Kengan Asura is refreshingly straightforward about what it wants to be. Even though I had many issues with it over the course, it’s still nice to read a manga where the team behind it clearly knew what they wanted to do and were passionate about executing it to the best of their ability.
Kengan is first and foremost about action, action and more action. To a point where nearly entire 27 volumes of it are a single, gigantic tournament where not a single damn fight is omitted. Plot, while present, takes a back seat or rather gets shoved in the trunk. As such, I think it’s fair to say Kengan lives or dies based on quality of action.
This is where things get tricky though cause despite all the good decisions it makes, there’s plenty others that undermine them.
The premise itself is extremely simple. Early in Japan’s history, conflicts between merchants and companies led to much bloodshed, that was until an emperor suggested that instead, they should solve their conflicts through martial arts matches between fighters representing involved companies. That’s how Kengan association was created. Skip to current day and we have a sad salaryman Kazuo, who randomly stumbles upon Ohma beating the shit out of a muscle mountain. The next day it turns out that this Ohma will represent the company Kazuo works at and he’s appointed as Ohma’s manager.
It’s a nice and easy ways to set up a story that will directly revolve around fights and little else. There’s more to come but I’d like to first talk about the most important part, the fights.
This is where Kengan gets pretty interesting, cause it sets up its universe in a rather particular way. Usually action manga go for either superhero level shenanigans, where everyone is impossibly strong (like in Dragon Ball), or something more grounded, with at most some visual flair to make real life look more exciting (like with Ippo). Kengan attempts to take the best of both. Real world laws and logic make the action feel a bit more tangible and relatable cause every exceptional display of power is relative to normal people like you or me. At the same time majority of fighters have some unique quirk about them, be the extreme grip strength or absurd range of joint motion or simply reaction time that adds quite a bit of variety.
At its best Kengan presents many interesting what-ifs of martial arts variety that make for exciting match ups. Like pitting a fighter with incredible strikes against a top tier grappler or pro wrestler fighting an unconventional sumo wrestler and other such thing.
Another strong point of the better fights is choreography and strategy. Not all, but plenty of fights in Kengan are a genuine battle between two excellent combatants who all have plans of their own. Seeing how they adapt on the fly and interact with the moveset of their opponent creates a tense dynamic where everything could change at any moment.
Unfortunately some of those are either ruined at times or significantly undermined. When it comes to strategy and realism, Kengan just goes dumber as it goes on. It’s easy enough to accept some oddities at first cause they aren’t too exceptional and usually come with a decent explanation but then horseshit starts to slide in. A guy who uses his super dense controllable hair as a weapon, a guy who unlocks his brain power that makes him absurdly strong, a guy who spent some days starving himself out in the forest without sleep to become one with the universe, a karate master who trained to stop a bullet from a few meters away, secret technique that makes your heart beat faster which someone turns you into a god of fighting. Also the more ridiculous it gets the less does it feel like any of the characters actually represent their martial art, even though the manga loves to remind you about their fighting style, history behind it and some of its strengths. Even though the writer and editor have a lot of martial arts experience, I’m disappointed that even something like Street Fighter is closer to being a faithful depiction of martial arts than Kengan Asura.
None of this over the top shit does Kengan any favors cause instead of at the very least serving as some interesting condition, they usually just become straightforward shonenshit powerups that “dramatically” turn the tides. The fights lose tension they once had and the damage done to either fighter means nothing as it could just lead to them getting stronger or simply still having all the strength they need to win. There are regular cases where manga waves away physical condition with endorphins, adrenaline or painkillers, which is interesting at first since it’s a real thing that at times keeps people going beyond their limits but when this idea gets overused, it becomes an obvious crutch for writers who think pulling a rug from under you is epitome of excitement.
This fetish Kengan team has for epic twists is another weakness in my opinion. It’s fucking wild how often they try to catch you off guard. It gets to a point where you can easily figure out what’s going to happen by thinking what’s the most logical flow of events will be and inverting it. A guy is beaten into puree of meat, blood and bones? Well don’t discard him just yet cause he’s actually gonna win! This spreads to the overall plot too, where everything is filled with attempts to create exciting twists. It peaks when one of Kengan participants tries to usurp the leadership and it’s like two kids playing war and making up new tools of attack of defense to prove that they’re the winner. There’s no build up or any proper setup, Kengan often just goes “KA-POW DIDN’T EXPECT THAT DID YOU, FUCKING IDIOT, HOW COOL IS THIS SHIT OH WHOOPS LEMME REVERSE THAT AIN’T THAT WILD HOLY SHIT I’M INSANE”. The only enjoyment I got from stuff like that is only in laughing at how stupid it is.
Well back to action, I can overlook the lack of tactics and over the top bullshit if at the very least it looks cool and visceral, and admittedly, Kengan Asura has pretty damn good art. Dorameon gets better over the course of the manga and at around half-point or even earlier he gets excellent at depicting muscular bodies. The perspective, proportions, their overall dimensions and everything else helps you to build a very solid image of what each fighter’s body looks like. This would be even more impressive if Kenga didn’t go full unga with power levels cause before that, physical appearance of the fighter and their weight would give you a general idea for how strong they are.
Art unfortunately falters when it comes to actual fighting. Many of the fights feature moments where both opponents actively exchange blows and instead of depicting it with more clarity, you get a bunch of noodles and non-specific explosions in the air that come together to form polluted, busy panels that carry no impact. Even when things get more specific the noodle limbs persists and actively diminish visual power of the strikes. This is why many of better fights share a common characteristic like characters who are too dangerous to casually exchange blown with or rely on grappling where things are obviously not fast enough to warrant the noodle treatment.
