Okay, I've gotta ask. What the fuck happened to FIST OF THE NORTH STAR?
When it debuted back in 1983 as a weekly manga, HOKUTO NO KEN (aka FIST OF THE NORTH STAR) immediately made a name for itself as an ultra-violent post-apocalyptic martial arts superhero yarn that stole liberally from Bruce Lee and THE ROAD WARRIOR. a recipe that, though short on literary merit, piled on the action and awesome fights between characters whose superpowers more or less rendered them gods of war/hand-to-hand combat. Once condemned by Japanese parents' group for being too over-the-top violent and gory — and when the Japanese complain about something being too gory, you have to sit up and take notice — the manga just passed its twenty-fifth anniversary and is now hailed as a landmark work, while those of us who discovered it through its length animated TV version still recall that show with great fondness (even untranslated it was the perfect time-waster for stoned, college-age superhero/anime fans). So it was inevitable that FIST OF THE NORTH STAR would get the remake/reboot treatment that many of the classic manga properties have received over the past decade or so — including 8-MAN, TETSUJIN 28 (known to us round-eyes as GIGANTOR), DEVILMAN, CASSHERN, CUTIE HONEY and GE-GE-GE NO KITARO to name but a few — and, just like the majority of the remakes, damned near everything that made the source material (and some of the early adaptations) so much fun in the first place had been excised and the action/violence that once served as the main draw is now tepid at best, a state of affairs that seriously confuses us long-term fans because there's nobody on the planet who can make with the ass-whuppin' and gory violence like the Japanese.
I'm greatly saddened and deeply disappointed to say that all of the past several years' worth of FIST OF THE NORTH STAR (hereafter referred to as FOTNS) original stories and remakes/retellings of the original saga have fallen flat and are uninvolving, turgid bores that offer nothing to fans of the original except for the characters they know and love. But there's no trace of life or liveliness to any of it, not even during the fight scenes, and even the most diehard of FOTNS fans can't help but notice. It truly amazes me that while there are loads of new and quite impressive toys being newly generated from the franchise, the films display less fun, imagination and genuine entertainment value than a bunch of action figures.
Which brings me to this feature, the final chapter in the real "meat" of the FOTNS saga, namely the decisive moment when Kenshiro, the series' protagonist and one of the deadliest superheroes ever created, has his final showdown with his hulking elder brother, the ruthless Raoh, over the successorship for their family's sacred (to say nothing of superhuman) martial art, Hokuto Shinken (roughly translated as "Divine Fist of the North Star").
Raoh: post-apocalyptic conqueror and the worst nightmare of martial artists everywhere.
In the manga it took about fifteen collected volumes (out of a total twenty-seven) to reach this point in the highly-charged story, an epic tale of facing one's destiny, fighting for law and justice in a world where those concepts simply no longer apply, and the value of friendship and honor, at the core of which lay a power struggle involving the three living Hokuto Shinken practitioners — Kenshiro, Raoh and the ironically-pacifistic Toki, whose combination of skill and gentle compassion would have made him the perfect successor had he not been doomed to a slow death due to radiation poisoning — and when the story finally reached Ken and Raoh's final set-to, audiences were fully invested in its outcome and expected a blistering battle of titans. They were not disappointed and, if memory serves, that confrontation took three whole episodes of the 1980's TV adaptation to tell, sparing not one iota of the fascinating and awesome gallery of skills that Ken had accrued on his long, hard hero's journey to that moment. The fate of the entire world rested on Kenshiro's battered and scarred shoulders and he fought his badder-than-Darth-Vader brother with power and heart that would have done our own Superman proud, finally delivering a killing blow that elicited a smile and heart-felt words of admiration and respect from Raoh, a presence who had been a bitter rival all his life.
It was fucking awesome to witness and rather heavy and sad in the way that only Japanese tales of tragic warriors can express, but all of its grandeur is reduced to less than a pitiful wet fart of a finale in this 2007 feature film. All of the basic details of this section of the saga are present — along with some of the minor retconning of recent years' FOTNS stories — such as the Gento warriors rallying to prevent Raoh from killing their mysterious, helmeted general (who turns out to be Ken's long-presumed-quite-dead fiancee, Yuria) and Raoh's death match with Fudoh, a mythical giant who was the only living being to fill Raoh with fear during the days of his training, but those events all have the action either given short shrift or utterly cut away from to focus on scenes of dialogue at another location, effectively bringing the action to a screeching and unwanted halt while boring the living shit out of the increasingly-somnolent viewer.
That boredom factor has been the undoing of all recent FOTNS installments but it seems even more pronounced here, thanks to what this arc could have and should have have been. Time that should have rightly been given over to the settling of the Ken/Raoh thing is instead wasted on far too many sequences featuring nothing but talking heads speaking in low, ominous tones, trying (and failing) to engage the viewer and convince us of just how serious all of this is. And while these dialogue-heavy scenes are beautifully illustrated (as seen in the stills above), the animators lavished the bulk of their efforts on making the non-action stuff look as nice as possible while crapping out on the fight sequences. Compare the look of the previous images with the one seen below, a shot of Raoh during the final battle:
Again I ask, "What the fuck happened?" I know animating the abundantly-muscled heroes of FOTNS is a daunting task, especially when coupled with convincingly bringing to life blows and techniques capable of leveling whole cliff faces as delivered in what are supposed to be too-swift-to-perceive seconds-worth of time, but this is both sloppy and a ripoff to the fans and is in no way what I expect from a theatrically-released feature film. SHIN KYUSEISHU DENSETSU HOKUTO NO KEN: RAOH DEN-GEKITO NO SHO — or FIST OF THE NORTH STAR: RAOH FIERCE FIGHTING ARC — only works in theory if the viewer is already very familiar with the overall content of the series from the get-go, but even then so much has been excised that all that remains is a hollow shell of the tale that will more than likely confuse the newcomer and definitely hugely disappoint the longtime FOTNS follower. This movie is a failure on just about every level and yet I somehow hold out hope that the final film in this multi-film and DVD project that spanned four years will somehow make up for the sleeping aids that preceded it. ZERO: THE LEGEND OF KENSHIRO was released in Japan back in October and I've heard nothing about it other than that it chronicles the events leading up to the hero's motivating defeat and humiliation, a story fans have heard about a million times, but if it's as exciting and violent as it could be, I won't mind the rehash.
But I'm still wary.