Being considered a ‘classic’ in any given medium by the general public may be an accolade that many creators wish their work could earn; however said accolade can also be a double-edged sword. Whilst becoming a ‘classic’ can warrant praise from critics, adoration by the public as a whole and having many people recommending your product for years to come; there’s also the fear that it can set very high expectations that can’t be met by all, or can result in other creators following after you and ripping off ideas to the point where newcomers that come along after experiencing their imitation then compare it unfavourably to yours. For example, Ghost in a Shell is a highly regarded piece of anime science fiction, yet since its release back in 1995, it has had so many of its famous scenes, ideas and themes copied elsewhere that when the 2017 American live action remake came along, it failed to have the same impact or make newer fans see what all the fuss was about in the first place (amongst other valid complaints). So, when recommending a ‘classic’ to someone, especially someone who is a newcomer to the genre and less interested in seeing its effect on the culture and medium as a whole, one has to remember that it’s not always going to be a fruitful experience for them.
That’s the challenge that the Tenchi Muyo! OVAs face in this day and age; at the time, it was one of the most influential anime on TV when it debuted on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block and even though its episodes were censored to remove nudity and gore, it was still a highly regarded series and became instantly popular, being the gateway anime for many fans of that generation. Unlike other censored anime at the time such as Sailor Moon (which had many episodes cut up into unrecognisable chunks with important character traits removed altogether) or Cardcaptor Sakura (the first broadcast US version went out of its way to restructure the episode order to bring in the male protagonist earlier and make the show more about him than the actual female protagonist) Tenchi Muyo!’s story and characters remained intact; the occasional rude joke was pushed aside but the dub never dumbed down any of the story elements or tried to tell a different one altogether, it was still a series about one normal guy suddenly inheriting a harem of beautiful girls from across the galaxy and the random sci-fi adventures they embarked on. Later, the censorship was removed once it moved over to the Adult Swim block in America, and the UK got all the Tenchi Muyo! uncensored goodness on DVD back in early 2000s, and to this day this title is still considered the ‘granddad’ of the harem genre, and one of the best of its kind, even after all the sequels, spin-offs and specials delivered mixed results. But for newcomers to anime, or perhaps those who haven’t seen it in many years, does the OVA hold any weight nowadays? Can it be enjoyed for what it’s worth? Or is it now just an old relic held up only by nostalgia?
The story goes thusly; Tenchi Masaki is a seemingly ordinary Japanese teenage boy who lives with his father and grandfather in the mountains. For as long as Tenchi can remember, his grandfather has told him the legend of Yosho, a warrior who, hundreds of years ago, sealed a demon inside the family shrine deep inside a cave, and warning Tenchi to never go inside it. Before the end of summer, Tenchi decides to (of course) disobey his grandfather and see the shrine for himself, letting loose Ryoko, a beautiful woman who just so happens to be a space pirate and wanted by the Galaxy Police. At first, Ryoko seems determined to kill Tenchi, but then gets far too comfortable in his home and decides to stay, bringing forth a conga line of ladies from Princess Ayeka and Sasami from the Planet Jurai, to the Galaxy Police Detective Mihoshi and the mysterious scientific genius Washu. As the ladies settle into a routine, Tenchi discovers more about himself and his family than he could ever imagine.
Tenchi Muyo! isn’t the very first harem series, but it is the title that many people think of as one of the oldest examples of the genre, and it is this series that harem shows to this day follow the formula of; ordinary (if plain) male lead, multiple woman of various backgrounds, personalities and body shapes, all living together and fighting for said male’s attentions. It’s a tale as old as time and, as a result, has inspired many good, bad and downright terrible anime that have followed since. The harem genre isn’t exactly one that has had a great reputation over the years, as it’s often used as a thinly disguised excuse to show heavy fan service with the animators aiming for the audience to ogle at the girls rather than wanting them to get with the male lead ‘cos they belong together. This is what most harem anime fail to learn from Tenchi Muyo!, because right from the get-go the OVA aced the secret ingredient to any successful harem: varied but interesting females that are characters first and fan service for the audience second. Take Ryoko’s introduction for example; it’s a tense, almost creepy scene where she’s resurrected from a mummified state and tears apart any reservations Tenchi had that the demon was merely a ghost story. When we see her next, in the female pirate look we’re accustomed to, she’s more interested in messing with Tenchi with her light-saber blade and has an aura of complete control and power over him; she has a history and layers that are clear from the pilot but unravel as the series goes on to make her a well-rounded character, with her affections for Tenchi developing later. Even when it comes to the fan service stuff where she makes a play for him, she’s completely naked for most of the bath scenes but that’s because she’s entirely body confident and not afraid to show off her curves or be aggressive in her flirtations, whereas Ayeka is a demure princess who is more into the romantic side of courtship, so her interactions with Tenchi complement that. It’s a simple but effective character trait that keeps her and the other females separate but still memorable and relatable heroines.
