Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
A few years ago, all of Todo Academy feared Shin Natsume, an unstoppable fighter and older brother of beautiful sisters Maya and Aya Natsume. But Shin's physical prowess also came with a disturbing secret—one that even his closest friends, Mitsuomi Takayanagi and Bunshichi Tawara, were unaware of. Even worse, Shin's powers made him the guinea pig of an experiment masterminded by the Takayanagi family. After learning of the secret, Bunshichi and Mitsuomi decide that Shin must be dealt with, leading to a bloody confrontation that breaks up their gang. Meanwhile, Maya's own quest to be recognized as a fighter outside of her brother's shadow leads to more turmoil among the student body. With his circle of friends in need of re-organization, Shin starts a new group called the Juken Club, and they enter the schoolwide martial arts tournament. Can the Todo's deadliest fighter reach the top once more?
The double-length "Full Contact Edition" of Tenjo Tenge turns into "Full Flashback Edition" with Volume 3, as it continues to tell the story of Shin Natsume, a pivotal figure who is deceased in the series' present-day timeline. Sure, it'd be easy to do this in just one chapter, showing the moment of Shin's death, then having Maya turn on Mitsuomi and blame him for all the pain and suffering. That would succinctly explain the current state of affairs—but it wouldn't be nearly as compelling as the ambitious path this series has chosen, with almost a dozen characters and hundreds of pages devoted to explaining the existence of a guy who's already dead. Along the way, readers will also find out how the Natsume and Takayanagi clans relate to each other, and why everyone at Todo Academy is so obsessed with fighting. So don't just write off this long, multi-chapter flashback as a waste of time—it's also doing the job of world-building and filling out the characters' stories.
However, it becomes clear early on that Oh! great's skill as a storyteller just doesn't match up to his grand ambitions. Give him credit for at least trying to build an impressive story—one that involves years of history, complex clan politics, friendships won and lost, and supernatural martial-arts skills—but the way he tells the story is often a mess. In one chapter, a sex scene is interspersed with a different set of panels detailing a street mugging (probably to indicate that these events are happening simultaneously), and all it does is confuse the reader. More confusion occurs in a chapter that tries to cover present-day events, except that nothing interesting is going on and everyone is clearly more interested in the flashback material.
Eventually the story settles into a groove, dishing out information about Shin's powers and the Takayanagi family's involvement. It all culminates in Shin and Bunshichi's brawl at the halfway mark—a dramatic highlight that brings great emotion and great art together in one perfect moment. But after that life-altering fight, the series goes back to being a mess: various characters spout out monologues about what it means to fight, protecting the ones you love, and the demons that lurk in us all. (Of course, they've been doing that since Volume 1.) There's also lot of messing around on campus—brawls between school clubs, students joshing with each other, and new alliances being formed—that add unnecessary padding to the second half's main plot points, namely, the Juken Club being formed and the start of the school tournament.
Sloppy storytelling aside, at least Oh! great delivers an impressive visual experience ... as long as you prefer intense, jaw-dropping power over finesse and consistency. As expected, the best artwork comes in Shin and Bunshichi's showdown: a fight with top-level opponents going all out against each other, and a perfectly scripted turnabout right in the middle. With rivers of blood, gruesome injuries, and dramatic full-page shots, this entire fight sequence emphasizes the characters' superhuman abilities—and leaves behind some unforgettable imagery. Even when not in the throes of battle, the artwork often goes for that 110% in-your-face quality: the characters often have intense looks on their faces, whether it be anger, fear, or despair, and even a conversation on school grounds is expressed through dramatic poses. This approach has its drawbacks, though: simple expository scenes can be difficult to follow because everyone is trying to be dramatic all the time (and the text is all over the place), and the character designs can be inconsistent because the artist prefers to draw what looks good—rippling muscles, voluptuous curves—rather than what readers can easily identify.
When it comes to taunts and challenges in combat, Tenjo Tenge's dialogue is much like the art: straightforward, uncompromising, and adult-rated. This translation makes sure to drop a healthy dose of F-bombs, in addition to misogynistic slurs and references to genitalia that one would expect from a bunch of street-brawling kids. Fortunately, the script doesn't overdo it with vulgarity—the majority of the dialogue still remains the usual lines about wanting to do your best and beat the other guy. Where things become a problem, though, is when the characters start to talk about their feelings, resulting in vague, pseudo-spiritualist monologues about friendship and power and the desire to fight. Ultimately, this is a major reason why the story falls short: because the characters have incredible fighting passion, but they don't express it well. There's also plenty of passion and intensity in the sound effects, which have been edited from Japanese into English to make a strong (if somewhat sloppy) impression on the page—a lot like the art, really.
The most common knock against Tenjo Tenge, at least in its early volumes, is that it's all fighting and fanservice with no point to the story. The extended flashback that fills this volume tries to remedy that, expanding upon the complex relationships of certain characters, as well as adding back-story elements that connect to ancient martial-arts traditions. But Oh! great often sabotages his own storytelling ambitions when he crosses multiple scenes over each other in a confusing way, creates superfluous moments that don't push the story forward, or forces the characters to spout out gobbledygook about their fighting spirit. In the end, it truly is the fighting that makes the series worth it—the crushing in-your-face blows, the crackling bursts of superhuman energy, the intense looks on the combatants' faces. But how much longer will readers be satisfied with that, while the story flails about in a desperate attempt to be meaningful and coherent?
Overall : C
Story : C-
Art : B-
+ Adds new back-story and plot elements through the Shin Natsume flashback—along with impressive fight scenes, of course.
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