(Neo, Uncooked Media)
This is the Tenchi that British fans are likeliest to have seen already, the 13-part video series from the early 1990s that looks better than most TV fare today. It began a sprawling franchise but remains highly accomplished and enjoyable – not to mention funny – in its own terms.
Title teen everyguy Tenchi has an unfurling adventure, involving intergalactic civilisations, spaceships that are sentient trees, and girls, girls, girls. The first of them is Ryoko, a demon femme fatale who emerges from Tenchi’s family shrine in the terrific opening episode, chasing the lad through his school at nighttime and blowing it to bits. Yet she somehow ends up as Tenchi’s housemate, before more girls appear, starting with the upright space princess Ayeka.
While Tenchi is often called a “harem” comedy, it’s mainly a love triangle between bad-girl Ryoko and girl next door (well, galaxy) Ayeka, echoing older anime romcoms like Urusei Yatsura. In truth, one of Tenchi’s few disappointments is how quickly its love triangle is set in stone. Ryoko’s such fun as Tenchi’s mad monster tormentor that it’s sad that as early as part three, she’s draping herself over him in an onsen, rather than getting up to more pyrotechnic mischief.
Tenchi is an all-round bland boy, but surrounded by life. The volatile chemistry between antagonists Ryoko and Ayeka goes beyond romantic rivalry in their pranking and pummelling; the ladies love to hate each other. But they’re upstaged by Washu, the show’s best, most multi-sided character. This woman Frankenstein can do unmentionable rubber-gloved experiments on Tenchi in one episode, then show a heartbreaking human side in the next (specifically in a ‘bringing up baby’ story that’s nominally filler, but reveals the show’s deepest emotions).
The action episodes, often in space, account for a third of the series and feel like Shonen Jump with more wit. There’s lots of Star Wars spoofing, with characters wielding light sabers by any other name, mountains of family plot revelations, and casually outrageous sibling attractions. There’s also a strange but heartwarming motif of characters magically merging with each other to form new wholes, plus the best cute anime pet ever, the cat-rabbit-spaceship Ryo-Ohki, whose first end-titles sequence is a classic in miniature.
Later, Tenchi exploded into a jumble of alternate timelines and side-stories, largely for TV. However, the ‘canonical’ series had new episodes added through the 2000s, continuing plotlines left openly unfinished here. For Tenchi viewers who’ve waited so long, don’t we deserve the rest of the story?