Anime Review: Tenjho Tenge

The two newest arrivals to Toudou Academy, Souichiro and Bob, have been causing a lot of trouble. They attract the attention of the school’s Enforcement Group, which has had tyrannical control over the place for years. In order to overthrow the enforcement group, Souichiro and Bob join the Jyuukenbu, a small club that has been opposing the group. As they learn more about Toudou Academy’s history, the leader of the Jyuukenbu, Natsume Maya, reveals more about her connection to the enforcement group’s president. In order to avoid repeating a deadly incident from the past, Souichiro and Bob take it upon themselves to get stronger and defeat the enforcement group.

Plot

There are a few things about this anime that should give off warning signals immediately. First, this is animation adapted from a manga series. Second, it’s about high school life. And third, it’s strictly a fighting anime, with all the cliches thereof.

Just having those characteristics does not necessarily make a bad anime, but it’s hard to think of an example of a good anime adaptation of a high school fighting manga (off the top of my head, anyway). The genre itself isn’t usually filled with much thematic exploration, and you’d wonder why. After all, conflict is an important part of everyone’s life, and how we deal with it is revealing of our natures as humans. Combat, too, can serve as a backdrop for exploration – discovering our own mortality, for instance. To some extent, the manga raises these issues, but the anime is mostly devoid of this thought process.

It’s frustrating to watch an onscreen disaster play out. Dumbing down Tenjho Tenge‘s plot is bad enough as it is, but this is watered down past the Spark Notes limit. Little of author Oh Great’s visceral sexuality carries over, and the interplay between past and present is unclear at best (not a fault of the anime, as it’s the same story with the manga). A very large segment of the story is devoted to establishing the events of the past because, supposedly, they are intricately connected to the workings of the present. But the writing isn’t nearly sophisticated or focused enough to sustain such a complex construction, so what we get is a long, confusing detour with very little purpose. The story ends too abruptly to pay off for the viewer, making the whole production just feel bland and ill-paced. It’s a shame too, because this past/present interplay is a plot dynamic I’d like to see more of, and could have turned out to be very engaging.

What Tenjho Tenge does have, though, is fighting. At least the motivations behind the fights are pretty straightforward. It usually feels like something is at stake when Souichiro or the others exchange blows with enforcement group members, and the show tries to shy away from a “fight of the week” format. If Tenjho Tenge just delivered exciting action scenes without any pretense of storytelling, it would have worked better. But the pretense is there, and it’s difficult ignore how much the series falls short of its intentions. Well, maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh. I mean, the series isn’t actively bad or offensive. It’s just a completely pointless, unjustified entity, like a Michael Bay movie without the ridiculous action scenes.

Characters

Tenjho Tenge introduces our plucky hero, Nagi Souichiro, who is nothing more than a thug with an awful hairdo. Accompanying him is Bob, who is one of the few black leading men in anime. Souichiro shows up at Toudou Academy to assert himself as the strongest fighter there (exactly how a school devoted to fighting gets created is beyond me), but finds that he’s actually pitifully weak against the members of the two major groups. After causing much havok, he attracts the attention of the Jyuukenbu, who is led by Natsume Maya. They team up, and Souichiro resolves to become stronger. He is very adversarial, and has a very inflated sense of pride. But aside from these qualities, Souichiro doesn’t really have much more depth. At times, he struggles with his own impotence (lack of strength in this case, although sexual impotence might be inferred by the way he deals with women). Souichiro is also constantly hounded by Maya’s sister Aya, who falls in love with him at first sight. How contrived is that?

I wonder if that plot development is necessary at all, since it really contributes very little to the story. Nor does it help to establish Aya as a good leading lady – she comes across as a ditz, a rookie fighter who gives out her love undeservedly. But let’s get back to Souichiro for a second, who throughout the entire course of the series, does almost nothing of consequence. Why is he the main character? Why can’t it be someone more interesting like Maya or the enforcement group president Takayanagi Mitsuomi? Certainly, they have important roles, but they should have altogether displaced Souichiro in the anime. Characters like Maya, Mitsuomi, Masataka (Mitsuomi’s estranged brother), and even Bunshichi (Mitsuomi’s closest friend) have the potential to carry the show, but instead the focus stays on Souichiro and Bob for some reason. Thankfully, the past story arc lets these guys take over for a while, but it’s not enough to salvage the show.

In accordance with the manga, Tenjho Tenge segues into a story arc detailing the events leading up to the enmity between the enforcement group and the Jyuukenbu. In this arc, Maya does become a central figure, along with her brother Shin and Mitsuomi. The relationship between the three is an important part of what eventually drives Shin insane. It’s not a bad direction to go in, but it can strain credulity the way it’s presented here. Shin depends on Maya to hold back some sort of latent power that he has, but this dependence has turned into an almost incestual kind of love. Maya, who loves Shin but not that way, can’t reciprocate his feelings. Instead, she turns her affection to Mitsuomi, who becomes Shin’s best friend. You can see where all this is going, hopefully.

There are many genuine character moments in this arc, and they work out pretty decently. Unfortunately, when we return to the present, it all seems to be wasted effort. I really don’t buy Souichiro as a lead character mostly because he isn’t established in the past story arc. Maya, Mitsuomi, and Bunshichi, who have a lot of history and should be driving the events of the narrative, seem to do a lot of posturing and not much else. The rest of the cast is relegated to comic relief or fanservice (in the case of Aya and enforcement group member Isuzu Emi). At least the manga was able to give its secondary characters a chance to shine, and make them look somewhat cool in the process. The anime, however, makes them far too generic. Everyone is eventually involved in the search for the evil sword Reiki, but even at the end of the series, no one has really done anything of great import. The show fizzles out, and its characters do little to leave a lasting impression.

Technical

Opening with the very hip-hop “Bomb A Head,” the series at least looks like it’s got energy in its audio and visual production. Character designs are clean and consistent, and mostly stay true to the manga (although the coloring threw me off a bit). Oh Great’s well known ludicrous female proportions are toned down a little as well. The fight scenes are passable, though somewhat slow moving. They don’t feel kinetic enough, and some are far too subdued.

The sound production is nothing special. Since production of the series more or less came out of nowhere, I guess it’s no big deal if we’re not treated to a spectacular soundtrack. Sound effects, too, are nothing to write home about. A few fleshy thuds do help out the fights, though. The voice cast was not what I imagined, but they do a fine job with their roles, and each character has a distinct intonation.