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Fighting Fiction: ‘Kengan Ashura’ perfects the martial arts tournament arc

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) started with tournaments, Bellator MMA and Pride FC made their names with tournaments, and practically every other major promotion of note has held at least one tournament. K-1’s tournaments are the stuff of legends. After a couple of false starts, even boxing has experimented with the concept with World Boxing Super Series.

Tournaments are every bit as ubiquitous in martial arts fiction — from “Enter the Dragon” to “Bloodsport” to “Kickboxer” to “The Karate Kid” to “Warrior,” there’s no more familiar storyline than pitting the hero against a gamut of eccentric opponents on their way to a final showdown. Hell, Wikipedia’s “Martial Arts Tournament Films” category has 87 entries, and it’s a standard framing device for fighting video games. “Street Fighter’s” World Warrior Tournament, “Tekken’s” King of Iron Fist Tournament, “King of Fighters’” and “Mortal Kombat’s” titular events, etc.

Despite all those attempts, though, nobody’s managed it quite like a Japanese comic called “Kengan Ashura.”

Kengan Ashura

I wrote a bit about this series for Bad Left Hook last month and I’m lazy, so I’m going to reuse some of that here.

A word of warning: if you Google this series, you will see bits from its animated adaptation. Do not watch the animated adaptation. It is Not Very Good (tm).

The framing device sees hapless salaryman Yamashita Kazuo happen upon a fistfight between a massive Yakuza and an odd young man; predictably, the latter wins in a wipeout, and soon finds himself in a world of corporate-sponsored fisticuffs that I like to think of as “Bloodsport after getting its degree and a job at its dad’s company.” After a few tussles to set the stage, it’s on to the 32-man Annihilation Tournament that comprises the remainder of the series.

Let’s begin with the visuals before getting into the meat of the storytelling.

Artist Daromeon starts a little rough, but both his figure drawing and ability to convey motion and impact improve drastically as the series progresses. I don’t want to use a late-series image that could spoil the tournament, so here’s a comparison between an early Kengan Ashura page and one from the ongoing sequel, Kengan Omega.

Because it’s Japanese series read it right-to-left.

By the middle of the tournament’s first round, it goes from “passable” to “solid” and just continues to ramp up from there. Combined with the excellent fight choreography, you can practically feel the force of every bone-crunching blow these guys land on each other. It’s some of the most compellingly kinetic stuff out there next to Yusuke Murata’s immaculate work on One-Punch Man.

Good as it is, the art is just the garnish for the delightfully meaty storytelling.

The key fault of the traditional tournament narrative is that there’s no question who will end up in the finals. We knew from the beginning that it would be Frank Dux vs. Chong Li, Daniel-san vs. Johnny Lawrence, Brendan Conlon vs. Tommy Riordan ... and so on. Other tournament participants get just a pittance of characterization, especially the ones who wind up on the antagonist’s side of the bracket.

Kengan Ashura avoids this pitfall by giving practically every contestant a backstory, motivation, and unique personality that gets further expanded upon in the series’ genuinely hilarious four-panel extras. I can think of maybe three that don’t get this treatment, and in addition, characters remain part of the story even after their defeats. There’s genuine uncertainty over the victor in each fight, a rare thing in stories of this type.

Adding to this uncertainty is that there isn’t an obvious antagonist who enjoys plot immunity. The right-hand side of the bracket features at least five combatants who would make narrative sense as a final boss, and it remains a tossup all the way to the semifinals.

It also helps that those characters are super interesting.

There’s Sekibayashi, the professional wrestler whose commitment to his style is so great that he refuses to block incoming strikes. There’s Saw Paing, the lethwei master so hilariously indestructible that an opponent shatters every bone in their hand trying to punch him. There’s Julius, the 460-pound muscle monster who gets his body warmed up for the tournament by wrapping a chain around himself and attaching the other end to a Formula 1 car.

Obviously, the fighters’ capabilities are more than a smidge unrealistic, but writer Sandrovich Yabako’s extensive knowledge of real-world MMA and general martial arts keeps things more compellingly grounded than, say, the sheer insanity that is Baki.

A lot of what I want to gush about is, unfortunately, spoilers; I’ll compromise with one of the opening-round tournament fights, so if you want to go in totally fresh, scroll all the way down to the comments once you read this.

The aforementioned Sekibayashi opens his bracket run against Kiozan Takeru, a sumo expert

Frankly, this series is so good that I have to force myself to engage with new content rather than obsessively re-read it. With at least two weeks until the return of real-world MMA, now’s the time to catch up.

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