Monday, January 28, 2013

Nostalgia Nugget: Tenchi Muyo – A Legacy

Tenchi's usual suspects

I reviewed several incarnations of the Tenchi Muyo franchise for this blog, and I still haven’t reviewed (or seen) everything. Obviously Tenchi was a pretty big hit at the time. Pioneer and AIC studios were making a mint off the series and continued to milk it (and still do). But what is most interesting is the impact the whole franchise had on anime during and after the 1990s.

One word you could never use to describe the Tenchi Muyo series is innovative. The story and the style had been done before. In most aspects, the creators simply took a bunch of existing tropes and situations and molded them into a new incarnation. It was the success of this combination that caused a ripple effect for a couple decades. It appears that only in the past couple years that anime started to veer away from the impact of Tenchi and the gals.

One of the obvious influences on the series was Star Wars. Our protagonist is a young hero whose dull life is turned upside down by intergalactic events. Tenchi is a chosen one. He has a wise old grandfather figure that teaches him how to use his Jurai powers, and to wield some kind of glowing weapon. There’s a princess with a feisty attitude to rescue. There’s a roguish space pirate. There is a villain with a connection to the grandfather’s past. There’s spaceship battles, energy weapon fights and even severed hands. Let’s not even get into all the sound effects and visual similarities to George Lucas’ original trilogy.

Tenchi and Star Wars go together
like chocolate and peanut butter
So right there, you’ve got something to grab the target male audience looking for an anime version of Star Wars. The next big change was to put a whole bunch of hot girls in key roles. Now Tenchi Muyo wasn’t the first to create the whole “harem” type anime – where one bland guy is surrounded by hot girls that are fixated on him. But the creators might have been the first to strategically pick the girls to fit just about any type the viewers might like. The other element is that all the girls have very distinct personalities. In the OAV version they are all pretty likable too.

The key to this is that Tenchi himself doesn’t have much a personality. He’s a good guy, brave, a bit naïve, but other than that he doesn’t have much else going for him. It’s easy for a viewer to put himself in Tenchi’s place. Contrast this to the follow-up series, El Hazard. In that series the lead, Mokoto, starts out very similar to Tenchi. He’s a good guy, a bit oblivious and one with a kind heart. But once he meets his one true love, Ifurita, we see a real fire in the guy. He’s does some pretty brave and selfless things for her, and Mokoto actually seems to grow through the series. Tenchi is always safe, unassuming Tenchi.

So perhaps the secret to the success of the series comes from combining Star Wars with the harem style show. This seems to be the formula that other anime companies grabbed onto because Tenchi Muyo spawned a whole slew of harem style shows. Many started off using the basic sci-fi tropes adding a dash of humor to the adventures. But it quickly spread to fantasy, romance, comedy and basically every kind of genre within anime you can imagine. Most of them featured a bland unassuming lead. Most include two especially catty members of the “harem” – one being bold and the other being proper. The progression became endless in the 90s and 00s. Hell I even reviewed a comedy harem show for DVD Verdict back in 2010, so the Tenchi inspiration is far from dead. But the blatant borrowing from this series became more than a little tired.

McFarlane's Ryoko figure
See the Tenchi Muyo franchise was very very popular. Now, some have attributed this to marketing in Japan, where Pioneer and AIC ramped up the advertising and merchandising for the show before it even hit the air. But the show was a huge hit with the anime community in North America. When I got back into anime fandom in the early 90s, Tenchi was already well liked and talked about constantly. There was even a bit of a rivalry between fans of Tenchi Muyo and the martial arts comedy Ranma ½.

Even before Tenchi hit the airwaves on Cartoon Network as part of their Toonami block, there was merchandising for the series. There was all kinds of Ryo Oki plushies to find, not to mention art books, key chains and soundtracks. There was even an anime inspired collectable card game (a huge industry in the 1990s) that featured characters and events from the Tenchi Muyo franchise.  After the show hit Toonami the merchandising increased to include action figures of all sizes. Including some highly detailed ones from Todd McFarlane.

Chibi versions of the Tenchi Universe cast
The Tenchi franchise was one of the few anime series of the 1990s to actually have merchandise in mainstream stores like Suncoast and Sam Goody. Most of the times, fans had to find specialty shops to pick up their favorite anime goodies. But I found my nifty Ryoko figure at Suncoast. Hey, I may not be a huge Ryoko fan, but the figure looked cool and I hoped that they’d get around to a sweet Ayeka figure. Sadly, only Ryoko and Tenchi were ever produced.

