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.

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