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 na├»ve, 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. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Anime Juke Box - Tenchi Muyo Opening Credits - Tenchi Muyo

Here is the opening theme music to the OAV Series Tenchi Muyo from 1992. Like it's sister series El Hazard this opening credits theme is purely instrumental and performed using syths and samples. This is a real rarity when it comes to OAV and television series in anime. You usually get some kind of J-pop song to start things off with. But I really like the atmosphere this sets up. May not be super close to some of the wacky comedy in the series, but it does capture the mystery and wonder elements of the show.

Oddly, whenever I think of the Tenchi Muyo series, this is the theme that pops in my head.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Crawling Eye (1958) – MST3K Review

The film begins with a couple climbers on a mountain in Switzerland being attacked by an off-screen horror. Whatever attacks them enjoys lopping off heads. Luckily Dr. Alan Brooks (Forrest Tucker) arrives shortly after to set things right. On the train he meets the lovely Pilgrim sisters, Ann (Janet Munro) and Sarah (Jennifer Jayne). Ann is a physic who travels and puts on demonstrations of her uncanny abilities, but something has drawn her to the mountain.

Meanwhile Tucker meets with some of his old scientist pals in their super high tech observatory on the mountain. They’ve been noticing some bitterly cold fog that appears to move in unnatural ways around the mountain. Soon enough more climbers are decapitated, missing climbers turn up acting strangely, Ann is called to the mountain and Tucker shouts at folks a bunch of times. The fog rolls in and with it the horrifying Crawling Eye. Will Forrest be able to save the village from this bizarre menace?

Movie Review:
The crawling eye... and brain... and tentacles?
In the long line of disembodied body parts that have come to life and tried to kill people, the enormous eyeball is rarely seen. Sure the gigantic Pancreas was all the rage, and who can forget the horror of the huge earlobe that tried to smash the city of Denver flat in the hit film “The Skulking Earlobe”. These are crowd-pleasing body parts that everyone loves to see go rogue and destroy towns. But the eyeball, well it just doesn’t get the exposure that others do. It was really quite daring for director Quentin Lawrence to pick it as the main antagonist.

What I’m saying is that The Crawling Eye is ridiculous. So why the hell is it so serious? Why spend the whole movie hiding the eponymous creature? Why have a psychic if you aren’t going to do anything interesting with her? Oh, we can ask these questions all day, but the answers are shrouded in mystery. Or you can just say, it was the 1950s and that is just how these types of movies were made.

That’s why bad movie watchers love them. If you’re up for the typical slow (tension free) build, the stiff acting, the doughy white hero and the hilarious creature in the final 10 minutes than it’s one to seek out. But at the same time, it could have been a bit more fun than it turned out to be.

Ann getting all psychic.
Like most movies of the era, The Crawling Eye is one talky monster movie. A huge amount of time is spent with characters that are basically fodder for the creature. We don’t really get to know them well, but we sit there and listen to them babble for scenes that run too long. There are hints at things that seem to be important. Brooks speaks about a something similar occurring in an expedition to the Andes, but nothing comes of it other than a sense that he must right a wrong from his past. Ann is given a huge build up with her psychic powers. But the filmmakers don’t let her do anything with it other than turn her into a damsel in distress. She didn’t need powers to be that. Her sister is there to look concerned and grave and… not much else. There’s even another male character to end up with Ann, and get some action scenes, but he’s so bland I can’t even remember his name.

Then you’ve got Tucker’s performance as Brooks. It’s typical 50s beefy male hero, who shouts a lot, is very earnest and punches a few people to get things done. In some ways he’s like Cal from This Island Earth but older and without the sonorous voice. Of course he figures out how to stop the creatures, when it’s been painfully obvious to the audience what’s going on. He acts like it’s a revelation, and we’re supposed to be impressed. Mostly I’m wondering if he felt silly doing battle with the tentacles in the finale scene.

Dry alien eyes? Try MST3K brand eye drops.
As for our creatures, well they are a hoot. Yes, they have an eye and they crawl, but they also have some kind of fleshy body that looks like a brain and tentacles that flail around and lift people up. These creatures are portrayed by puppets for the most part. The film does some fun things with them. When they finally show up near the end, you wish they had been present much earlier. A film like Fiends Without a Face did a much better job of creating horror with it’s devilish killer brains and spinal cords, and made them visible earlier in the film to great advantage.

