Understanding Storytelling: Choosing the Wrong Main Character with Tenjou Tenge

So I recently wrote a post about why I thought anime was a better medium than light novels and manga.  While I was writing that, I decided to do a little experiment, specifically I would re-watch the Tenjou Tenge anime, which I remembered being pretty mediocre, and I would read the manga alongside it to see the difference.  The experiment itself has revealed some interesting results (I now realized I can read the manga so long as the anime was in fact mediocre and the manga is better.  Shocking, I know.) as I go to discuss the clusterfuck that is the anime adaptation of Tenjou Tenge.  There will be major spoilers ahead, you have been warned.

The biggest problem with Tenjou Tenge is that it’s a 24 episode anime trying to adapt an almost 140 chapter long manga.  There’s no fucking way Tenjou Tenge could ever get close to completing the story and the show knew that.  Instead it adapted the manga almost exactly as it appeared for the chapters it covered, minus the more extreme stuff like sex, loss of limbs and a straight up rape that shows up in Chapter 3 or so… yea did I forget to mention this show is kinda fucked up, though that mostly applies to the manga, because it’s definitely kinda fucked up.  Where the show well and truly falls apart though is when it goes into the backstory.  In Tenjou Tenge there are a few chapters that take place in the present to start with before we jump into a bunch of chapters about a previous conflict from two years ago that sets the stage for the current conflict.  What this means is that the anime is legitimately split 50/50 between past and present, which is not how any story should ever be.  When your backstory is as long as your main story, you have a problem, or you could just split it into two different stories.  This works out fine in the manga because the manga’s fucking long, but in the anime it’s almost impressive how demoralizing it is to realize you just spent half the time watching the buildup to the conflict the story teased you with early on.

I get why the anime did this of course, most anime don’t venture too far from the manga, and to it’s credit the back story conflict is far more interesting than the current conflict was at the beginning.  However the anime suffers in a big way because of it, and not just because it spends so much time in the past.  In the Tenjou Tenge manga there are essentially two male protagonists, Nagi Souichirou and Takayanagi Masataka, and the story swaps it’s focus between the two from arc to arc, allowing one or the other to play a bit role or straight up vanish without the story skipping a beat.  This doesn’t happen in the anime.  It focuses on only one guy and he’s the less appealing of the two.  Again I sort of see why they chose him, the manga starts by focusing on him and he does have the more stand out design, Nagi is a delinquent with blond hair so he stands out amid all the more normal students.  Takayanagi on the other hand looks like any generic random guy.  But of the two Takayanagi is by far the more interesting, but I’ll get to that in a minute, for now I need to set the stage in more detail.

Tenjou Tenge is high school battle anime set in a high school that is dedicated to preserving martial arts, so naturally everyone can fight.  In addition to the martial arts are people who can perform superhuman techniques using their chi.  Nagi Souichirou and his friend Bob Makihara, one of the few genuinely interesting black dudes in anime, attend the school with the goal of taking it over by force.  They fail spectacularly when they butt heads with Juken Club, which they will later join.  The Juken Club is a three member team who have a long standing grudge with the Student Council, it’s members are Natsume Maya the team captain and a third year student, Natsume Aya, Maya’s younger sister and a first year student, and Takayangi Masataka a second year student and the younger brother of the Student Council President Takayanagi Mitsuomi, who is the antagonist of the anime and a third year student.  Got all that?  I hope so cause it’s about to get more complicated.

Because in addition to chi powers, there are other superpowers related to various Chinese dragons and they are passed down family bloodlines.  Aya and Souicihirou have dragon powers.  Natsume Maya, who doesn’t have dragon powers,  is the younger sister of Natsume Shin, who had the Dragon’s Eye power (which has since passed to Aya).  Shin founded the Juken Club two years ago after his previous group, KATANA was destroyed, thanks to him losing control of his powers and tearing most of his own team apart, and Maya instigating the whole thing in attempt to get stronger.  Mitsuomi was part of the original KATANA group and continued to stick with Shin in the Juken Club.  I feel I should mention at this point that Shin is a huge sis-con and Maya is a bit of a bro-con.  Also Mitsuomi develops feelings for Maya and she reciprocates, and this eventually leads to the death of Shin, the turning of Mitsuomi from a nice guy to cold-hearted leader and sets Maya and the Juken Club against Mitsuomi and his Student Council.  And by the way if you think this is messy and complicated, this is the simpler part of the story in the manga.

