Manga in the US gets a raw deal, at times becoming victim to seriously heavy edits; most notably that which contains extreme amounts of fan service coming in the form of ultra large breasts, copious amounts of panty shots and/or full blown nudity. Tenjho Tenge (created by “Oh!great” a.k.a. Ito Oogure and serialised in “Ultra Jump”, published by Shueisha) is one of the latest victims to have received such unwanted censorship which has resulted in the removal of sexual innuendo and cleavage and panty shots, with newly added clothing replacements that deface the original artist’s intent. Thankfully its animated adaptation is given far better treatment but it’s worth noting that its animators had already decided to considerably tone down its sexual content for which the Manga became notorious for. As such don’t expect to find the kind of excessive amounts as seen in IkkiTousen, which has borrowed many an idea from this show, but expect to receive some kind of reward from time to time.
That’s not to say that Tenjho Tenge [“Heaven and Earth“] doesn’t try to be titillating, indeed it can be on occasion (more of which later) but unlike the aforementioned IkkiTousen is places its focus on some of the more important story elements, of which there actually seems to be a fair amount.
So on to the story which takes place at the Todo Academy - a school that once had the name of Tobu and became a priority in reviving the martial arts that dwindled with the collapse of the Shogunate. Its history is rich and left to run it and uphold its tradition and values is seventeen-year-old Senior, Maya Natsume - master of the “Natsume Goushin” style, although she doesn’t look it at just a few feet tall and with the appearance of a five-year-old girl. Of late the school has had a bit of a bad rap in that it’s far from the most prestigious, despite housing some of the greatest fighters in all of Japan. One such fighter is Masataka Takayanagi - an 11th grader who belongs to the Juken club which is the weakest club in all of the school and so far consists of just two members. He’s soon called to help Maya with introducing a new member to the academy who is none other than her younger sister, Aya. This buxom beauty and master of the blade captures Masataka’s heart as soon as he lays his eyes upon her, but his desires are going to have to be put on hold for now. No sooner does Aya join the Juken do two bullies enter the school to stir trouble. Souichiro Nagi and Bob Makihara together make up the unbeatable team known as “Knuckle Bomb” - their mission is to seek out every school and crush every class that stands in their way, except for wimps and kids, they have scruples ya know. It isn’t long before Maya confronts the duo and after sending Souichiro crashing through a classroom window and into the ladies’ showers that she soon starts of a whole sorry affair, when he lands on top of Aya who falls for him in return due to an ancient family rule. Not only does Souichiro have to put up with his new stalker of sorts but he must also contend with Masataka, who threatens him as being the toughest opponent he’s ever faced. What’s worse is that team Knuckle Bomb have attracted the attention of the Executive Council Seniors who decide that action must be taken, calling out their best executioners to set an example of what happens to those who disrupt the system.
As you can imagine a lot goes on in the four episodes presented here that goes beyond any simple rivalry factor. Tenjho Tenge is very much a situational series. While its deeper storyline is being picked at, alongside several clashing of heads it moves along in other areas. As a character piece then it’s very interesting as we’re immediately handed a situation that sees two unlikely people drawn together by fate. One sees it as a godsend, a way to fulfil family tradition while the other thinks of it as some kind of punishment and it’s these differing values that help the series’ explorations, aiding its philosophical and traditionalist influences. The first form of tradition comes in the telling of the Natsume family history. Ordinarily falling for the typical bully would be less likely then the heroic figure of say Masataka, but we soon see that even he has plenty of flaws. In fact there isn’t really any one hero to this tale and that makes the series further compelling; everybody depicted has his or her own faults. So when it comes to Aya and her feelings for the brash, Souichiro we learn that due to the Natsume family rule the first person who makes skin contact must be deemed as a successor for marriage; therefore Aya feels compelled by tradition to chase and win the heart of he who accidentally fell between her legs. Naturally the comedic elements begin to form and depict both sides of the Natsume family in varying lights. On one hand you have Aya who is so much of a hopeless traditionalist, believing in destiny and on the other you have Maya who over the years has steered from family rules, reminding her sister that 100 years of family values needn’t be taken quite so seriously anymore.
