Tenjho Tenge is a fan-service wonderland. Or at least, that’s what I’d like to say, but the manga it’s based on actually makes the anime look like material suitable for kindergarten story time. Which kind of makes me – a fan-girl and not terribly impressed by the classic shounen fan-service cues so carelessly and frequently applied to fighting anime titles – want to respect it just a little bit. After all, it’s got to be hard to live up to a manga series that, shortly after its publication into English, was the centre of a fair amount of controversy not because it wasn’t censored but because it was, and heavily.
For a title with near-hentai (that’s pornographic, for you non-anime-fans) levels of action and manic, signature violence and martial arts fighting, what’s left when it makes it to the television screen? I can’t speak for the fan-boys, but removing the more controversial content – and yes to make it to prime time the producers probably had little choice – takes away something intrinsic in contrast, something that at least makes this series stand out from the crowd. What is left after that is a possibly better than average fight-fest, complete with bad fashion, micro-skirts, breasts you can only get with implants and guys who definitely do not look like they are still in high-school.
Of course, never having read the manga might then be something of an advantage. The story, about a martial arts-founded school and the tough teenage scrappers who go there, is a mixture of testosterone-laden bouts and angsting about love and one’s place and purpose in life, and it’s actually fairly watchable as long as you’re not expecting anything too original. In the world of anime, it’s not always about originality anyway; it’s about the action, and Tenjho Tenge certainly has plenty of that. Self-made tough guy Souchirou Nagi is a troubled youth and a bruiser with no goals in life, moving from one fight to the next and conquering all. It’s not until he gets his butt kicked by someone who doesn’t look as if he should be able to that he realises whatever he’s been doing up until then has been amateur hour, and soon after that, he and his best friend are the target of callous justice administrators, the School Council. There’s nothing like getting beaten up and picked on to give a boy a purpose, it seems, although it probably helps that you’re already destined for greatness.
And the fight scenes are cool in the way only a series focused on the art of fighting can be; form and pose and some nice fluid sequencing when things start to get really serious. The women in it are, to be sure, little better than sex objects, even wielding a sword and a bad-ass killing intent, but the guys are just as typecast. With more macho than macho guys and girls who likely fulfilled all of Hugh Hefner’s criteria even before they hit puberty, this series makes no bones about where it’s coming from, and isn’t interested in apologising for it either. Which is kind of refreshing if nothing else. It’s even kind of funny in places, and really if you can’t see the hilarity in someone transforming from a metre-tall grade-school girl into a double-D cup teen (whose previously roomy clothes now barely cover the important bits) in order to fight the bad guys, then you probably forgot to turn the DVD player on.