The release of the series on VHS and DVD were huge events. Both Tenchi in Love and Daughter of Darkness were some of the earliest releases on DVD from Pioneer. They came in a normal CD sized jewel case cocooned by a keepcase sized cardboard sleeve. Because the OAV and television series had not been released, Daughter of Darkness came with a Tenchi Encyclopedia that provided information about all the characters from the franchise up to that film and clips from the series.

Top: OAV Box set unflolded
Bottom: Pioneer's odd jewel case for their
early DVD releases
I remember how excited the anime community was about the box set with both OAV series on it. The whole thing was remastered in THX for picture and sound. On top of that it included an updated version of the Tenchi Encyclopedia and came in a really nifty looking fold out set. Sadly, fans found plenty to complain about, especially the missing Mihoshi Special episode. A bizarre episode of the franchise that introduced the character of Kiyone, but is not considered “cannon” by the kingdom of Jurai or some such nonsense.

The other aspect that the Tenchi Muyo franchise affected was animation style. Prior to the popularity explosion of the series, character design in anime took many forms. The “big eyes small mouth” style was one of many. In fact animators like Leiji Matsumoto and Hayao Miyazaki had very distinctive looks to their characters. It wasn’t uncommon to watch three different series and see three different styles of characters.

Post-Tenchi the AIC look took over. I’m sure the more simplistic character design was one of the major factors for this, but it had the unfortunate side effect of making all anime series appear to be the same from a character design point of view. It became so prevalent that when a new take on character design was attempted (such as giving noses to the characters in Vision of Escaflowne) viewers found the changes “ugly”.

The original release of the OAV series. Note
the THX remaster logo. That got anime fans
really excited back in the 1990s.
Some animators resisted this trend. Director Satoshi Kon always used more realistic character design in all his projects. It works wonderfully with the surreal imagery he crafted and grounds the viewer with the more realistic looking characters. No one is going to tell Miyzaki to mess with his character design. But for other productions unique character designs from the manga are lost.

This is one legacy that seems to have become entrenched in anime. Current shows all very much conform to that AIC style. Every once in a while something like Eden of the East comes along and does something a bit different, but even those changes are slight. Tenchi Muyo certainly made its mark on anime style.

The irony is, the Tenchi Muyo franchise is pure entertaining fun, but it’s nowhere near the pinnacle of animated storytelling that other series and films of the 1990s were. It lacks the thematic depth and emotional chaos of Neon Genesis Evangelion. It was never as funny as Ranma ½. It lacked the visual cool of Cowboy Bebop. Even it’s sister show El Hazard trumped it with a better story, better characters and a poignant ending. My revisit of the bulk of the franchise has revealed a decidedly average show.

Ryoko Oki plushes were all the
rage at anime conventions.
Not to say the show was horrible. It's not at all. But you'd think that something with this kind of legacy would have something innovative or artistic about it. Yes it's a fun show, and yes it's entertaining most of the time. But how can that account for the massive popularity in 1990s? I think the answer is easy enough, Tenchi Muyo hit at the perfect time, with the perfect combination of ingredients. In all forms of media there are examples of this kind of thing. Something strikes, influences countless artists and rakes in tons of money. Then a couple decade later folks look back and say… well it was good, not great. Describes Tenchi Muyo to a T. 


  1. Mark Twain defined a classic as something everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read.

    Accordingly, accessible and popular art, music, literature, and film often have a greater influence than classics (even when being generous with the category), if only because the accessible stuff is more likely seen and heard by the folks who go one to create the next generation of art. If we're lucky, they'll create new classics; if they're lucky they won't, since the other stuff will sell better.

  2. Very good point. It is pretty rare where something "classic" is also considered extremely popular. In anime this did occur with "Neon Genesis Evangelion". It's popularity (and the dissatisfaction with it's ending) created a whole slew of clones. For a long time afterward all giant robot anime could easily be traced back to EVA. Some of the clones were pretty good. But most were just dull compared to the original.

    One of the interesting movies that is a classic, "2001: A Space Odyssey" had some influence over science fiction. Even going so far as to turn "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" into a more meditative and visual experience than the television series ever was. It even influenced "Star Wars" with it's attention to detail and depth of the production design. But we don't see much of that "thinking" sci-fi from Hollywood. The last one I remember seeing was "Moon", and even that was more of an independent film.