The music in The Crawling Eye was actually pretty fun. It’s big, bombastic and injects some thrills and tension where they are needed. It kind of reminds me of the work of Albert Glasser without all the march-style tracks.

With a premise so silly you kind of wish the movie had embraced the inherent fun. Alas it seems to stumble along and never engage as it should. Luckily there is enough to riff on, and Joel and the bots are on hand for their first official riffing session for Comedy Central.

Episode Review:  
Forrest Tucker in a rare moment not shouting.
For the most part this episode will be a fan favorite because it was the very first episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Comedy Central. Prior to this, the show existed only on a cable access station in Minneapolis. This was the first crack that the crew at Best Brains had with their “cow town puppet show”. So they revamped the look of the robots, the sets, the premise, and then picked what they felt would be the iconic movie.

The Crawling Eye in a lot of ways is exactly what you’d expect to find on Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s black and white. It’s got a ridiculous and yet memorable monster. It’s got star power in the form of Forrest Tucker. It’s completely serious and yet completely goofy. It was an excellent pick to start the series proper.

But keep in mind this is the first episode of the first season. And it is pretty rare that what you see here is the best representation of the series. While the basics are in place, it wouldn’t be until Robot Monster that season one really felt like it was taking off. But that doesn’t mean you can write this episode off.

The main issue with season one episodes is that the riffing is pretty sparse and tends toward comments that observe the action on the screen, instead of actually making a joke based on the action. For example, when some fake looking clouds descend down the matte painting of the mountain, you get Joel and the bots saying something like, “Wow those clouds look fake on Mt. Matte Painting”. While a season two episode would have Crow yelling, “Hey Earl stop smoking behind the matte painting, we’re rolling!” or something like that. These observations became known as “State Park Jokes”, and this episode has quite a few of them.

Joel and the bots are right under that arrow, honestly!
Season one’s pacing feels more like folks watching the movie for the first time and chiming in here and there, instead of the well oiled riffing machine that would evolve later. So there are long stretches of riff free action in The Crawling Eye. It wouldn’t be so bad if the movie weren’t so dull and so afraid to show it’s main monsters.

But there are some gems here. The opening credits contain a strange set of imagery, with arrows pointing at various members of the cast. When the “Directed By” credit appears, the arrow seems to be pointing at Joel and the bots, so they call out “Directed by us!”. The presence of Forrest Tucker leads to all kinds of F Troop jokes. Having never been a fan of the show, most of those went over my head, but they didn’t go crazy with them. In a scene where a snow globe is used a prop during one of Ann’s psychic performances, Crow adds, “Hey when you shake it, the climber’s heads come off.” Later on, Ann is using her ability to see the fate of two climbers. We cut from her babbling to scenes of the men doing exactly as she describes. Of course they get attacked in the fog. Tom realizes, “Hey maybe she’s controlling them. If she shuts up maybe they’ll be OK.”

To be honest the first half of The Crawling Eye is pretty weak. The riffing is infrequent and the state park jokes abound. The second half kicks in with one of the climbers returning to the cabin. This is were things get rolling. This clown is possessed by the creatures and goes around with one eye shut and trying to kill Ann. With his squinty eye and his murderous glowering, the boys start making Popeye jokes. Then there is the fiery finale with Forrest Tucker running around shouting, throwing Molotov cocktails, and battling tentacles. The eye puns come fast and furious. But one of my favorite riffs comes from Crow. Tucker is ordering the ingredients for the Molotov cocktails, and calling the local NATO base for a firebombing. As he barks orders over the phone Crow adds, “Also, deliver six tons of onions and a giant eye chart.”

Undead climber or murderous Popeye?
When it comes to performances in the host segments by our crew, everyone is pretty much in character. Josh Weinstein as Dr. Ernhardt and Trace Beaulieu as Dr. Forrester have the mad scientist shtick down pat. I was never a huge fan of Ernhardt’s character, but he is supposed to be annoying. I just think Weinstein did it too well. However Weinstein makes a great Tom Servo, and some of his riffing is top notch. Josh was only part of the show for this season, but he provided plenty of laughs and his work in the first episode is proof that he was a welcome member of the team. It wasn’t a surprise when he joined Joel Hodgson for his most recent riffing project Cinematic Titanic.

