Tenchi Muyo! generated a lot of buzz when it first appeared. After all, it was a compelling series of OAVs that jump-started the harem genre and didn’t suck. It was so popular it even got a television series or two. Those series went on to such popularity that the franchise expanded into movie theaters not once or twice, but three times, with Tenchi Muyo! in Love; Tenchi the Movie 2: Daughter of Darkness; and Tenchi Forever.
First up was Tenchi Muyo! in Love. (I don’t really get the title, but whatever.) A super-powerful blob known as Kain has escaped the Galaxy Police’s subspace prison, destroyed GPHQ, and headed straight off to Earth, where Tenchi is showing the gang a bunch of old movies his father made of his mother, Achika. Suddenly, though, Achika disappears from the film and Tenchi almost goes too. Luckily, Washu is one step ahead of the game and realizes the problem: Kain has gone back in time and murdered Achika, so that Tenchi, technically, never was born! So Tenchi, Ryoko, Ayeka, Sasami, Mihoshi, and Kiyone all travel back in time in order to protect Achika and not screw up the timeline.
People often say they enjoy Universe more than the OAVs because of the way the series returns the characters to their roots and give a sense of closure (without all that “goddess” nonsense and the unnecessarily complicated family tree), and this first movie shows why. Right from the get-go you know that this threat is not quite as small-time as Kagato (well, Universe Kagato anyway) was, making the entire adventure really seem epic. The quaint, slow intro seems a bit jarring since it shows the characters already in the past before they actually time travel, but it’s still rather nice and actually gets better with repeat viewings. Obviously, the story pays a lot of attention is to the romance between Nobuyuki and Achika (and we get to see how Nobuyuki’s movies played out in real life); the story also gives us some insights into some of the series’ staples and adds some depth to the characters. Tenchi especially benefits, which is a little surprising, as he doesn’t really do much until the climactic final battle, and even when he does fight, he doesn’t look nearly as strong as he did against Kagato. It’s kind of funny to see Kain fight Tenchi and then see how powerful Tenchi is in the OAVs (especially OAV3), but in this movie it just works extremely well.
Hell, everything works extremely well. Mihoshi’s stupidity isn’t annoying, Achika is a wonderful character, and the movie feels very down-to-earth. In fact, I can only offer a couple of nitpicks. There’s no real subtle reference to the time Ayeka and Ryoko were schoolgirls in the “Pretty Sammy” segment during the series’ “Time and Space Adventures” three-parter. Tenchi’s battle armor is just lame (it makes me wish they had just re-used his OAV battle outfit) and Achika’s personality is so vastly different from OAV Kiyone’s personality that it really screws up the perceptions of Tenchi’s mother (though it makes one wonder if the OAV writers made Kiyone silly just to separate her from Achika). I also doubt the wisdom of putting Mihoshi in as the teacher and Kiyone in as the janitor instead of the other way around. You would think it’d be easier for Kiyone to offer protection as a teacher, and it would’ve been great foreshadowing for Mihoshi to be the janitor (since OAV Mihoshi’s mother is a cleaning freak).
Next up is Tenchi the Movie 2: Daughter of Darkness. When Yosho was a child, he became friends with a small demon who was eventually murdered by the Juraian military. Well, she’s back and decides to take her revenge on Yosho by presenting Tenchi with a daughter, Mayuka. Naturally, this sends the girls into a tizzy, especially Ryoko. Mayuka quickly forms a friendship with Sasami and Mihoshi, but things get weird when the girl is able to produce Lighthawk Wings and even tries to kidnap Tenchi.
Now, this movie has caused some confusion since it features some elements from the OAVs (the Lighthawk Wings) and some from the series (Kiyone), but you have to remember that the movie actually takes place in the novels’ continuity and not any of the televised works. Not that any of that excuses what we’re given here.
Nope, the movie blows all right. It’s not a bad premise (“Tenchi gets a daughter, hilarity amongst the girls ensues”), but it just doesn’t work. Much of the blame must fall squarely on the two new characters, Mayuka and her mother, Yuzuha. Now, Yuzuha’s backstory could have been great, what with the discrimination angle and all, and we could have gotten a truly tragic villain for once, but instead the writers junk that and make Yuzuha a typical “I am a monster of pure evil!” which negates what little impact she has on the franchise. Mayuka, on the other hand, is just annoying. She looks to be in her late teens, but she acts like a five-year-old. It’s one thing to be childish and immature—Ryoko does that all the time and OAV Ryo-Ohki is actually adorable—but Mayuka takes it to a whole new level. So when Mayuka turns into an evil drone late in the film, the audience’s reaction is more along the lines of “Yay! She finally shut up!” rather than “Aww, poor Mayuka!” It doesn’t help that the movie is rushed. Dragonball Z can get away with a 60-minute film because it’s essentially one giant fight scene. A Tenchi film, however, will have a plot and need at least 90 minutes to tell it in. Stuffing a flawed storyline into a sixty-minute running time is not a recipe for success.
