Written by Richard Brown
Be it Bleach, Naruto, Dragonball Z, Rounin Kenshin or Ina Yusha, the martial arts genre is one of the defining aspects of anime. It’s also the genre most likely to be disparaged by experienced, western, anime fans. Most animes of that type go on forever, achieving little, and if you add attempts at sex appeal to this mix, you get something that just annoys the more serious otaku. However, if done well, these animes still entertain. IsTenjho Tenge worth your time? Read on to find out.
The Basic Plot
Souichiro Nagi and Bob Makihara are two street thugs, who go from school to school looking for a good fight. For their next target, they join Todo Academy, and start rampaging through the classes, but quickly run into trouble. Todo Academy was founded as a school for lost martial arts, and the pair’s brand of street fighting isn’t enough. Outclassed and “expelled” by the Executive Council, Bob and Souichiro are adopted by Maya Natsume, Captain of the Juken Club. However, the Juken Club has a lot of history with the Executive Council, and its coming back to haunt Maya.
Reading this review may make you hungry
I am going to take a moment to discuss a theory I have been working on, the “Chilli Sauce Principle”. In my opinion fanservice and ecchi tones in anime are rather like chilli sauce on fast food: some won’t touch the stuff, others will drink the bottle, but there’s nothing inherently bad about it, and on the right meal, it works. However, the reason why people are suspicious of fanservice is the same reason people are suspicious of chilli sauce drenched fast food. Like an unscrupulous kebab shop owner knows he can sell rat to drunks if he makes it spicy enough, anime companies know if they put enough boobs and panties into something, nobody will notice how otherwise awful it is. You can extend this metaphor as far as you wish, for example, you wouldn’t put chilli sauce on candyfloss, but I have a more specific reason for making this comparison. Sometimes, just sometimes, you get an anime that is actually pretty good, but gets ignored or derided because people only see the bouncing, in the same way chilli sauce loaded, high quality, kebabs get snubbed by the spiceaphobics. Yes, Tenjho Tenge is a fanservice laden martial arts series amongst 15 bazillion, but it’s a superior example of the type.
I’ll admit it; Tenjho Tenge did not make a good first impression on me. As it looks like another school-based anime whose students appear to moonlight as either Dragonball extras or sex trade workers, I was ready to dismiss it as disposable fluff. Then came a real surprise in episode 2, when Souichiro, the nominal protagonist, gets beaten to an inch of his life in the most one sided and brutal beatdown I had seen in anime up until that point. I certainly wasn’t expecting that, and neither was he. This starts a welcome amount of plot and character development throughout, and typifies the anime. It uses the techniques of its genre well, and every few episodes there’s a spark of creativity that makes the series really enjoyable. It’s a pleasing mix of comedy and action with enough drama to give some meaning to events. I just want to make this clear; a well executed and set up fight sequence is just as artistically valid as any other form of entertainment. If you give the characters a decent reason to fight, and go that extra mile with the choreography, what you get can be epic. Tenjho Tenge hits this target fairly early on, where the Executive Council decides to send its heavy hitters and a 100+ mooks to attack Juken Club in a bowling alley. It’s very nicely done. Souichirofights a Japanese luchador, Maya has a fight in a bathroom that I dare not spoil, and the rest of the club get their own moments. But what’s the reason for this, the decent reason I mentioned? Well, the series spends much of its time exploring it, shifting into much darker territory. This leads to the animes greatest strength, and its greatest weakness.
The thing about Tenjho Tenge though is that it suffers from a misleading intro sequence, and an assumption of a larger episode count. The first third or so of the series ticks along at a quick pace, mainly because the villains don’t mess about, but then the anime shifts into a prolonged flashback arc. As the intro sequence doesn’t change to reflect this, the viewer starts to wonder exactly when the anime will go back to the main plot. However, the flashback arc is in fact the main plot, or at the very least ends up being so as the anime ends just as it has been resolved, so you feel short-changed. The flashback is however, very, very, good. While in terms of action, the anime peaks with the bowling alley battle, (a notable exception being the boob obsessedBunshichi Tawara totalling a car,) the story and drama only gets better in the flashback arc. The reason for the war between Juken Club and the Executive Council turns out to be far more complex than the simple one-sentence explanations that often turn up in such things. Seriously, there’s real meat here. It’s just a shame the anime ends just as we finally get to the heart of the matter (OVAs not withstanding). Perhaps it might have been better to just to adapt the flashback arc from the manga, as the later movie did. Alternatively, they could have mixed things up a bit, so the series would shift between past and present. As it stands, the cast of characters we just got to know gets pushed aside for another cast for the majority of the series. This is by no means a fatal flaw, but as the anime is basically incomplete, it adds to a sense of disappointment. Tenjho Tenge is almost a classic, but not quite due to its sudden ending.
One phenomenon I touched on during the Gaogaigar reviews is that if a genre show is done well, regardless of how cheesy and unoriginal it may be, it will be greater than the sum of its parts. While it just misses out on greatness, Tenjho Tenge is a fun and consistently surprising anime, and is recommended for fans of the genre. As for the spiceaphobics of you out there, consider stepping out of your comfort zone. Tenjho Tenge does a bad job of selling itself, and if you just focus on the character design, you might just be missing out on something you’ll like.