Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Tenchi Muyo! OVA Series
While working at his grandfather's shrine one day, Tenchi Masaki steals his grandpa's keys and sneaks into the shrine's forbidden cave. It is said to house a demon that a long-ago hero sealed there. Naturally Tenchi screws up the seal and the demon, Ryoko, comes gunning for him at school. One blown-up school later, Tenchi is living with a demon. Actually, a space pirate. Who is soon followed by a vengeful space princess, Ayeka, who is looking for her brother, the long-ago hero. Who, it turns out, is Tenchi's gramps. Quick on Ayeka's heels are Mihoshi, a harebrained Galaxy Police officer in pursuit of a vicious criminal known as Kagato, and Washu, a 20,000 year-old scientist imprisoned by said criminal. Tenchi's home life is about to get extremely complicated.
It can be hard to explain exactly why this seminal entry in the annals of harem romance stands apart from its disreputable genre. It has all of the hallmarks of a humdrum harem headache: the ordinary lump of a main character; the one-per-episode stream of cute girls who fall for him at the tip of a hat and subsequently end up cohabitating with him; the familiar mixture of everyday hijinks (in this case sci-fi-flavored hijinks) and periodic angst. Even if it was new(ish) in its time, by all rights years of mining the same wish-fulfillment fantasies should have taken the shine off. And yet somehow Tenchi remains fresh and fun. Or at least relatively so.
There's no big overriding reason why. That's what makes it so hard to explain. If you were to name just one, it'd probably be that the show doesn't lean too heavily on its harem content. It works perfectly well as a science-fiction adventure—a kind of intergalactic space opera where worlds beyond ours come to the hero rather than the hero going to them. It is particularly adept at implying a vast, strange, and adventure-filled universe without actually showing that much of it. A universe where trees can be the basis of one civilization's star-tripping technology, and strange jewels the basis of another's. Where an alternate dimension can lie on the other side of a reflection, a prison for an all-powerful scientist, frozen in time and guarded by giant stone snakes.
At its best, Tenchi's sci-fi world has a dream-like strangeness that can tip without warning into the nightmarish. Take the opening episode, with its long chase through the moonlit hallways of an empty school, Ryoko shifting through walls and shrugging off physical attacks—the epitome of a dream-world monster until a lucky swipe defeats her. Or there's Kagato, whose technological powers make him a kind of evil ghost (when he removes his gloves, he reveals sleeves as empty as the Invisible Man's). Or that mirror-world prison, or the funhouse dimension where the second half's antagonist rules like an interdimensional goddess. At such times, the show has a feel reminiscent of the pulpier parts of, say, Roger Zelazny's career: of imagination given free rein, without worrying overmuch about rules and restrictions or real-world logic. After all, in an infinite universe there's plenty of room for a bunny-kitten that can morph into a jagged attack ship or a Jell-O Rubik's cube that can—in the wrong hands—lose its owner in another dimension.
That is not to say that Tenchi is on Zelazny's level, or the level of any other master of the narrative arts for that matter. After Kagato, for instance, the show tries to more rigidly structure its world—a cardinal sin that causes it to lose a lot of its dreamlike mystery and also results in an overload of rather random revelations. And then there's the romance. The reason it's good that the show doesn't lean on its romance is because it's kind of terrible. Tenchi is noble and good-natured enough to be likeable, but he in no way justifies the ardor with which women (women who have all been around for centuries) pursue him. Whenever the show pushes his suitors to get overtly mushy, it falls painfully flat. The very worst episodes are the Zero Ryoko ones—about a robot who copies Ryoko's memories and falls madly for Tenchi—which combine failed romantic drama with a cringe-inducing “tell me about this thing you call love” subplot.
