It’s been a while since I’ve impulsively picked a new manga title to read, but a chance viewing of a YouTube clip from its anime adaptation got me seeking Oh!Great’s Tenjo Tenge (Viz Signature) recently. Fortunately for my manga explorations, the series has been reissued in large volume “Full Contact” Editions collecting two of the original smaller-sized paperbacks. A “mature” readers series about a high school heavily populated with fight clubs, the manga features gobs of gratuitous violence, obscenities, flashes of nudity and fulsome breasts that look like they’re yearning to burst free of their confines. Full-blooded entertainment, in other words.
Set at Todo High School, an institution where all of the students possess martial arts savvy, Tenjo Tenge focuses on the members of the Juken Club, which is “seen as one of the weakest martial arts clubs on campus.” This situation, we suspect, is about to change with the arrival of two new street-brawling students, spiky-haired Soichiro Nagi and dread-locked Bob Makihara. Their appearance on campus sparks more than one fracas and draws the attention of the Executive Council, a group of arrogant upper classmen who also have it in for the Juken Club. The first act of aggression by the council is to send a bespectacled creep named Ryuzaki to kidnap and sexually assault Bob’s girlfriend Chiachi.
Though Soichiro at one point arrogantly declares, “I’m supposed to be the hero of this story,” the first two books of Tenjo Tenge devote just as much space to other members of the Juken Club. First, antenna-haired Maya Natsumi is the club’s leader: when we first see her, she looks like a little girl, but when it comes time to fight, she transforms into a scantily-dressed large-breasted woman with mega fighting abilities. “When you’re as skilled as I am,” Maya immodestly states, “it’s a piece of cake to pull of a transformation like this.” (We later learn that she’s not the only one capable of such transmogrifications.) Her sister Aya is a trace more modest — in both personality and dress — though she is the possessor of a great power known as Dragon Eyes, which enable her to see into the future and exert her will through humans and inanimate objects. As in Naruto, for instance, this great power itself has the potential of corrupting and taking over its wielder.
Aya falls in love at first sight with Soichiro when he comes crashing into her shower during a fight with Maya, much to the chagrin of Takayanagi, her straight arrow fellow club member. As the series opens, he meets the possessor of the Dragon Eyes for the fist time and himself is instantly smitten. “At that moment,” he narrates, “time stopped dead for me, and I couldn’t look away from her eyes.” The poor sap — just one of the victims in what looks to be an increasingly more entangled storyline full of star-crossed relationships.
In place of chapters, Oh!Great’s series is divided into “Fight”s, an apt label since each episode features at least one face-to-face confrontation. A lot of these are accompanied by imposingly titled moves (“Whirling Cuff,” “Mount Tai Avalanche,” “Heart and Mind Six Harmonies”) that may be pure nonsense but sure sound cool — plus plenty of verbal posturing. Some of this is done tongue-in-cheek by the manga artist — who wittily couples his martial arts melodrama with adolescent histrionics. In one scene, for example, Takayanagi’s head is pierced by a word balloon after Aya calls him a “second-rate martial artist.” The taunt pushes Tak into kicking the ass of his opponent, of course — but the moment remains an amusing one.
Tenjo Tenge has seen two editions in the U.S. The first, published by the now defunct manga line CMX, was criticized by fans for being heavily censored. Viz Signature’s shrink-wrapped edition, in contrast, contains an abundance of sweaty naked female body shots and obscenities, along with lots of over-the-top violence. Not a series for younger readers or the prudish, but definitely a treat for those of us who happily cut their teeth on R-rated grindhouse kung-fu.