Ok so now that that’s out of the way I can finally get to the main topic of this post, why Nagi Souichirou is the wrong guy to cast as the main character.  For starters Nagi is weak as shit, he’s a tough punk and he can punch hard but he has no skill and no technique, let alone chi powers.  This means in order for him to become a threat he has to power-up unbelievably fast and it’s bullshit, he spends a week backhanding pots and pans and somehow this lets him learn a chi move and makes him about 10x stronger than he was in episode one.  At this point he’s still far weaker than Masataka, Maya and Aya, though he has outclassed Bob.  When we get to the major battle of the current timeline, Nagi powers again up in the most boring way imaginable, he basically gets Sage Mode from Naruto allowing him to draw chi from the world around him instead of being limited to the chi in his own body so he heals super fast, use chi moves constantly and just generally becomes a huge pain in the ass.  Oh and even with all of this he doesn’t beat Mitsuomi and only takes down one important guy and a handful of thugs.  By comparison Masataka takes out 80 thugs by himself and is about to beat one important guy before his older brother jumps into their fight and beats him from behind like a total dick.

See the thing that makes Masataka interesting despite his totally boring character design is that it feels like the show itself underestimates him.  Throughout the anime it is continually suggested that Maya is the strongest member of Juken Club so long as you discount the OVA’s which start introducing more ridiculous powers for Nagi without any proper context if you’ve never read the manga.  However in my judgement, Masataka was already stronger than Maya by episode one and is just unrecognized as such.  In that major battle Maya defeats one major opponent and maybe 20 guys, and again Masataka beats 80 and was totally about to beat a major opponent if  not for his brother’s interference.  Not only that but in the beatdown scene in episode 2 or 3, it’s by far the most well known scene from the show, both Maya and Aya attempt to restrain Masataka while he pounds the living shit out of Nagi and he throws them off with zero effort.  Moreover Maya always feels powerless in front of Mitsuomi and he never attacks her, by comparison he instantly attacks Masataka on sight in most of their few encounters, which implies that he either really hates Masataka or sees him as a threat, though his attitude in both the show and manga express contempt or disregard more than anything else.

What makes Masataka the most interesting to me however is not just his strength, it’s how he fits into the Juken club and the overall narrative.  During the anime, Masataka is solely a bit player, such a side character that it’s almost painful for reasons I will get into a minute.  What makes Masataka unusual by the standards of the Juken Club is evident even by his status as second year.  He’s not a total outsider to the prior conflict from two years ago like Aya, Nagi and Bob are but neither is he consumed by that conflict the way Maya is.  This means Masataka is more versatile than the other characters allowing him to be in the know or ignorant depending on the scene, in the same way that he can appearing overpowering in one fight scene or the underdog in another.  This also applies to his relationships with the other characters, he makes a good rival for Nagi, in the beginning anyway before the show well and truly shafts him, and a good partner for Bob, who has no superpowers or chi powers but relies solely on skill and physical power.  While I’m the subject of Bob I feel like he suffers from the same problem as Masataka, they both get sidelined hard to make room for more Nagi and Maya when I felt they were the more interesting characters to begin with.  Because unlike Nagi, Bob is not stupid, he’s much more perceptive and much more willing to talk things through and figure things out himself whereas Nagi yells a lot, charges headlong into the fray and needs to be told everything like a typical shounen hero.  You know, now that I put it that way I think I’m seeing the problem here.  I think Tenjou Tenge is more of seinen anime in content and tone and that Mastataka and Bob reflect that, while Nagi feels out of place because he’s more like a shounen character, which makes him seem a lot less complex and interesting than the side characters surrounding him.  Yea, that may be the root of the problems I’m having here.