It isn’t often that an anime series gives so much away in terms of characterisation for its first volume, but Tenjho Tenge does manage to do so while still retaining an air of mystery with regards to other behind the scenes members. We learn that Bob has a loving wife, named Chiaki who is also good friends with his buddy Souichiro and acts more like a mother toward him. We also see into Souichiro’s past a little, after he’s been beaten bloody by Masataka. As can be often attributed to bullying we find out that he was once a victim himself at a younger age, only the trouble with him was that he was already strong and reckless, so if he got picked on he would retaliate with force. This made him something of a social outcast so it doesn’t seem hard to understand why he would then grow up to torment other bullies and challenge the education system. For the girls we have Aya, admirable in her qualities and naivety. There’s little we understand about her swordsmanship other than she’s damn good and looks up to her older brother (also appearing to be a skilled fighter) who is now out of the picture. She also has the “Dragon Eye” - an ability that allows her to see into the past and future, which proves to be helpful when pre-empting attacks. Maya is very strong, both physically and mentally. She’s protective of her sister and looks out for her best interests. The most striking aspect of her character though is that she has the appearance of a child. This is not her natural form however and when needed she takes on a stunning transformation that makes the male students’ blood race. Naturally she’s a beautiful, busty seventeen-year-old who only reverts back to a child state to prevent the release of unwanted Chi. Maya is so enamouring that even Souichiro begins to admire her, and you can imagine the concern that causes for Aya. Yep, things are becoming pretty complicated for our heroes. Masataka is interesting in that he’s portrayed as a wimpy figure, a stereotypical nerd who has a crush on the new girl but we learn there’s much more to his character. He’s a brilliant fighter and he knows he’s amongst the best of the best, which in turn brings about a certain amount of arrogance. When Masataka fights we see a side to him that makes him not unlike Souichiro and Bob as he lives for the pure ecstasy of the challenge, though unlike those kids he has Chi on his side, even if he struggles to hold it back all too often.
Elsewhere the mystery characters come into play that include the cold Miss Isuzu who represents the executive council president Mitsuomi, he being Masataka’s brother! Other less developed but more predominant characters are those brought in to create havoc and for this volume we see punishers, Sagara (head of Tsutomo wrestling team) and Ryuzaki (senior of the boxing club). These two follow strict codes, they make no allowances and they obey their peers. Sagara, the hulk-like figure becomes further empowered when donning his mask, thus “Saga Mask” is born, while Ryuzaki can use his Chi to control fire. He has some kind of past with Maya as we discover during a climactic showdown, though very little is given away. It has yet to be disclosed as to whether or not these characters will last the series, they’ll certainly show up in the next volume if these episodes are anything to go by, but it’ll be interesting to see what direction the show takes, if it sticks to its current villains or begins to introduce an executioner of the week. What we do learn about the executioners though is that if one fails in his task the other cleans up after him and punishes him accordingly, so the inner workings of this code serve as a further point of intrigue.
While IkkiTousen deals with Chinese folklore Tenjho Tenge places emphasis on Chinese philosophy, teaching the importance and values of one’s inner Chi. The different understandings between Souichiro and Bob and the Juken club are quite evident and as a means to appreciate inner strength, Maya teaches many an important lesson. Of course, Souichiro and Bob only show their interest so that they may become stronger, little valuing the importance of human energy and how it is as easily consumed as it is spent. Maya’s disciplinary actions are repeated over and over, drilling the same amounts of information into the skulls of the bullying twosome until they can learn to get things right; Souichiro’s training will soon begin to test his patience and understanding. In addition we have an element that harks back to the days of old when Samurai walked proud. There’s a whole philosophy alone which is applied to the blade, that which ties it to the soul of its owner. As Maya explains to her younger sister she must take care of it, once it is broken it will die and no amount of repairing can bring back its essence.
Tenjho Tenge still finds time to roll out the bloody violence, which becomes something of a surprise after the relatively light set up. From the moment that Souichiro and Masataka face each other in battle the blood begins to flow like wine. The sequences displayed here are not only animated brilliantly but are some of the most intense seen in recent anime. The sheer brutality immediately takes away any comical moment before it and yet the series still manages to balance its drama and comedy very evenly. The animators rarely hold back and when the guys aren’t fighting the girls are getting beaten senseless too. Aya has some frightful encounters while Maya gets in a few good kicks. As things progress the harderned physicality of the executioners begin to part themselves upon loved ones, as we soon witness a nasty attack on Bob’s wife, Chiaki which almost degenerates into a rape sequence. While the violence can often get nasty one of the primary focal points is how each character deals with it; its euphoric, creating ecstasy that no drug can substitute. It’s an adrenaline rush that cannot be denied. Good or bad these characters seek out the same thing. While those at Juken learn to harness their powers the executioners are practically getting off on theirs, so much so that they practically reach orgasmic levels just thinking about tearing into a weaker subject. There is a heavy amount of glorification but there’s also a good amount of insight weaved into each character’s mindset.
