Tenko and the Guardians of the Magic

A princess, new to a world of magic and student of a great magician, must lead a team to find missing jewels scattered from an enchanted box by a jealous rival.

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

Crazy as it seems, this is not only the basic plot of Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders, but also another magical girl show that debuted in Fall 1995: Tenko and the Guardians of the Magic.

Tenko follows the eponymous heroine – based (incredibly loosely) on real-life Japanese stage magician Princess Tenko – as she is trained by her master Hikita in the arts of magic. In the universe of Tenko, set presumably in the ‘90s, real magic can be done when one wields a magic Starfire Gem. These gems were originally contained in a large magic box, called the Tenko Box.

When Hikita names Tenko his successor, jealous fellow apprentices, twins Jana and Jason attempt to steal the Starfire Gems for themselves. Hikita gives Tenko the mystical Topaz Starfire Gem, which allows her to transform and summon a spirit animal lion to aid her against the combined power of Jana and Jason’s Amber and Ruby Starfire Gems. (Which, when combined, turns the twins into a two-headed dragon. In the ensuing battle, the Starfire Gems are scattered to the four winds, and Hikita is injured. The master magician is placed inside the Tenko Box where he becomes a sort of spirit guide for Princess Tenko. (Notice any similarities to a certain Wizard from Jewel Riders?) Hikita guides Tenko and the other Guardians as they travel the world in a race with Jana and Jason for the lost Starfire Gems.

Along with the titular character, there are three male guardians: Bolt, Hawk, and Steel. They each wield Starfire Gems of their own in the quest to gather the rest of the lost stones. Along the way, they are also joined by Ali, a street girl who eventually gets her own Starfire Gem, and Shonti, trainer and caretaker of the animals used in both Tenko’s stage magic shows and as magical companions with gems of their own.

Tenko and the Guardians of the Magic premiered on September 10th, 1995, the same day as Jewel Riders and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year as well. I think it’s such an interesting thing that these two shows with very similar premises premiered the same day. They share some interesting similarities in the basic plots, but where Jewel Riders goes for the full medieval fantasy, Tenko is much more an urban fantasy, where the characters live in the “real” world. This is similar to shows like 1994’s Gargoyles or 1996’s Sky Dancers. It allowed the creators to occasionally explore the friction of the magical and mundane worlds.

The real-life Princess Tenko – Japanese idol singer and stage magician Mariko Itakura – would show up at the end of every episode to either perform one of her signature grand illusions or teach a simple magic trick. It’s interesting to me that children were meant to believe this was the same character who’s animated adventures they had just finished. While sometimes interesting, it was always the weakest part of the show to me as a child. I would have preferred an extra 5 minutes of animated adventure and magic.

One of the interesting things we here at the Archive found out from speaking with Greg Autore was that Tenko underwent focus group testing with kids at the same time as Jewel Riders.

Greg Autore: “Part of the Kenner process is to always look for new properties or inventions. When they arrive, Design and Marketing review them and some are picked to go to the next step to make test models and get early consumer feedback. I was given several scripts and loved “Enchanted Camelot” when I first read it. So, I pushed for getting it into the tests and was assigned to adapt it into a viable toy line. I was told that the production company was willing to work with us (Kenner) to make it better. It was not until after the test results came back favorable and we decided to push forward that I met Robert Mandell and really dug into the project.

Incidentally, “Princess Tenko” was in the same round of testing, and I did make the models for that also, but it did not score as high. Later, Mattel picked up that line but it did not perform well.”

In documents dated 6/6/94, Greg outlined a possible version of the show that was never produced, but contained elements that would eventually make it into the final version of the show and dolls.

You can also hear more from Greg about Tenko in Episode 3 of the Jewel Riders Archive Podcast: http://www.jewelridersarchive.com/posts/the-jewel-riders-archive-podcast-episode-three-greg-autore-part-two/

Another genesis that the two properties share is the unproduced 1993 toy, cartoon, and comic line of Wonder Woman and the Star Riders. This was a toy line from Mattel, and when Greg was prototyping the Jewel Rider dolls, he used these bodies before the idea left Mattel and was picked up by Kenner! The doll bodies used to make Star Riders were eventually repurposed into the Tenko and Disney Musical/Bubble Princess bodies.

