Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, December 9, 2016

Christmas 2016: December 8

Tenchi Muyo! Manatsu no Eve (1997)
Tenchi the Movie 2: Daughter of Darkness

Tenchi Muyo!” is an anime series I have a lot of nostalgia for. Like many people, I was introduced to the series by Cartoon Network’s Toonami block. (Which I’ve written about in the past.) The show’s combination of lovable characters, sexy shenanigans, madcap humor, far-out sci-fi, and fast paced action made it my new favorite program. Unlike other shows I loved back then, the various incarnation of “Tenchi” hold up pretty well. The series was popular enough in Japan to lead to three theatrically released films. The second of which, known alternatively as “Tenchi Muyo! Manatsu no Eve” or “Tenchi the Movie 2: Daughter of Darkness,” has a slight Christmas theme, which is why I’m writing about it now.

I guess a primer is necessary. Each version of “Tenchi Muyo!” follows Tenchi Misaki, a Japanese teenager living with his widower dad and mysterious grandfather. Tenchi is the latest in the royal bloodline of an alien civilization, which links him with a magical sword. This intergalactic connection draws anywhere from five to twelve alien babes to Tenchi’s home. Each is extraordinary talented in different ways and most of them want to jump Tenchi’s bones, especially space pirate Ryoko and Princess Aeka. The series started with an OVA – direct-to-video animation – series before spawning TV shows, several manga, novels, and a number of spin-offs. This gets confusing quickly, because most of these shows occur in their own continuity, each one providing different interpretations og the same characters and events.

“Daughter of Darkness” was a specific source of confusion for me, as it doesn’t follow any of the TV shows and instead adapts one of the stand-alone novels. The villain of the film is Yuzuha, an extra-dimensional, demonic being with a grudge against the royal bloodline. Her need for revenge is inflamed after spying on Tenchi’s Christmas party. After plucking a bit of his hair, she clones a female offspring named Mayuka. The girl is teleported to Tenchi’s home and immediately calls him “Daddy,” upsetting Ryoko and Aeka. The family grows attached to Mayuka before her secret, evil purpose for being there is revealed. It all leads to an action-packed showdown in Yuzuha’s surreal home dimension.

There’s a lot of reasons I love the “Tenchi” franchise but, if I’m being totally honest, the characters are the main one. Especially Ryoko, a bad-ass, amoral space pirate with near unlimited power… who is in love with a milquetoast farm boy. Most of the humor in “Manatsu no Eve” comes from Ryoko’s inflamed anger at Mayuka’s cutesy act. An especially memorable scene involves a fight escalating over a plate of noodles. Slow-motion chopstick action has rarely been so amusing. The idea that Tenchi had a daughter – meaning he procreated with somebody – is also very annoying to the possessive Ryoko. Some of the gags are big, like the established girls chasing the new arrival down the hallway. Others are more character driven, like increasingly fraught, comedic dialogue concerning Mayuka’s parentage.

Ryoko’s vulnerability leads to the best scenes in the film. She attacks Mayuka, ostensibly because she suspects the girl is up to no good, but also because she’s jealous. After Tenchi accepts Mayuka into the household, the boy and the space pirate have a touching talk on the rooftop. Which ends with Ryoko disappearing for a while, moping among herself, until Aeka talks her back into the house. Any time those two rivals would have a heart-to-heart, it always led to a good moment. (If you excised an unnecessary slapping scene, this emotional subplot would be nearly perfect.) This theme of needing to be love extends to the villain. Yazuha, who dwells in a childish realm full of talking (but evil!) toys, hates Tenchi’s family because her awkward attempt to win the grandfather’s heart was interrupted. Mayuka eventually overcomes her evil programming, accepting the other’s love, while Yazuha simmers in her isolation and bitterness.