Sticking then to its more adult approach brings us to its usage of “fan service”. Tenjho Tenge treads a little more carefully than one might expect. For the most part there are little more than heaving breast shots and these in themselves are largely attributed toward Maya and Aya - both similarly endowed. With the occasional camera trickery the viewer is denied any kind of revealing shot top side, while in other areas the occasional panty shot seeps through, sometimes in the most creative of ways. But it isn’t until late on that we see something totally unexpected. There’s a moment that passes between Aya and Chiaki as they share an onsen. What transpires is a conversation that highlights Aya’s lack of experience and as such Chiaki tries to instruct her on how to approach sex and appreciate her own attractiveness. Curiously she then leans forward and as she’s about to place her hand between Aya’s legs she is thrown skyward by the embarrassed girl. It’s something of an odd scene, certainly it’s the raciest sequence that has been presented so far. It’s uncertain as to whether or not there this is going to be a recurring thing, but it does appear to be a shameless addition designed to cause some titillation for its male viewers. Perhaps in future Chiaki’s lesbian tendencies might further be explored or maybe the animators have had their fun already.
Fight 01: Sanctuary
It’s a new day at Toho academy and as Masataka helps out his teacher Maya introduce new girl, Aya two best friends Souichiro and Bob decide to pick on the very same school. Unfortunately for them these are no ordinary students; they possess powers far beyond their understanding capabilities. But that’s not the worst of their troubles and soon an event will change the life of Souichiro from which there doesn’t seem to be any escaping from.
Fight 02: Defeat
Oh dear, poor Souichiro. As if it wasn’t enough that Aya wanted him to marry her he now has a challenge in the form of Masataka - one of Toho’s greatest fighters. Upon his defeat Souichiro is left to contemplate his worth, while the Executive Council prepares to send out its executioners in order to put Toho academy in its place.
Fight 03: Executioner
After paying a visit to Bob’s home, executioner Ryuzaki leaves something of a gift. When Bob and Souichiro realise that Chiaki has been missing for a while they race to the launderette, only to find her beaten to a pulp, while Ryuzaki waits. Meanwhile, sensing danger, Aya heads out to protect Souichiro but comes away with a loss. Bob and Souichiro realise that they need to toughen up and thus begins their intensive training course, under the instruction of Maya Natsume.
Fight 04: Suspicion
Masataka is having a hard time concentrating on things, what with his love for Aya, and it doesn’t help that she’s chasing after Souichiro who he now has to spend more time with. Meanwhile the Executive Council are beginning to grow tired of outside interference, as well as the failure of one of their own executioners. Souichiro and Bob’s training has begun and they’re now learning about the importance of Chi. Can they learn to become stronger and meet their self-given three month deadline?
Geneon release volume one of the series in a fairly attractive package. Coming in a standard amaray case the artwork features a much more scantily clad Maya, wielding two swords. The reverse of the cover features the same artwork, with its background extended across the sleeve. In all practicality this doesn’t serve well as a reversible sleeve.
The series is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio and I can say it is one of the finest transfers I’ve ever seen for an anime series, if not for one major flaw and that is aliasing. This pops up all too often and is very noticeable on panning shots. It’s no major distraction and only when you pause will you see it clearly. Also there are the usual banding troubles and small amounts of Edge Enhancement but aside from that it’s gorgeous. Detail is superb, with pin-sharp visuals and the colours are beautiful. This is a very active show that takes place outdoors as much as it does indoors and so just about every colour of the spectrum needs to be catered for adequately. Day time scenes are often pleasant, with wonderful blue skies, pink blossoms and lush greens, while interiors are equally as vibrant and detailed. Contrast levels are good, along with strong blacks and fine shadow detail. A solid effort.
For sound we get the standard Japanese and English 2.0 tracks. Both tracks are inseparable in terms of speaker usage, offering fine clarity for dialogue and brilliant support of the various special effects and musical cues. Personal preference will dictate which track you prefer to listen to. For my viewing pleasure I chose the Japanese option and can say the cast are uniformly brilliant, whilst the US performers provide some decent work, if a little uneven at times (from the one episode I viewed in English). One minor qualm is that for the dub Aya refers to Souichiro as “Souichiro-sama“. It works for the Japanese track as a means to emphasise her respect for him but it’s a little redundant for the dub, when every other little Japanese-ism is catered for accordingly. Usually this kind of thing is replaced with “Mr” for example. Also names are a little awkwardly pronounced, something not uncommon in dubs and something which may annoy viewers, depending on how fussy you are.
Tenjho Tenge has an absolutely cracking opening sequence. m.c.A·T’s “Bomb A Head! V” is one of catchiest anime intros in a long time. It has an R&B/rap flavour to it that should satisfy even those with little interest in the genre, myself included. The animation for this piece is splendid and very lively, mirroring some of the original manga’s imagery. It’s great to have it made available sans credits.
Trailers for IkkiTousen, Tokyo Underground and Samurai Champloo.
Tenjho Tenge may read like another typical high school fight fest series but it actually offers a fair amount of depth to it, more than enough to fill its first volume. Hopefully it can continue to maintain this high standard and if so then it should prove to be a very worthwhile series. Its characters are interesting, although not too far from stereotypical, while its situations are continually fresh. I shall look forward to watching its progression in future.