Kengan Ashura Falls Flat as Corporate Fight Club

Early in Netflix’s new anime series Kengan Ashura, an adaptation of the manga of the same name by Yabako Sandrovich and Daromeon, the CEO of a major corporation lays out the hidden shape of the world: nearly all serious business transactions are secretly resolved by brutal fistfights. 

This is kengan: when two companies are in competition, squabbling over a government contract, or interested in changing the rules of industry, each one picks a fighter to go head-to-head, and the winner takes all. The rules and regulations of the Kengan Association, which oversees the fights, are the real superstructure of the world’s financial system. For all intents and purposes, it’s the Illuminati.

Violence structures pretty much everything in the world of Kengan Ashura. The companies represented range from massive energy corporations to chains of bookstores to video game studios. Underground fights organized as ways of letting smaller businessman win their win into the Association are, essentially, massive scams. When the Association holds a tournament to select a new chairman, several world leaders show up in the booths, including caricatures of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.

To my great shame, the prospect of figuring out Kengan Ashura’s class politics is irresistible. Pop culture is awash with depictions of how power — and in particular, big business — “really” works. The answer might be “petty idiocy,” as in the case of HBO’s Succession or Veep. It might be a literal conspiracy about “globalists” hunting regular people. Is there something appealing or worthwhile about positing that the answer might just be dudes punching each other in the face? Unfortunately, at the end of Kengan Ashura’s first season, the answer seems to be “no.”

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Making a Money Monster

Putting aside the fact that none of these guys have apparently heard of bribery or political action committees, there’s a grim resonance to the premise. It’s not like there’s a lack of stories about rich people getting other people to put their bodies on the line for them, whether it’s gladiatorial combat, the fight club scenes from Game Night, or most of human history. 

On some level, this is a fantasy — the directness of a fight feels fairer than the many layers of corruption that underlie the way industry actually works. And it’s a classic anime premise, hearkening back to everything from Dragon Ball Z to Fist of the North Star. Between the ridiculously strong, silent, hyper-masculine protagonist Tokita Ohma and the elaborate explanation of the fighters’ techniques (ripping off skin with their fingertips, going extremely fast by mimicking a SCUD missile), Kengan Ashura occasionally feels like a more down-to-Earth JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure

But the system also encourages underhanded deals, ranging from elaborate side bets to buying up other companies’ rights to literally hiring assassins to take out your competitors. It’s a sort of literalization of the supposed survival-of-the-fittest brutality of the market, up to and including the fact that the people with the money are never the ones actually risking their bodies. When a fighter is introduced, the announcer lists their height, weight, fighting style, and how much money they’ve earned for their boss in previous kengan matches.

Talk About A Hostile Takeover, Am I Right?

Why have I spent so much time thinking about the class politics of a show where Ronald McDonald hires an American street fighter? The action of Kengan Ashura is pretty fun, but the characters are mostly thin, and it’s unclear where, if anywhere, any of it is going. (The first season of the anime adapts a decent chunk of the source material, but not all of it.) Mostly, I can’t stop thinking about how weird it is that the show takes its premise seriously.

There are, of course, ridiculous elements of Kengan Ashura. There are several warring assassin families, several of which are pledged, patronage-style, to a company. The company “Nentendo” is represented by a giant baby from the Himalayas whose fighting ethic was weakened once he discovered video games. And one of the CEOs who runs a company called “Boss Burger” is literally Ronald McDonald. 

But, at least in the anime adaptation, the jokes are mostly in the background, subservient to whatever bizarre speech is happening at the time — the production seems to mostly take the characters at face value, rather than creating a degree of knowing distance from them. (This is one of the primary uses for irony, something Kengan Ashura could really use.) It doesn’t help that there’s no sense of winking in any of the series’ use of cliches, like an enormous African fighter who is introduced having boned like, ten girls at once, or multiple villains coded as extremely effeminate.

Men Men Men Manly Men Men Men

I think the thing that gets to me about Kengan Ashura is the way it tries to have it both ways. The show blends the dual value systems of the marketplace, and brute physical strength, positing that they are, in a sense, the same thing. The relationship between fighter and company president here becomes one that resembles partnership, or at least coaching, rather than something transactional. 

The most damning element of the show’s approach to its conflation of masculinity, brutality, and marketplace success is that Ohma is not even the primary viewpoint character for the audience — instead, that’s Kazuo Yamashita, a pathetic salaryman in his mid-50s who becomes Ohma’s coach-slash-employer. Within a few minutes of meeting Yamashita we learn that his wife left him, that his son is a recluse who hasn’t left his bedroom in years, and that his only plan for the future is to die in his small house after paying off the mortgage. Eventually, he is tricked into going into massive debt in order to join the Kengan Association. It would probably be more efficient for the show’s narrator to just call him a cuck or soy boy.

At one point, Yamashita accidentally makes an enormous bet on one of Ohma’s fights, and winds up winning ten percent of “Penasonic.” Ohma, however, rejects the bet, because caring about money would sully the purity of combat to learn who is the strongest warrior. Yamashita is cowed into pretending the bet never happened, losing his chance to pay off his debts. This is, of course, a fighting tournament premised on the idea that whoever wins will earn billions of yen for their employer-coach. Money is manliness is might is right, Kengan Ashura seems to say, its tongue too inhibited by a mouthguard to be in cheek. Anyone who suggests otherwise is an idiot.

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