Tenchi Muyo and Me

I think I’ve finally run into an anime series that has beaten me.

In the 1990’s I was a big fan of a new anime series called Tenchi Muyo. The Japanese company then known as Pioneer LDC, was entering the animation market and Tenchi was their first product. They released it to both the US and Japan simultaneously, in the hot, high end format of the day: laser discs. Packaging was slickly designed and with the US edition was identical to the Japanese, with just a removable back with English language information. It was really just the thing to snare fans of anime wanting to build a collection of the newest releases. Like me.

Tenchi Laser Disc

Laser Disc cover image from the Anime LaserDisc Census

Tenchi is a young man, living in rural Japan. After accidentally releasing a “demon” from an ancient cave, he discovers that not only is she actually an alien space pirate, but that he himself is part of a lineage of extraterrestrials who have been visiting and intermarrying with Earth people for centuries. More and more space ladies (including relatives, a galactic-police officer, and a super genius mad scientist) move into household. Adventure and hijinks ensue, escalating to world destroying intensity — but a lot of the show is domestic squabbles and people eating meals. The show is often at its best showing what extraordinarily powerful superheroes and near-goddesses do on their days off.

Tenchi is an early example of what has come to be called a “Harem” show: an ordinary young man ends up, through strange circumstances, living with a bevy of beautiful, exotic women, all of whom seem to be in love with him. Now while there are many fairly reprehensible examples of this male fantasy, Tenchi is actually much more subtle and nuanced. While early episodes include at lot of fighting over Tenchi, things do settle down and a very rich family dynamic develops.

One of the highlights of the laserdisc format was that it could support multiple language tracks and have subtitles you could choose to show or not. We take that for granted today in the Blu-ray era, but before laserdiscs there were only VHS tapes, and you had to make the choice of getting a show in either dubbed or subtitles format (if that choice was even available). Dubs at the time were almost universally terrible. Translations would be bad, often were rewritten and “improved” by having jokes or redundant comments inserted to fill any silences. Just the production technique was problematic. Voice recording in the US was, and continues to be, done by having actors sit by themselves, in a sound booth and perform their lines. Each part is done individually, maybe without every seeing the other people they would eventually be in the scene with. This can work, with talented actors, because of another aspect of how animation is done in America: the voice track is recorded first. The animators then use that recording as the audio guide, making the performance of the animation match.

In Japan it is done the other way round. Animation is done first, with the actors performing to match it. The one big exception to this is the feature film Akira, which was done in the American style with the audio recorded first, and the characters, included their lip movements, drawn to match. Of course this is all lost in the English dub of Akira, but if you ever get the chance to see it in its original language watch for the difference this leads to. That one big reason Akira has a look distinct from most anime.

Japanese voice actors are trained to their work in this post-dubbing style. People making early dubs were not. They might not even be professional actors. They were also directed to try and match the timing and lip movements of the animation, which can be a problem given that the animation is based around a completely different language.

The voice recording of Tenchi Muyo was something else entirely. I mentioned American voice tracks are recorded individually. In Japan they are often done ensemble, with everybody in a scene performing together, as in a radio play. Tenchi’s English track was also recorded that way. The result sounds like an actual performance, with actors reacting to and with each other. No other dubbed anime of the time sounded quite like it. You could not only endure the English track, but enjoy it for its own quality. And with the laserdisc you had the choice. English dubs today, in 2020, have (usually) improved, as producers and talent have gotten more experience.

All that contributed to the uniqueness of Tenchi when it came out. Two short series were released, a episode at a time, between 1992 and 1995. These ended on something of a cliffhanger, which was not resolved until the third series was released in 2003. In the meantime a lot of additional Tenchi content was produced. There were two entire separate TV series re-telling the story, several feature films, self-parody episodes, long-running TV based on those parodies, and more…

Shown on Cartoon Network, Tenchi ended up being a significant show in the United States, part of the first wave of anime widely watched by viewers besides fans and devotees. It was influential on the work of creators who grew up watching it, particularly Rebecca Sugar. The relationship between Tenchi and Steven Universe requires a post all of its own.

For myself, I lost track of it all. Just this year I heard that a fifth season of the original series was coming out. Fifth?! I hadn’t even known they’d made a fourth. I was curious to see it, having enjoyed the older episodes so much. My question was whether to just see the new stuff, or go back and rewatch everything to get caught up. It had been over 15 years since I’d last watched Tenchi, but I had seen those episodes many times. I thought, I’m pretty good at diving into things, I can just pick up Season Four and remember what’s going on and get back up to speed.

I was wrong.

Cast image

It turns out that Season Four is not only a continuation of the original series, but a follow up of at least two other entire Tenchi-adjacent TV series, one of which I’d never even heard of. There are situations, family complications (Tenchi himself keeps getting more space-relatives) and a half-dozen or so new characters that the show assumes we are perfectly familiar with. Keeping track of them all is even more challenging since most of the extraterrestrial characters are both extremely long lived and able to shift their apparent physical age. A character who is actually somebody’s great-great grandmother might decide to show up looking Tenchi’s age.

It’s not the show’s fault. I’m the one who didn’t keep up with these old friends. I tried diving into summaries and character bios on places such as the Tenchi Muyo wiki. But it’s hopeless. I can’t see myself investing the time in all the necessary episodes to figure out what’s going on, though my younger anime-fan self would probably relish the challenge.

Since the time I was watching Tenchi I’ve fallen out-of-touch with the anime scene in general. I’ve been trying to get back into it some recently. There’s just a huge amount of stuff that I know I’ll never get to, as interesting as they might seen. In my Tenchi days anime was still hard to find in the US. It was a big deal that laserdiscs were coming out, to supplement trips to the video store hoping some new tape was available. Now there multiple streaming services with vast libraries of titles old and new. I’d need to subscribe to multiple ones just for a Tenchi rewatch…

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