Before Tenchi Universe, there was the OVA series which in Japan was called Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki. Developed in 1992, it set the stage for what was to be the Tenchi Muyo Universe that led to a number of retellings, spin offs, and films over the course of ten years. Interestingly enough, the OVA took an eight year break before resuming with the final seven episodes. While I have fond memories of Tenchi Universe, I thought Ryo-Ohki to be a much better series for its quality of animation, storytelling and character interactions.
In the Ryo-Ohki storyline, Tenchi is a high schooler living under the tutelage of his grandfather at the family shrine. Throughout his life, Tenchi has been curious about a mysterious cave that has kept a terrible demon imprisoned for 700 years. After stealing a set of keys from his grandfather during a sparring match, Tenchi wanders into the cave with careless stupidity and releases the demon Ryoko, a spikey, blue haired woman who attacks Tenchi with energy beams and light swords. In the scuffle, Tenchi manages to acquire an ancient light blade that keeps Ryoko at bay during a protracted battle at his high school. With Ryoko seemingly defeated, she switches gears and attempts to ingratiate herself into his life. Ryoko’s renewed existence draws the attention of Ayeka, a princess from the planet Jurai who has been searching for her beloved half brother. Recognizing Ryoko as the demon who attacked her homeworld, Ayeka engages her in a battle that ends with the pair stuck on Earth after their ships crash. Ryoko, Ayeka and her sister Sasami settle in for life on Earth that is marked by the arrival of Mihoshi (a ditzy Galaxy Police officer) and Washu (a brilliant scientist and “mother” to Ryoko) along with those who have villainous intentions towards the group.
I wish I had seen Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki first instead of letting nostalgia get the better of me by watching Tenchi Universe, as this is a much better version of the Tenchi story. Tenchi’s behavior has a lot to do with that, I think. In Universe, he lives a life of neutrality, happily traveling along the middle path and whining heavily when he is forced to deviate from it. In Ryo-Ohki, he shows a lot more character. He’s prone to making bad decisions, he’s considerably more expressive and can become a man of action when he needs to be. There’s a stronger emphasis on depicting Tenchi as not just a teenage student, but the heir of Jurai and an up and coming master of the sword. While his training is often alluded to in Universe, we get to see his training put to use early on when the dreaded space pirate Kagato invades Earth and the two engage in a pretty heavy and complex battle sequence. Outside of combat, Tenchi doesn’t let himself get pushed around by the women around him as much. There’s far more romantic tension and rivalry in the series especially when the blood connection between Tenchi and Ayeka is revealed, which results in never before seen heights of sexual tension.
When I reviewed Universe, I lamented that the quality of the animation looked considerably dated even by 1995 standards. How odd that, despite its debut years earlier, Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki fares much better as the quality of the animation is much cleaner. There’s a bit more nudity to go around, however the women maintain their Barbie doll physique and lack obvious anatomical features. With a slightly smaller cast of characters, Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki offers better pacing and the stories and situations seem richer and more entertaining than those in Tenchi Universe.
The Tenchi Muyo series is synonymous with reboots and retconning and as such, there is no wrong place to start because each version offers its own creative variation on a familiar story. That being said, if you’re looking for the best place to start, Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki is it. Not only is it the version chronologically, its also well directed, funny, and charming.