The original Kinnikuman manga ran in Weekly Shonen Jump from 1979-1987. Created but the manga duo of Yoshinori Nakai and Takashi Shimada, who go under the pen-name of Yudetamago ("Boiled Egg" in Japanese), Kinnikuman started off as a parody of tokusatsu heroes like Ultraman but quickly changed into a splastick, superhuman-wrestling action story. It became a gigantic hit in the history of Shonen Jump, but Yudetamago weren't able to create a similar hit... Until 1998. Eleven years after ending their debut manga, the duo returned to the Kinnikuman world and introduced Japan to the "New Generation" of superhumans with Kinikuman II-Sei, with "Nisei" translating as "Second Generation", which was released in North America under the name Ultimate Muscle: The Kinnikuman Legacy. The anime, brought over by 4Kids Entertainment, became a fairly big hit with 4Kids commissioning Toei to continue making episodes after the show was canceled in Japan. The manga, released by Viz Media, never really seemed to be anywhere near as popular, even though it tells the same story and was fully released, with the volume having literally come out a couple of days ago. Why is that? And is this manga worth tracking down?
Twenty-eight years have passed since the end of Kinnikuman, which had Suguru Kinniku, a.k.a. Kinnikuman, taking his place as the new king of Planet Muscle alongside his new wife Bibinba. The Earth had no villains left to threaten it, and the other remaining superhumans stayed vigilant. Unfortunately, even superhumans get old and now the evil superhumans, banding under the name of the dMp (Demon Manufacturing Plant), have returned to Earth and the legends realize they have to train a new generation of warriors at the Hercules Factory. Among them is Suguru's own son, Mantaro Kinniku, who has already received special introductory training from the legendary warrior Ramenman. Unfortunately, Mantaro is still a wimp at heart and easily poops his pants, literally, before fights. Still, Mantaro, a.k.a. Kid Muscle, might just be the Earth's best chance at surviving... We're screwed, aren't we?
Ultimate Muscle keeps a lot of Kinnikuman's slapstick humor but when the fights are going on the feel can change very quickly, with violence, blood, and potential death always around. The manga is made up of five story arcs: The dMp Arc, where the New Generation are trained and fight in their first ever battles against evil; the Generation-Ex Arc, where new graduates from the Hercules Factory take on Mantaro and his friends in a fight to determine who will protect Japan; the No Respect Arc, where Mantaro fights against three dangerous criminals in order to learn "The Fire", a power that gives the people of his family great strength; the New Superhuman Olympics Arc, where the old superhuman wrestling tournament from the original series is brought back to see who is the greatest superhuman among the New Generation; the Demon Seed Arc, where Mantaro's best-friend and second Meat, who also helped out Kinnikuman, is captured by the Devil Superhumans, who wish the use Meat's body to revive a terrifying evil called General Terror. Each of these five story arcs are fairly different in style and none of them are really a waste in the overall scheme of things, which is to show Mantaro going from a pathetic wimp into a true warrior that can protect the planet and people he cares for. The anime only covered up to the New Superhuman Olympics Arc, leaving the Demon Seed Arc and the end of the manga left only to the original pages, so those who want to know how the story really ends will have no choice but to check out the manga.
Kinnikuman was well-loved due to its large cast of characters, and Ultimate Muscle does have a large cast as well, but the overall focus on each isn't exactly even. Mantaro obviously gets a large focus, but each story arc has its own different group to focus on. In the dMp Arc, Terry Kenyon, son of Terryman, Dik-Dik Van Dik, and Wally Tusket get some focus, and they also share focus into the Generation-Ex Arc, but afterwards they mainly become background characters that are around only to comment on fights and make jokes; they do get some focus again during the Demon Seed Arc but even then it's fairly minor in the end. Also, in general, Kinnikuman-style enemies normally become friends later on and the simple act of cheering on for your friends, called "friendship power", is enough to power up whoever is fighting. While it's understandable to see some characters get less focus so that others can get development at the same time characters like Terry looked to be very skilled and seeing them get the short end of the stick really is annoying.