The Crawling Eye also brings us the Joel Robinson character fully formed. Hodgeson pretty much played himself for his entire run of the show, but it was nice to see the more fatherly relationship with the bots already in place in this first episode. Joel’s good-natured riffing is also obvious here, with few of the more aggressive riffs that would become a hallmark of the later years. Trace’s performance as Crow is also exactly what you’d expect. I think there is quite a bit of Crow in Trace and so the character was easy for him to express. All in all, most of the characters are in place in this first episode.

Joel quizes the bots about the film.
While the performances during the host segments are handled well, the segments themselves are pretty rough. This was typical of the first season, most of the host segments just doesn’t click like they did in later seasons. One of the things I always forget is that in these early episodes the mad scientists controlled the experiment, so you’d always start with them babbling about something or other. It works fine in this first episode, as they establish the premise of them controlling Joel’s fate on the Satellite of Love and the experiments with the bad movies. The first segment focuses on this and the invention exchange. Joel creates an Electric Bagpipe, which is a leaf blower and bagpipe combination. The mads come up with the ultimate antiperspirant, which turns you into a dog, because dogs don’t sweat. Dr. Ernhardt demonstrates and starts panting almost immediately. At the first break, Joel has to explain to the bots why humans die if they are decapitated. The second break Gypsy uncoils herself and makes a huge mess. At the third break Joel has to explain why a giant eyeball is horrifying to humans. This turns into a funny discussion on what kind of world would lead to the evolution of a giant eyeball as a dominant life form. The final host segment has Joel asking the robots to give him one good thing and one bad thing about the movie. If they do, they get a ram chip. Of course even the “good things” about the movie are backhanded compliments. This ram chip segment was something that occurred in a few season one episodes.

The Crawling Eye is definitely an episode that will intrigue fans of the show. It’s neat to see this first episode of a favorite series. But for casual fans, all the typical season one issues are here. It’s a slow movie, with a casual riffing session and host segments that aren’t terribly entertaining. I end up comparing the season one episodes to each other, but deduct one star when comparing to the entire series.

I give this one three headless mountain climbers out of five.

This episode is available on Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XVII boxset.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Tenchi Universe (1995)

For some folks, if you want to see the best in the Tenchi Muyo franchise, then look no further than the first television incarnation of the series. It’s got it all, tons of alien girls, explosions, starship battles, catfights, not-quite lightsabers and of course Tenchi, who is just as bland as ever.

This might sound a little familiar. Tenchi Masaki (Matt Miller) is just a normal high school kid, who happens to live near his grandfather’s Shinto shrine. One day while heading to school he runs into a hot blue haired girl who falls from the sky. Her name is Ryoko (Petrea Burchard) and she brings a whole mess of trouble with her. Before you know it, a ditzy blonde galaxy police officer, Mihoshi (Ellen Gerstell) is chasing her down. Then the purple haired crown princess of planet Jurai, Ayeka (Jennifer Darling) and her little sister Sasami (Sherry Lynn) arrive as well. Turns out the intergalactic mad scientist Washu (Kate T. Voigt) was hidden away in a cave (don’t ask), and is freed. Then Mihoshi’s long suffering partner Kiyone (Sherry Lynn again) arrives to round out the cast.

After an incredibly silly adventure through time and space (thanks to one of Washu’s wacky inventions) the group finds themselves hurtling through the cosmos as intergalactic fugitives. Turns out the new Emperor of Jurai may be the infamous Kagato (Michael Scott Ryan). His goal is to remove anyone with the blood of Jurai from his path. This includes Ayeka, Sasami, Tenchi’s grandfather and of course Tenchi himself!

Good Points:
  • The expansion of the interstellar kingdom of Jurai is interesting
  • Kiyone is a great addition to the cast
  • Some of the multiple episode storylines are fun

Bad Points:
  • The cat fighting between Ayeka and Ryoko is mind numbing
  • Mihoshi is worthless in just about every way
  • The humor starts to feel really stale all too quickly

For me this series just doesn’t hold up. Poor pacing in the storytelling and weak execution of humor really makes this series drag on and on. Mihoshi is the main source of my pain, with nearly every plot point or story line involving her making things hurt more. There are some fun moments here. The second half is much better than the first but as a whole this series just fell flat.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 2
Music: 3
Direction: 2
Entertainment: 2
Total:  2

In Depth Review
Ryo Oki the Cabbit signals the commercial break.
When it comes to the Tenchi Muyo series, there are those who prefer the OAV series, and those who think Tenchi Universe is the king. Obviously I’m a fan of the first OAV series (and choose to skip the second series when I can). But it’s hard to deny the fact that Tenchi’s most popular incarnation tends to be this first television series (a second series called Tenchi in Tokyo is usually on the bottom of most anime fans ranking of the franchise). Two of the three films followed this continuity, and most of the merchandise I’ve seen for Tenchi usually points toward this story line.

