When it comes to anime of the 1990s, no discussion is complete without mention of Tenchi Muyo. A franchise that has spanned across OVAs, television, and feature films with multiple continuities between them, there’s a lot of ground to cover when discussing it. It also sits among the earliest and best examples of the harem comedy subgenre, coming from a time when such a subgenre wasn’t quite so ubiquitous in the medium. And while a discussion for the wider spectrum of Tenchi Muyo could be in store for another day, let’s focus for now on the first Tenchi theatrical production; the 1996 feature film Tenchi Muyo in Love.
To me, discussing this film is always a bit strange for one reason, though it’s a very special one. Tenchi Muyo in Love is the production that introduced me to and got me hooked on anime. I can still remember the day clearly. It was the late summer of 1996, and I was still in the middle of high school. Earlier in the summer, my hometown’s cable provider expanded the basic service package from thirty-six to a whopping fifty-some-odd channels (which was an insane leap for the time and place in which I grew up). Among those new channels was the Sci-Fi Channel, which back then was known less for brainless original movies like Sharktopus and more for running old television series like V ad naseum. But to cut this rambling short, the channel advertised a primetime movie theme week it dubbed the Festival of Anime.
Now, at the time, I didn’t know anything about anime beyond the dumb, stereotypical jokes revolving around stiff animation and bad, Speed Racer-era English dubbing. But with nothing else to do, I sat down that Monday night and started watching Tenchi Muyo in Love. And I was blown away. The movie was unlike any animated feature I had ever seen before. The artwork, the coloring, the kinetic action, the backdrops, everything was amazing. So much so that when the movie was over, I checked the TV schedule, saw that it was on again that night, and recorded the second viewing on a video tape. From that jumping-off point, I watched the remaining features of the week, (Gall Force: Eternal Story, Roujin Z, and E.Y.E.S. of Mars), subsequently discovered Project A-ko and the channel’s Saturday morning anime movie rotation, and I was off to the races.
So, you might say that this movie is a little important to me. Even so, after I graduated high school, I nary watched the film for many years. Eventually, as the glow of the otaku fanboyism faded and I matured, I became afraid to watch it again for fear that my nostalgia might be ruined. I actually bought the first North American DVD release, and then never watched it because I was that petrified that I might ruin it for myself. But, now that I’m writing these features about anime of the past, I felt it was time to face it down and finally watch it again; to judge the film with eyes that are now over twice as old as when I first saw it.
And to my amazement and great relief, it actually holds up.
That’s not to say that Tenchi Muyo in Love is perfect of course. The film’s plot, which sees Tenchi and company travel through time in a Back to the Future-style bid to prevent an evil, Jurai-hating space entity from killing his mother when she herself is a high school student in the year 1970, is rife with the sort of plot holes that time travel stories tend to display if you stop to think about them for even a moment. So, as with even the best time travel stories, it’s best not to think about it too much.
But where the movie still shines, and part of the reason I enjoyed it so much in the first place, is in its goofball cast of characters. There’s Tenchi, of course, who spends a great deal of the movie forced to hide in the background that he doesn’t accidentally run into his parents or do anything to cause a paradox. Then there are the rivals for his affection Princess Ayeka of the Jurai royal family and Ryoko, the notorious space pirate, who masquerade as new transfer students at his parents’ school. Meanwhile, the bubbleheaded twit and Galaxy Police officer Mihoshi takes on the role of teacher, while her put upon partner and straightman, Kiyone, works as a school janitor. Rounding out the cast, Ayeka’s younger sister Sasami keeps in the background with Tenchi, using a special time-space anchor any time it appears that he’s about to be erased from the timeline, and the super-genius Washu stays in the present of 1996, using her intellect and mad science to assist everyone.
Together, they’re a crazy bunch, and though Tenchi Muyo in Love makes no real effort in introducing the characters for a new audience, it’s not difficult to pick up on their intricacies and relationships through the way they interact. But even with the core cast running on all cylinders, it would ultimately be for naught if the character at the center of it all, Tenchi’s mother Achika, weren’t portrayed equally as well.
Prior to Tenchi Muyo in Love, Achika was something of an enigma. The daughter of Yosho, a powerful member of the Jurai royal family, and an Earthling mother, she died when Tenchi was a young child, and thus is absent from his life in the present. She has powerful blood in her veins, yet lives peacefully oblivious to it, playfully living out her high school days while showing interest in her classmate, a young Nobuyuki (Who, unlike the dirty old man of the present, is actually rather sweet and shy as a teenager). However, that peace doesn’t last, as the malevolent force that traveled through time to do her in, Kain, makes its appearance in the film’s final act. And though Tenchi and company do what they can to help her, it is ultimately she that defends her son, unleashing her power to fend Kain off.
Though the past is saved, events don’t otherwise change. Achika and Nobuyuki have their memories of the attack wiped, allowing them both to live their lives as they were meant. But before this happens, Achika, realizing through her power that she will ultimately not be able to be there for her son in the future, vows to live her life to the fullest while she and Nobuyuki still have time together.
The ending, and largely the film as a whole, is one that is filled with a sentimental sort of nostalgia. In its quieter moments, separate from the larger comedic antics and the fantastic action, Tenchi Muyo in Love depicts the Japan of 1970 as serene and beautiful, not unlike Achika herself. Also noteworthy is the casting of Megumi Hayashibara as Tenchi’s mother. Though perhaps known in the west for her portrayals of the tomboyish female Ranma in Ranma ½ and the anger-prone, explosive mage Lina Inverse in Slayers, here she demonstrates another level of her range as a simple teenager, albeit one with a hidden power.
But perhaps the most unusual audio element of Tenchi Muyo in Love is the soundtrack. Rather than recruit the composers of earlier Tenchi productions or perhaps hire on a popular J-Pop group to create the soundtrack, the producers brought in Christopher Franke and the Berlin Symphonic Film Orchestra, whom together are perhaps best known in the west for providing the soundtrack to the American sci-fi television series Babylon 5. But unlike the mismatch of Odin and the musical stylings of Loudness, Franke’s music, as new age as it might sound, gives the film a unique voice, helping to distinguish it from the larger Tenchi Muyo franchise as a whole.
As I sat on my couch to watch the film for the first time in well over a decade, I was struck by how much of it I remembered; a sign of how often I had watched it as a teenager, to be sure. But I was also struck by how fun the film still is, even though it doesn’t spark the same level of otaku passion in me as it once did. Instead of coming away with my nostalgia in broken, rose-tinted shards, I’ve come away with it in tact, and most importantly, I’m able to say that despite its faults, I still enjoy it.
Tenchi Muyo in Love was released on DVD and Blu-ray by Geneon Universal in conjunction with Funimation as part of a three-film box set that also contains Tenchi Muyo: The Daughter of Darkness and Tenchi Muyo in Love 2 (a.k.a. Tenchi Forever). The release contains both subtitled Japanese audio and an English dub. It is not rated for North American audiences, but contains scenes of bloody violence, nudity, and adult humor.