), are wholly attractive, and the show often has beautiful animation. This alone keeps my interest in the combat sequences with Kagato, despite how tacked-on those episodes feel. Backgrounds are invariably well-painted, and the animation shows the sort of detail and sumptuousness you only seem to get with a good OAV production.

The show also has a nice sense of humor, occasionally veering into ecchiness. The voice acting in both languages is fine, though the English dub does get off to a somewhat rocky start. What I particularly like about the English actors is how they maintain a consistency with the characters while really finding their own performances. Petrea Burchard’s Ryoko, for example, isn’t hitting all the same notes as Ai Orikasa, but her performance is still consistent with the character created in the narrative. Just as important, though, is that the characters in this romantic comedy (with the possible exception of dishwater Tenchi) are drawn very sharply (no pun intended). They feel real enough within the world to make you care about them, even when the plot refuses to make much sense.

What’s also appealing is the complete weirdness there is to many aspects of the show. I’ve already mentioned Ryo-oh-Ki (the cat/rabbit/spaceship), but how about Tenchi’s dad being a voyeur who videotapes his son in his bedroom? Or how Ryo-oh-Ki somehow becomes a little girl thing, also falling in love with Tenchi? This isn’t my favorite of the Tenchi incarnations, but it does have enough wacky stuff going on to keep up the interest during longeurs.

Looking over this review, it may seem surprising for me to say that I like Tenchi Muyo, but I really genuinely do. However, that doesn’t mean I can turn a blind eye to the myriad faults contained within these thirteen episodes. When it is being what Tenchi Muyo essentially is – light and fluffy entertainment – the series is completely enjoyable. It’s when it tries to develop serious situations that the show tries my patience. Maybe if there was more to Tenchi than bland good-naturedness, maybe if the show spent a little more time early on having Tenchi interact with the girls and not just running scared from them (which, given the girls’ actions, seems a perfectly reasonable response), I could have more sympathy for the times when Tenchi Muyo seems to want to dig a little deeper. It’s a very likeable show, but it seems from time to time that the creators forget exactly why, and so drop the ball in the process.
Rating: B-

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email kentc@explodedgoat.com