Finally, we have Tenchi the Movie 3: Tenchi Muyo! in Love 2: Tenchi Forever. “In Love 2” is there to set in the Universe continuity; “Tenchi Forever” is there for the US fans who wouldn’t have known that. In this final movie, Tenchi has been spirited away from under everybody’s noses. Ryoko and Ayeka look for Tenchi downtown, Washu stays in her lab, Kiyone and Mihoshi play burglars, and Sasami returns to Jurai, all to search for Tenchi, who has been hypnotized and transported to an alternate dimension by Haruna, Yosho’s former lover. Ryoko and Ayeka must try to convey their deep love for Tenchi and awaken him before Haruna’s dimension falls apart, taking Tenchi with her.
I’ll just get it out of the way now: This movie is downright boring. I can understand its intent well enough. The last two movies were big epic fights of global or galactic proportions, and the staff wanted to make this one a bit more down-to-earth, to tell a romantic love story instead of a typical action flick. But there’s no excitement: where the second movie felt rushed, the third is stretched out far too long. There’s also no real visual hook, and the characters spend most of the movie pining for Tenchi, leaving all the action (and more importantly, the comedy) in the dump. It doesn’t help that Haruna is a really bland character (almost as bland as Noike in OAV3). Really, the only truly good thing about this film is that it actually has Azaka and Kamidake, who were missing from the previous two films.
Animation quality differs from film to film. Tenchi Muyo! In Love has some truly fantastic animation with exciting character movements and some really nice usage of CG. The camera angles, designs, and movements all enhance the epic feel of the movie. Daughter of Darkness has the fluidity of a theatrical movie, but the designs and coloring make it feel like an extended OAV episode instead of a full-fledged movie. Part of that may stem from the movie’s rushed feel, but there’s nothing about the visuals that really screams “This is a true movie!” especially after the opening scene. As for Tenchi Forever, the animation is actually pretty decent. Since this is a more grounded story with no big fights or anything like that, more money could be spent on the finer movements of the characters, thus allowing the feature to actually feel like a film, unlike its predecessor. Unfortunately, the designs feel too off from previous animated works, so the characters barely resemble themselves (as if the lack of sci-fi wasn’t enough). In a way, it almost looks like a precursor to the sharper designs used in GXP/OAV3. Of course, the crappiest of the movies is the only one to get an anamorphic widescreen transfer.
The dubbing is kind of a mixed bag. The first movie, as in every other area, is the best of the bunch, mainly because Sherry Lynn returns as Kiyone. The rest of the cast is the same, although I have to knock off some points for the goofier-sounding voices for Katsuhito and older Nobuyuki (used in everything from In Tokyo and beyond) instead of the more serious voices used in the OAVs and Universe. I’ll deduct further points for Grace Zandarki’s Achika. She simply sounds too old for the part, and her acting sounds even worse since I’m so used to the Japanese version. Granted, the movie itself makes up for these flaws, but there are still flaws nonetheless. The second and third movies suffer because Wendee Lee takes over as Kiyone, but the newcomers are voiced effectively enough, even though no performance could ever make Mayuka less irritating. The Japanese cast is as wonderful as ever, as is the music on the first movie, which is a bit odd because it doesn’t sound like anything in any other Tenchi story. The Russian score, combined with the hauntingly beautiful “Alchemy of Love,” just works.
The first movie comes with a bunch of trailers, text interviews with the staff, and an interview with composer Christopher Franke whose video quality is at the YouTube level but is still informative. The menu, though, is downright awful. The graphics are garish and clips make navigation without a remote painful. Even worse, the menu defaults to “Set Up” instead of “Play Movie,” which makes watching it on a computer even more irritating. I know this came out on DVD way back in 2000/2001, but it is still a really poor menu. I do wish Geneon had also included the poster/interview insert that came with the single DVD (or, in my case, the subbed VHS tape [and now I feel really, really, really old]). As for the other movies, the second comes with theatrical trailers and the third comes with language options. Of course, it also has the best menu design of the three. Sigh.
Is this set worth the money? If you can find a copy of the first movie somewhere (the one with the garish movie poster cover art), pick that up instead of this collection. And despite the flaws in the second and third movies, the first is good enough that it would still be worth picking up this collection if that’s the only way to get it. Yes, it is that good.