It's review time again; if you didn't read the last one (my review of the first few story arcs in one go), click it up here - it'll help you understand my rating system. And it will give you a good idea where I'm coming from.
Rating: Great (3 out of 3)
The last time I marathon watched Dragon Ball was the summer of 2005. I can remember that this storyline left a huge impression on me, but going into this Saga now, six years later (having only read it in the manga since then) I was cautious how I'd react. My memory (as imperfect as memories are) had begun to obscure things, and I couldn't tell if I genuinely enjoyed this story, or if it was nostalgia for a faraway summer. Obviously my rating might spoil my narrative, but let's get back to this point about nostalgia later.
The story arc begins with filler episodes that introduce our two new main characters, Tenshinhan and Chaotzu, and immediately rival them to Son Goku. This is a pretty bold move for the anime; anime filler tends to stick strictly to things ultimately irrelevant to the manga's original story (though in Dragon Ball, this often creates plotholes due to the author coming up with alternate, canon explanations of things later - more on this in Dragon Ball Z.) But strangely enough, it works. It not only works, but it works well. Tsuru Sen'nin and his students are shown to have a flexible moral code, and the Inoshikacho episode (episode 82) introduces this very effectively, while also expertly foreshadowing Tenshinhan's character development (by having him, for the smallest of moments, show doubt when he betrays Inoshikacho).
What's impressive more is that this use of filler to expand character development doesn't stop there. Scenes like Tsuru Sen'nin's attempt to assassinate Goku in his sleep (as revenge for killing his brother, Tao Pai Pai), or Goku's look of longing and concern at Kuririn before the latter returns to the Tenka-ichi Stadium to collect Goku's Nyoibo and 4-star ball... even though they're "filler", in the strictest sense, they make the story better. And not just a little better, but a whole new layer of quality.
The canon story itself is already a great one; Goku, Kuririn, and Yamcha reunite to participate in the Tenka-ichi Budokai again, only to find that their master, Kame Sen'nin, has a rival who is entering his own students. Tsuru Sen'nin and his students, Tenshinhan and Chaotzu, are a perfect contrast to our three martial artists, and quickly become rivals. Chaotzu doesn't like Kuririn, Kuririn doesn't like Chaotzu. Yamcha doesn't like Tenshinhan, and Tenshinhan doesn't like Yamcha. Goku killed Tao Pai Pai, so Tsuru Sen'nin wants him dead. Tenshinhan humiliates and shatters Yamcha's leg in a match, so Goku and Kuririn want to avenge him. Meanwhile, Kame Sen'nin, returning in his disguise as the Budokai Champion Jackie Chun, sees potential in Tenshinhan as a great warrior for the good guys. And how Kame Sen'nin's values collide with Tsuru Sen'nin's values, in the battle field of Tenshinhan's heart and mind, is the real triumph of this story.
It starts off a bit slow during the preliminaries, but only because there are so many questions and so little answers - and the audience (that's to say, me) is ready for the tournament proper. But once the gong sounds for the first match, Tenshinhan vs. Yamcha, the story picks up dramatically, and builds a momentum that crescendos multiple times. Moments like Roshi's dialog with Tenshinhan after the former gives up, they make this story great. It's simple, but there's a lot going on... and it all comes together nicely in the final round with Goku vs Tenshinhan.
Nostalgia is a funny thing. I remembered this story as a great story that moved me and qualified everything I loved about Dragon Ball, in 19 episodes. But I began to doubt my judgment as this part of the series is so often overshadowed by the Red Ribbon Army Saga that comes before it, and the Piccolo Daimao Saga, and eventually DBZ, that comes after it. I can safely assert that, as of this writing, the six year younger version of myself and his high regard for the 22nd Budokai (then I happily claimed it was my favorite Budokai of the franchise) is vindicated; I love this story.
There's no doubt that by this point in the franchise, the individual fights are as important (some might argue more important, but they're stupid) as the plot that strings them together. I once heard director Edgar Wright describe his film adaption of "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" as a musical, only people break out into fights instead of song; the way the fights move the story here, I'm inclined to say this applies to Dragon Ball. Unlike the 21st Budokai and Uranai Baba's Palace fighters, the contestants of the 22nd Budokai cannot be so easily broken down by individual gimmicks. Though they all have their own unique styles, tactics, and special attacks, there is definitely overlap and that makes it interesting. It also hammers in the point that Goku, Kuririn, Yamcha, Tenshinhan, and Chaotzu are becoming the champions of a new generation of martial artists.
The iconic "Dragon Ball" style of fighting is beginning to become established in these fights, even down to the introduction of Bukujutsu (flying).
But I've rambled enough. You want a list, and I want to make a list, so here it is; My top 7 fights of the Tenshinhan Saga. (Top 7, you see what I did there?)
7. Goku vs Chapa-o
6. Yamcha vs Guy Who Punches Boards
5. Kuririn vs Chaotzu
4. Lunch vs Panputto's bodyguards
3. Kuririn vs Goku
2. Tenshinhan vs Goku
1. Tenshinhan vs Jackie Chun
Most of this arc is very well animated. As I noted in my last review, the series directors do a really great job of using the cheaper animation techniques when what's going on is less important. Most of the key fights (and oddly enough, Jackie Chun vs Manwolf) will have at least one episode of sexy, high quality animation. Though I'd have liked to have seen more of the Tenshinhan vs Goku fight done in this high quality animation (in exchange, perhaps, for some of the earlier fights in the tournament), it's a very effective way to make a budget cartoon. No serious complaints here.
As I've said in the last review, I love Shunsuke Kikuchi's Dragon Ball score. It's hard for me to even be objective in reviewing it, but I'll give it a go. This Saga definitely has it's own set of musical cues. Though DB always reuses music, this storyline found its "tracks" and employs them as needed. The most prominent music cues of the Saga can be found on the musical suite, Dai Niijuunikai Tenka-Ichi Budokai. They're big, dramatic, and exciting. This story arc also has an impressive amount of Insert Songs, for a short 19 episodes. Yamcha's character song, Wolf Hurricane, is heard for the first (and last?) time during his fight with Tenshinhan. Mezase Tenka-ichi is the real star of the show, though; first introduced during the 21st Tenka-ichi Budokai, it returns to be played in it's nigh entirety during Goku and Kuririn's fight. Finally, Tenshinhan's Kikoho attack gets its own ominous musical cue, which is actually from the second Dragon Ball movie! Mashinki No Nemuri Hime musical suite.
Overall: Not to put too fine a bow on this review, but I love this Saga. If you haven't seen it in awhile, you ought to definitely do so, and soon. If you've never seen it, then you should probably stop reading this and go watch it.