Impossibly large animated bosoms move more naturally now than they did in Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger's day—but somehow, the nipples have gone missing.
The new kids in town…
If you peek closely (or even scantily) at the cover of Tenjho Tenge, you'll notice two things on prominent display: exposed female skin and samurai swords. This is one case where judging a DVD by its cover will give you the main idea. Tenjho Tenge: Round One is essentially about exposed skin and fighting.
Let's assume for a moment that you're more interested in the former. (A note of warning: If you care about the details other than "bared cleavage and fighting," spoilers lurk below.) For once, men get equal skin time, which makes Tenjho Tenge resemble an animated version of Nip/Tuck. In anime terms, you might call it a Shoujo/Shonen crossover, except that the bare skin is gratuitous for both sexes. For example, the head butt kicker of the Juuken Club, Maya, walks around as a three-foot-tall Yoda clone. But when she preps for battle, she morphs into a six-foot, doe-eyed, buxom beauty. Somehow, the teensy top stretches enough to cover any dark torso pigmentation (a.k.a. "nipples") while showing everything else (a.k.a. "cleavage"). So if you're really into seeing heaving breasts, but the impurity of exposed nipples sends you into apoplectic fits, you'll be in heaven (and really appreciate the conveniently placed clouds of shower steam, tree limbs, and other accidental nipple obstructions). Fans of the male form are treated to unimpeded views of six-pack abs and rock-hard pecs glistening with the moisture of exertion.
Let's not overlook the fighting. Tenjho Tenge chronicles the goings-on at Todo Academy, which is a high school aimed at teaching the lost martial arts. Apparently, these lost martial arts include pro wrestling, fire eating, and illusionism. Periodically, opponents will actually try to hit each other, but more often than not they'll invoke their chi to manipulate aggressive forms of energy. Different clubs, such as the underdog Juuken Club, vie for power by forwarding their own martial arts philosophy—in other words, beating fellow students down. This normal balance of butt kicking is interrupted when street fighters Bob and Souichiro waltz in to pick random fights. Their uncouth behavior draws the attention of the Juuken Club as well as the shadowy Student Council known as the "Syndicate" or the "Executioners" or something equally sinister. The upshot is that Souichiro fights a lot, which somehow causes females in the vicinity to sort of expose their naughty parts, while the Executioners dole out brutal violence (which never seems to amount to much, although it is more violent than what you see in most anime). Oh, there are also two intersected love triangles for a change of pace.
It's not that Tenjho Tenge is bad, per se. The animation is decent (although shortcuts are taken frequently) and the character designs are memorable. The opening sequence is peppy and nicely animated. Tenjho Tenge hints at a deeper story and contains brutal violence and a high jiggle factor. I was particularly impressed by the introduction of the Natsume sisters. Maya's is the aforementioned "little girl to buxom samurai" transformation, while her younger sister Aya introduces herself with a stunning display of swordsmanship. Tenjho Tenge is as good as or better than most fight-themed anime.
The problem is that Tenjho Tenge seems unnaturally constrained. It wants to have a dark tone, but that tone is curtailed by inexplicably peppy moments and trite resolutions. For example, a sinister upperclassman beats and rapes Bob's girlfriend. The upshot of this tragic act is that Bob and Souichiro want to learn how to fight better so they can get revenge, and everyone goes on a happy martial arts retreat. The Execution Syndicate of Punishers is peeved that their "spokesman" bungled the job, so he gets beaten up by a guy in a colorful wrestling mask. The sex angle is also neutered by false modesty. The show sets up steamy events like interrupted showers, but the aforementioned obstructions block any naughty views. The plot suffers from these awkward constraints as well. Maya and her sister Aya seem to have a sinister secret lurking in their history, but it gets glossed over. Souichiro comes closest to actual character development when we see his latchkey isolation and childhood of taunting; it approaches pathos, but doesn't quite reach it. Taken as a whole, these clues suggest a major whitewash of richer source material. (I've read some complaints on the Internet that this series dumbs down the source manga, which I'm inclined to believe.) If the depicted events matched the undercurrent of darkness that Tenjho Tenge strains to establish, we'd be talking about a seriously interesting show.
Tenjho Tenge is presented with a rich, vibrant transfer that highlights the artwork. Colors are deeply saturated, lines are crisp, and very little pixilation or jagged movement exists (though there is some edge enhancement). The soundtrack is repetitive, as though the producers sprang for one or two pop songs instead of a true score. A notably lacking slate of extras provides only textless credits to sate our thirst for Tenjho Tenge information.
Tenjho Tenge provides a few thrills and a handful of subplots that enrich its basic fighting plot. Hints of darkness and complexity might bloom and make this a compelling series. But the early signs of false modesty and forced happy endings give me pause.
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