It's been two years since the aliens came to Earth and started living with Tenchi. Ryoko, Ayeka, Sasami, Mihoshi, Kiyone and Washu have bonded in this little mountain village and now even they call themselves the Tenchi family. Those bonds are about to be threatened. Tenchi is moving to Tokyo for the sake of his studies. Bye bye, girls. Of course the aliens are aghast... and they're right to be. There's a girl called Sakuya Kumashiro waiting for him there and a villain called Yugi watching from another dimension. Plans are being laid.
Tenchi in Tokyo got mixed reviews and a reputation for being too different to the rest of the franchise, although personally I disagree. Of the three main continuities, the original OVAs are by far the most disconcerting. The only significant change in this version is to make Tenchi and his grandfather 100% human, albeit with their own special powers. That's the only one that matters. There are a few lesser tweaks, but they're just details like Ryo-Ohki belonging to Sasami instead of Ryoko. This is undoubtedly a new continuity, but everyone's still recognisably themselves and thought has even gone into how the Tenchiverse works and why everyone behaves as they do. That was clever. We end up getting a new spin on things I'd previously written off as just the nature of the format.
No, I think many people's real problem with this series is the fact that at times it's almost hard to watch. It's richer, deeper and more interesting than Tenchi Universe
, but what it does to its characters can be almost harrowing. If you know what's coming, at times it might even get sinister. People get hurt. Once or twice I'd be wincing before I'd put on the next episode, unlike any other non-GXP Tenchi series which I never failed to look forward to. You see, they've picked a fascinating theme: breaking up the Tenchi family. Reboots of a much-loved franchise traditionally start with an origin story, but not this time. Instead we begin with everyone already having been living together for years, romping along with silly Monster of the Week episodes. It's light-hearted comedy. Eventually we learn how everyone met, but only during flashbacks in episodes 7 and 8 and needless to say it's incompatible with any other branch of the continuity.
However once Tenchi's gone to Tokyo, everyone starts being tested. Episodes get devoted to such unlikely people as Tenchi's father, who's shown all at once to be brave, noble and a little pathetic. Then there's Sakuya Kumashiro, who's a huge departure for the series in that she's just an ordinary schoolgirl. In this series, that's bizarre in itself. You'd expect a normal person to get squashed like a bug if they tangled with the Tenchi family, so there's a tension about seeing her getting involved in a plot where she wouldn't seem to belong. She's nice. You'll like her. Startlingly forward at times, but she deserves happiness as much as anyone else. The unanswered questions about her get introduced so subtly that you don't even think to ask them until too late.
Gradually the story pushes the characters ever further from each other, twisting their bonds to breaking point. Everyone drifts away in a slow-motion tragedy that's less action-packed than usual but more intense. Eventually they're scattered across the galaxy and Ayeka's fighting a lone hand back at the house in Okayama. Yugi's on the point of victory... but our heroes come back together in the end. Hell, it got to me. Some wounds get healed, with surprising scenes even between strained partners like Kiyone and Mihoshi.
And instead of beginning with a monster sealed in a cave, as does every other Tenchi series, they end with one.
There's betrayal, unlikely heroism and an unusual kind of death, ending with the credits rolling over a ballad that's sung by the departing voice actor. Oh, and while I'm on the subject, this series has some of my favourite music of any of my anime. I find the opening theme compelling, while the incidental music has some glorious tunes and the end title sequence must be seen to be believed. Japanese country and western with dancing squirrels. Now I really have heard everything.
All that would be enough to make the series memorable, yet it's also funny. Even at the height of the emotional finale, Ayeka and Ryoko's squabbling can have you laughing aloud. After all, Tenchi Muyo is a comedy. By this point AIC had been producing it for five years and the cast could nail their roles in their sleep. They're obviously having a ball. There's a deftness and a lightness of touch to their work here that comes from familiarity, with everyone knowing their characters inside-out and how to make best use of them. Wow, Ayeka's sexy as a hitch-hiker in episode 14.
The art's different too. Obviously by now it's computer-assisted, with crisper lines and colours. However more significantly the style is freer. It's not afraid to be cartoonish, with Yugi's monsters in the first few episodes looking deliberately ridiculous. At times it verges on the energy and extreme facial expressions you get in alternative comix. I liked all that a lot, despite not being wild about it in the third OVA series.
There are cameos. That ugly schoolboy from the first OVA episode now has a name, Kazuhiko Amagasaki, and lives in Tokyo. There are nods to El Hazard
, most obviously with Fujisawa-sensei in episodes 9 and 20. Furthermore Sasami and Ryo-Ohki have been joined at the hip, presumably thanks to the influence of Pretty Sammy. Cute squared! Tracing the influences of all the Tenchi series on each other can be fascinating even when there's no direct connection. This Ryo-Ohki has learned another metamorphic form in addition to his usual ones of a cat-rabbit and a spaceship, being able to transform into a giant pink robotic rabbit with Sasami as his battle pilot!
It feels more harem-like than Tenchi Universe
. The girls are more fixated on Tenchi, with Sakura being a new rival for Ayeka and Ryoko and every bit as brazen as them in the early episodes. Even Washu gets a throwaway gag to that effect in episode 15. Was she joking? All this is small potatoes, though. Tenchi is a harem show and even this is mild by anime standards, barely rating a hiccup on the Anime Social Leper Otakumeter.
Much more of a problem is the occasionally lazy plotting. Washu builds a dimension tunnel which immediately starts breaking down whenever convenient until in episode 15 Tenchi asks her to deactivate it. The gems also struck me as McGuffiny. They're blatantly nothing but a plot device, so for them to have been the motivation for Yugi's scheming feels a bit contrived. The second Tenchi movie
handled a similar idea more naturally.
Nevertheless for my money this series has the most sophisticated storytelling in the franchise, with impressive emotional and dramatic range. It's certainly stronger than the third film, which is similarly hard to watch but doesn't offer much beyond depression. It's fast-paced for a 26-part TV series, once you've realised that the character relationships are the plot. I admire all of Tenchi Muyo, but this series I love most. It's better plotted than Universe, more consistent than the OVAs and more powerful than both, while also being funny. The villain has a backstory you wouldn't wish on anyone, which at times makes her sympathetic even when she's being a monster. I can see why this series might not have gone down so well with some viewers, but I'd say it's a major franchise getting almost everything right.