As we mentioned earlier, it’s interesting that both Tenko and Jewel Riders came about at the same time. Maybe there was just something in the air around then, but it wouldn’t have been the first time that Mattel tried to sweep Hasbro’s legs out from under them by using their own concept and rushing a product to market. This famously happened with Jem and the Holograms and the Mattel-produced Barbie and the Rockers. Tenko was also billed as “Saban’s Tenko and the Guardians of the Magic.” Remember in 1994/1995, Saban was a household name after it produced the hit Power Rangers. Did they meet Princess Tenko while in contact with Japanese production studios and decide to base a cartoon series around her? This was also around the same time that the infamous “Saban Moon” adaptation of Sailor Moon was being worked on, so clearly Saban was interested in doing a female-focused fashion/action cartoon. It was even a live-action/animation hybrid!

Regardless, Tenko’s thirteen episode run sadly ends on a cliffhanger episode that hints at a greater villain (same as Jewel Riders with Morgana), but with no hope of resolving the storyline. It’s too bad, because Tenko could have been great with a second season. There were plenty more Starfire Gems to find and storylines to explore. One wonders what could have been! I’m sure the rights – especially since this involved a real-life person and multiple corporations – are a horrible tangle to this day.

Believe it or not, there was actually a time that I liked this show more than Jewel Riders (I know, heresy, right?). I like the urban fantasy setting, the supporting cast, the hint of romance between Tenko and Jason. I do find it interesting that Tenko’s main supporting cast is largely male, with Bolt, Hawk, and Steel on the good side, and Jason on the bad side. It’s such a strange choice for a show that was going to have a tie-in doll line! What you’re left with are three Tenko dolls (one for each of her transformations with the Topaz, Rose Quartz, and Sapphire Starfire Gems), Ali, Shonti (who never had a Gem in the show), and Jana. Not even one of the male characters was produced. Though we did get Tenko’s horse Pearl Rider and her snow leopard Ninjara.

The dolls featured the Star Riders bodies with printed jumpsuits overtop. Each doll then had paper and cloth pieces children could add to make them look like they were powered up with magic. One of the things that did come through the phases from Greg’s early concepts were the magnetic features. Each doll had a magnetic breastplate and magnetic jewel that could attach to it. The animals had magnetic jewel play features as well.

While I think the dolls are very pretty, and fun, they lack the screen accuracy of the Jewel Riders dolls. With their tall hairpieces, they look more akin to Vegas showgirls than the magical battle outfits of the show.

Neither dolls or show caught with audiences well, however. Perhaps this was because of the odd 7 am Sunday morning time slot. Maybe the dolls simply didn’t sell well enough to warrant a further season of animation. Or maybe the moonlit shadow of Sailor Moon was already being cast.

Whatever the reason, It’s a bit sad to see a series with such promise not find an audience or an ending. The real-life Princess Tenko went back to performing magic, Saban went on to produce more seasons of Power Rangers, and Greg Autore continued his work on Jewel Riders. And just like that, Tenko was swallowed by the airwaves.

The series has never had an official release in the West. No VHS were made in the ‘90s, and only a few episodes were released on a smattering of DVDs in Europe. The series later aired on Jetix in the US, where most of the recordings floating around on the internet are from. Only 11 of the 13 episodes were available for years until Chris and Ronnie found a childhood VHS recorded from TV with one of the missing episodes! And just recently, a fan gave us a link to the final episode! For the first time, all of Tenko is available once again!



Did you love Tenko? Were you one of the loyal viewers who couldn’t wait for the reveal of a new Starfire gem or to see if the intrepid Princess could recover them? Let us know in the comments below!

And remember…

“The Magic’s in You!”


P.S. Something magic is in the air, because we just found another great article all about Tenko!


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