That Tenchi's harem still works is a tribute, not to the lead, but to his harem. All of the girls have good, well-defined personalities: fun and funny and always just a titch more complex than they need to be. Their true strength, however, are their relationships with one another. Ayeka's bond with her little sister Sasami—who is nominally in the harem, but is mostly just there for adorableness overkill—gives the second half its most touching episode when Sasami confesses to Ayeka her deepest secret (a weird one by the way). Washu and Ryoko's rocky mother/daughter relationship steals a couple of scenes in the late going, and Ryoko and Ayeka have one of the genre's great romantic rivalries: one part friendship, one part respect, and eight parts back-stabbing self-interest. No matter the combination—whether it's idiot-savant Mihoshi making Washu's life hard or Sasami mischievously infecting Ryoko with shojo-manga ideas—the result is generally great fun.
Which is a goodly part of why the Masaki household is so inviting. It's a raucous, weird, and occasionally touching place to be—great to visit, no matter the number of times you've been. Of course the luscious rural settings, all verdant forests and crystal lakes, don't hurt, and neither does Tenchi's wonderfully-drawn, warmly lived-in house. Indeed artwork in general is one of the show's great strengths. It's a show that understands the importance of visual imagination, whether it takes the form of organic wooden starships, Washu's endless lab (in an alternate dimension hidden behind a closet door), or a loft bedroom filled with carrot-shaped beanbags. Everything, from the outlandish to the mundane, is drawn with care and unusual depth of detail. It lends the series a tactile reality that a lot of polished modern efforts can't seem to muster.
The same care and imagination is applied to the show's animation. It may not be a match for, say, Studio Ghibli (or even other 90s OVAs) in fluidity and full-range motion, but it makes up for it with a wealth of lively hand-drawn detail: an inchworm inching up a branch during a throwaway establishing shot, Tenchi's signature frantic scramble when getting away from danger, the dippy expressions it puts on its pretty girls' now-iconic faces (Ayeka's greeting for her mother in episode 13 is plain deadly). Directors Hiroki Hayashi and Kenichi Yatani consistently find novel ways to frame shots, time jokes, or just show some everyday action. This is, I'm willing to bet, the only show around with a carrot-cam. The space battles and various-colored bolts of lightning and impressive displays of power are animated with all the love that early-90s experts in such things could bring to bear, but it's the details—in art, in movement—and the loving effort put into every sequence, from lowliest to grandest, that makes the series fun to look at. Combine that with a score overflowing with simple, memorable themes and you have a show whose style genuinely elevates its content.
The beauty of re-releases is that the re-releaser doesn't need to record a new dub. Sometimes, however, that's also the curse of re-releases. Pioneer's original dub is a spotty affair, to put it rather kindly. It's sufficiently faithful in its scripting, but the acting is… not great. It's pretty unwieldy in general, full of the kind of odd phrasing and strange pauses that plagued older series whose scripts were too faithful to gracefully match dialogue to lip-flap. Emotions are off-base at best and missing at worst and ham is an ever-present threat. And then there's the series-destroying issue of Tenchi's (Matt K. Miller) uncanny vocal resemblance to Kermit the Frog. Stick to the Japanese.
Also included on this set is a seven-minute, minimally-animated omake that fills in some of the gaps between the Zero Ryoko episodes and the OVA's open-ended final episode, as well as a booklet with a pretty sweet collection of promotional art.
Of course, it helps when watching Tenchi if you have an overpowering nostalgic attachment to it. Tenchi was one of the touchstones of 90s fandom and one of the original building blocks of many an ongoing anime obsession. That's a powerful relationship to have with a piece of entertainment, and it certainly helps bridge some of the gaps in logic and general quality in the OVA's second half. Not that that precludes newcomers from enjoying themselves. If you're puzzled as to why the harem comedy enjoyed the popularity it did, this and Oh My Goddess! are good places to start. You may want to give its later, increasingly uninteresting incarnations (Tenchi Universe, Tenchi in Tokyo, Tenchi OVA part 3) a pass however.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B-
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Harem comedy that gets by on rampant sci-fi imagination, superior style, and the varied interactions of an entertaining female cast.
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