This year will mark the 30th anniversary of a rather prominent milestone in the world of video games - the release of the very first Street Fighter. August 30th, 1987 was the date that Capcom released the opening outing of its fortune-making franchise to the arcades, and bloody hell, what a legacy it’s left. Even if you ignore the amount of video games it has produced - thirty-three* in total - there’s also the feature-length animated films, the considerably rubbish live-action ones, and a plethora of card games, board games and even slot and pinball machines. It’s all the more incredible considering just how forgettable the first game actually was - Capcom could just as easily have given up on making a sequel, and none of the goodness (not counting the live-action movies, of course) that has followed would have come to pass. Either SNK’s King of Fighters would be ruling the roost as the fighting game series that revolutionized it all, or we’d instead be singing the praises of, ugh, World Heroes or - heaven forbid - Rise of the Robots *shudders*.
It certainly was a surprise to me just how grossly expansive the Street Fighter world has become in the world of comics too. One company flying the flag for Street Fighter’s print contributions in particular has been Udon Entertainment, a company well-known for their work on other video game franchises and anime artbooks. The prowess in their work seems to have impressed Capcom enough for them to sustain a lasting relationship as well, to the point that they’ve been allowed to produce a number of ‘side story’ graphic novels focused on individual SF characters, rather than the overall cast. One such example is Street Fighter Origins: Akuma - a rare look at one of this game series’ most prominent and iconic villains from a ‘how it all began’ perspective.
Street Fighter Origins: Akuma covers almost the entire story of Akuma’s rise to demonic dominance in the fighting world, covering his early days as a rural village kid in mid-20th century Japan, the trials of his stringent martial arts training as he rises to excellence, and his eventual, inevitable succumbing to the violent fury of his learned powers. For the uninitiated who know only of Ryu and Ken when it comes to the Street Fighter cast, think of Akuma as the ‘dark side’ variant of those two - but with a whole lot of volcanic rage and incredible (although some might say cheap) moves to go with it. As the long-time rival of Ryu, this side story has the potential to lay some fascinating groundwork for a bad guy who hasn’t had much revealed about his personality. Save for, of course, that he’s pretty bloody angry, carries a mean flaming kanji character on his back and could break anyone in two without a moment’s care or notice.
It starts with Akuma living out his childhood under a humble farming family with his parents and his older brother, Gouken - another familiar name for SF fans - free from the grip of trouble and strife. It is only when trouble comes to them - via a group of wanton vigilantes looking for his father, Yoshinori - that Akuma’s life is flung onto the path of violent destiny that he’s to fulfil in the games. Far from being the simple rice grower Akuma was led to believe his father to be, Yoshinori - real-name Gyuki - is actually the first disciple of legendary martial arts master Goutetsu, teacher of the extremely powerful art of Ansatsuken. This school of combat, capable of allowing users to harness their own inner energy into powerful attacks, offers a sense of power beyond any other fighting style imaginable - but comes at the price of potentially corrupting its students, sending them down a dark path of bloodlust and murder. Gyuki, it transpires, was apparently one of those to have used his powers for killing rather than protection - and despite his obvious attempt to leave his darker days behind, his crimes have now come home to roost. As this group of vigilantes descend upon him to avenge his wrongdoings, his family - Akuma included - are forced to flee to the nearby mountains as their house is burned to the ground, and Gyuki is slayed by the mob.
Homeless and on the run, both Akuma and Gouken are now saddled with their sick mother with no plan on how to survive. Even at this young age, Akuma is a kid angry at his own weaknesses, and desperate for some semblance of strength to save his family - a desire that manifests itself in Gouken’s eyes as teenage petulance. After the last of many bitter arguments with his older brother on what to do about their situation, Akuma abandons his family and heads off further into the wilderness, where an encounter with a bear (one he amusingly seeks out himself as a means of proving his strength) results in him being rescued by a mysterious old man, who takes him back to his abode for shelter - an abode that curiously happens to be a dojo. The identity of this fellow? Well it could only be Goutetsu, of course - the old master of Akuma’s now-deceased father. Faced with the option of either exacting revenge for the death of his father - it was Goutetsu who was responsible for planting the seed for Gyuki’s murderous intent, after all - or using this opportunity to obtain the power and control over his destiny he’s been yearning for, he decides to become Goutetsu’s protege, and follow in his father’s footsteps on a path to achieve ultimate strength - and perhaps one day, vengeance.
Whatever the path does hold, it’s a separate one taken by Gouken - though it does lead to the very same martial arts master. Trained by Goutetsu while Akuma is away tuning his acumen in the underworld fighting scene of Tokyo, Gouken finds both noble warriorhood and moral responsibility in the powers granted by Goutetsu’s training - a contrast to Akuma’s simple desire for conquest. Though Gouken still has no idea to his brother’s whereabouts, Goutetsu holds the key to their eventual reunion. But the old master himself has his own secrets to hide regarding their family, and what these secrets hold have the potential to set the two brothers on a collision course of cataclysmic - perhaps even fatal - proportion with each other. Only time will tell as to how the bond of these siblings will hold out, especially if Goutetsu’s revelations end up pushing Akuma over the very edge that he tried to stop his father from going over.
