Fist Of The North Star, a.k.a., Hakuto No Ken (1986)
Director: Toyoo Ashida
Writers: Buronson & Tetsuo Hara (Comic), Susumu Takaku
Matt: Manga month continues here at Shot For Shot with the classic anime Fist Of The North Star, an ultra-violent revenge tale. After a nuclear holocaust turns the world into a vast desert ruin, a handful of would-be conquerors fight (and we’re not talking schoolyard scraps here) for control of the world and the love of one woman. Only a hero who has risen from the ashes can put a stop to their abuses as he tries to save the woman he loves.
Akira is usually thought of as the movie that brought the more adult themed (read “eye-popping” and “brain-exploding”) brand of anime to western audiences. But I think Fist Of The North Star was the real granddaddy of them all.
Charles: This was definitely one of the first gore-heavy anime titles I saw on VHS as a kid. It’s actually been “lost” for a while to current audiences given that the U.S. distributors of the movie – Streamline, and later Image Entertainment (no relation) – went out of business. Until about five months ago the only way you could experience this movie was through copies of the video cassette, import DVDs, or paying exorbitant fees for the dub put out by Image back in ‘98.
The movie is an adaptation of the manga written by Buronson (pronounced “Bronson”) and illustrated by Tetsuo Hara. The manga was serialized in the long-running Shonen Jump magazine from 1983-1988 and was adapted to television over a 152 episode run between 1984 and 1987. The film was released in 1986 condensing the existing plot points of the manga into a two hour feature film released by Toei Animation.
As Matt states above, the movie takes place in the post apocalyptic waste of the future – you know the one, where everyone goes punk – and follows the titular “Fist,” Kenshiro. Ken represents the North Star style of fighting which in the film involves blindly fast jabs and the identification of pressure points which can either cure or kill explosively. After being betrayed and left for dead by his best friend – the foppish Southern Cross, Shin – Ken wanders the Earth looking for his lost love Julia which puts him in the path of gangs and refugees. Most importantly, it’s the encounters with physically improbable mutants who provide our lead with the opportunity to show that he’s not a man of peace and that he’ll seriously mess some dudes up given half a reason.
Matt: The plot is pretty frail, borrowing heavily from Mad Max. But the real purpose of this movie is to serve as a “greatest hits” for the series, showcasing fight scene after artery-busting fight scene. Similar to Shogun Assassin (and that can only be taken as a compliment), we are given just enough information to know who to root for and who will justly meet his end in a particularly brutal death scene
Oh yes, my friends. There will be blood.
I hadn’t seen this movie in a good 14 or 15 years. In fact – to be honest – I don’t think I’d ever seen the whole thing before now. I remembered it being bloody. That was kind of a given. If there was anime and I was watching it in high school, chances are scenes of five-finger lobotomies were happening aplenty. What surprised me the most about watching it this time around was the movie’s humor, which was actually very well done.
Charles: The writers correctly realized that you can’t drag your viewer through over 2 hours of grim animated apocalyptic head-splosions without adding some levity to it. Whether it’s the graceful Ray’s introduction as a seemingly helpless woman or a punk’s continued conversation with a saw in his head, the movie is darkly comic. It’s all in service to a reality that should be all rights be silly.
What elevates the gory events of the movie to juvenile camp is how matter-of-fact it all is. Everything is dead-dead-dead and any thin slivers of hope and sentiment have to be protected by brutal, awful men. Characters leave this world with fewer limbs or in many more pieces than they originally came into it, and that’s all there is to it.
As a lead, Ken is just the right amount of cool stoicism and heroic bemusement. Even when he confronts his betrayers it’s with a sense of exasperated inevitability. For instance, when he encounters his brother Jagi, a petty tyrant behind a mask and tons of bandages, Ken delivers his retribution in the same way the rest of us would take out the trash.
Larger-than-life characters (figuratively and literally) rule the landscape as in ancient myth. Great battles occur, great and wicked men fall, and every character who is neither is simply a teller of the great tales to come. It’s our world unformed and unmade through nuclear holocaust, being reborn in blood.
Matt: Yes. Larger-than-life characters with larger-than-head necks.
