Reviewby Carlo Santos, Sep 19th 2005
DVD 2: Round Two
During their Golden Week training camp, the members of the Juken Club—Souichiro, Aya, Maya, Bob and Takayanagi—take some time off at the local bowling alley. Things turn sour, however, when Todo Academy's Executive Council rounds up 70 or 80 thugs to take them out. Soon the five of them are split up and each fighting their own deadly battles: Bob and Takayanagi against the minions, impetuous Souichiro against pro wrestling maniac Saga the Mask, nervous Aya against a self-proclaimed samurai, and skillful Maya against Executive Council vice-president Isuzu. Each of them will be tested to their limits, but the battle has just begun, as the Executive Council's leader is on his way to the scene.
The curvaceous women and earth-shattering fistfights of Tenjho Tenge are like a heaping slab of steak—intense, indulgent, and easily turned into too much of a good thing. Volume 2 doesn't take long to become one long, drawn-out fight, which isn't even over by the end of the three episodes on this disc. Although it still explores the characters' backgrounds every now and then, most of the show is spent on long, visually stunning combat sequences. A feast for the eyes, definitely, but how long before that feast becomes a mind-numbing excess?
After the careful balance of fighting, training, and back-story in the first four episodes, this next arc is a disappointment when it comes to story content. But can you really fault a fighting series for turning into ... well, a fighting series? Multi-episode battles have long been a part of the tradition, and as far as action goes, this one's got a lot more going on than just two guys boasting about who has more power. (Although the subject does come up eventually.) Souichiro even gets to use what he learned in training, a cliché that's been around since the earliest stories of people beating each other up. With all the world-building and plotting that went on earlier—not a whole lot, but it was there—it's a shame to see it pushed aside in favor of a typical punch-out. Whatever happened to character development and learning their histories?
There are two ways to answer that question: one is through Aya's all-seeing eye, and the other is through the power of flashbacks. In one particularly revelatory scene, the two devices even come together as Aya unexpectedly discovers a vital part of Souichiro's childhood. It's in Episode 5, however, that her clairvoyant abilities cause the first stirrings of internal conflict when she sees an unsettling scene involving her sister Maya and her beloved Souichiro. Meanwhile, Souichiro re-affirms his desire to fight with some recycled footage of the teasing he experienced as a kid. Towards the end of Sagara's duel with Souichiro, there's even a flashback where we learn the troubled history behind the school's pro wrestling club, but scenes like these are just brief asides in a story arc that's all about fighting, fighting, fighting.
For those who care most about the fighting, though, don't worry. If Todo Academy is where young martial artists go to show off their combat skills, then Studio MADHOUSE must be where visual artists go to show off their animation skills. Hand-to-hand combat has rarely looked so vibrant, and there's much more to each fight than people just charging at each other in front of a speedlined background. Maya's battle with Isuzu showcases this perfectly: during their fight in a public bathroom, there's always a sense of the space around them. They don't suddenly go running fifty feet to launch an attack; instead, they use stalls, mirrors and walls as part of their weaponry. Also present in every fight is a sense of position—if someone's got the higher ground, or has someone in a hold, they keep that advantage until the opponent can break free. That kind of consistency, along with more common techniques like motion blurs and skewed angles, make these fights as close to real as possible while still bending, and often violating, the laws of physics.
Few things violate the laws of physics like the girls' chests in this show, but everyone still has a unique appearance, both in face and build. While their physiques may look like wild exaggerations of the human form, there's a solid presence to their bodies as they maneuver through each fight. The most important visual point is still the fanservice, of course, but this show makes the characters work for it—anyone who wants to get to the good stuff will have to cut or explode the clothing away.
Right from the lively opening "Bomb A Head!," the music stays fully uptempo as the fights kick into high gear. Modern sounds and pulsing rock beats maintain the raw, off-the-streets mentality of the series, but there's still room for a more restrained feeling during poignant flashbacks. Even when it's on full blast, though, the music keeps itself in the background, making sure that the focus is on the actual fight.
Bang Zoom!'s dub is a mixed effort on this disc; conversations like Aya's confrontation with Maya feel stilted, but once the action gets going, everyone digs into their roles. Real intensity comes out as fighters hurl challenges at each other, although things start to get silly when those challenges turn into five-minute monologues. The translation, meanwhile, is all over the place with word and phrase switches, like it got attacked by a thesaurus. Someone on the staff must really like the word "transpire," but that's not nearly as bad as hearing "kinetic energy" on the dub but seeing "potential energy" in the subtitles—that's two entirely different things! Yet it still manages to be too faithful at times: the subtitles only show romanizations of special attack names, which isn't really a translation. If someone announces a really cool attack, it would be nice for an English speaker to know what it means.
Although it has its faults, Tenjho Tenge certainly knows what it's about: superhuman fighting at its most extreme, and to hell with moving the story along—at least for this volume. These episodes are as intense as ever, and now it's prolonged intensity as the scenes switch from duel to duel with hardly a pause in between. That's too bad for those who wanted to get to know the characters better, but this is heaven for anyone who wants to see pure physical action. Few shows have captured the essence of fighting so well, but its singular focus is also its biggest weakness: after all that punching and kicking, couldn't those poor kids just take a break?
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : A
Art : A-
Music : B-
+ Still one of the best-animated fighting series out there.
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