I didn't know that manga writer/artist Oh!Great's (the pen name for Ito ?gure) high school fight manga Tenjo Tenge ran for 12 years, only recently ending its run in 2010. I wonder where it can and will go, given that its lead characters--Souichiro, Bob, and Aya--are all first-year high school students and that 12 years is a long time to be a freshman. All three of the characters, members of the Juken martial arts club at Toudou Academy, want to be stronger, to master their respective fighting styles for their own personal reasons. Maybe in the grand scheme of things a decade isn't enough time to master a particular fighting skill or hit such a broad target as becoming stronger, but they seem to be off to a good start in the first and second volumes presented here in Viz's Full Contact Edition.
The series might be a love-it-or-hate-it prospect for most readers, with its mix of elaborate martial arts, supernatural portents, graphic violence, and nearly as graphic nudity. It's a martial arts exploitation story in comic form. Those last sentences may have already sent some readers out to pre-order their copy of this volume, which is presented uncut in the wake of the Teen-rated editions released by the recently-folded CMX imprint.
For those of you who might still be on the fence about picking this volume up when it's released, and who are of age to pick up M-rated titles, I'll say that in spite of its pretty gnarly content, it's got an engaging story that moves along very quickly. The characters are all types, with Souichiro being the hothead with a heart of gold, Aya a ditz with deep reserves of ability and backbone, and Bob, the stoic outsider who's always there for his best friend. However, these characters are caught up in a plot that establishes an air of mystery for its them and their circumstances, tells you just enough to keep it intriguing, and never allows fights to go on longer than necessary (a pitfall of many fight-based manga titles). There are actually several parallel mysteries going on in the story, including the nature of Souichiro's power as well as the reason for the continued domination of the Executive Council over Toudou Academy and the root of their animosity towards the tiny Juken club.
Perhaps the most successful element of the series--at least in this 368-page book, collecting the first two volumes of the manga--is that there's often a real sense of danger for the characters. Maybe it's certain that none of them will be killed off in this or any near-future volume, but Oh!Great is willing to let pretty awful things happen to them because they're either not smart enough or strong enough to fight their way free.
The art is a mixed bag, with kinetic fight scenes side-by-side with, occasionally dodgy anatomy, and wildly top-heavy female characters. As I mentioned at the top of the review, the book began its serialization at the tail-end of the 90's, so some of the character designs actually reflect the looser, bulkier, muscle-heavy style of action manga from that period, in line with something like New Grappler Baki, which similarly mined stories about reaching peak physical and spiritual ability, but without the overt supernatural element.
Viz's presentation, as usual, almost surpasses the work itself, combining the first two volumes into one book with a slightly oversized page width. It also retains the author's four-panel gag strips, and I find it great that much like myself, he briefly found his life derailed by the release of Tekken 3 at the start of the decade. As noted above, the book is presented completely uncut, and while it's not as explicit as say, the Battle Royale Ultimate Editions (the benchmark for sex and violence in manga, to my mind), some readers may be wary of the contents inside.
One final note: I'm not sure what the actual spelling of the book's title is supposed to be. Here it's Tenjo Tenge, while the Wikipedia entry and anime spell it Tenjho Tenge, and I've even seen Tenjou Tenge.
Tenjo Tenge: Full Contact Edition Vol. 1 will be available on June 21.