Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 10th 2005
DVD 1: Round One
Todo Academy is a high school that's particularly focused on martial arts, and when first-years Souichiro and Bob (yes, he's a foreigner) come in looking for a fight, they get more than they bargained for. Their first introduction to Todo's elite is through Maya Natsume, who hides her true powers behind her childlike appearance, and little sister Aya, who takes a liking to Souichiro after he falls on her in the shower. These sisters, along with wimpy-looking guy Takayanagi, form the Juken club, a martial arts group with a membership of three. They're not the ones who rule the school—that honor goes to the Student Executive Council, whose methods of "punishment" are extraordinarily severe. When Souichiro and Bob experience this punishment first-hand, they decide to join the Juken club to improve their strength, and the battle for control of Todo Academy begins to take shape.
Let's play some word association: I say "Tenjho Tenge," you say "butchered." CMX's treatment of the manga has cast a grim shadow over the series, so with Geneon's release of the anime, it's easy to be concerned. Fortunately, this is one release that has been left uncensored and uncut, although the animators in Japan had already toned it down from the original manga version. There's still enough cleavage and toplessness to keep fans happy, though, and Tenjho Tenge turns out to be one of the stronger entries in the "hot schoolgirls who fight a lot" genre. With eye-popping action and just enough plot to make things intriguing, this is a series that defines the meaning of guilty pleasure.
The basic principle behind Tenjho Tenge is easy enough to understand. Take a high school where teachers ignore the fact that everyone fights ALL THE TIME, add some impossibly endowed girls and impossibly powerful guys, and let the fists fly. However, don't confuse this with the similarly themed Ikki Tousen, which is basically a pantyshot show with some skirmishes thrown in. Tenjho Tenge is about fighting first, and if you happen to get a peek down a girl's blouse, well, it's not like she meant to get into that position. But there's also more to this than fighting and fanservice—early on, there are hints of a storyline that's deeper than just a bunch of kids trying to be the toughest in school. Little things, like a brief mention of an older Natsume brother, and the identity of the Student Council President, suggest that this series has more plot up its sleeve (and it's nothing to do with re-enacting Chinese history). However, Volume 1 only gets as far as setting up all this foreshadowing, and the payoff won't come until later.
As expected, Tenjho Tenge's main characters aren't exactly models of depth and complexity, but they're interesting enough that you can tell them apart. Maya and Aya Natsume are a typical sibling combo of the wiser, older sister and the younger, ditzy one; Aya's sudden devotion to Souichiro may seem weird at first but her sheer dedication and willpower are impressive later on. Meanwhile, Souichiro is the usual hot-tempered guy who wants to be stronger, although a poignant flashback sequence in Episode 2 reveals that there is more to his personality than just wanting to fight. His companion Bob serves mainly as the comic relief, and the show does have some comedy moments cleverly masked as background action. The most boring character appears to be Takayanagi, the schoolboy who doesn't do much of anything except defeat Souichiro when they first meet... or does he have some unexpected family secret?
Tenjho Tenge's punchy, hip-hop-dancing opening sequence (storyboarded by anime legend Rintaro) is so good that it makes everything else after it a disappointment. Which isn't to say that the show is animated poorly—in fact, it's very respectable for a TV series—but the opening just blows everything else away. Studio Madhouse maintains their high standards with vivid colors, strong contrasts and sharp linework, and the fight sequences through the first couple of episodes practically jump off the screen with intense hits and lots of blood. From that point on, there's the usual drop in animation quality, but the action still looks better than the average fighting anime. With visual techniques like blurring and camera jitter, Tenjho Tenge's fight scenes are definitely more than just some guys floating in front of speedlines. The character designs, despite being standard anime archetypes, are still distinct from each other—there's no mistaking Souichiro's Dragon Ball hair, Bob's tall frame, or Maya's full-length pigtails.
The unremarkable soundtrack is Tenjho Tenge's biggest weakness: although the fight scenes are driven by strong, hard-hitting orchestral music, one mood does not make an entire soundtrack. Conversation scenes are supported by insipid, throwaway melodies, and the only low-key scene where the music works is Souichiro's flashback. On the other hand, the opening song is as fun as the opening animation itself—a hook like "Bomb! Bomb! Bomb A Head!" is just too catchy to forget.
An anime with extreme fighting action calls for high-spirited voice acting, and the staff at Bang Zoom! makes a strong effort to capture that passion in the English dub. Although most everyone delivers their lines with conviction, some of the voices just don't suit their characters. In particular, Maya and Aya (voiced by Wendee Lee and Tiffany Hsieh) sound too self-conscious and fail to bring out the special aspects of their personalities—Maya's inner wisdom and Aya's force of will. Also, there appears to be a secret rule that no one is allowed to pronounce Takayanagi's name the same way twice. At least it's a script that follows the translation closely, as most of Geneon's releases do.
Don't look for much in terms of extras on this DVD, as there are only the usual previews for other series and a textless opening. (Still, it's an opening that's worth watching again... and again... and again.)
Anyone who thinks that Tenjho Tenge has a profound, life-changing story to tell, or a groundbreaking new approach to animation, will be sadly disappointed. But if they're looking for a good example of the schoolyard fight-and-fanservice genre, then this is the series to pick up. With Studio Madhouse at the top of their game and intense fight scenes that don't buckle under the weight of fanservice, this is a show that manages to entertain without being overtly offensive or stupid. Just don't worry about story or depth for a while, and let the battle begin.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : A
Music : B-
+ Fighting action pushed to the extreme, with the animation quality to back it up.
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