Although Ryoko and Ayeka are the main two female protagonists in Tenchi harem, and are the ones that provide the most comedy when it comes to their spats over him, the other girls aren’t to be completely written off either. Each girl brings something to table, whether it be purely a trait that the audiences can empathise with, or their contribution to the OVA’s story as a whole. Sasami is the most level-headed of the girls and provides the cute factor alongside Ryo-Ohki without going too much into the ‘kawaiiiii!!!’ department that some anime fans may find intolerable. Washu is the mad-scientist who clearly knows more than she’s lettering on, but is also incredibly fun to watch how one minute she’s the ‘mum’ of the girls then suddenly as childish and silly as Ryoko can be when it comes to wanting Tenchi to herself. Then there’s Mihoshi, who is normally brushed off as the ditsy one (mostly due to the other Tenchi TV series which embellish this trait far more) but is not to be written off completely. Upon re-watching I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that she is almost the ‘dark horse’ of the girls; her sparks of intellectual and comical brilliance often occur when you least expect them, and she’s the only one who can get really close to Tenchi physically on numerous occasions without resistance from him. He usually pushes Ryoko away, Ayeka provokes awkward blushes and Sasami is treated as the little sister, but Mihoshi on many occasions often clings to or holds Tenchi during scenes when they’re not the main focus and he does not show any signs of discomfort or resistance, it’s only when the other girls notice that she’s plucked away. Tenchi at times even treats her the best out of all the girls, offering her a home to return to at any time and never telling her off, despite her constant slacking. Overall, it’s easy to pick out Ryoko and Ayeka as the main stars of the harem, and for very good reason too because they are incredibly fun to watch in every scene, but the other ladies are not to be underestimated at all, and that’s just one of the reasons why Tenchi Muyo! is regarded so highly and exciting to watch repeatedly. There’s no clear winner in the harem and every girl leaves an impression on the audience, regardless of which one you prefer the most.
Tenchi Muyo! is a harem at its core, however it’s the series’s balance of fantasy, action and sci-fi that gives it another reason to stand the test of time since there’s literally something for everyone. Each female gets a focus episode on them per season and it’s not always centred on their relationship with Tenchi or how they feel about him. They all had lives and on-going struggles before meeting him and it’s through these stories that the sci-fi themes come through the strongest. Whether it be Washu’s long-standing strife with Dr Clay, or the return of Ryoko’s former master Kagato, or Sasami’s struggle with her self-identity – there are varied and interesting stories told throughout the OVAs and there’s no obvious weak or skippable episode as they’re all very watchable and entertaining. They double up as self-contained stories for each female AND play a larger role in the world building and the character arcs or serve to foreshadow things to come later. There’s clearly a lot of thought that’s gone into the world of Tenchi outside of who he gets to hook up with at the end (if at all) however, despite all best efforts, the weakness of the writing comes through more glaringly in the stories that strike heavy in the sci-fi genre. They are not so much as plot holes but more plot inconsistencies and things that are just never explained, such as how Tenchi’s home slowly morphs into a Jurai bath house, complete with floating saunas that suddenly appear but it’s never mentioned how they were made; how the infamous jewels Ryoko uses go from being very important in the opening episodes to not being mentioned midway than suddenly become significant again in the final episode. Then in Episode 8 Tenchi mentions a ring that apparently he uses to transform into his empowered form but it’s never seen before or again afterwards. None of these things break the dream-like environment that the series has or ruin the story overall, but they’re little nit-picks that could have done with a bit more attention to make everything feel more cohesive. Despite this, the combination of Western science fiction with Japanese aesthetics creates a unique and fascinating world that the characters inhabit, even if some of it is left unexplained.
