Reviewby Carlo Santos, Feb 11th 2012
Tenjo Tenge [Full Contact Edition]
At martial arts-obsessed Todo Academy, there's one clear way to determine the leader of the student body: a schoolwide fighting tournament. Two years ago, the Juken Club rose to prominence in this way, led by Shin Natsume, his sister Maya, and Mitsuomi Takayanagi. However, Shin's supernatural abilities—part of an experiment led by the Takayanagi clan—ultimately got the better of him, resulting in his death. Maya, now the captain of the Juken Club, still holds Mitsuomi responsible for this tragedy and wants to topple him from his position on the school's Executive Council. Luckily, the Juken Club has picked up some promising new recruits: street fighters Soichiro Nagi and Bob Makihara, Mitsuomi's younger brother Masataka, and Maya's younger sister Aya. However, it will take Maya a lot more training to hone the club members' abilities—and their fighting spirit—to the point where they can take on the Executive Council.
Volume 4 of Tenjo Tenge—equivalent to Volumes 7 and 8 in the original printing—is neatly divided into two sections, both of which come with their own particular ups and downs. In the first half is the finale of the Shin Natsume flashback arc, where grand fight scenes are tied together by a clumsy knot of rivalries and relationships. Then comes the long-awaited return to the present-day storyline, where the characters proudly declare their fighting spirit—but never make any real forward progress, aside from training and testing each other. Is it too much to ask just to have epic brawls, an elaborate back-story, and churning emotions all come together neatly for once?
The answer, it seems, is that each of these qualities will come up some of the time, but never all of the time. The extended flashback (which at this point has become so unwieldy that even Oh! great jokes about it in his author's notes) is like some strange oil-and-water mixture where brooding character-development episodes keep getting interrupted by wild, no-holds-barred fights. Or is it the other way around? Basically, there's a lot to explain about the troubled Shin/Maya/Mitsuomi triangle—personal issues, as well as supernatural ones—but the sudden mood swings between those moments and the more extroverted fight scenes disrupt the flow of the story. Ultimately, we get to find out how Shin Natsume died, but it happens in a such an overblown shower of tragic-death clichés that everyone is just thankful the flashback is over.
Which is not to say that the story gets better in the second half. After returning to the present day, the plot keeps tossing around the same points over and over: Mitsuomi is ridiculously strong, Maya still hates his guts, and the Juken Club will have to train like crazy to beat him. These chapters do toss out a few pleasing highlights: a Maya-versus-Aya clash over Aya's readiness to use the sword that was once Shin's, and toward the end, a dramatic glimpse of Soichiro's true fighting power. But these bursts of action still feel like mere preludes to any real story development; even when the club members meet Mitsuomi face-to-face, all they do is jaw at each other and vow that their true battle will come at a later time. Occasional comedy moments where Soichiro and Bob bicker with each other also fail to add anything new, plot or humor-wise.
If one isn't terribly concerned about the clumsy and shallow plotting, though, there's still plenty to enjoy in the visuals. It's easy to see what kind of art Oh! great loves the most: the eye-popping, full-page shots where perfectly sculpted fighters pull off outrageous moves. Sometimes these scenes involve swirling supernatural auras (rendered down to the littlest detail), and sometimes it's simply the striking view angles that make it work. Of course, others will say that it's the buxom women and their pin-up poses that sell this series, but even the most blatant fanservice moments (like Aya pouring water on herself) are brief enough that they work as a natural part of the story, rather than a needless burden. However, all this emphasis on impressive fights and impressive fanservice comes at a price: ordinary scenes of school life, at home, or inside office buildings are often presented with dull backgrounds and plain rectangular layouts, making day-to-day scenes even more boring than they already are.
One thing that isn't boring, though, is the dialogue—at least when Soichiro and Bob are around. Their rough style of speech, peppered with swears and personal boasts, adds a colorful flair to the series' often serious atmosphere. By comparison, the Natsumes and Takayanagis reveal a more traditional, martial-arts upbringing in the way they talk, and the translation manages to bring out these differences without sounding forced. However, there's simply no way to fix the wooden tone of the characters' interior monlogues, because the very content itself is clichéd: all this talk of protecting the ones you love, wanting to get to stronger, and how sad it is that everyone has to fight. They may be good with their fists, but when it comes to words, these fighters shouldn't have to broadcast every thought passing through their heads. Sound effects have been edited and replaced with English equivalents, and while the letters sometimes look out-of-place floating over the visuals, the changes don't interfere too much with the artwork.
At this point, Tenjo Tenge has enough of a storyline for it to be meaningful. The Takayanagi family's failed plan for building the "supreme warrior," the tragic past involving Shin, Maya and Mitsuomi, and Maya's motivation for wanting to defeat Mitsuomi have been fully explained, giving the series a solid foundation. But the building of that foundation has been a clumsy, haphazard process: the overly long flashback finally comes to an end, but only in a wild mess of fights and melodramatic monologues, and the return to the present-day storyline feels mostly like planning for the future. Fortunately, there's still plenty of visual flourish to keep fans interested, with over-the-top action poses and superhuman fighting moves every few pages. Now if only the plot could catch up to that level of accomplishment.
Overall : C+
Story : D+
Art : B
+ The flashback into Shin Natsume's past is finally filled out, while the dynamic, page-spanning fight scenes continue to be a highlight of the series.
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