From the stack: Tenjo Tenge vol. 1

From my point of view, there are tons of reasons to dislike Oh!great’s Tenjo Tenge, which is getting a second English-language release, this time from Viz. The first source of complaint, obviously, is its disastrous first English-language release from DC’s lamented CMX imprint. CMX edited the raunchy, violent series for content, which triggered outrage among members of the most likely core audience for the book.

That decision, hardly genius, gave CMX a permanent black eye among a number of particularly enthusiastic manga fans. No matter how many excellent titles they published, they were always the greedy, tone-deaf censors who violated the purity of Tenjo Tenge. (Repeat the last part of that sentence to yourself.) Years later, when DC cynically shuttered its manga imprint, people were still crowing that they got what they deserved for the shoddy way they treated the series. Of course, some of us couldn’t muster that particular brand of schadenfreude.

And, at the time the series first dropped, some of us were too busy being mildly revolted by the content of the series that survived the editing. And, beyond a negative qualitative assessment, we were left to wonder why DC would publish the series at all if they couldn’t adhere to the style and presentation of the original, since it was hard to imagine how it could be that much more tacky and obnoxious. It was still gross and juvenile and occasionally profoundly offensive, even with the softening.

Now, Viz is presenting the series in its shrink-wrapped, Parental-Advisory glory, because Viz can get away with that sort of thing, having built up a respectable catalog of mature and/or adult manga in addition to its vast reservoir of general-audience material. Please note the “and/or” I put between mature and adult, because it’s a continuum rather than a binary.

I would define “mature manga” as dealing with complex themes in thoughtful and imaginative ways. I would define “adult manga” as including explicit sex and graphic violence. A given title can certainly be both – Felipe Smith’s Peepo Choo (Vertical), Osamu Tezuka’s MW (also Vertical), several of Fumi Yoshinaga’s yaoi works. And describing a title as simply “adult” doesn’t automatically imply that it’s no good; a book can pander all it wants as long as it does so with energy and force. Kazuo Koike defines good adult manga for me, because I don’t find his works thematically challenging, but I do find them engrossing for their structure and the ways his storytelling inspires his collaborating illustrators.

From my point of view, Tenjo Tenge is dumb, pandering trash, and the dumbness is the most unforgiveable quality. It’s about stupid boys who like to kick ass. They muck up the needlessly complex ass-kicking caste system at their new school. Neither lead is particularly likeable, nor are any of the members of the school faction that takes the boys under their wings. The structure of the series is basically “violence, violence, crude humor, violence, female nudity, violence, repeat,” with a truly egregious rape scene thrown into the mix to make the boys sad that someone touched their stuff, also serving to show how evil their nemeses are. That may be the surest way to make me hate a piece of fiction, and Oh!great makes the sequence even more distasteful than usual. (I did wonder, back in the days of CMX’s visual amendments, if that scene would be more or less offensive without the superimposed undergarments. It’s exactly as offensive.)

At some point, I should probably try and disclaim that I’m simply not the audience for this kind of things, because I’m generally not. I can’t really bemoan the fact that thug-brawl manga hasn’t hit it big here, simply because I don’t care to read it. But I really think, even factoring in matters of personal taste, this is just lowbrow and lazy and gross. I’m perfectly capable of liking adult manga. I’m just not in the market for bad adult manga.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)