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"Tenko": Saban's Forgotten Magical Girl

Cartoonist and cartoon historian, Koriander seeks to preserve the magic of animation.

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Let the Magic Begin

Tenko and the Guardians of the Magic was a 13-episode magical girl series produced by Saban in 1995. The series followed real-life magician Princess Tenko (also known as Second Tenko Hikita, or Mariko) in a hybrid of animation and live-action segments. The show also inspired a toyline by Mattel.

In the animated world, Japanese magician Tenko and her fellow guardians must travel around the world and even back through time in order to recover all of the Starfire Gems, which were accidentally released from the Tenko Box, before the evil twins Jana and Jason collect them all in their quest to rule the world.

In the live-action segments, Tenko would perform magic tricks and teach the viewers at home how to perform a little street magic of their own.

One of the things that set Tenko apart from other magical girl shows is that her team mostly consisted of magical men instead of other girls.

Oh sure, there was animal trainer Shonti and Ali, the teenage delinquent turned ward of Tenko, but these two served more as sidekicks.

Tenko's real fellow guardians were the sword wielding Bolt, a Caucasian comedian from Chicago; Hawk, a Native American magician who loved nature; and Steel, an African American history scholar who manipulates fire. All three very muscular men followed the guidance of Princess Tenko in a cartoon that normalized female leadership and gender equality.

The show did have its flaws. The generalization of Hawk's nondescript Native American roots didn't age well, nor did the trope of the clearly evil and temperamental Jason being seen as a love interest and future husband for Tenko, but the show did try to make up for these problems by placing a rich emphasis on intelligence being the strongest point in its ethnic superheroes.

The show also was never afraid to tackle environmental issues, animal cruelty, or domestic issues.

Ali Chambers, for example, begins her run as a troubled teen who initially is lashing out at the world because she lost her mother and she feels estranged from her now single, workaholic father. Over the course of her debut episode, she goes from being a runaway thief to a guardian in training, showing that people can change.

In another example, the usually evil Jason actually shows a change of heart near the series finale, but he is actually being mentally controlled by his very possessive and abusive sister Jana, with whom he is forced to transform into a dragon with.

Despite its quick cancellation which left the series on a permanent cliffhanger, the show is actually well connected in pop culture.

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The Magic Is Connected

The cartoon was developed by the late Roger Slifer, who co-created the character Lobo for DC Comics. He worked off and on with Marvel throughout his career before landing in Sunbow Entertainment LLC during their working agreement with Marvel. Around this time, they were still trying unsuccessfully to work with Marvel on licensing out the Marvel and Toei produced Sun Vulcan Super Sentai series to the United States, but nothing came of it. Right away, Slifer began work on a litany of 80s cartoon icons, including Jem and the Holograms, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, and Conan. In the 90s, he would work on Street Fighter. He would later co-produce the first edited season of Yu-Gi-Oh, which was actually season two in Japan.

Slifer started working on Tenko with Saban, re-working it from a scrapped series that was supposed to be based on a new Wonder Woman series, Wonder Woman and the Star Riders, which in turn was also born from a scrapped She-Ra revival. All three toy lines came from Mattel. They used tiny versions of sculpts usually made for Barbie, but for six- and seven-inch dolls.

In-between animation was done by Rainbow Animation Group, which also worked on Iron Man and the 1993-96 seasons of DiC's Captain Planet, while some animators from Toon Makers/Toonmakers had come over to work on the US side after doing in-betweens for She-Ra and the cancelled American Sailor Moon cartoon and live-action hybrid, jokingly called "Saban Moon."

Tenko would air in select markets on Fox Kids with Toei's Sailor Moon and Sailor Moon R, then dubbed by DiC. In a few of these markets, Sailor Moon R ran before the previous Sailor Moon season, which meant that potential fans assumed that Tenko had stolen the creepy close siblings story from Sailor Moon R, which started with Sailor Moon dealing with the evil Ail and An/Alan and Ann.

Tenko was also accused of lifting the names of the twins Jana and Jason from Space Ghost's Jan and Jase as the 60s cartoon was enjoying a revival on Cartoon Network at the time.

The names of the Starfire Gems seem to reference DC's Starfire Princess Koriand'r, again linking the show back to it's DC and Wonder Woman concept.

Steel is also seen as a derivative of DC's John Henry Adams, who is also Black and also has the name Steel as his superhero name and at one point also used fire.

The real Princess Tenko appears in episode 24 of Metalder, which was re-cut for V.R. Troopers around the same time Tenko aired in the US. She also appears in episode 29 of Galavan, both from the same Metal Heroes series from Toei that gave us V.R. Troopers and Big Bad Beetleborgs.

The episode announcer for Tenko was also the episode announcer for Saban and Toei's Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which was based on Super Sentai's Zyuranger, Dairanger and Kakuranger.

Jana and Tenko's dub voice was performed by the legendary Cree Summer, while Jason and Steel were both voiced by Michael Sorich, who currently voices Sailor Mars's grandpa for Viz Media's dub of Sailor Moon, and also voiced Squatt and several monsters for Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

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The Magic Left Behind

While Tenko was a magical girl show with a focus on equality, the toy line didn't really reflect that magic.

Only Tenko, Ali, Shonti, Jana, and a few animal friends enjoyed dolls that were a hybrid between fashion dolls and action figures, while Jason, Bolt, Hawk, and Steel were only seen on VHS tape covers, DVD covers in the UK, party supplies, and a few scattered items in Israel and America. A rumored second line of action figures would have featured Jason, but no prototypes have been discovered. Rumors of trading cards, valentine cards, and stickers have also persisted.

To make up for the lack of male figures, each Tenko package came with a magic trick you could perform with or without the dolls, which again, were recycled She-Ra and Wonder Woman and the Star Riders dolls.

Despite a fan base that has been preserving episodes on YouTube, no revival plans have ever been announced, no new merchandise has come out, and as of this writing, no full series box sets have turned up anywhere.

In the US, Tenko only ran on Fox Kids and on select syndicated stations off and on between 1995 and 1996. It also aired in the UK on Jetix. The series has not been on US television in more than 25 years.

Tenko and the Guardians of the Magic ends on a cliffhanger and should be given more credit for its focus on inclusion. It was a dazzling show for the 90s that just might find a new audience today if the right cards are chosen.

© 2021 Koriander Bullard

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