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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
From a time period of about 1998 to 2005 or so, I sunk a ridiculous amount of time and money into Japanese animation, posted on various anime-related message boards, attended numerous fan conventions (something I still actually do), participated in anime club meetings (even serving as vice president of one), and just generally loved almost all things anime. My tastes were not as refined then as they are now, so I ate up all kinds of crap in the genre, and almost always willingly. When Cartoon Network began showing anime regularly as part of their Toonami block in the late 90s, I remember it was like getting free access to information previously extremely hard to come by. I watched Dragonball Z, Gundam Wing, and even Sailor Moon, because otherwise it was difficult and expensive to see this stuff. These shows eventually faded from my memory, though one stuck with me throughout much of my early fandom. That show was Tenchi Universe, the sort-of sequel/retelling of the original Tenchi Muyo! original video animation episodes.
Tenchi Universe debuted on the Cartoon Network sometime during the summer of 2000. It wasn’t my first exposure to the Tenchi stories, but it is the series that resonated with me the most at the time. The original series, the aforementioned Tenchi Muyo! OVA, was only six episodes long, leaving little time to tell complete stories or to even explore more than a few characters. Tenchi Universe, alternately, is a 26 episode series, originally airing on Japanese TV in the mid-90s. The characters and story-structure are essentially the same as in the OVA. Tenchi Universe is, at its core, a harem show. Teenager Tenchi Masaki is inadvertently surrounded by several eligible, ostensibly beautiful young women who all vie for his attention. These shows were extremely common throughout the 90s, as seen in such examples as Ai Yori Aoshi and Love Hina. Unfortunately, most harem shows (including Tench Universe) are retrospectively atrocious. Tenchi was something I enjoyed immensely during my period of time as an anime fanatic, but it is almost unwatchable 12 years after its original airing on Cartoon Network.
In the past year or so, I’ve been hungry to rediscover some of the shows I’ve watched over the years. I hadn’t seen anything Tenchi-related, save for the first movie (which I own on DVD and which is one of the few Tenchi-related properties that still kind of holds up), in roughly 8 years. This show was released on DVD at various times throughout the years, most recently by now-defunct Geneon in 2004 (if the back of the box of one of my DVDs is to be believed). Whoever has the rights to the Tenchi Muyo! series of shows now (Funimation, maybe?) hasn’t re-released the show onto DVD just yet. I have long ago dumped many of my old DVDs, and I never originally owned this series on that format anyway, so I hopped over to Rightstuf.com to see if I could find the show for cheap. I found a few volumes of the show for a mere $3 a pop. I decided this was a good price, so I picked them up (along with a few volumes of the much-hated Tenchi in Tokyo! series, so look forward to a review of that in the future).
I popped in disc one last night, and was almost immediately struck by how bad the animation, character design, and English voice acting seemed. Someone has been kind enough to upload this stuff to Youtube (making my hard-earned money spent seem foolish, but the DVDs were cheap and I wanted to support Right Stuf). I almost dare you to stick through all 23 minutes of this crap:
It’s hard to stick with this show when protagonist Tenchi kind of looks like a potato with a rat-tail mullet and sounds like a teen-aged Ray Romano. Ryoko, a character I used to find appealing for whatever unknown reason (my defense: I was 17), isn’t much better. For starters, why exactly does she have fangs and a cat tail? Why does she sound like a 40 year old hillbilly who works the gas station register at Circle K? These annoying little character traits seem almost completely grounded in ugly 90s character design. The first episode doesn’t even get to Ayeka, perhaps the most annoying female anime character of all time (Gundam Wing fans may nominate Relena Peacecraft, however). I mentioned earlier how the animation is awful. It’s hard to expect much better from a television production, so it at least has that excuse. There’s no excuse for the voice acting, however. Tenchi Universe is the epitome of awful 90s English voice acting. The best I can say about it is that at least it’s not this.
I managed to make my way through three volumes of this on DVD (and still have two volumes to go). I’m glad I didn’t pay any more than $3 a DVD for this crap, and can’t imagine how I’d feel if I’d have paid full retail for this in the early 2000s. It is stretched out ultimately over nine volumes, which would have originally retailed for $29.99 per DVD. Sadly, this used to be par for the course for anime series. The DVDs I purchased were also part of the Geneon Signature Series line, meaning there are next to no special features to speak of on any of the discs. Sadly, I still have the Tenchi in Tokyo! discs to go through next. When I’m done, these are all getting sold back to Amazon (probably for pennies on the dollar). I will take a loss on this for sure, but it was at least worth it for the laughs I got watching just how bad this show is.
Looking back on Tenchi Universe, I have almost no idea why this show spoke to me the way it did. Back then I used to wonder, if I were Tenchi, which of the ostensibly beautiful, badly-designed female characters would I choose to be with? I never quite settled on an answer then, and my answer now would be “None.” They all need to go back to their home planets, perhaps dying while doing so. The incredibly annoying voices, almost limitless stretches of plotless crap, never-ending cat noises, bad animation, and cliche/stock badly designed characters should have been enough to ward me off of this show for good. I still like the first movie, but holy crap is Tenchi Universe bad. It is almost incredulous that the plot for this show doesn’t even kick in until about episode 14, leaving the show with only half of its running time to adequately explore the story and wrap things up before it ends. The entire first season of the show is mind-numbingly plotless, exploring characters we already know (due to the OVA) and mining territory that feels like it was already mined years and years before.
There are still elements of the show I enjoy. The relationship between Jurai, the Galaxy Police Force of outer space, and earth is one that could have been explored in a much more interesting fashion but is still sort of cool. Once the plot is finally set in motion, the show becomes much more tolerable (rising from pretty bad to mediocre). I remember Tenchi GXP! having basically this same problem, though at least the first few discs of that were entertaining in a fan-servicey way. There is a pulse-pounding episode where our crew must escape from a kind of inter-galactic airport. There are some genuinely interesting characters interspersed throughout the show (Kiyone, Sasami, Yosho, Katsuhito). The music, outside of the awful opening and closing themes, are also decent (I actually enjoy the music in all of the Tenchi series). It just sucks that the interesting portions of the show have to vie with crap like Ryoko and Ayeka having a karaoke sing-off during a point in the show where most of the characters ought to be more focused on the political tension going on back on their home planet.
I will leave everyone with one last thing. It used to be (and might still be) extremely popular to take scenes and/or characters from certain anime and make music videos out of them. This video speaks volumes for just how stupid and poorly done most of these were. Enjoy!