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Review: "Tenchi Universe" Is Lightyears Away From Where We Are Today

Tenchi and his gang of ladies are back for the first time! Tenchi Universe, the first television series spinning out of the hugely popular Tenchi Muyo! direct-to-video series, has finally been rereleased on DVD by FUNimation, bringing one of the landmarks of harem series out of license hell and out-of-print discs. Still, the series is as old as Sasami, the preteen character seen within. Does the series stand out as it enters puberty, or is it full of acne and awkward moments? With nostalgia goggles fully removed, just how attractive are all the girls vying for Tenchi?

Tenchi Universe, as the name implies, is one of the many Tenchi productions to expand the universe of the franchise. In it, the notable character of Kiyone is introduced to counterbalance Mihoshi; they’re now Galaxy Police partners. While she had been in other media of the franchise, her inclusion in Universe from the (near) beginning is her first large introduction, and features the deepest backstory for the character. She’s driven, dragged down by Mihoshi, and honestly is a good, if begrudged, friend of the (now complete) ditz. While her actual focus in the series is rare (she gets an introduction episode, shares a good focus episode with Mihoshi, a focus in the alternate-reality arc, and aids the plot advancement of the latter arc of the story), any and all bits of the character prove how refreshing she is for the cast. She’s smart, capable, human (or humanoid, I guess), and not enthralled with Tenchi. In fact, due to her appearance, she and Mihoshi actually move out of Tenchi’s house, letting the man have some peace and quiet instead of, as with every other single girl in this series and the direct-to-videos, either flirting/crushing/outright obsessing with Tenchi while living in his house.

Kiyone gets fleshed out, but all the other characters are largely simplified. Villainous Kaine is now one-note and radically different; Ryoko and Washu’s awkward relationship is dissolved; Tenchi now is no longer super-powered (opting to be well-trained); Sasami is truly a young girl; Mihoshi loses much of her surprising smarts; and even the relationship between Tenchi’s father and grandfather is biologically changed. It’s not so much a Flanderization than a simple cleaning up of unnecessary elements that were already covered in another series; by trimming the fat, the actual characters can show more than their relationships. Given that, in one series, every single female is in some way distantly related to Tenchi, it’s a nice simplicity.

At the same time, of 26 episodes only a handful stand out. The first fourth of the series is heavily waylaid by character-focus-introduction episodes, and the last arc introduces two one-note characters that are more for scenery and chess moves than of actual note. The villain for the series is unmentioned for the first half, and behind the scenes for most of the second. The beach episode is memorable for being an early sign of the trope while being generally entertaining, but the “Time And Space Adventures” in the middle of the series is a true highlight: by showing how the cast would work in various settings (and focuses), it shows how strong the characters are across the franchise. In fact, some of these concepts became full-on concepts in their own right, such as Sasami being a magical girl aided by her talking partner Ryo-Ohki, or Mihoshi and Kiyone working as teachers instead of Galaxy Police officers.

Visually, the series is a mess. The animation itself is solid for late-1990’s television; that’s nothing to complain about. If anything, it balances notable character designs and time-appropriate special effects that do seem bland in comparison to today’s modern, over-the-top sensibilities. If anything, it’s old, and that’s less of a problem than more of an underwhelming fact of nature. But the true mess is with the transfer to this release. Without the original DVDs to compare them to, it’s hard to see where the problem starts, but at times, this set seems to be no more than a transfer of a VHS tape. Compare scenes from this series to digital encodes of clips of the series from the Toonami days (oddly enough, the easiest attainable way of viewing how the series was treated back then), and not much has changed. Problems really stand out when there is English text superimposed, primarily during the ending credits and “next episode” cards. These effects are fully from the era of technology they derive from; FUNimation made no attempt to simply rewrite the text to include their own name, copyrights, and so forth. Some background images flicker between colors, and the transfer just stands out as not DVD ready. Thankfully, there’s no BluRay version where the weaknesses would be really glaring. It would have been great if FUNimation could have gotten the masters and just overlaid the old audio tracks (as it doesn’t seem like they did), but we’re not so lucky.

Audio? The technical quality of the tracks are fine; both are listenable with no actual technical problems that really pop up. The dub quality is very, very outdated, though. Some characters excel or at least work as the default voices for the characters in America: Tenchi is reliable, Ryoko is brash, Mihoshi is a ditz, Kiyone can handle whatever you throw at her, Sasami is the appropriate “sweet young girl”, and Washu is a boastful scientist. They all work; even Ayeka, who is grating at times, has a voice that, though annoying, fits her character’s regency and superiority. (And, to be honest, she is a largely annoying character.) The issue with voice acting comes from nearly every one-shot supplementary character. You know the people that never get names other than “Manager” or “Guy In Pink Hat”, and are usually done by the main cast to crank out a few extra lines without hiring anyone new? They’re all overplayed, overly cartoony, and are guaranteed to not sound like anyone in existence. In 2012, you couldn’t be considered a respectable dub if incidentals were treated with so much disregard; it’s as if a Bond movie featured 1920s period actors in the background, standing out from the intended world.

Extras are likewise disappointing, but that is to be expected with many of FUNimation’s “rescue releases”. Only a textless opening and one textless ending (despite three) join trailers. Given Toonami’s return, it’d have been amazing if they could have tracked down some of that promotional material, but it’s understandable otherwise.

Tenchi Universe is, or was, a great series. For a kid watching Cartoon Network in 2000, it was groundbreaking, well-made, and a landmark. For that same kid watching the series on DVD in 2012, it’s memorable, but like many photos you’ve looked back on, you wonder what really made some of it special, and realize how much you’ve grown since then. If you’ve seen the series before, tread with caution, and if you’ve not, go with the warning label: this is a relic of turn-of-the-century animation.

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