Yoshinori Nakai's artwork is also worth bringing up. His style is overall very fitting for silly moments since his characters are drawn in a very cartoonish style, but at the same time he is very able to draw violent and somewhat gruesome moments with no trouble. It makes for a fairly interesting mix, since you could be seeing a comedic moment on one page and then shortly afterwards a violent moment can spring up no almost no warning. You also do see a refinement to his artwork during the course of the 29 volumes this title has, which is always fun to see as it makes you want to look back at earlier volumes and see how stuff has changed. The action itself is also similar in that you can see traditional moves that you would see in regular professional wrestling matches being used, but then out of nowhere a made-up move is used, usually with body-destroying results. Here, moves like the Pedigree, which is normally used as a finishing move in the WWE, is seen here as a regular move, but with more power. No moves are banned here and anything goes, which helps make the fights very unpredictable.
But, like I mentioned at the beginning, while the anime became fairly popular in North America, the manga never seemed to become anywhere near as popular, and the fact that we even got the entire thing released seems to be a miracle in-and-of itself. Probably the most obvious reason is that Viz didn't seem to actually look at what the original was like when compared to the anime. Even in Japan the anime was made for younger audiences, but the manga ran in Weekly Playboy magazine (not to confused with the now-defunct Monthly Playboy, which was the actual Japanese Playboy magazine). Viz released the manga here under the Shonen Jump label simply due to the original Kinnikuman's legacy, but the content in Ultimate Muscle isn't exactly for kids. Yudetamago quickly jumped on the fact that Weekly Playboy is for adults, giving the manga every chance to show bare-chested females, erection jokes, hostess club visits, poop jokes, and whatnot. Viz, in reaction, tried censoring what they could by putting bras on naked women, removing the erections, but still kept the poop jokes and violence in; the censorship would become less obvious as the story went on and by the half-way point Viz simply gave up on censorship. But part of the reason for the lack of censorship in later volumes is also because Yudetamago removes most of those adult elements as the story goes on. In the later portions of the manga the story focuses more on the fights and personal psychological backstories, though there are still things like boob jokes here and there. There was also a V-Jump Nisei manga for children that ran from 2002-2007 and lasted 4 volumes, but told a different story. Still, the fact that the Playboy manga, though being the basis for the anime, wasn't exactly for the same audience that 4Kids was pushing the anime towards, even though there were some naughty innuendo jokes in that dub, probably is the biggest reason why the manga has failed over here.
With the last volume coming out I can guarantee that we'll never see anymore Kinnikuman-related products in North American anymore. In Japan there is a continuation to Ultimate Muscle called Kinnikuman Nisei: Kyukyoku no Chojin Tag-hen/Ultimate Muscle: Ultimate Superhuman Tag Chapter, which has the New Generation going into the past and meeting the legends in their prime. That title started up right after Nisei ended in Japan and is still going to this day. But after the failure the manga had over here, it's easy to see that Viz will never touch it. Censorship aside, though, Viz's release of the manga is very well done, though the way it handles names is a bit odd. Some characters keep their 4Kids changes, like how Gazelleman is still called Dik-Dik Van Dik or how Jade is still called Jeager, but others actually use their original names, like how Esakara returns to his original Scarface/Mars naming. It's odd, but unless you're anal about names being kept the same it isn't all too annoying in the end.
Ultimate Muscle: The Kinnikuman Legacy isn't exactly a manga for everyone. It's mix of slapstick and violence probably won't work for everyone, and there are many who just don't like wrestling in general. Still, it's a very enjoyable manga to read, though getting some of the older volumes might end up in you paying more than expected, and I say that it is worth hunting down if you were a fan of the anime 4Kids brought over and are feeling nostalgic as well as fans of violent action series in general.