Visually the animation in Tenchi Universe is about what you’d expect from an anime of the period. It gets a little sloppy here and there. Crowd scenes lack detail, and there’s some reuse of animation. But for the most part it is solid. The character design is virtually the same as the OAV. Some scenes, like Ryo-Oki’s transformation from Cabbit to spaceship are taken right from the OAV.

Princess Ayeka attempts to make a deal with Ryoko.
The second half of the series features the cast fleeing across the universe, and so we get to see a bit of a shake up in the design. Some of it is interesting, mostly the Galaxy Police headquarters and the new fleet ships from Jurai. Other planets are less interesting, ending up being typical anime tropes: the space port looks like a Japanese mall, the “resort” planet is one giant beach, and so on.

The sound is also taken right from OAV. That means you’ve got the same raiding from Skywalker sound here as before. It works well enough. The music is also lifted right from the OAV, with some new material by composer Nagaoka Sikou. It’s good stuff, but very similar to his work on El Hazard.

As usual the opening and ending songs are a bit of fun. The opening song really takes the cake being pure fun 90s style J-pop. It’s called “Tenchi Muyo” and performed by the group Sonia. But the English version performed by Kit Thomas is just as addictive and is amazingly similar sounding in style. The end themes are light affairs. The show would alternate between the two and while they are pleasant enough neither makes much of an impression.

The acting in Tenchi Universe is still excellent. By this point the English voice cast well secure in their roles. Since the story is basically a rehash of the initial series, there wasn’t much new ground. All that was needed was for the gals to go a bit more extreme in the acting. Both Darling as Ayeka and Burchard as Ryoko get to shout and rant and rave quite a bit more in this series. The side effect is that Darling becomes more shrill and has been known to cause ear bleeding. Burchard can bellow with the best of them. When these two get going, well let’s just say it’s been known to drive some folks away from the show.

One of my favorite new voices is Sherry Lynn’s performance as Kiyone. I never knew until this review that Lynn was doing both Sasami and Kiyone – two characters that are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Sasami is cute as a button and her voice matches. Kiyone is a tough and dedicated Galaxy police officer, and Lynn changes her voice to match. She helps build Kiyone’s ass kicking personality, making her my favorite character in the series.

Tenchi, bland in any incarnation.
Sadly, as awesome as Kiyone is, the script just keeps failing to deliver for her and just about everyone else. Since this is basically a retelling of the first OAV series, there are few surprises in the story. Sure little things like, how Mihioshi arrives, or who Kagato turns out to be are slightly different. But the overall story is the same. Tenchi meets girls. Girls cause trouble. Kagato threatens everyone. Tenchi faces Kagato and wins. Everyone is happy ever after - fighting over Tenchi. The big issue here is the poor balance of plot and comedy. Yes, the OAV series had its lighter moments, and the second series was mostly played for laughs. But things just go to the extremes here.

There are whole episodes in Tenchi Universe dedicated to filler. Nearly all these filler episodes contain a fun moment or two, but mostly they consist of the following: Ryoko and Ayeka bicker, Mihoshi does something really stupid, Kiyone rues her lot in life, Washu laughs like a loony and shows an invention, Sasami and Ryo-Oki are cute, Tenchi is exasperated, Ryoko and Ayeka come to blows and things explode. This kind of thing plagues the first half of the series. The writers attempt to shake things up a bit with a bounty hunter named Nagi (Julia DeMita) pursuing Ryoko and making things complicated. But in the end she has a heart of gold, so no real threat there.

Sasami gets to play Sailor Moon in her alternate reality.
The first half does end with a fun three part story where one of Washu’s inventions sends the gang into their own ideal parallel worlds. While parts of it do drag a bit, some of it is very funny. I love Kiyone’s perfect world without Mihoshi (don’t blame her at all there). Sasami’s perfect world where she is a super hero like Sailor Moon is a blast. This storyline also gives Mihoshi and Ryoko a bit more to do than normal. Ryoko actually has a poignant moment in her world that plays out well. Washu fans will be disappointed; she ends up sitting around trying to fix her machine throughout the episodes.

