Tenchi Muyo. Whooooah. This is a favourite of mine and a gargantuan franchise with tentacles going in all kinds of directions. Firstly, a summary. Tenchi Masaki never knew he had superpowers. He also never knew that he would acquire a harem of nearly indestructible girlfriends, all of whom are aliens, goddesses, cybernetic bio-weapons, policemen and/or supercriminals. Naturally that's only the beginning.
Ironically both the original and the latest instalments of Tenchi Muyo, these OVAs will surprise anyone who only knows the various TV series. At 14 years and 21-ish episodes they're also the longest-running OVA series I know. In this review I'll treat them as one entity, but in fact they appeared across three six-part series plus assorted specials. What's more, their running time exceeds that of a full 26-episode TV series thanks to a standard thirty-minute run time and three jumbo-length episodes (7, 13 and 14).
Then there's the continuity nightmare. Tenchi Muyo exists in three main flavours, the other two being Tenchi Universe and Tenchi in Tokyo if you ignore miscellanea and Magical Girl Pretty Sammy spin-offs. Everything else can be battered into place or ignored, with the OVAs unfortunately spawning Tenchi Muyo GXP
. The first and third theatrical movies are sequels to Tenchi Universe, but the 1997 film could loosely be said to belong to the OVAs. I do mean "loosely", though. It's an adaptation of one of a series of novels written by Naoko Hasegawa, which spin off from the first six episodes and contradict everything from episode seven onwards.
Unusually for anime, Tenchi Muyo was created from scratch instead of being based on a manga, novel or computer porn game. One can thus see the process of evolution at work. Ryoko, Tenchi, Sasami and Mihoshi all feel a little off in their debut episodes, although they'll quickly settle down into their familiar selves. Their powers and origins are often wildly at variance with their TV equivalents, though. Almost everyone's over 700 years old, even Sasami, with Ryoko being over 5,000 and Washu being 22,000! This allows startling familial relationships which get so convoluted as to become almost a theme, with the entire cast belonging to just two families. Even those get united by marriage in episode 20. We meet SIX generations of the Tenchi family and they all play a role. You'd never guess Ryoko's origins in a million years and even Mihoshi's clan comes into its own in the third series. Mind you, I had to read around a bit to learn that Washu is Mihoshi's great-great-grandmother.
The first series is lovely, with the best villain and a good balance of character and action. At this point the cast size is still manageable. The only girls involved in the final confrontation are Ayeka and Ryoko, with Mihoshi tagging along behind. I particularly love the casually weird technology, with sentient trees and startling assumptions. If Ryoko ever got pregnant, she'd lay an egg. By the time Washu's stepped forth, we're almost in Alice's Wonderland.
Other surprises in that first series include Tenchi himself. He actually has a personality! No, that's unkind... once the Tenchi family is in place, he's the glue which holds it together. I've always known him as the level-headed centre of the storm, a peacemaker with a bottomless supply of patience and fondness for the freaks and loons who flock to him, but that's not how he started off. The first episode shows him as a bit of a troublemaker, breaking into forbidden caves and hitting people at school. He's unquestionably the centre of the show.
What's more, at this stage it's not yet a harem show. That begins in the sex comedy special, The Night Before The Carnival. At this point everyone has more important things to worry about, e.g. Ryoko trying to murder Tenchi or Ayeka indulging in a little torture. Of course it's still raunchier than the TV series, with Ryoko taking the anime staple hot springs episode and doing things with it that I'd never seen before. Strangely she's at her cutest when she's trying to kill you. There's some filthy jokes and the beginning in episode four of a nine-episode run of faintly nippled nudity. Meanwhile Sasami's still adorable and even Ryo-Ohki for once gets a proper introduction. Oh, and episode four blows up Star Trek's Mr Spock!