Anyway getting back to Masataka and his relationships, I think his ties to the girls are where the show fails big time.  Maya respects Masataka but more or less treats him like a follower and spends almost all of her attention on Nagi and most of the rest on Aya.  This holds true to the manga and it works pretty well in showing how obsessed Maya is with dragon powers and how they blind her to other important things, she is unable to properly train Bob because she’s so obsessed with training Nagi and his powers for example.  It’s with Aya that the show well and truly drops the ball though.  Now Aya has this annoying clingy romantic obsession with Nagi and that is true in the manga too, but in the manga there’s a large stretch where Nagi straight up disappears and Aya is given more time to grow as a person and bond with Masataka and Bob, as well as some other characters who never made it into the anime.  And the thing is there is one scene in the anime where they could have made this work beautifully.  After the major battle of the current timeline the Juken Club starts to fall apart, Bob has lost some confidence because he feels weak compared to Nagi, Maya and Nagi have gotten closer romantically which badly hurts Aya who started going after Nagi first but has yet to receive the same romantic attention, and Masataka seems to be the only guy who is paying any attention whatsoever to the fragmentation of the group, making him more of an outsider to the club than he has ever been.

Anyway Aya overhears Nagi talking to Bob about he loves Maya, and Aya in her sadness and desperation (in addition to freaking about the sadistic damage she did during the major battle when she let her dragon powers take over), takes a ridiculously long katana from her house to replace her sword that broke earlier in the show while she mopes about all heartbroken.  This katana is called the Chokutou Reiki and it amplifies dragon powers, it also drove her older brother Shin insane.  Maya understandably freaks the fuck out that the Reiki is gone and in Aya’s hands, and since it’s one the few things she and Mitsuomi can set their differences aside to deal with, Aya is forced to run away from home for the night and she goes to the only person not chasing her, or who won’t report her to Maya, Masataka.  Masataka, being in love with Aya, and just generally a decent dude goes ahead and lets her spend the night.  Now this scene follows the manga where Mastaka almost pervs on Aya in the shower but hears her crying and stops himself while Aya is met by the ghost of Shin later that night to get a warning about the Reiki, yea the dragon power related parts of Tenjou Tenge are fucking nuts.  What they should have done was make this a scene where Masataka learns about Aya’s dragon powers and their potential dangers but chooses to stand by her anyway because, a, that’s what’s in character for him to do regardless and, b, because he is the character in the show best equipped to handle Aya since he won’t be inclined to suppress her powers like Maya, attack her for the potential dangers of her power like Mitsuomi, totally exacerbate her problems like Nagi or just not be anywhere near strong enough to protect her from anyone, including herself, like Bob.

Now to be fair to the show, the manga does not take this route either because it’s dead set on having Nagi and Aya be a pair that never really gets together for some stupid reason.  But the point I’m trying to make here is that no matter what angle you look at the story from, be it in the manga (which I’ll get to shortly), the anime (which was pretty shit) or re-imaginings of how the story should have gone (in case you’re like me and just do that sort of thing), Nagi is always far less interesting than Masataka and the show’s decision to exclude Masataka from significance is a fatal error in a show already riddled with serious problems.  Maya and Aya also suffer from similar problems, the focus is mostly put on Maya because she’s the leader and she’s involved in both the current and prior conflicts, but her character arc is more or less finished by the end of the prior conflict, leaving her with little room to grow.  By comparison Aya has all kinds of potential and for whatever reason the creators used that potential to make an obnoxious, clingy girl who never grows at all in the anime and takes a pretty long time to go anywhere in the manga before she ends up behaving as though she went back to square one at the end of the manga.

The manga gets past most of these problems by being long as fuck compared to the anime, but even then I think it’s interesting to note that the big arc where Nagi and Maya are both missing was probably the best arc of the manga. Because it finally gives Masataka, Aya and Bob some much needed character growth and because it gets away from the insanity that is all the dragon powers of Tenjou Tenge and gets back to more manageable martial arts.  And the weird part is that I get the impression that the creators of the manga figured out along the way that Maya and Nagi were the more boring characters, because Nagi-focused arcs are mainly just battle arcs, while Masataka focused arcs generally include more narrative and character development, and in the later chapters Masataka and Aya play a much larger role with Masataka ending up as the final hero of the series (and totally kicking his brother’s ass, proving that he was in fact stronger than Maya), though Nagi does play his part as a heroes as well.