The second half Tenchi Universe starts off well, with Jurai forces arriving on Earth to arrest Ayeka and Sasami for treason. Ryoko’s reaction to this is priceless. This type of comedy, built off the situations and not falling into pure catfights is what the writers should have gone for. Yes, Ryoko and Ayeka are rivals for Tenchi. Yes they are opposites, and don’t like each other. But unlike the OAVs, neither one gains respect for the other. The endless bickering and fighting end up dragging whole episodes down. This can’t help but affect the series as a whole.

Kagato is just as evil in this incarnation.
A few episodes are spent getting the heroes into space and escaping from the Galaxy police. Those work well enough, but the middle portion of the second half, as the characters wander around, falls on tired formula. One of the worst offenders is the “we have no money and can’t eat or power the ship” storylines. This occurs in at least three episodes in this series and was a staple of space travel anime in the 1990s (it was a running gag in Cowboy Bebop and Outlaw Star and wore out it’s welcome just as quick there). Anyone looking for fan service will enjoy the episode where the gals enter a bathing suit contest on the resort world. But most of the time, these episodes are pointless and dull. One exception was a nice episode where Sasami meets a ghost on an abandoned ship. The story has a nice resonance and gives Sasami a bit more of a personality.

Things pick up a great deal when the crew reaches the checkpoint around the borders of Jurai controlled space. Tension is raised from that episode forward. Revelations about Tenchi’s past build on the story and Kagato finally takes some action himself, instead of letting the galaxy police or Jurai military do all the work. These final five episodes are some of the best in Tenchi Universe and make you realize how entertaining the series could have been if it had toned down the humor and built a solid storyline from the beginning (kind of reminded me of George Lucas’ approach to the prequels of Star Wars actually).

The other huge benefit with the second half is that there is a full-blown antagonist actually creating conflict. Including Kagato in the story and having him actually attempting to thwart our heroes makes you realize how empty the first half feels. Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy fun encounters and more humor based shows. But even something like Ranma ½ knew that including some kind of antagonist was key to helping the characters grow and create some momentum in the plot.

Kiyone is just as annoyed by Mihoshi as I am.
I already mentioned how old the cat fighting gets, but my other huge problem with this series is how they used Mihoshi. In the OAV series, she was blonde, a bit dense but still aware of what she needed to do as a Galaxy police officer. Yes she was a klutz, but she could pilot her ship well enough, and still managed to get her cases completed. But this version of Mihoshi is beyond dumb: she’s rock stupid. 

There is no way in hell this woman would be in any position of law enforcement, no matter how incompetent they were. Yes, I understand it’s supposed to be funny, but it is so against any common sense, I can’t laugh at it. If the character was a ditzy actress or something like that I’d be able to deal with Mihoshi. But the fact that she’s supposed to be an officer and the fact that she is teamed with Kiyone is just poor story construction. The writers basically create Kiyone as a foil to Mihoshi, but she is actually a much more interesting character. Mihoshi is just painful in this series, and her constant screw-ups that move the plot of the episodes forward feel like a really bad writer’s crutch. The worst thing of all, as dumb as she is here, she’s even worse in Tenchi in Tokyo. Yeah I didn’t think it was possible either.

Ryoko is the queen of this series.
The writing combined with some really poor pacing within the episodes keeps me from enjoying this series too much. In some ways, I can see why folks enjoy Tenchi Universe, more than the OAV. The world is expanded beyond what the OAV eventually did. The second half has a momentum that the OAV series never really got right. Some of the stories are pretty solid and entertaining. Some of the humorous episodes really work, like the festival episode or the time and space adventure series. But I think this might come down to the issue of which one you were exposed to first. I started with the OAV series and the Daughter of Darkness movie. That version of the characters seems the truest to me. Folks who started with this series or the movie Tenchi in Love often complain how flat the OAV characters are.

And there is one more thing to consider. If you like Ryoko, than you’ll enjoy Tenchi Universe more. The creators obviously liked her. She gets all the good lines, all the real good character moments and it is heavily implied that Tenchi connects with her over all the other girls. Tenchi Forever even further cements this fact. I’ve always been partial to Ayeka (gotta love purple haired anime girls who aren’t afraid to kick ass), and she comes across as a complete harridan in this series. For me, Kiyone is the best part, and even she is underutilized. When I first started this look back at the Tenchi franchise, I was hoping to find that this series aged well, and was really the backbone of the Tenchi Muyo collection. But it was really about as weak as I remembered it. Sad but true.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Anime Juke Box- Tenchi Muyo (J) - Tenchi Universe

