FIST OF THE NORTH STAR
Cutting swaths through Manga Island this week is the hardcore action Manga "Fist of the North Star: The Master Edition." Brutal and darkly comic, this classic of modern manga has sliced, punched, kicked, and smashed its way into becoming one of my favorites of all time. "Hokuto No Ken," as it is known in Japan, is the work of a talented duo of manga-ka that hearkens back to the future of the Road Warrior and other post-apocalyptic tales of that time. Mohawks and leather abound, as martial artists try to survive in their own way. Be it through villainy, revenge, or kill-or-be-killed survival instincts. None, however, are as powerful as Kenshiro, the Fist of the North Star.
From an early age, Hara Tetsuo wanted to be a manga artist. However, it wasn't until he hooked up with the writer known as Buronson that they both became successful. Beginning as a serialized series that lasted five years instead of its contracted three, Buronson and Hara created a shonen epic. Since its creation in 1983, "Hokuto no Ken" has spawned a 152 episode TV series in two parts, a slew of videogames (including the infamously horrible NES/Famicom game that bears the "Fist of the North Star" name), a re-telling of the TV series in animated movie form, and one deplorable live-action version by HBO pictures. The franchise is still going strong today, with the recent release of "Shin Fist of the North Star" by ADV films (of which I was lucky enough to do some extras work for in episode three. You may hear me chanting, coughing with sand in my mouth or as "guy gets his head cut in two by moustache guy"one and two and "guy who gets his guts punched out"). Although the success of "Fist of the North Star" has never really taken off here in the US (the movie, in its infamous dub only form is long out of print and the TV series was only released with a US made opening and endings and only went up to episode 36 of 152. Even then it was dropped in VHS form and was only completed up to episode 36 on DVD), its impact on early anime and manga fans is significant. The truly over the top violence and action is a shonen masterpiece that deserves to be looked at least for historical purposes. The Raijin/Gutsoon version of the manga takes the franchise to new heights due to its presentation alone, hopefully bringing new fans of action and adventure into the fold.
"Fist of the North Star" is a brutal revenge story set in the post-apocalyptic wasteland after 19XX (still the future when the series was created in 1983) it tells the tale of the Kenshiro's quest to get his fianc back after she is stolen from him from by his opposite number and former friend Shin. Shin practices the Southern Cross (Nanto Seiken) style of combat, while Kenshiro is the inheritor of the North Star technique (Hokuto Shinken). Having trained hard before the apocalypse to be the be most powerful assassin and to be his generation's only heir to Hokuto Shinken, his skills fail him when he is surprised by his former friend's ambush. His fiance Julia is taken, setting off a bloody chain of events to be played out over the post apocalyptic landscape.
When we first meet Kenshiro, he is captured by the villagers after he wanders in from the desert weak from exhaustion and lack of water. It soon shifts to him to rescue the village from the villains who take their fashion cues from the Road Warrior (eventually we even see a remarkable "homage" to Lord Humungous later in the series). Both the reader and Kenshiro's enemies are quickly introduced to the bloody power of Hokuto Shinken. By channeling all his power to specific pressure points, Kenshiro can cause heads to explode, guts to rend apart, memories to be lost, and spines to pull themselves apart. Ever the avenger, Kenshiro often leaves these effects on time delay, to allow the villains a few seconds to contemplate their wickedness. Before leaving them to their fate, Kenshiro often utters his trademark tough-guy phrase "You're already dead" in the most matter of fact way he can.
It is in this village that Kenshiro also meets his future sidekicks in the form two children that represent the hope for the future. He is joined by Bat, a young street punk who is in need of reform, and Lin, a young orphan who is mute until Kenshiro (or Ken as he is often referred to) heals her. Ken's Hokuto Shinken technique can be used for healing as well as destruction; he can even perform miracles such as healing the blind, curing amnesia and other mental and physical ailments. However, In the world of Hokuto no Ken there are no loaves and fishes, only limbs and organs split into tinier pieces, and water turned into blood, blood, and more blood. Ken can sometimes be a bit stoic and one dimensional so having these characters to play against his single minded revenge quest helps to soften him and allows him to grow as well.
As Ken moves from village to village and from one burned out city to another, his reputation precedes him. The Man with Seven Scars becomes a new legend. Shin, his nemesis helps this reputation by putting a bounty on Kenshiro's head. As Ken is drawn inexorably up the chain of command to Shin's city Southern Cross, he gains quite a reputation, as bad guys come out of the woodwork from all over to try to recover the bounty placed on his head. Ken of course is able to survive these attacks by his thirst to see Shin (now known as King) dead and Julia (or Yuria as she is referred to in some translations) safe in his arms. Surprisingly enough, the Shin revenge story arc, is over much quicker than I would have expected, and is really just sets the tone and pace for the rest of the volumes. In a twist of fate, Ken learns that revenge is not as clean as he had hoped. Even as his confrontation with Shin ends, we are soon thrust into a new arc for Ken, which reveals more and more about the world and Ken's past.
