Kengan Ashura Season 1 Part 1 Anime Series Review (2024)

Have you ever wondered what Baki would be like if it had a conservative bent instead of queer undertones? Well, look no further because the answer is Kengan Ashura! While Kengan is trying to convey the same spectacle and white-knuckle action of the long-running martial arts series that clearly inspired it, its focus on wealth, edgelord character writing, and eugenics makes it feel like a pantomime of the older series. While it draws on Baki for visual inspiration and focuses on the dramatic fights that made the older series popular, Kengan Ashura fails to understand and provide its own take on the themes and execution that made Baki an enduring hit.

To back it up, Kengan Ashura is an ugly show. Produced by Larx Entertainment, main characters are often rendered as low-detail CGI models that would have looked dated in a PlayStation 3 game. While this animation style does allow for a greater and easier range of motion as characters execute martial arts moves, character movement and even expressions feel unnatural. In the first episode, when Tokia dislocates his opponent's elbow, it looks like the jobber's arm is clipping into a higher part of his arm. This problem isn't addressed with time and the staff's growing familiarity with this animation style either. In the closing episodes of the first season, characters sometimes talk just by moving their lips while their teeth and jaws remain static.

To add insult to this self-inflicted injury, supporting characters are rendered in more detail, which creates a distracting juxtaposition whenever a main character and supporting character are talking, as it looks like they're from two completely different anime. The end result of this visual direction is that Kengan Ashura looks amateurish and uncanny most of the time instead of intense, whatever emotion they were trying to go for.

Kengan Ashura also has some pretty cynical world-building and character writing. Before the start of most fights in the series, the net worth of the companies participating in the match is blared over a loudspeaker along with the fighter's stats and record. The implication is that these companies' monetary value is as important as physical factors that will help a fighter win the match. Sure, a more charitable reading of Kengan Ashura might paint this over-the-top splendor and focus on wealth as satire, but the series' fixation on money was never thought out enough to feel like a critique to me. The show just attached a dollar sign to fighters as a quick way to show how strong they might be, à la power levels in Dragon Ball Z.

This martial arts anime also skips over most of what makes martial arts interesting, namely, the history of the various styles, how they're inextricably linked to different cultures, and how they shape the identity and worldview of their practitioners. Instead, Kengan just has characters wailing on each other in between quick explanations of their background. Every so often, the series will gesture at how different martial art styles can interact or exploit each other, but this tension is undercut by a gimmick, like transformations in the otherwise fairly grounded show. This new form just makes a fighter stronger and lets them win.

Ordinarily, a likable cast of characters could compensate for these fights' lack of tension and intrigue. After all, rooting for a character you can relate to is a big part of what makes the shonen genre work. However, neither Yamash*ta nor Tokia have any endearing qualities. Yamash*ta starts the season as a beta-male stereotype and ends the season as a beta-male stereotype with a tremendous amount of debt. Similarly, Tokia remains a sociopath who only cares about beating people up so that he can prove that he's the strongest. Even if the show does sprinkle in flashbacks — which look like Danganronpa cutscenes — to hit at Tokia's tragic past and the murder of his adoptive father, it doesn't make him interesting, or his edgelord attitude feels justified.

If you can look past these issues, there are some things to like and fun to be had in the first season of Kengan Ashura. The music is a blend of rap and butt metal that is equal parts hilarious and perfect for the cage match vibe that the series adopts once the Kengan Annihilation Tournament begins. The tournament arc structure also gives the back half of the season a snappy pace and has enough new ideas in quick succession to compensate for most of those story beats not landing.

An idea that does find its mark, though, is a foul-mouthed fighter from Texas named Adam Dudley, who was a hockey enforcer before becoming a deathmatch fighter. He's a bigot and is written to be a hateable villain, which gives him more personality and a sense of place in the story than nearly any other character. The Kure family of assassins are also fun, even if they're eugenicists who are supposedly so powerful because of generations of breeding with the strongest fighters they can find. Even with their problematic politics, they're an entertaining bunch of freaks, and their casual attitude toward murder is just weird enough to be delightful.

There's not much else to say about the first season of Kengan Ashura. The voice acting in both the original Japanese and English dub is serviceable but forgettable. This season lacks any kind of resolution, but that feels deliberate for a Netflix original, as the streaming platform likes to use cliffhangers to drum up interest in subsequent seasons. This Netflix original also suffers from the on-screen text being inconsistently notated, an issue common in anime exclusive to the platform.

Kengan Ashura is at least bad in a way that feels authored and interesting. I can't recommend the series, nor think that any hypothetical viewer would enjoy it, but it is the kind of trash TV that's rewarding to dissect. This season would be a fantastic pick for a “bad anime watchalong” with a group of friends, but there are a lot of better anime out there that can be enjoyed unironically instead.

Kengan Ashura Season 1 Part 1 Anime Series Review (2024)
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