It’s a pretty simplistic plot on the whole - a family vengeance here, a ‘fall to the dark side’ there - but Akuma’s solo outing still manages to deliver a punch that’ll leave most fans coming away satisfied. The Star Wars references aren’t just for jokes either - there is a resonant similarity between his young, headstrong self and a certain Anakin Skywalker from the Star Wars’ prequels. We’re thankfully spared the melodrama and awful dialogue that the latter spouts however, as Akuma’s direct personality and his refusal to mince words with his older brother lay the foundation for some compelling character development. Granted, fans reading it will know where it all ends up, but it is the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ that has always eluded them. And while this may not strictly be canon (although it’s hard to say what Capcom calls ‘canon’ these days), Street Fighter Origins: Akuma does serve up an explanation about as solid, and enjoyable, as there’s ever been given - particularly when compared to the fleeting synopsis given by the games.
For a story about bloodline and revenge, SF: Akuma’s artwork is suitably gritty and hard-hitting as well. There are some really interesting uses of colour in particular to give life to certain settings - Akuma and Gouken’s surroundings out in their mountain-side home are given suitably twilit, morose tones for the fate that soon envelops them both, while the scenes of Akuma’s time spent in Tokyo provide both the bloody carnage of the underworld fights he hones his skills in, and the gaudy, vintage 70s neon glitz of the city itself at the time. Naturally, the fights themselves provide the bulk of the quality - Akuma’s bloody encounter with the wild bear and his eventual climactic fight with Gouken are most definitely standouts, particularly given the length and dynamic shifts in battle advantage that the latter offers up. But above all else, the transformation of Akuma himself provides the most visually interesting spectacle of a well-drawn graphic novel. From stubborn, wild-eyed kid to fireborn demon made flesh, his metamorphosis through all of the stages in-between is an artistically impressive ride. While some comics fail to give their main characters the presence they’re due, Akuma is without question the best thing about his own origin story - brooding, intense and ultimately maniacal. The standard of the artwork involved in his design, which never falters throughout, is a major reason for that.
What comes as an additional pleasant surprise too is just how well-written the dialogue is. Any author inheriting the Street Fighter franchise could have just phoned in that part (which is the case during moments of Chun-Li’s own side story) and just let the decent artwork do the talking. Instead, we have a set of seven chapters filled with introspective monologues on the concepts of existence and destiny, short, forceful sentences punctuating the more dramatic moments, and a sprinkle of pseudo-Eastern philosophical rhetoric to compliment the whole setting. Sure, it’s still fairly corny if compared to more prestigious comic series - but this is Street Fighter we’re talking about, a brand not exactly known for narrative depth or subtlety. Slower moments in stories such as these are supposed to introduce depth, be it to character or surroundings, and SF: Akuma has plenty of them to give its lead character the personality needed to make his final transformation believable. Other characters do suffer in comparison - Gouken’s own mini-arc in particular fails to be interesting on any real level, giving this future master of Ryu and Ken’s training a lack of intrigue - but it’s commendable just how much effort writer Chris Sarracini and the rest of the Udon art staff have put in to give this story some emotional complexity beyond having a few shallow characters duke it out for a few cells.
What is lacking though, aside from Akuma being the only real character who stands out in this vignette, is good pacing. Akuma’s tale finishes considerably abruptly for all of the slow musing infused into it, and there are also points that are just jumped over entirely - Akuma’s time as an actual street fighter is wrapped up in practically half a chapter before he’s back at Goutetsu’s dojo seeking further training. We only get minor hints of his growing powers before the climactic twists of the story force him to unleash his rage, and a few additional chapters to show his change, especially if facing off with a few other characters from the SF universe, would have definitely benefited things as a whole. Instead, Akuma jumps from powerful fighting prodigy to a flaming beast of war in the blink of an eye, fights his brother Gouken and then the story ends. It’s a choppy and awkward transition, and almost undoes the multitude of good work that has gone into this novel. It leaves what could have been a great showcase of how rich the Street Fighter universe could be, as merely a decent one - but one that fans will still happily consume nonetheless.
All in all, if Street Fighter Origins: Akuma is a solid indicator of Udon’s presentation of the world of Street Fighter, then the franchise is in more than satisfactory hands. It’s obvious that those behind this short novel are incredibly knowledgable on the SF universe in general, and they definitely treat the characters with the respect they deserve. It’s just a shame that they fail at critical points to go the extra mile and make this offering accessible to curious readers unfamiliar with the subject matter - but if you are a hardcore SF nut or even a casual player, this is still a worthwhile time killer.
Plus, it also comes with tons of art stills similar in style to this: