*CLICK on ALL images in this review for full 1080p screenshots.
Tenchi Muyo is one of the most beloved anime franchises of all time. Just do a quick search on Google, and you'll see there's a slew of fan communities, tons of merchandise and more Tenchi series than you ever thought existed (a slew of OVA's and a few other series that radically depart from the original storyline). Getting it all under your belt is a daunting task, and even more difficult to decipher considering they're all so different from one another, but fans and especially newcomers seemingly have a lot to look forward to. The first 13 OVA's have just been released on Blu-ray, and although it's unclear what else will follow and when, FUNimation have also simultaneously released the Tenchi Muyo! Movie Collection.
As far as my own experience with Tenchi, a friend from my freshman year of high school was something of a Japanese entertainment fanatic. Anime wasn't really my thing at the time, so he took great pleasure at the prospect of converting me. He let me borrow the original 6 OVA's on VHS, and I was instantly hooked. For those who are uninitiated as of yet, there's not much you really need to understand about the series - It follows the adventures of a mischievous guy who mistakenly releases a beautiful demon from imprisonment. Next thing you know, he has a swarm of sexy alien women around him 24/7, and the poor boy just doesn't know what to do. To make things even more confusing, a threat even greater than the demon he released reveals itself, and forces Tenchi to stop being such an indecisive waffler and man up. There was plenty of action and lots of 'good versus evil' scenarios, and it was all balanced with a large dose of laughs that stemmed from awkward situations and Tenchi's goofy personality. Yes, these OVA's convey a lot of the tired tropes in anime today, but Tenchi Muyo pulls them off unlike any other. So, I was ecstatic when he surprised me with my next 'homework assignment' - Feature films based on the franchise. There were only two at the time, but as soon as a third came along, he let me borrow that, too.
The first film of the bunch was Tenchi Muyo In Love, and it absolutely blew my mind on multiple levels. Instead of devoting a lot of time to hamming up the harem situation, right away we see the villain Kain break free from a heavily monitored space prison. Immediately upon doing so, he heads to Earth and travels back in time 30 years to kill Tenchi's mother and satisfy a grudge. Of course, if Tenchi can't stop this from happening, he'll disappear as if he was never born. It might sound simple enough - go back through time and stop the bad guy - but he has to defeat Kain without running into his parents, because interacting with them would create a devastating time paradox.
Whereas the OVA's were light and humorous more often than not, this film actually plays things pretty straight when attempting to drive the plot forward. From the moment we're introduced to Kain in the opening sequence, it's clear that we're about to embark on an adventure that's far more serious. As a result, the events in this film seem to carry far more 'weight' when compared to those in the OVA's. For the first time, I felt the danger was legitimate and that anything could happen. The interaction between Tenchi and the rest of the cast is on a deeper level while still retaining the fun they're known for. Although I still prefer the OVA's for their sheer entertainment value alone, there's no denying that the first Tenchi film is written smarter in both story and dialogue. The only real complaint I have is that the final act seems to drag, despite the first 2/3 of the film having an immaculate pace.
Next was Tenchi the Movie 2 - Daughter of Darkness, and it really has nothing to do with the previous entry. This time around, Tenchi meets a teenage girl that insists she's his daughter. Not really knowing what else to do, he brings her home to figure things out. The beautiful Ryoko (the demon that Tenchi released at the beginning of the OVA's) believes this to be some kind of ploy to destroy Tenchi, so she goes on the offensive and tries to tear the mystery girl limb from limb. It's later determined that Tenchi truly is the girl's father, but why, and how is she appearing to him now?
It's an interesting story and watching it play out is sort of a confusing experience. This film - which, by the way is only an hour in length - goes out of its way to focus on the character relationships more than ever before. On one hand, it's really cool to see everyone connect on a level that's far more personal than anything we've seen from them in the OVA's, but there's a point where the emotional drama begins to change the characters. Although it's always been true that Ryoko has fought for Tenchi's affection, she goes out of character a bit by crying and pouring out heartfelt emotion. That's just not the Ryoko we've known, and it's hard to accept this side of her. The cast in its entirety is far more serious than ever, and although we got a taste of that in the first film, Tenchi Muyo In Love at least retained the fun interactions they're known for. There's nothing inherently wrong with a story that decides to build upon the characters, and what they've done in this regard is actually quite respectable, but this drastic departure is probably only going to appeal to hardcore Tenchi fans at first. Outside of these complaints, I also feel like a lot of the stuff that happens in this film is just filler, and with that realization in mind, that hour runtime begins to feel somewhat cheap. I'd still recommend watching this film, but it's something I really have to be in the mood for.
