Last time Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger looked into the eyes of a dragon, he wet his chain mail.
Eyes of the Dragon
Is Tenjho Tenge growing up? Round Three paints a veneer of grounded reality over the heretofore inexplicable fantasy world of Todo Academy. The peculiarity of deadly fights with no apparent casualties is addressed, along with a decent excuse for why the Executive Council are such a-holes. In short, Round Three is all about explanation.
Indeed, love and death have entered the show. As the backstories of the major characters are filled in, little tumblers fall into place. The lock isn't open yet, but prior eye-rolling quirks of pseudo-violence, offbeat transformation, and other otherworldly hijinks are given a framework that makes sense. One of my pet peeves in anime is short term memory loss, where events happen and then are essentially ignored when it is convenient. Round Three pulls in previous events that might ordinarily be glossed over, such as Chiaki's rape, and link them to current events. Details such as these flesh out what threatened to become a cardboard show about high-school hallway brawls. Tenjho Tenge hasn't matched the detail and intensity of a Neon Genesis Evangelion, but at least it has given viewers a reason to pay attention instead of glazing over to watch the boobs and the fights.
These three episodes flew by, and I was wrapped up for most of the 75 minutes. Fights retain their odd pace of punch-exposition-countermove-exposition; characters often stand still in front of each other and talk about the fight they are having, going to have, or just had. Considering its martial arts core, Tenjho Tenge could use some scenes of uninterrupted action. You can keep the exposition, but give us a chance to see the fights! Despite the overindulgence in conversation, Round Three musters a heavy dose of adrenaline as character traits are exploited for dramatic effect. Maya's Dragon Eye runs amok, with serious consequences. Aya is brutally injured, but must hold Juken Club together. Souichiro reveals his spirited side. The plot twists keep coming, layering on top of one another like a cartoon soap-opera on speed.
"Fight 10" bucks the action trend by focusing almost exclusively on a flashback to the formation of the current Executive Council and the root of the Natsume-Takayanagi rift. We learn of disturbing power plays, corrupted innocence, incestuous exchanges, and other dark stuff that tinges our perception of the show's protagonists. Anime will often paint characters black or white and then blend them to gray. These character arcs have subtleties that make them complex and rewarding to watch.
I still have the feeling that Tenjho Tenge has watered down its source material. This might not be all bad; the show has a glossy, upbeat vibe in the midst of its darkness. Perhaps it wouldn't feel as fresh with a truly dark backbone. Yet my experience has been that darker, more complex stories are more compelling.
Regardless of where it came from and what it could possibly be, Tenjho Tenge has outpaced my original expectations for the show. It isn't a deep classic of cerebral anime, nor is it among the throng of shrill, antic-riddled crack fests. It has found a middle ground of action and exposition that may irk hardcore anime purists, but will strike others as just right. At least no one can complain if everyone sprouts tentacles in the third act—after all, Aya's had antennae since Round One. The closing graphic of Juken Club walking away as individuals rather than a team is a particularly intriguing bit of foreshadowing. I sense serious fireworks in our future.
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