Charge your ki and get ready to attack, because we're still still in the middle of:
TENJO TENGE, by Oh!Great. First published in 1998. First published in North America in 2005.
PLOT: It's just a typical day at Todo Academy. The sun is shining, the meek and mild-mannered Takayanagi is experience his first boner over Aya, the beautiful younger sister of his cherubic classmate/Juken Club leader Maya Natsume, and somewhere on campus the student body is getting its collective ass kicked. This is because of a couple of new kids, Soichiro Nagi and Bob Makihara, who are here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. Actually, forget the bubblegum, they'd just prefer to kick more ass. The Juken Club comes to save the day, and we see the first of many, many, MANY fight sequences, where we see that while Soichiro and Bob are strong, they can't compete with the ki-fueled powers of the Juken Club. Maya can transform from her usual chibi state to a full-grown (in every sense of the word) one, and Takayanaga can wield electricity hard enough to pummel Soichiro into the architecture.
Unfortunately, by picking fights the boys have made the shadowy powers of the Todo student council very angry. First they start by torching Bob's motorcycle. Then they ramp things up by raping Bob's girlfriend Chiaki. Bob and Soichiro are ready to fight, but they now realize they are not strong enough for these opponents. They now must join the Juken Club and have Maya train them if they are to succeed.
STORY: Well, this was certainly...something. The plot structure is fairly basic for a shonen work: a group of friends want to be the best fighters EVER, and thus join forces with others to become stronger through a vague, spiritual force which gives everyone different powers so that they can fight EVERYONE. While the plot is fairly generic, it's the details that make this story...well, let's say distinct. They also make it rather raunchy, sometimes to the point of tastelessness, and that's given it a certain degree of notoriety.
You see, when this series was first published by CMX in 2005, they needed to edit it to keep it appropriate for a teenage audience. Some of that editing covered the copious amounts of fanservice (more on this later), but it also covered Chiaki's rape. Now, I am not a fan of censorship and I am glad that you can get this manga uncensored, so you can experience the story for better and for worse. The rape is actually relevant to the story, and it is portrayed as a violent, disturbing act. Unfortunately, it's also one of those scenes where a woman is injured solely to spur the men around her into action. It doesn't help that Chiaki just kind of suddenly shows up mid-story, and that after the rape she is oddly (and likely artificially) nonchalant about the whole thing.
Mind you, the instances of sex (both consensual and non-consensual ) are kind of tonally weird because Oh!Great keeps cutting back and forth between the sex scenes and fight scenes. I'm not quite sure if these events are just meant to be going on simultaneously, or if he's trying to make some subtextual statement linking sex and violence. I'm pretty sure it's the former because I very much doubt Oh!Great is the kind of writer who would bother with things like subtext.
Now as for the characters themselves, it's rather telling that the most interesting and sympathetic ones are NOT our ostensible leads, but the supporting cast. After reading this first volume, I couldn't tell you all that much about Bob and Soichiro, other than they want to be tough, Soichiro is hot-headed and rash while Bob is more methodical and calm. I was much more interested in the Natsume sisters, Maya in particular. I liked her combination of wisdom, sass, and fearlessness. I also like the concept of this tiny woman being the biggest badass of the group, not to mention the one who is skilled and disciplined enough to teach the others. There's also a nice sense of camaderie and affection between her and Aya. Aya's kind of charming too, with her ditzy, childlike nature, but her skills are rather undercut by the fact that she's the main vehicle for fanservice and that the only fight scene she has is cut short. As for Takayanagi...eh. He's the one who would normally be the lead in such stories, the seemingly normal guy who is swept up into something much larger, at least until he displays his own ki powers. It was fun watching him kick Soichiro's butt, and it would be nice to see if he comes more into his own over the course of the story, but as of this point he's mostly just a blank of a boy with a boner for Aya.
Tenjo Tenge is a big, broad, tasteless sort of shonen fighting tournament story, with a cast that's just just as equally big, broad, and tasteless.
ART: Part of the reason that I picked this manga up in the first place was that I had seen many people complement it on the quality of the art. Initially I wondered if they were really referring to the quality of the fanservice, but upon reflection I can start to see what they were talking about.
It's clear that Oh!Great likes his ladies with looooong legs, broad hips, long hair, and TIG OL' BITTIES! Unfortunately, it tends to make the ladies look like they have heads too small for their bodies, which isn't helped by the enormous eyes they possess. The men are much more proportional, and well muscled - unlike the women, their enhancements remain within the realm of reality.
I do like the way that Oh!Great draws his action scenes. Instead of the usual speed lines, he draws multiple stacked upon one another to give the effect of rapidly shifting attacks, and he tends to blur the limbs with short speed lines to give a sense of the speed and force behind them. It's a style which is not only effective, but also attractive and unique. He also tends to use a lot of splash pages and larger-than-average panels for the fights, to better highlight the dynamic poses and perspectives, dramatic lighting, and attention to detail, as it's clear that aside from the ladies, it's also clear that Oh!Great likes to draw clothing and motorcycles, and does a good job at both.
There's something else that he really likes to draw: fanservice. To be perfectly honest, though, it's not that bad. It's certainly not at the level of something like Battle Vixens. I think it's because Oh!Great prefers to focus more on boobs than on panty shots. After all, I'm a woman, and thus I see a pair of them every time I look down. To me, they're as ordinary as a chair. As such, while they do tend towards the novelty sized end of the spectrum, the fairly frequent (and detailed - NIPPLES AHOY!) flashes of boob didn't bother me. Now panty shots do bother me, because they are by their nature voyeuristic. Here, though, they are infrequent and rarely show up outside of fight scenes, so they're incorporated much more organically than the constant parade of them that we saw in Battle Vixens.
Now Tenjo Tenge goes beyond a lot of similiar series in that we have actual sex scenes along with the fanservice. I do appreciate that this manga isn't coy about its sense of sexuality - like its story, it's blunt, honest, and in your face. It's too bad that both the scenes we see are really awkward as far as the artwork and tone are concerned. Mind you, that's not so much a problem for the rape scene (although that is SO NOT THE PLACE to insert yet another panty shot), but even the consensual one beteween Bob and Chiaki is weird. Why is she completely naked while he can't even be bothered to take off his pants? This scene has all the raw sensuality of a tuna fish sandwich, which makes the intercutting between it and another fight scene really weird and overall it just tonally falls flat.
Tenjo Tenge is kind of a mixed bag, artistically speaking. It has really well drawn action, some of the best I've ever seen in a shonen series, and the fanservice skirts that thin line between tolerable and awkward. The character models can look strange, but can dress them like models and have them on practically photorealistic rides. Overall, though, the art does suit the story, and it's apparent that while the subject matter can be crass, Oh!Great puts enough skill and effort into the art to make it look good.
PRESENTATION: I read this from the uncut 2-in-1 omnibus Viz put out. The cover features a good looking shot of Soichiro and Maya on the cover and many more color splash pages inside. After each volume, there are character concept sketches, a couple of brief, sketchy comics about the mangaka, and an author's note. I can't say how much, if any of it, was carried over from the edited single volume releases from CMX. What I can say is that Viz's rerelease is presented as completely and handsomely as possible.
This is not a deep or original story, but if you're willing to overlook the more salacious elements of the story and art, it can be kind of a fun read, like fast food for your mind.
This series is complete in Japan. It was first published in the USA by CMX, and has been licence rescued by Viz. CMX released 18 of the 22 volumes, and these releases are out of print. The Viz rerelease is ongoing, with 7 omnibuses currently in print and 3 more to be released before the end of 2012.
You can purchase this volume and more through RightStuf.com!