So in summary, don’t have the main character of your seinen anime behave like a shounen hero, and in retrospect I can’t believe it took me until I was halfway through writing this post to figure out that that was the root of many of Tenjou Tenge’s problems.  In a similar vein when you have a story full of complex characters or characters with the potential to be complex don’t focus most of your attention on the simple characters or those done with their character growth.  Because credit where it’s due Maya is an interesting character in the show and the manga, but Aya has so much more potential than Maya ever did and that potential went largely untapped because of the initial obsession with Nagi and Maya which trapped Aya into a simpler and, in the anime in particular, more annoying character.  Amidst all the chaos and WTF elements of Tenjou Tenge there are well written and interesting characters and character relationships, things which make the overall story far more bearable and interesting.  It’s just a shame that so few of those made it into the anime.  Though I will say in the anime’s defense, I think it does do the part of the manga it covers better than the manga, the Bunshichi and Shin fight and Masataka’s beat down of Nagi were definitely better in the anime.  But because the anime is so much worse as a standalone piece of work, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.  This is one of the few times when I will in fact recommend the manga over the anime, though the manga is more than a little chaotic, insane and dark, so unless you’re ready for that I wouldn’t really recommend it either.  Thanks for reading my meandering ramblings, I hope you enjoyed them and I’ll see you in the next one.

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12 thoughts on “Understanding Storytelling: Choosing the Wrong Main Character with Tenjou Tenge

    • Thanks. He ends up with the younger girl who he beats the shit out of shortly after Nagi disappears. Her name’s Manako I think, and they never show that these two were an official couple but it’s pretty strongly implied that they would end up together. Still beats Nagi since he goes back to square one with Aya chasing him down to feed him and shit, lol.

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    • If memory serves Nagi does fight Takayanagi’s older brother at some point, it’s either right after the elder brother loses to Masataka or right before. I don’t remember exactly but it’s well into the manga before they fight. As for the rest of your question the cliff notes version is that Nagi goes around fighting other people with dragon powers and using his own dragon power to steal theirs. At first he does this by accident but later his father who is an immortal from ancient Japan captures Nagi and forces him to fight other dragon power people, and finally Nagi traps his father within himself and goes to steal all the dragon powers following an ancient plan created to defeat his dad by his enemies from hundreds of years ago and then fights Masataka while in this final form, which somehow makes Nagi’s father vulnerable to Maya, who it turns out had a dragon power all along, the power to seal/cancel out other dragon powers. It’s stupidly complicated but I hope that answered your question.

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  1. Lol, you did your best. I was thinking I would read the manga since I saw the anime back in 2007. But now I am having big doubts about. Thanks for your effprt

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    • The manga does go in some pretty insane directions but it’s a decent read. I know skipped through a lot of the ancient Japan parts because they weren’t the parts of the story they tell can be easily inferred, so that helped. If you’re not that interested though I think it’s fine to skip, there’s plenty of better long manga out there.

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  2. But with honesty, does the fighting gets better, because for me I liked when nago transfomed it was cool, that is why i asked if he would fight mitsuhomi and of you say that mitsuhomi was beaten by masataka, lol it just inasne really, becaise I was realyy looking forward to see nagi beats mitsuhomi. Anyway thanks.

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    • The dragon power fighting gets a lot more intense as the story goes on, with plenty of other people having powers that give Nagi and Aya a run for their money. Personally I preferred the martial arts stuff more than the dragon powers which is part of why I prefer Masataka over Nagi and that does get better as well. The fights get more intense as time goes on, it’s the story that goes insane and kind of falls apart.

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    • I think the fact there’s a whole ancient Japan plot regarding Nagi’s dad is a pretty insane direction to take the story but more so than any particular incident like where a guy is tricked into a fucking an illusory woman made of moths or butterflies (not a joke one of the dragon clans controls moths or butterflies to make it look like they can create monsters and shit) I think just the sheer number of powers, subcharacters, and people or powers which reincarnate to some extent that all get thrown into the mix makes the story insane. If not for the amount of shit going on the story would be pretty straightforward and simple.

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