Professional game artist Richmond Lee Chaisiri grew up in a Buddhist household in Thailand, a devout Buddhist nation. So what’s Buddhist about Asura’s Wrath? Everything! The characters, the environments, the ultra violence, the cosmic scope, the super powers, the anime hair… All of it! Let’s begin the tour!
Exhibit 1 — The Story
Asura’s Wrath tells the tale of a bellicose god who is betrayed by his fellow deities, stripped of his powers and cast down from the heaven and swears bloody revenge. Does this sound like the plot of God of War 2? Sure! But it’s also the age old story of the Asura (also commonly spelled “Ashura”). According to Buddhist tradition, Asuras once lived alongside the Devas (their more benevolent cousins) in a city called Trayastrimsa on the peak of Sumeru, a holy mountain at the centre of the universe where the earth joins with the heavens.
The Asuras were quarrelsome beings who loved to pick fights. They finally crossed the line when they went on a drunken rampage after drinking a forbidden supernatural liquor called gandapāna, which Sakra (known in Hinduism as Indra), leader of the heavens, warned them not to imbibe.
This angered Sakra so much that once the Asuras passed out from their bender, he gathered them up and threw them off of the edge of Trayastrimsa (which you will recall is the highest point in the world). Upon waking at the foot of Mt Sumeru, the Asuras realised their sudden eviction and vowed revenge. Thus the Asuras took up arms and began their war with the Devas that would last thousands of years.
Exhibit 2 – Our Hero Asura
In Buddhism, “Asura” (阿修羅) does not denote a specific god, it’s the name of a race of warlike beings that embody wrath, pride and a thirst for power. Asuras first appeared in the ancient Indian epic The Rigveda which lead to their incorporation into Hinduism and later Buddhism. Asuras are often called the Asian god of war (which is what this game is often referred to as haha), but that’s something of a misnomer. Asuras epitomise the warlike state of mind, but they are not patron gods of war. It’s important to note that Asuras are not necessarily evil, they just tend to care about material gain over spiritual gain. Just like people, they have a capacity for good or evil and everything in between. Although they’re more powerful than humans, it’s considered unfortunate to be reborn as an Asura as they live in constant strife.
Exhibit 2.1 – Six Arms
Asuras are almost always classically depicted as young men with 6 arms and 3 faces (never any more).
In Asura’s Wrath, our hero starts with a regular number of limbs, but sprouts extra arms when his anger reaches a boiling point. Extra heads and appendages are common in Buddhist and Hindu art and have great symbolic value. Multiple faces represent heightened consciousness (the ability to see in multiple directions at once) and multiple arms represent heightened power and reach.
In general, more appendages denote more power. Asuras are fairly low ranking in the cosmic scheme so they’re never depicted with more than three pairs of arms. In comparison, Kannon (観音) the goddess of mercy is often depicted with 1000 arms (symbolic of her ability to reach out and relieve the suffering of any living thing in the universe).
Exhibit 2.2 – Orange Complexion
Long before the first member of Jersey Shore or ganguro donned the first spray tan, Asuras have been sporting a healthy orange glow. The most famous example of this is the Asura at Kofuku-ji temple in Nara, Japan’s first capital. Like the Kofuku-ji Asura, our protagonist has orange skin.
The designers of Asura’s Wrath take many cues from the Kofuku-ji Asura. How do I figure? It’s easily the most famous depiction of an Asura in art history; it’s a protected national treasure of Japan; plus they totally used its silhouette for the production company’s logo.
Exhibit 2.3 – Manga Face and Dragonball Hair
Although Asura sports a very modern manga face that looks like Guts (from Berserk) gone Super Saiyan, this isn’t really anachronistic as Asuras are typically depicted as handsome young men. Besides, spikey glowing Super Saiyan hair has long been a characteristic of Buddhist Deities.
Exhibit 2.4 — Laquer Skin
The characters in Asura’s Wrath have a unique look fashioned after Buddhist statuary. As they take damage, their skin begins to peel away in layers like a lacquer statue. The amount of thought, research and effort that went into conveying this process makes me smile from ear to ear.
When Asura is at full capacity, he has the beautiful clean sheen of a gilt (gold covered) lacquer statue.
As he takes damage the gold chips away in a manner that recalls gold leaf (which is often ritually affixed to statues in Buddhist traditions around the world).
When Asura is seriously wounded, he cracks and peels just like a real centuries old Buddhist statue that has endured the test of time.
Exhibit 3 — Flaming Auras, Halos and Mandorlas
As the characters in Asura’s Wrath engage in battle, they emit so much power that their auras flare up like flames. This is a staple of Japanese fighting comics, but it’s also a convention in Buddhist art that’s trickled down into both modern media and traditional religious imagery the world over.
Halos have been employed in Buddhist art for thousands of years. Typically a circular pattern around the head denotes enlightenment, while a flame pattern around the upper body or entire body denotes power. These conventions also exist in Christian art in the form of aureoles (radiant burst of light emitted from a holy figure) and mandorlas (the shape of 2 overlapping circles named after the Italian word for “almond”–but it sounds quite a bit like “mandala” doesn’t it?).
Exhibit 4 — Super Powered Kung Fu Fighting
Asura’s Wrath draws easy comparisons to Dragonball and other Anime–and for good reason, many contemporary conventions in anime, comics and games have deep roots in Buddhism. Buddhist and Hindu lore is full of violent clashes between super powered beings powering up and utilising secret special moves.
Richmond Lee is a game artist and pop culture scholar who wants everyone to love art as much as he does. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.