Seikou Nagaoka isn’t a particularly well-known composer, despite still working to this day, but he has delivered music for the majority of the Tenchi franchise, and it’s not hard to see why. The soundtrack mixes the 90s techno elements with Japanese instrumentation to a powerful effect, that carries the series from the tender romantic scenes to the live-or-die battles. Vocal themes are more of a mixed bag; the closing themes, complete with sketchy animations that centre on Ryo-ohki, are cute and catchy for early 90s J-pop, however the opening theme that is introduced for Season 2 (‘I’m a Pioneer’) whilst harmless by itself is accompanied by a terrible waste of animation; it looks like a scene they forgot to add voices to, the characters lips move with no relation to the song and it’s very distracting.
English dubs in the early 90s are not normally considered to be ‘good’, especially when scripts were changed drastically from the original Japanese but the Tenchi Muyo! dub is, for the majority of the time, a notable exception. Although it’s guilty of several of early dubs sins, such as minor instances of voice being out of sync with the lips and adding dialogue in scenes when in the original Japanese it was silent, it’s the vocal deliveries that are worth listening to. Petrea Burchard’s performance as Ryoko is still one of her most recognisable and lauded roles to this date, and Michael Scott Ryan’s dark purring voice for the villain Kagato completely trumps the original Japanese. On the other hand, we have Yuko Kobayashi who really demonstrates an incredible range of performances whilst in the role of Washu, and Masami Kikuchi as Tenchi doesn’t slip into grating territories that sometimes Matt K Miller is guilty of in the wackier comical scenes.
If you’re a long-time fan of Tenchi and have collected the various UK released DVDs over the years then you’ll be disappointed to know that the DVDs for the re-release are exactly the same; from the identical menu images to the ‘propaganda’ – AKA Tokyo Pop water-marked trailers for various old-school series such as Vampire Princess Miyu and Sailor Moon on these discs – they haven’t been updated in the slightest. So, to get your money’s worth, especially if you own the original release, go straight for the collector’s edition, or at least the Blu-ray only release, despite the fact that the re-release uses the utterly horrendous art from the 3rd OVA (which is NOT included in this set). What IS included however is ‘Here Comes Jurai Part 2’ – a short that takes place after the final episode, the Mihoshi special – an OVA with Kiyone’s and Magical Girl Pretty Sammy’s first anime appearances – which was previously only available in the Tenchi Muyo! boxset back in 2005 but not the individual disc releases. We also have a bonus disc called the Tenchi Encyclopaedia, which was formerly only released with the Tenchi movie trilogy collection; the encyclopaedia lives up to its name with character bios, screenshots, original concept art, show clips in Japanese and English (be wary though that the Japanese isn’t subbed), trailers and sneak peeks for various Tenchi properties from Universe to the films, an interview with Mayumi Iizuka and 2 of her music videos (she voices Sakura, a character in Tenchi in Tokyo), concept art and floor maps for various locations the show takes place in, AND 6 issues of the American-made Tenchi Muyo comic, however unless you have a very large TV or are willing to sit absurdly close to your TV screen, you’ll probably struggle to actually read it. The collector’s edition comes with Blu-ray and DVD editions of the series, plus an art booklet.
For already made Tenchi fans, this collector’s edition is a no-brainer – grab it now and let’s hope that other Tenchi series and the movies will be brought back into license as well (at the time of writing, GXP has been picked up with no confirmed release date yet). For everyone else however, Tenchi Muyo! has a lot more going for it than just being an early example of a ‘harem anime’; it has great comedy driven by the memorable characters, unique animation style, a striking soundtrack and manages to balance multiple genres from fanservice to science fiction without breaking a sweat that will leave a lasting impression on you for years to come. It has nostalgic value but is still a well-made, entertaining series for newer fans to discover. It’s more than earned a place on any collector’s shelf.