I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that this arc ends on issue two, and how it begins to deepen a bit afterwards. As the series continues we are introduced to new supporting characters, variations of the martial arts outlined in the first arc, and the cast expands to include Kenshiro's "brothers" who trained with him under his master. As Kenshiro carries on, we learn of how Ken came to be the only heir of this generation to carry on the Hokuto Shinken and how it affected the other heir-apparents. Each of the "brothers" trained in the ways of Hokuto Shinken but when Kenshiro becomes the true heir; their paths all take very different courses. Their motivations range from healing and bringing peace to the ravaged earth, to petty revenge, and megalomaniacal rulership. The forces of evil threaten to throw the earth into even more chaos, and Kenshiro must stop these forces at all cost.
There is also a lot of great escapist comic book action to be had in "Fist of the North Star." Of note are the numerous techniques and their outrageous names, the number of villains who have left their former pre holocaust lives to become mohawked thugs, and the number of times that Kenshiro burst his leather jacket and red T-shirt combo that are hallmarks of his outfit. This constant powerful "Hulking out" makes me wonder how many pounds of T-shirts and jackets he must carry around, or if part of his Hokuto Shinken training involved sewing techniques. On the art side, Hara also draws his thugs in a malleable scale. Some villains are shown as merely tall in one panel and absolutely towering giants the next. This changing scale may seem odd and comical at first, but often Hara does this to add to the drama and fearsomeness of Kenshiro's enemies. These literally larger-than-life enemies make Ken's quest seem even more dangerous and sets them apart from the myriad of downtrodden villagers and city dwellers just trying to survive in the world of warring martial arts masters.
Gutsoon's "Fist of the North: Star Master Edition" (in conjunction with Raijin and Coamix comics) is how all revamps of older manga should go. The binding is sturdy and heavy, and each has a full color slip cover that is as gorgeous as the coloring job inside. Although I am usually a fan for untouched and unedited versions of manga, I think that Gutsoon did an excellent job in presenting this Master Edition. It is of course, unflipped but that isn't all. A lot of the credit has to go to the colorist for bringing "Fist of the North Star" to its blood spewing, colored Mohawk wearing, explosions, and larger than life glory. The backgrounds are well done Photoshop pieces in their own right, and even the sound effects are left untouched (with translation notes where appropriate) and colored to fit in with the backgrounds and action. In addition to the ace work on the coloring and backgrounds, Gutsoon has also included never-seen-before splash pages, character profiles, raw art pieces and skillfully done pages that combine art with quotes from Buronson and Hara. Although "Fist of the North Star" has been a relatively niche market in the US, this presentation has relatively few competitors. The only manga that has come close to these editions have been the Marvel/Epic Akira hardcovers, Viz's Nausicaa Editor's choice editions, and the uncut editions of Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed from Dark Horse. If you're going to do something new with a manga, this is the way to do it!
As a fan of the post apocalyptic world of Kenshiro and his brothers, friends and enemies, I recommend this manga for people who love tough escapist fantasy. If you love the Road Warrior, insane martial arts movies, (again not the live action version of this franchise!!!), and escapist tough guy fantasy, then "Fist of the North Star" could be for you. Although it is firmly in the Shonen style and appeals to young males the same way that thrash metal concerts and mosh pits do, there are more than a few tough heroines for the girls who show up at said metal shows ready to throw down or hang out and be cool (you know who you are). If exploding heads, and battles aren't you're cup of tea, it's at least worth thumbing through to see what an amazing color adaptation can look like.
The sad part of this story is that Gutsoon is presently on "hiatus" from producing manga (darn I wish I would have bought one of their FOTNS posters when they were available) and hasn't put out any new manga in months. The serialized prequel (that was turned into two issues of graphic novels before the hiatus) "Fist of the Blue Sky" which saw the return of Buronson and Hara as a team, was also a victim. After sales of its anthology manga flagged after a year, Gutsoon put all of its projects on hold and may or may not fold altogether. "North Star" (and "Fist of the Blue Sky") fans are left wondering if the story is stalled in yet another medium, never to see it's completion on our shores. I certainly hope that Gutsoon or some other company can continue the excellent work seen here. Although I would settle for a completed story in black and white, unflipped with original SFX left alone, I hope that somehow they can continue with the Master Edition format. In the months ahead I will continue to watch for future volumes to wash up on the shores of Manga Island (according to the handy dandy manga chart at animeondvd.com there are still 18 issues left. Until then, I hope that you others will search out volumes one through nine at your local comic back issue store, or favorite online retailer. Just be sure not to quote "You're Already Dead" at school or anywhere you can't back it up, and if you are trying to mimic Kenshiro's famous punching sequences do a better job than in the live action movie! Until the next time, I'll be looking for true fans trying to bring back the mullet (no ritual scarring please) and bad 80's hair metal here on Manga Island.
Links of interest:
Official Hara Tetsuo web page (Japanese):
Raijin comics official page:
Raijin Comics Hara Tetsuo interview:
"Fist of the North Star" Punching game:
Gamefaqs links to "Fist of the North Star" games. Including the HORRIBLE Nes/Famicon one. ICK!
Tony Salvaggio has been a fan of anime and manga from an early age. He has been an animator in the video games industry and is currently co-writing an original graphic novel for Tokyopop. He regularly hosts anime and Japanese related shows in Austin and his passion for all things anime and manga related is only excelled by his quest to become King of the Monsters.