Fist Of The North Star is also aware of the fact that every extreme has its opposite. It starts not with gut-wrenching violence but with a sappy song playing over images of blue skies and green fields. At first I thought I had popped the wrong DVD in the player. Then a nasty ole switch was thrown and I was watching bodies being incinerated by a nuclear explosion. This movie delights in knowing such a switch does exist and flaunts flicking it back and forth at the strangest times.
The ending earns the title of “most jarring” for it’s turn-on-a-dime message of hope for a better future in the midst of a brutal brawl where our hero is nearly dead for a second time. And all this happy feel goodness is delivered in a monologue by the villain (no less) to a cute-as-a-button little girl who just wants to plant some flowers.
And tied around that bountiful package is a dainty bow of a message about respecting mother earth. That’s right, folks. This movie is GreenTM.
Charles: To be fair, I believe the Green message was couched in a broader idea about mutually-assured destruction. Like many works of Japanese fiction there’s a great deal of anxiety about nuclear conflict and to a greater extent about violent superpowers.
Another reading of Ken and the true nemesis of the film – his brother Rao – is that both are simultaneously superpowers and super-weapons. The duo represent both sides of ethical control of the wasteland and are actually more similar than Ken would like to admit. I suspect that if he weren’t betrayed at the opening of the story, Ken – alongside Julia – would have created a state of their own with militaristic overtones. He would have perhaps been a benevolent tyrant but a tyrant nonetheless. Ken is not a diplomat or one who reasons with oppositions – he compels with power (whether constructive or destructive).
It’s this layered meaning that I believe adds value to Buronson’s work. Yes, it gets a little schmaltzy with the little girl (Lynn) who personifies youthful rejuvenation and mirrors Julia as the feminine, balanced emotive aspect of the story. This last is in turn countered by the lack of emotion in Rao and Ken and the unbalanced emotionality of Shin and Jagi.
Visually, the movie is as raw as its meditations on violence which I think is a good jumping off point to talk about the style of Fist of the North Star.
Matt: I think the best way to sum up the visual aesthetic
of this movie is the release date itself: 1986. Fist of the North Star is very much a product of its time both in terms of conscious stylistic choices and its inevitable technical limitations.
Charles has already noted the punk costumes worn by all except the foppish Shin, who looks like David Bowie on steroids. The ultra-pumped body type (another reminder of what decade we’re in) – is fetishized to such an extent that our characters become even less human and more like robots. Fist feels like it takes place at the crossroads of MTV and an early Schwartzenegger actioner.
The animation itself resembles an American daytime TV cartoon, also of the 1980s. The many dusty locales in Fist brought to mind scenes from the G.I. Joe animated series. In the days of Disney 3D, this can understandably be a turnoff for some. But this limitation is used well during the fight scenes. By retaining many of the motion lines found in manga, the filmmakers stylize what would other wise be just graphically violent into something remarkably graphic in its blending of still images and use of monochrome flashes.
Charles: Fist has something of a legacy at this point aside from the accompanying TV series and original manga. Buronson wrote a novel in 1996 that continued the events of the original manga which was adapted into the OAV New Fist of the North Star. It still retains the aesthetic of the original series with an early 00s gloss. Unfortunately, it fails to recapture the spirit of the original, instead relying on Japanese celebrity voice work to grab the viewer.
Ken and company have also had several video game appearances over the years all the way back on the original NES to an upcoming 360/PS3 title from the recently-merged Tecmo-Koei.
Most notoriously to some U.S. viewers, Fist got the live action remake treatment. Check out this cast: Chris Penn. Malcolm McDowell. Melvin van Peebles. “Downtown” Julie Brown. Costas Mandaylor. The live action Fist of the North Star is half disaster and all atrocity – a case of desperate overreaching and limited budget producing something that couldn’t possibly satisfy anyone involved on either side of the camera.
The US film was produced during that period where anime sales were strong in the U.S. but still not strong enough to get out of the niche ghetto. Some indie producers threw together the money for it and cast barely-there martial arts also-ran Gary Daniels in the lead, gave him a mullet, found some bombed out looking locales and just said “go.” The movie is notable for the sad, sad explosion of Chris Penn’s head, Clint Howard cast as a character named Stalin, and for generally being awful from top to bottom.
Matt: Wow. I’ve never even heard of a live action version! You’ve kinda got me looking forward to the awfulness. Or maybe that live action trailer will suffice.
Till next week…
If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of Charles Webb’s work at Monster In Your Veins