Harem anime is the term given to series in which the protagonist is surrounded by admirers, wanted or not. The anime that popularized the genre in the West is Tenchi Muyo!, but the sci-fi rom-com OVA series and its countless reincarnations are about so much more.
The original Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki OVA series created by Masaki Kajishima told the story of Tenchi Masaki and his intergalactic admirers in individual home-media-exclusive installments. However, the Tenchi Muyo! saga expanded with various revivals and re-imaginings, such as the Tenchi Muyo! broadcast TV series known as Tenchi Universe in the West, Shin Tenchi Muyo! AKA Tenchi in Tokyo, and school-based spinoff Ai Tenchi Muyo!. Which of these is the best Tenchi series, and which is the best for newcomers to start with?
Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki Is the Original Tenchi Experience
The original 1992-1995 OVA is a domestic comedy and an epic space opera. In harem anime tradition, almost every character is revealed to have feelings for Tenchi, but the rivalry of space pirate Ryoko and alien princess Ayeka is more about Ryoko’s assault on Ayeka’s home planet than a simple love triangle. Possibly because each episode is released as its own feature presentation, staggering plot developments are more prevalent. These include the revelation that Ryoko may have been mind-controlled by the evil Kagato when she attacked the planet, and the introduction of the Choushin, a trio of ancient goddesses.
The series’ creators — including Kajishima, directors Hiroki Hayashi and Kenichi Yatagai, and writers Naoko Hasegawa and Yousuke Kuroda — evidently wanted every character to be connected somehow. For example, ancient scientist Washu created Ryoko in this version, but she is also implied to be a distant ancestor of clumsy space cop Mihoshi. These developments would be more compelling if the relationships affected the characters more. Washu and Ryoko call themselves mother and daughter, but this is rarely emphasized for drama or comedy.
The Ryo-Ohki OVA series became even more convoluted in its 2003 revival, introducing more cosmic forces and distant relatives, and the series returned again in 2016 and 2020. However, its focus on family does a great job of contrasting relatable in-law tensions with the series’ intergalactic stakes. A key example is Ayeka’s mother Misaki, a funny yet formidable character absent from later adaptations.
Tenchi Universe Is a Streamlined Sci-fi Comedy
In director Hiroshi Negishi’s 1995 television adaptation Tenchi Universe, only Ryoko and Ayeka have feelings for Tenchi — and even this is downplayed in favor of high-concept sci-fi comedy. For example, instead of being a demonic figure brainwashed to do evil, this Ryoko is a self-avowed rebellious space pirate. This criminal side gives her a more meaningful contrast to the humble, hardworking Tenchi and to her royal rival Ayeka.
Mihoshi is also streamlined from a bumbling yet secretly brilliant officer to a more straightforwardly foolish character, but is written in a consistently funny and endearing way by series scribe Ryoe Tsukimura and others. Kiyone, a smart cop introduced in the OVA’s Mihoshi spinoff special, is reintroduced in Universe as her long-suffering foil. The funniest examples of Mihoshi and Kiyone’s dynamic include their various odd jobs in Episode 6, and an awkward encounter with a corrupt Galaxy Police official in Episode 15.
Two surprisingly impactful movies belong to the Tenchi Universe continuity, both directed by Negishi. The second — 1999’s Tenchi Muyo in Love 2: Haruka naru omoi (Tenchi Forever! in the West) — is a worthy and decisive conclusion to the series. It begins with Ryoko and Ayeka confronting Tenchi for ostensibly leading them on, and ends by finally revealing which of them truly has the stronger relationship with him, concluding their love triangle in an unexpected yet authentic way. A quick yet meaningful interaction between Mihoshi and Kiyone as they place important signal relays shows how their relationship has developed as well.
Tenchi Spinoffs Play With the Series’ Classic Formula
1997’s Tenchi in Tokyo is another alternate continuity re-imagining. It is praised for its emotional climax, but the way its premise subverts the Tenchi status quo makes it an inadvisable starting point for new fans. Negishi’s 2014 series Ai Tenchi Muyo! has some fun with its involved time travel story and blend of original and classic Tenchi characters, but the familiar setting results in some predictable school anime tropes.
2002’s Tenchi Muyo! GXP is a spinoff of the original OVA about Seina Yamada, a boy who becomes a Galaxy Police officer. 2009-10’s Isekai no Seikishi Monogatari, or Tenchi Muyo! War on Geminar in the West, is an isekai spinoff that puts Tenchi’s half-brother Kenshi in the middle of a mech war. These series’ standalone nature makes them appealing for newcomers intimidated by the complexity of Tenchi lore, but poor choices for those looking to discover the genre-making harem anime series.
Overall, the original Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki is a good place to start a comprehensive Tenchi journey, as it lays the foundation for 30 years of in-depth sci-fi storytelling as well as various sequels and spinoffs. However, if classic anime fans can only watch one Tenchi series, the best choice is the hilarious, quintessential Tenchi Universe. Universe is a picaresque sci-fi adventure whose streamlining not only makes it easier to understand than the original series, but arguably does a better job of conveying the franchise’s elemental themes of unrequited love, found family, and law vs. order. Just beware the eye-melting strobe lights in Episode 22.