And all the ladies are still after him. Too bad it's a bit of a letdown.
Tenchi Muyo was pivotal in changing the anime landscape by helping to popularise what has become one of the most popular anime tropes: the harem. Thanks to Tenchi (and similar shows like Urusei Yatsura and Ramna ½), stories with a single man pursued by a group of pretty young women are a dime a dozen -- for better or worse. Last year, after a lengthy hiatus from TV, Tenchi returned to the small screen for the franchise's 20th anniversary with Ai Tenchi Muyo!
Ai Tenchi Muyo! is the newest series in the franchise and the one with the oddest behind-the-scenes origin. In the various tellings and retellings of the life of Tenchi Masaki, the character has always hailed from Okayama prefecture in Japan. The two most well-known versions of the story, Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki and Tenchi Universe, take place almost entirely at his home and the surrounding area. In a bid to promote tourism in the largely rural prefecture, Ai Tenchi Muyo! was sponsored by the city of Takahashi in Okoyama and is set there.
However, this does not mean that Ai Tenchi Muyo! is an infomercial with Tenchi and the gang seeing the sights or anything similar. (After watching the anime, all I can tell you about Okayama is that it has nice forests and that it's big on peaches and peach blossoms. They are everywhere in this anime.) Rather, Ai Tenchi Muyo! takes Momotaro, a famous Japanese fairy tale set in Okayama, and re-imagines it with a decidedly "Tenchi" twist.
The original story goes like this: The titular Momotaro falls to the Earth in a giant peach as a baby, is found by an elderly couple, and raised as their son. Years later, he and his companions (a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant) fight some demons, take their treasure, and live happily ever after.
In the all-female Tenchi version, "Momoka" crashes in a spaceship, becomes the student council president of an all-girls school, hunts for treasure with her three friends -- each of which have animal-like personalities -- and is constantly battling with the "demonic" science club.
While in the original tale Momotaro falls to Earth because the gods grant the elderly couple's wish for a child, Momoka crashes for a completely different reason: Tenchi's resident mad scientist Washu. Moreover, as the crash has set in motion events that threaten to destroy the Earth, Tenchi goes undercover as a teacher-in-training at the all-girls school to fix Washu's mess.
Like past Tenchi series, Ai Tenchi Muyo! is a mixture of three elements: fanservice, sci-fi action, and comedy.
The fanservice in Ai Tenchi Muyo! sees a dramatic increase from the 90s entries in the franchise. There are more than a fair share of bathing scenes, panty-shots, and Tenchi ending up either stripped or with his face forced into some girl's genitals. More than a few characters have been designed (and in the case of the original characters, re-designed) to leave little to the imagination in the clothing department.
The sci-fi, on the other hand, is exactly what fans will remember. There's time travel, magical lightsabers, superpowered battles, and massive spaceships.
The comedy matches the tone of past Tenchi works, as well -- i.e., it is largely made up of slapstick and physical comedy where Tenchi ends up as the butt of the joke through some sort of misunderstanding. But what is interesting about Ai Tenchi Muyo! is that it is set chronologically after his original adventures with Ryoko, Ayeka, Sasami, Mihoshi, and Washu.
By the time of Ai Tenchi Muyo!, Tenchi is quite literally superhuman. He should never even get hit, much less beaten up given how powerful he has become. The only reason he is constantly beaten up is that he chooses to get hurt rather than expose his powers to the girls at the school and subsequently draw them into to his alien adventures. It is an interesting addition that adds a large portion of self-sacrifice to his character -- or perhaps reveals a serious case of masochism.
While this anime is titled "Tenchi Muyo," much like Tenchi Muyo GXP, it's not really Tenchi's story. It's Momoka's. Her adventures, school life, and interactions with Benni -- the ogre-like member of the science club -- are the main focus of the show. This goes double for the harem romance angle. Among all the new characters at the school, only one (another teacher) really wants to get with Tenchi. The rest of the characters (at least those who show any kind of romantic interest in anyone) are interested in Momoka.
Tenchi is simply the lens through which we view her life. It is several episodes before we even get a glimpse of the rest of the classic Tenchi cast. However, as the show moves along the old cast becomes more and more prevalent, as Tenchi's home life and school life begin to mix. And while Momoka's story may seem largely irrelevant to start, by the end it becomes an important part of Tenchi lore.
The biggest problem with Ai Tenchi Muyo! is the way in which the story is told. Ai Tenchi Muyo! is a short-form anime with episodes lasting only four minutes a piece (30 seconds of which are spent on the ending theme song). Because of the serialised nature of the plot combined with the short runtime, each episode tends to be comprised of a single scene.
This gives the anime a measured pace -- one that is far too strict. For quick comedy, three and a half minutes is plenty of time. But scenes that bring heavy drama need time to breathe. Major revelations need time to be considered so that the implications of what is discovered can truly hit home. Three and a half minutes is just not enough time.
The flow of the anime is often rather jarring as well. Ai Tenchi Muyo! aired a new episode each weeknight for its 60-episode run. However, almost every fifth episode is a recap episode that brings the story to a screeching halt.
Every once in a while, the present day story is put on hold for a flashback episode that teases what Washu did and why Tenchi is at the school, giving the viewer occasional and somewhat awkward glimpses into how the various storylines will come together in the end. On top of that, time often passes between the ending of one episode and the start of the next -- sometimes resolving cliffhangers and ongoing plotlines off-screen. So even when watching the whole series in one shot, it still feels rather disconnected.
As a fan of 90s Tenchi anime, I was turned off by Ai Tenchi Muyo! at first -- it really seemed like nothing beyond your average slapstick harem comedy. However, as the backstory was revealed and the classic Tenchi characters began entering more and more into the main plot, I was able to revel in the nostalgia and have more than a few good laughs.
That said, Ai Tenchi Muyo! has more than a few major problems. The disconnected way in which the story is told makes it needlessly hard to follow the story, and the short, three-and-a-half minute runtime handicaps the emotional effectiveness of the drama. Heck, it's not even a good piece of tourism propaganda either since it does little to show off the landmarks of the area.
As an introduction to the franchise -- or as a modern harem comedy -- it is largely a failure. As a 20th anniversary love letter to all things Tenchi Muyo, however, Ai Tenchi Muyo is a decent nostalgic outing. And let's face it, that's probably exactly what it was trying to be.
Ai Tenchi Muyo! aired on Tokyo MX in Japan. There is currently no word on a Western release.