Mayuka is what anime fans would describe as "the innocent fan service girl." She has a fully mature body but the mind of a child, leading to lots of non-sexual nudity. This is best displayed in the scene where a nude Mayuka joins Tenchi in the bath, calling him Daddy, and squeezing her naked body against his. He reacts with abject terror, the same way he responds to any sexual advances. Naturally, this leads to a lot of misunderstandings. This plays off the weirdo incest subtext found in so much anime. Yet the makers of “Daughter of Darkness” seems to call the fanboys on their bluff. When Yazuha assumes control of Mayuka, her actions become blatantly sexual, kissing and sensually touching her father. These scenes are played as creepy, contrasting against the funnier moments in an interesting way. It’s either a comment on Japanese hang-ups on incest or the director indulging a very specific kink.

“Tenchi,” as a series, covers many different genres. “Manatsu no Eve” focuses on comedy and romance for most of its run time, before focusing heavily on action in the last act. The Yazuha-controlled Mayuka kidnaps Sasami, taking her into the demon’s world. Tenchi and Ryoko take chase, with Aeka providing the late film power-up necessary to defeat the villain. The action heavy finale features some lovely animation, amid increasingly surreal sights. Murderous teddy bears, knives protruding from their bodies, attack the heroes. The evil Mayuka weaponizes garland, wrapping Tenchi and Ryoko up like seasonal gifts. Later, she grows demon wings and slashes Tenchi to a bloody pulp. By the end, Yazuha fuses with a giant Christmas tree, becoming a massive monster. It’s pretty weird stuff but certainly a memorable way to conclude the film.

The Christmas connection is, admittedly, tenuous. The film is actually mostly set during the summer. Yet Christmas is referenced throughout. An alien gift-giving festival named Starica features prominently. Mayuka’s desire to spend Christmas with her family motivates her character arc. For bonus points, a Christmas song plays over the end credits. To most of you, this entire review must’ve read like gibberish. To “Tenchi” fans, you’ll probably agree that “Daughter of Darkness” is the weakest of the three films. It’s only an hour long and disconnected from the rest of the show. Yet I still sort of love it, if only for nostalgic reasons. [7/10]

Tales from the Darkside: Seasons of Belief

“Tales from the Darkside” is a show whose cult following seems to have flourished since being released on DVD. Admittedly, I’ve only ever watched a few episodes and haven’t been super impressed with any. By most accounts, the show was more hit-and-miss then “Tales from the Crypt” or “The Twilight Zone.” “Seasons of Belief,” however, is a good one. A pair of parents are trying to have a quiet Christmas Eve but their bratty kids, especially the know-it-all son, are making that difficult. When the kids won’t settle down, Dad tells them a different kind of Christmas story. He tells the tale of the Grither, a monster from the North Pole, who becomes more powerful and draws closer every time his name is spoken. The kids don’t believe in the Grither, at first. Before Christmas Eve is over, that’s going to change.

What intrigues me about “Seasons of Belief” is that the Grither isn’t like most Christmas monsters. He’s not like Krampus or Pere Fouettard, acting as a reverse Santa Claus, punishing bad children. Instead, the monster is evil for evil’s sake. Just saying his name pisses him off. Belief seems to be what powers the beast. The episode has some great holiday trappings, mostly being set around a Christmas tree and featuring a Grither-ized variation of “Come All Ye Faithful.” Yet it’s still kind of weird that the monster’s connection with the holiday is loose, at best. It’s really just a spooky story, told to freak out the kiddies.

The episode creates a decent sense of tension, the little girl becoming increasingly spooked by the story. Amusingly, the dad – played by E.G. Marshall – doesn’t back off on the scary story until his daughter is properly traumatized. The episode keeps piling on the foreboding references to the monster, building to a man coming to the door. Being an eighties horror anthology show, there’s a twist ending. It’s a proper shock though the script wusses out a little. You’d think the Grither’s target would be the bratty brother. Still, “Seasons of Belief” is a fun little half-hour. And, remember, even the worst ‘Tales from the Darkside” episodes have that deceptively simple but amazingly creepy opening. [7/10]

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