I think this problem could be solved if Kengan took a lesson from Ippo or even Dragon Ball who both had their own approach. For example Ippo often featured “phantom” limbs or bodies all going in very particular directions. This ends up looking like a composite photo where multiple frames are combined into one. When done well it allows the reader to complete a coherent sequence of events in their head without making them completely make up what happened like in Kengan. Dragon Ball on the other hand takes an even simpler approach. Toriyama doesn’t have throwaway brawl panels like so each one usually focuses on specific action that thanks to the way manga is paced and paneled, smoothly flows into the next one to form a well choreographed scene reminiscent of classic action movies. Even if battles are done at insane speed it was very easy to follow and didn’t lack clarity nor impact.
A small issue with art that I think is also worth noting are very poor backgrounds. It’s very negligible most of the time because fights happen within a white, empty arena that doesn’t warrant a detailed depiction, especially considering that the spotlight is always on the fighters anyway. However outside of that whenever I had to look at the backgrounds they went from either mediocre to terrible, like in the forest areas where the background are made out of poorly glued together photographs. It’s not a great flaw but it can be distracting nonetheless.
It’s hard to say Kengan is completely bad at anything cause it’s so bizarrely inconsistent with it. At times you can tell the team practiced the moves to depict them with true to life accuracy, other times it’s so lazy and vague that I have to wonder what’s even the point to show it. It’s a mixed bag that never lets to ride out the high nor suffer from a bad streak, for better of for worse.
I think that about wraps it up for action. So, what does Kengan have going on outside of that? It has fun characters, who despite being very flat, have interesting and diverse personalities that make it fun to just see how they do things and interact with characters and the world around them. It has comedy that can be hilarious at times. And finally, it has story that regularly shoots, stabs and punches itself in the foot by trying to be more than it actually is.
At the beginning I deliberately pointed out how simple and effective KA’s opening is. After all, when your series is all about fighting, that’s what you should be concerned with first and foremost so a simple plot only helps to avoid hindering it. As story goes on Kengan throws in completely unneeded details about everything and tries to build mysteries which are so hard to care about that when big reveals drop my reaction was just “so what?”. Why would I care about who taught Ohma the secret technique or who “the real Niko” or any other garbage? Kengan treats this stuff as if you’re supposed to at the edge of your seat in anticipation while doing no set-up whatsoever. For example in the last few volumes there’s a hint that that Kazuo might be more important than he seems (mild spoilers ahead). A bit later we find out that he’s a descendant of the old clan and his ancestor fought to death for the ancestor of his boss so entire reason this tournament was initiated is to repay the debt. So what? What does this add? What is gained by knowing this? Who even wanted to know this? The initial explanation of Nogi wanting to be the boss of Kengan was good enough.
Manga ends in a similar way, teasing a sequel by revealing characters who worked for “the real Niko” and it’s another so what situation. I don’t know them, “the real Niko” is barely even a character and could be easily cut out of the story without losing anything and yet this is what’s supposed to hook me into checking out the new manga, just laughable.
Similarly awful are attempts to raise the stakes. Kengan starts off trying to make you feel like it will be a manga that’s rough around the edges. Many characters love and some even live to kill. The setup itself implies that there are basically no rules and deaths are mundane (in fact, the amount of careers that end in death is so common it’s used to explain the high amount of fighters with XX wins, 0 losses fight records). What actually happens though? Among important characters only 1 dies (not counting the super amazing twist nobody will see coming) and 2 come back to life after actually dying, what a joke. Even characters that are meant to be evil or set on murder either mellow out or start being presented as “lovable assholes” who don’t actually mean it. Kure Raian is a best example of that. An insane guy who actually tried to kill someone for no damn reason, then just goes around all willy nilly making casual comments that are meant to make you like him despite the guy having no redeeming qualities and arguably not enough charisma to be lovably evil like Dio. There’s also quite a few under the table deals going on in the tournament with some company owners usually fretting over being pressured by more influential CEOs or potential financial ruin but guess what none of that has any consequences, the manga is filled with duds like that. It might be redundant but I want to shoot another example which is the Fang of Metsudo, the guy who’s supposedly so scary, people can’t keep on fighting after facing his overwhelming power. This could’ve been a very immediate threat and consequence. You don’t need to see people years into the future to know their spirit really is broken and losing their spirit is everything for people who live to fight. You guessed already what happens. It doesn’t actually hinder anyone, in fact people who fight him are completely cool with it shortly after, amazing.
Either way, this review might paint a very negative image of the manga and I do think it has great many flaws that ruin what could’ve been a modern classic for the action genre but I do still think it’s a relatively entertaining manga. There’s a decent amount of actually good fights, art is usually very pleasant to look at and brief moments between fights usually have neat comedic and SoL moments. Even when Kengan is at its absolute worst it can almost be funny how stupid it is, even if it probably would’ve been better without it. It’s also a relatively easy read thanks to how it’s paced, I think I finished the whole thing in about two by reading it for a few hours every day. It’s hard to make a definitive recommendation but I think this manga is at least worth a try. At best you might find a thrilling action manga, at worst you’ll have a laugh at how dumb it gets while still enjoying the good parts.
P.S. There’s also volume 0 of Kengan Asura but it’s just a bunch of bland and predictable (when not outright obvious) backstories of some characters that has very little action and adds next to nothing to most of them. The only part worth reading in my opinion is the one that shows how Metsudo and Kure met and lived. It’s not vital either but it’s the most entertaining one out of all of them and helps to flesh out Metsudo a tiny bit.