Here's the peppy opening theme song to the Tenchi Universe series. This the the Japanese version of the song, and it's a typical example of 1990s style J-pop. Honestly the English version that Pioneer created for the English dub is just as fun, and sounds so much like the original it's scary. While not all J-pop transformations were as successful as this one, I do miss the days when the dubbing studios gave some some fun English versions of these songs.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

House of Exorcism (1974)

Back in 1974 Italian horror director Mario Bava made a gothic horror called Lisa and the Devil, which sounds like an 1980s metal band. But I digress. Sadly this project was never able to find a distributor. In a bid to get some kind of payoff for the flick, producer Alfredo Leone re-edited and provided some added footage to play off the popularity of The Exorcist. This is the horrific result!

Lisa (Elke Sommer) is enjoying some touristy fun in Toledo, Spain when she runs across a very strange man with a mannequin. As you try to wrap your head around that whole sequence, Lisa collapses, starts spouting profanities and writhing around. A nearby priest, Father Michael (Robert Alda) rushes with the hospital with her and quickly determines that Lisa is possessed by Satan! I think all the cursing, green spewing and crusty makeup gave it away.

Satan speaks through Lisa and describes why evil is on this earth, and it has to do with an old mansion and the horrible family living there in the 1920s (I think). There is a mysterious butler Leandro (Telly Savalas), a few long rotting corpses, some scandalous affairs and lots of gothic atmosphere. Lisa is somehow involved in all this (and yet is a different girl, maybe, I think). As the story unfolds Father Michael decides that to cure Lisa he must travel to the House of Exorcism and do battle with old scratch himself!

Good Points:
  • Bava’s atmospheric visuals create some great Gothic moments
  • Savalas seems to be having a good time
  • A few moments of amusing gallows humor 

Bad Points:
  • This reedited version makes little sense
  • The added footage is pointless and padded
  • The dubbing is pretty awful

Let me just say that if you want to see this film, find the original version Lisa and the Devil and avoid this mess. The added footage is horribly unoriginal and slows the already measured pacing down to a crawl. Sure it’s fun to see Elke Sommer swear like a sailor, but those scenes get old too fast. More intriguing is the original material with the evil family and gothic blood fest. But it’s so hacked up that most of the fun is drained away. This is up there with Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women for a plain mess of a re-edit.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 3
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 3
Direction: 2
Entertainment: 2
Total:  2

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Soundtrack Sample - Hugo - Howard Shore

Here is one of the tracks from Howard Shore's score for "Hugo". A wonderful mix of fantasy and Parisian styling.  Enjoy!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Hugo (2011)

When most folks hear the name Martin Scorsese, you imagine gritty, gangster, realistic flicks with a hard-hitting edge. A delightful family film never enters your mind. But in 2011 Scorsese attempted just that, and in the bargain attempted it all using 3D. Was the result worth checking out?

Welcome to Paris in the 1930s, where a young boy named Hugo lives in the walls of the Paris train station and tends the many mechanical clocks, to ensure they are always accurate. However, Hugo has a secret, no one knows that he is the one performing these tasks, and must remain hidden or else he’ll be caught by the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and sent to the orphanage. Unfortunately, Hugo must steal to survive, and that puts him in direct danger every day. One day, he is caught by the cantankerous Georges (Ben Kingsley), a toy maker who seems intrigued and annoyed by the little thief.

Further mystery unfolds when Hugo meets the pretty niece of Georges, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). To solve the mystery, the two much delve into Georges past as a silent filmmaker, reactivate a mechanical man and witness a trip to the moon. Prepare yourself for some laughs, some adventure, an intriguing mystery and a love of movies as you take a trip with Hugo.

Good Points:
  • Amazing use of visuals
  • Solid acting by the entire cast
  • Wears a love of movies on its sleeve

Bad Points:
  • Some of the humor with the Station Inspector doesn’t click
  • Relies on some knowledge and appreciation of silent film
  • Those looking for typical gritty Scorsese will be disappointed

For any fan of film, this is an easy movie to enjoy. Scorcese’s enthusiasm for the visuals comes right through. So does his love of movies, with all kinds of references (obvious and subtle) to silent film. But the heart of the story, about Hugo and his father is really what makes the whole thing click. This is an easy recommendation to anyone looking for a fun and visually absorbing family oriented film. And it was a wonderful musical score by Howard Shore.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.