Kengan Ashura – Anime Review
Synopsis: Ohma Tokita enters a hidden world where corporate disputes are settled in brutal gladiator bouts. Forget the money, he just wants to fight — and win. (Official Netflix Synopsis)
Review (Warning: Minor Spoilers to Follow):
Kengan Ashura is Netflix’s second offering of no-holds-bared, extreme fighting anime, following 2018’s Baki. The series follows two characters, Ohma Tokita and Yamashita Kazuo as they enter the world of the Kengan Ashura, a secret fighting tournament that massive corporations use to decide which companies are allowed to do what: Does Nintendo release a new console, or does Sony? That’s the kind of thing the Kengan Representatives decide as two extreme fighters enter the ring, and only one comes out as victor. Oddly, as a little bit of extra trivia, the writer behind Kengan Ashura, Yabako Sandrovich, also wrote the manga for another Summer Anime, How Heavy Are the Dumbbells You Lift? (And apparently both exist within the same universe?)
Kengan Ashura offers one primary form of entertainment: Bad Ass, Increasingly Over the Top fighting mayhem. Every episode revolves around crazy brawls between Ohma and the other combatants as they each fight for the companies they come to represent. If you want to see muscle-bound bad asses going toe to toe and jabbing each other with incredible force and increasingly absurd techniques, and you didn’t get enough of that with Baki, then Kengan Ashura is the perfect continuation. That said, it’s all Kengan really has to offer.
Initially the series opens as if it’s the story of two men, Yamashita Kazuo and Ohma Tokita. While Ohma is the big, tough fighter, Yamashita is just a scrawny business man. He becomes involved with Ohma and the Kengan fighting world through sheer happenstance, and it almost seems like his roll in the series will be to offer a secondary story revolving around the business/betting and manipulation side of the organization. Unfortunately in these first twelve episodes (Kengan seems split into two, 12 episode, parts) Yamashita is never really utilized to his fullest. Yamashita is frequently relegated to repetitive jokes centering on just how much money flows through the Kengan Organization, and his increasing debt as he’s dug deeper and deeper into this underground fighting world. The only other true use of the character is as the audience’s straight-man vessel, used to express sheer shock and awe at the brutality displayed in the fighting ring. It’s disappointing, as Episode 1 had hints of developing his character, using the fighting in the Kengan Organization to gradually teach Yamashita life lessons and see him grow from a down-trodden, abandoned husband and failed father into someone with a bit more backbone and confidence. Sadly, twelve episodes in and it seems Yamashita’s early character work is more a misnomer than what to expect to any significant degree.
Even Ohma Tokita doesn’t offer much to latch onto. Despite being our one, true, hero in the ring, bolstered by a pseudo-revenge driven backstory, the series frequently turns attention away from both Yamashita and Ohma, framing new characters as the point of focus. The series spends its first few episodes setting up the Kengan Ashura tournament, and Ohma and Yamashita sit at the center of that narrative. But once we reach the tournament both take a backseat to focus on whoever is in the ring currently. We’re bombarded with short blasts of backstory for each character, attempting to frame the ring’s combatants as the heroes to their own stories. Unfortunately since each match is contained within one episode it’s never enough, and it feels difficult to form any kind of meaningful connection to these characters. Because of such thin character writing it becomes increasingly important that you’re here solely for the wildly, absurd, martial arts combat.
In that way Kengan Ashura near wholly succeeds. Matches often have enough back and forth, switching who is winning at any given moment, to keep audiences enthralled on pure spectacle alone. Episodes 1 to 7 are where the series is in top form. Focus is kept on Yamashita and Ohma as both work their way towards participating in a massive, game-changing tournament. Not only do matches between the fighters frequently subvert audience expectations, but so too does the narrative, adding in numerous twists and turns that keep the story feeling fresh and interesting. But that streak of creativity starts to falter once the tournament actually gets underway. The series becomes bogged down, dedicating one fight per episode. The narrative becomes locked into this tournament format, losing its chances to subvert audience expectation, and somehow every match up during this series of episodes becomes entirely predictable. Episodes 8-10 are stupid easy to predict who the winner of each fight will be, often making the episodes drag as you’ve already guess the outcome.
The series does eventually buck expectations again with Episodes 11 and 12, but by then Part 1’s run is over and you’re left waiting for whenever the second set of episodes launches. That’s no fault of the series itself, as it’s Netflix that decides how to cut these offerings up and Episode 12 feels a poor place to end this first run. Also, audiences should be prepared for just how brutal Kengan can get. It starts out fairly light in the grotesque violence department, but by Episode 12 people are getting their eyes gouged out in full view, making an extreme escalation from earlier content.
Ultimately, for what it is, Kengan Ashura is solid. If you just want crazy ass fights between muscled bound combatants then this series excels. It’s wild, crazy and keeps you guessing outside of a three episode rut. But in so many other ways Kengan Ashura just isn’t up to snuff. Ohma and Yamashita are endearing characters, but both get sidelined so hard it can be difficult to even remember they’re supposed to be the leads. The series also isn’t the most progressive anime offering you’ll find. Kengan Ashura is a total sausage fest, with not one bad ass female fighter showcased through all twelve episodes. Most of Kengan’s female characters are relegated to Kengan Association Members, and near every girl has a similar kind of busty, thin-waist, long legs body. The few times they cross with the fighters the girls often become damsels in need of saving. The series also suffers a bit from trans-phobia, with one effeminate fighter finding themselves battered by bigoted insults. The dub actually cleans this up a bit, trying to remove some of the more distasteful dialogue, making the series more approachable for a wider audience.
Despite it’s failings I still think Kengan Ashura largely succeeds. I don’t get the sense author Yabako Sandrovich set out to make anything close to high-class entertainment. Kengan is a series for the fighting obsessed, those who like to watch brutal showdowns between muscle-bound power houses. In that singular way Kengan Ashura works wonders and is definitely worth a try.
Kengan Ashura is available for streaming via Netflix.