March 8, 2021 Fist of the North Star – 35 Years of Fisticuffs
At the time, Fist of the North Star (or Hokuto No Ken, if one insists) had been going on in the pages of the top manga series Shonen Jump since 1983, and had gained a TV series back in 1984. Access to the former is now opening up via official online sources, but the latter is largely locked to Region 1/A territories via Discotek Media. Luckily there is a way to get a condensed retelling of the cult series in a tidy, 110-minute package that is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and even on YouTube.
The animated Fist of the North Star movie was released on March 8, 1986, in Japan, before getting a belated Western release across the early ’90s. It became a cult classic through its Mad Max-esque aesthetic, stoic protagonist, and sheer, bloody violence. But now that it turns 35 years old, is there more to it than this?
In 199X, the world succumbs to nuclear devastation where survivors live in the ruins of what used to be cities. The successor to the Hokuto Shinken school of kung-fu, Kenshiro (Akira Kamiya: City Hunter series) hopes to live in peace with his fiancée Yuria (Yuriko Yamamoto: Saint Seiya series). But his rival Shin (Toshio Furukawa: DragonBall series), of the opposing Nanto Seiken style, has other ideas. With his bandit army, he kidnaps Yuria and leaves Kenshiro for dead. Barely surviving, Kenshiro wanders the wasteland, seeking to rescue Yuria and get revenge on Shin.
The film squished the first two parts of the series into just under two hours, meaning some characters got their roles changed, cut down, or cut out altogether. For example, Kenshiro’s villainous stepbrothers Jagi (Chikao Otsuka: Lupin the 3rd series) and Raoh (Kenji Utsumi: Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood series) are present, but not the lone good one, Toki. Some might be put off by the changes yet, for the sake of an all-in-one story, they are not the end of the world.
Besides, it finally offered fans a chance to see the series’ infamous gore uncensored. Unfortunately the final product added enough ‘80s video effects to make it look like a gruesome vaporwave video, and these funky visuals persist in all modern releases, too. However, there may be an effects-less version out there. Early trailers for the film featured some uncensored frames, while an Italian VHS release had some cleared-up shots not seen elsewhere- notably in Kenshiro’s torture sequence. So perhaps the full edition of Fist of the North Star is waiting to emerge from whichever vault it is currently hiding in.
But what else is there? The film does throw in a few standout elements beyond a violent damsel-in-distress tale. For example, Kenshiro discusses his love for Yuria with Rei (Kaneto Shiozawa: Street Fighter 2: The Animated Movie 1994), who remarks that her gain could be the world’s loss. How well can the villagers defend themselves when their strongest protector is hiding away with his partner? Other heroes have tried to balance saving the world with an actual social life, but can it be done? And, in Kenshiro’s case, should it be done?
It shows the cost of violence, too. The film compares the final battle to the nuclear explosions from the opening. The world is destroyed because two opposing forces – the US and the USSR – did not know when to quit in their arms race. At the end, the force of Kenshiro and Raoh’s fight costs them nearly everything; the town is destroyed, Raoh’s forces are routed, and Yuria is lost. Comparing martial artists to nuclear superpowers feels like a stretch, though they are shown to be destructive enough to threaten what is left of humanity.
On one hand, it does come off as a thoughtful, even bittersweet finale as Kenshiro comes to terms with his loss. Still, it also feels like a cliffhanger that sets up for a sequel that never came. The equivalent fight in the TV series (against Shin than Raoh) also does the limits-of-violence message a little better, albeit without the Cold War allegory. The English dub is also rough, even compared to other releases at the time, though it did produce more memorable lines (“Say goodbye, lardass, because you’re already dead!”).
Ultimately, the film succeeds in distilling Fist of the North Star’s appeal into a sturdy flick. There are scenes of macho bravado (Kenshiro walks through a falling building!) and with nearly as much gore as a pre-Hollywood Peter Jackson film. Yet it also displays its heart, showcasing empathy for the weak, scorn for those who abuse them, and the drawbacks from such hyper-masculine toughness. Granted, it does not explore these themes with an ocean’s worth of depth, but it is deep enough to prove that, for all the blood on screen, there is blood in the film’s veins too.