Tenchi Muyo OVAs

Believe it or not, there was once a world of anime before Tenchi Muyo struck.

That may be hard to believe, considering the myriad of Tenchi Muyo items available on shelves now. With two OVA series, three television shows, three movies, and tons of marketing, the different permutations have boggled the minds of many new (and even seasoned) anime fans. With multiple timelines, universes, and characters going every which way, along with varying quality among the different continuities, it's now almost an accounting job to keep track of them all and to know what's best to see. However, back in 1992, Tenchi Muyo was a simple OVA series that became a phenomenon. Frankly, it's good, but not wonderful. However, if you're going to start somewhere, it's with this OVA series.

Tenchi is a rather average high school student with a unique family secret--there's an ancient demon trapped in a cave behind his grandfather's home. Curious and just a tad rebellious, Tenchi winds up seeing if there really is such a monster lurking in his backyard...and releases a sprightly demon-creature-goddess called Ryoko. When she's not trying to kill Tenchi, Ryoko finds she actually has a soft spot for him. But then a cast of thousands (well, maybe tens) starts appearing. It turns out Ryoko was imprisoned by one of the members of the ancient royal family of Jurai, and their kin start coming to Earth to find out what's going on. Tenchi learns that he's a descendant of Jurai, meaning that he's a potential heir to the galactic throne. Between Ryoko, the too-polite princess Ayuka, the goofy blonde detective Mihoshi, a rabbit/cat/spaceship called Ryo-ohki, and half a dozen other women, Tenchi has his hands full!

The Tenchi Muyo OVA series was created in two parts, essentially making two "seasons" of the show. The first six episodes form one complete storyline. There's a special that connects the first series with the second series, and then episodes eight through thirteen continue another set. Pioneer has packaged the entire program together in a DVD box set called the Ultimate Edition. It's really quite a great package which includes a 5.1 Japanese soundtrack, a 2.0 English soundtrack, along with the entire series on two discs plus a third disc full of extras and encyclopedic information on the show. It's one of the best-looking anime sets I've seen. But is it worth buying? There's the rub, because there's both a lot of good and a lot of not-so-good about the Tenchi OVAs.

As far as the good goes, well, the visual style seen here has launched a thousand imitators, but few have done it as well. Everything is bright and crisp and colorful, and the characters really stand out. The exaggerated facial expressions the characters have make this show, and they inspire the biggest laughs.

Meanwhile, the show (in this incarnation) stays focused on being a science fiction comedy with a little romance on the side rather than as a main ingredient. There is thankfully no "will they/won't they" going on ad infinitum, just some spice between the girls who are interested in Tenchi (who never shows any significant interest in any of them). Tenchi is neither an idiot nor a pervert, making him one of the few real "Everyman" heroes in anime. Tenchi Muyo feels much like other "harem" shows but keeps clear of certain formulaic traps, giving it more vibrancy.

The not-so-good is harder to describe, but it ultimately comes down to this: it is not nearly as funny a show as many people think it is. There are plenty of smirk-worthy moments, but not enough laugh aloud moments. Although there is actually quite a bit of plot, its first job is to show us a great time, and it doesn't always succeed. Because the plotting isn't all that original, we aren't distracted from the paucity of humor. That isn't to say there aren't great moments (and I love both Ryo-ohki and Mihoshi, who brighten up the show considerably in my eyes). They just aren't consistent. Meanwhile, there are a few uncomfortable moments when the comedy gets raunchy, spots where I went, "Did she just say what I think she said?"

It's also clear that the second "season" of episodes isn't nearly as well thought out. Though they contain some of the show's funniest moments, they don't hold together particularly well. Then there's the final blow: the show is incomplete as is. Despite all the other programs and spin-offs, none of them continue the continuity set up in the original OVAs, instead traveling down different timelines. Though the show ends at an OK moment, there are too many dangling plot threads. All these elements make this a series that I like, but don't love.

This opinion puts me at odds with many reviewers and fans in the anime community who adore this show. I think they're wrong; it's never been as good as the hype. Nevertheless, I owe it to my readers to state for the record that a great number of folks will tell you otherwise. Because Pioneer did recently put the OVAs out separately from the box set on four DVDs, I suggest you rent the first one and see what you think--perhaps my review will lower your expectations enough that you'll find it a great experience after all. One other thought...see it with a group of friends who can spur on each other's laughter. I've seen this show really jazz a crowd; try it that way for best results.

Tenchi Muyo OVAs -- nudity, mild violence, occasionally crass adult humor -- B