Tenchi Muyo was a huge influence on the entire industry and it's easy to see why. It's both funny and dramatic. Series One was action-packed fun, with violence, spaceship combat and character revelations. Series Two goes deeper and develops the characters in ways that often blindsided me, despite having watched the episodes before! Washu, Ryoko, Ryo-Ohki and Sasami all go on personal journeys and get backstory unparalleled throughout the rest of the franchise. I loved all that, which is easily the most memorable thing about these episodes. We also get some villains, although they don't last long. The harem stuff is building too, along with a motif of "two people in one body" which ends up applying to most of the cast. It's practically a theme. The problem is that things start getting too complicated in episode 13. It's the big Juraian episode, giving Ayeka, Sasami, etc. their time in the spotlight, but unfortunately it introduces a whole load of new family members. Here we meet Azusa, Seiryou, Funaho and Misaki, not to mention some backstory with the goddess Tokimi that's as clear as mud.
Unmanageable? You ain't seen nothing yet. All that's as nothing compared with the third series, which seems to have been assuming that people were bored of Tenchi Muyo. By then the studio had been mining the franchise for a decade. Broadly speaking, anything Tenchi-wise from the 20th century will focus on the core characters, whereas any 21st century shows will sideline them as much as possible. This was also the era of Tenchi Muyo GXP
(set in the same universe with an all-new cast) and Sasami: Mahou Shoujo Club. Even here it's startling to see how little our heroes feature in their own show. Instead we meet a bewildering assortment of new regulars: Airi, Reia, Tennyo, Noike, Misao, Mikami, Mashisu, Kiyone, Kamiki Seto and more. It's a bit much. The third series is definitely where the OVAs went downhill. They're still fun, but less strong than their predecessors. The cast is confusing, the plot is muddy and the continuity is a headache. Even the animation becomes unattractive, with cartoonish computer-assisted art and even CGI. Icky ick.
Furthermore this is also where the OVAs start trampling on other bits of continuity. As a Pretty Sammy fan, I'd previously been startled to see a Tsunami with an IQ not in single digits, but here we have a Kiyone-substitute in Noike and a new mother for Tenchi, whom they've confusingly called Kiyone. What was wrong with Achika from the movies? I liked her! They even acknowledge Misao-chan from the Pretty Sammy series by introducing an unrelated character of the same name. He's Mihoshi's little brother. Huh? That provided a surreal moment in episode 18 with a fight between Sasami and one of Misao's henchmen. Resonance overload, dude.
I'll admit that it's nice to see them exploiting the opportunities of a different continuity, rather than churning out bland identi-Tenchi. They tie up the loose ends from Series Two. There's also a lot of reflective material, with Tenchi remembering his past and his mother. I suppose it's good that they erred in the direction of over-ambition, but unfortunately it's just not as good as it should have been. I didn't find it dramatic. Of course this quality downturn would become a death plunge with the TV sequel GXP, but I'll be good and not talk about that.
Nevertheless despite ending on a comparatively weak note, there's still fantastic stuff in these OVAs. Their imagination and inventiveness can be breathtaking. At their best, especially in the second series, we get to see unparalleled depth and dimensions in characters that tend to get played for gag value. Some of these ideas you'll see nowhere else. These OVAs kick-started a franchise and arguably a genre. For my money, Ryoko, Ayeka et al are one of the strongest ensemble casts in anime. They're riotous and always entertaining. You can even find Pretty Sammy and the real Kiyone here if you're desperate for them, in the story-within-a-story of the Mihoshi Special
UPDATE: these Ryo-ouki OVAs have since had a Season 4 in 2016 and a Season 5 in 2020-21. They're even worse. Avoid them.
As a whole, it's the most uneven Tenchi series. It's surprisingly coherent, but it's also so full of ideas and characters as to feel overstuffed. However by the same token it goes considerably further than the rest of the franchise. I'd have to call it a harem anime, but it rises above the mental image one tends to have of the genre to become something that a lot of women enjoy too. Both the boldest Tenchi series and the most interesting.