Last but certainly not least, is Tenchi Muyo In Love 2 - Distant Memories, otherwise known as Tenchi Forever!. In the third and final cinematic installment, a supernatural force with ties to Tenchi's grandfather pulls Tenchi into an alternate dimension where he leads a different life. While everyone he's ever known and loved searches endlessly for him for months on end, Tenchi is slowly but surely forgetting everything from reality.
Distant Memories is a fitting name, not only in plot, but also in tone. Yes, Distant Memories continues the somber approach that was set by Daughter of Darkness. Although the previous film felt somewhat out of place as a result, this film makes the tonal shift feel far more organic. Since Tenchi has gone missing for such a long time, it's completely understandable that everyone's attitude has changed as a result. It's also nice to see another full length Tenchi film (95 minutes) that doesn't pass the time by throwing filler at us - The evolution of the characters is touching, the dialogue smart, and the plot structure fairly clever. Most importantly, I can't say there's a single part of the film that felt as if it was dragging. Out of all three of the films in this set, this one, by far, has the most consistent pace of all.
Overall, the three films set in the Tenchi-verse are quite good. I feel the first and third films are better than Daughter of Darkness by a substantial margin, but that's not to say that Daughter of Darkness is worth skipping. Far from it, in fact; it just pales in comparison. The best thing about this collection is that it takes the characters we know and love, and molds their personalities into something we can identify with. I truly felt like I was getting to know the characters on a personal level for the first time, and although this does take away from some of the goofy charm of the OVA's and other various series, I have a feeling the time you'll invest in these films won't be second guessed.
Tenchi Muyo In Love - 1.75:1, 1080p AVC
Daughter of Darkness - 1.84:1, 1080p AVC
Tenchi Muyo In Love 2 - 1.78:1, 1080p AVC
I was fairly impressed with how the OVA's turned out, but I can't say the same for the Tenchi Muyo!: Movie Collection. Yes, they're still better than the DVD's, but FUNimation hasn't done these films justice. Like so many of their other releases, the image is often soft enough to make me believe that the video is merely an upconvert. As a result, the colors are bolder and digital artifacts a thing of the past, but that's really all these movies have going for them. There are some shots/sequences that look better than others, providing hope that perhaps things will level out and provide us with more clarity and detail, but it never really happens until the third and final film. Even then the image is consistent and not exactly what we've come to expect from animation in HD. The question you'll have to ask yourself will undoubtedly have to be, is better than DVD good enough? If it is, and you can appreciate the improvement regardless of how small it might be, then you'll be content with this set. If you don't already own these films on any format, then you won't have anything to lose. It's a shame that a series with such a rabid fan base couldn't have been treated a little better.
UPDATE - It has been brought to my attention that these transfers have actually been sourced from film, and are identical to the releases in Japan. With the soft imagery and FUNi's reputation with 'HD' material, it wasn't a stretch for me to assume otherwise, but it's good to know that wasn't the case here. Still, the film that was used for these transfers must not have been in the best of shape to look so soft, because now I'm even more puzzled as to why these don't look as good as the OVA's do.
Tenchi Muyo In Love - 5.1 Dolby TrueHD - Japanese and English
Daughter of Darkness - 5.1 Dolby TrueHD - Japanese and English
Tenchi Muyo In Love 2 - 5.1 Dolby TrueHD - Japanese and English
Considering how underwhelmed I was by the video, I was surprised to hear just how effective these surround tracks were. These films are dialogue driven for the most part, and as expected, they're presented crisp and clear, front and center. Surround effects, when the story dictates they should appear, are actually respectably enveloping for an anime from the 90's, and the dynamic range in this regard is equally impressive. I've found this to be true on other FUNimation releases as well, but for some reason, the English track is a touch louder and packs a bit more 'oomph'. The difference is mostly negligible however, and fans of either language option should be pleased with what FUNimation has brought to the table.
Yikes. Only Tenchi Muyo In Love 2 features a supplement - A Theatrical Trailer.
The Tenchi Muyo!: Movie Collection is sort of a mixed bag. The films themselves are quite good, especially the first and third ones, and any fan of the Tenchi-verse will want to add them to their collection, but there may not be enough of an incentive to upgrade if you already own these on DVD. The video quality is unquestionably another upconvert from FUNimation, and there's absolutely nothing in the way of supplements across the board, save for a little booklet that includes a few pieces of promo art. The saving grace outside of the fact these 'look better than DVD', are the fantastic audio tracks which, in my opinion, definitely help in allowing this upgrade to be warranted. Taking everything into consideration, this release comes with a luke-warm recommended rating (which is pretty much middle of the road for the DVDTalk rating scale).