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Friday, August 14, 2009


Considering my inordinate love of this completely ludicrous, ultra-violent martial arts/superhero manga classic I can't believe I've never gotten around to objectively critiquing what exists of the FIST OF THE NORTH STAR comics in translated-to-English form. Obviously that oversight will now be rectified with this first "FIST OF THE NORTH STAR Friday," so if you have no interest in this series feel free to give this post a miss. I won't be insulted.

This first volume of what was originally a twenty-seven volume Japanese series introduces readers to Kenshiro, the 64th successor to the super-human martial art of Hokuto Shinken, and the savage post-apocalyptic dystopia he exists in. Following the devastation of the earth by nuclear holocaust, what remains of mankind has swiftly degenerated into an ultra-violent ripoff of THE ROAD WARRIOR, and Kenshiro is a bald-faced gene-splicing of Mel Gibson's Mad Max (Kenshiro's outfit is virtually identical to Max's leathers as seen in THE ROAD WARRIOR) and Bruce Lee as seen in ENTER THE DRAGON.
Kenshiro: a shameless gene-splicing (read "ripoff/mashup") of Mad Max and Bruce Lee.

The initial collection chronicles Ken's emergence from the barren wasteland after being on the receiving end of one of the most personally humiliating ass-kickings in recorded history — a beatdown made all the worse by it having been handed out by a guy who looks not unlike one of the Nelson brothers in a Sgt. Pepper's outfit —
Kenshiro receives the beatdown of twelve lifetimes...

..and is given the chest scars that will serve as his equivalent to Superman's "S."

— and his quest to rescue his fiancee, Yuria ("Julia" in the English translation).

Yuria: unwitting catalyst for an odyssey of violence.

who has been kidnapped by his former friend, Shin — the aforementioned Nelson lookalike — aka "King" (like in a deck of cards).
It's good to be the King: Shin enjoys the spoils of conquest. (Note: he has a Johnson, but you couldn't flat-out depict one in the Japanese comics of the time, not even in the ones that were straight-up porn. No Willies, but endless amounts of graphic violence? That's okay. Go figure...)

Shin is one of the top students of the Nanto Seiken style of martial arts, a form that grants the practitioner the ability to slice through virtually anything with their bare hands (stone included), and that discipline is the polar opposite of Hokuto Shinken's internally-based assassination techniques that cause an opponents body to literally explode.

Shin breaks it down for the readers.

Due to some obscure bit of reasoning, it has been decreed by the elders of both styles that Hokuto Shinken and Nanto Seiken must never fight due to the nature of their interdependent duality, and that if they do fight it would cause a cosmic imbalance of devastating magnitude (or some such quasi-mystical shit). So, needless to say, once the nuclear holocaust effectively re-wrote the rules of basic human existence, so too were the two-thousand year old laws governing the secret martial world cast aside, thus setting Kenshiro in motion as both a rescuer and an engine of righteous vengeance on the side of good, while Shin proves to be a vicious and power-hungry asshole of a conqueror. In the end only one man can be left standing, but what shall be the ultimate fate of Yuria, er, Julia?

Kenshiro versus Shin: only one can survive. And since this series went on for twenty-six volumes past this one in Japan, guess who eventually wins?

FIST OF THE NORTH STAR is in no way a work of "deep" meaning or even of great intelligence, but it is a warrior's saga that's technically science-fiction thanks to its post-apocalyptic future setting, but the virtually medieval level of society and technology, along with frequent forays into Asian concepts of mythology and the like, keep the tale firmly within the bounds of a Conan-style story in which the barbarian hero also happened to be a martial artist with superhuman skills and powers.
Why it sucks to be one of the downtrodden in the post-apocalyptic landscape of FIST OF THE NORTH STAR.

It's a crazy mashup of genres and is fun for its once-shocking amounts of over-the-top gore and violence, but once you get past that element, what remains is a "manly" soap opera of nearly non-stop kung fu. The manga recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary and though now considered a classic, the tropes that it invented have been eclipsed many times over since its debut. For those of us who were there for this (and its TV adaptation) when it happened, FIST OF THE NORTH STAR was exhilarating stuff, but even then it was plain to see that the protagonist was a pretty much one note superhero whose chief fascinating aspect was his sheer badassery and the fact that his martial art allowed him to pick up the skills and techniques of even his most super-powered opponents, provided he survived that initial encounter. The emotional histrionics are geared to an audience that is on the verge of discovering girls, and once Yuria is out of the picture (believe me, that isn't a spoiler) it's very few remaining female characters offer little or nothing to the overall narrative.

Also, one of the series' biggest flaws is that it just isn't all that compelling until the introduction of Rei, a noble though conflicted Nanto Seiken master who becomes Kenshiro's closest and most respected friend, and the moment when Ken's presumed-dead brothers take center stage and launch the intra-familial power struggle that provides the series with its true core and point (a point that is eventually resolved, yet the series continued aimlessly for another twelve collected volumes in Japan). When Rei and Ken's brothers show up, FIST OF THE NORTH STAR comes to spectacular and memorable life and it is for that period that the series is justly remembered and revered. Unfortunately, it's a bit of a wait until it all comes together, with everything preceding the good stuff serving only to reiterate Ken's badassery and keep readers hooked solely by the Neal Adams-influenced artwork and the curiosity to find out in which outrageous way Ken will defeat his many, many adversaries.

Kenshiro makes with the Bruce Lee thing.

FIST OF THE NORTH STAR is definitely worth a look for those interested in seeing another culture's take on the superhero, but don't expect real greatness from it until a couple of volumes down the line. Also keep in mind that this run of translated editions, featuring wholly unnecessary and garish digital coloring that mars Tetsuo Hara's meticulous and visceral linework, ends shortly after the arc wherein Ken's brothers show up and establish who and what they are, and why they are significant and fascinating additions to the narrative. The publisher, Gutsoon, went under just as the story gets good and that frustrated the living shit out of me because the previous American attempt at a translation ended even earlier in the the story than Gutsoon's, so who's to say when or even if we'll ever see FIST OF THE NORTH STAR translated in print and finished? Or at least translated up to and including the conclusion of the series' main conflict? I, for one, ain't holding my breath.
Next week: Volume Two and our hero testing his considerable skills the forces of "GOLAN."

1 comment:

jht said...

I still have the copy of that tape that I got (from Schimel, if I recall) - way back in '83 or so. Watched it over and over for years, and learned what little Japanese I could understand by figuring out what they meant in the dialog. Mainly "You die now (insert name/reason)".

I think I still have the tape, though no VHS to use it with anymore...

A truly happy day was when the original film came out on DVD remastered in English - that DVD remains my favorite manga treatment of all time, if only because it was also my first. Wow.