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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

BLACK SWAN (2010)

If you’re a regular reader of my ramblings on all manner of subjects, you’re aware that my interests cover a pretty wide range, but what you may never have considered is that I’m a fan of ballet.

Yes, this punk rock-listenin’, pussy-eatin’, beer-drinkin’ he-man loves himself some prissy/fruity dancers in tights flitting about the stage to the strains of music somehow not performed by The Misfits (although I would love to see a piece danced to “We Are 138”). Y’see, I greatly enjoy choreographed entertainment that displays the human body at the apex of its capabilities, so as far as I’m concerned my love of the ballet (and dance in general) jibes quite naturally with my passion for martial arts films, particularly those made by the Shaw Brothers studio (most of which feature colorful sets and costumes, seamlessly coupled with melodrama). So, with that bit of explanation out of the way, let me unequivocally state that Darren Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN takes the prize as my favorite movie of 2010. Its tale of a deeply fucked-up professional ballerina’s descent into utter madness would have had my attention anyway, but it contains many fun and bizarro touches that its senior citizen-friendly commercials and trailers would in no way be ready for, as I discovered firsthand while seeing it at a matinee on Christmas Eve with my seventy-eight-year-old mom (I was the youngest person in the audience by a good twenty-five-year margin).

Natalie Portman as Nina. Note that her reflection has a life of its own...

BLACK SWAN tells the story of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a dancer with a prestigious (unnamed) New York City ballet company, and what transpires when the company’s now over-the-hill prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) is let go and the search for her replacement begins. The control freak/womanizer director (Vincent Cassel) finds Nina to be ideal for the role of the White Swan in his radical new staging of SWAN LAKE, but he wants the lead dancer to play both the vulnerable/virginal White Swan and the more sensual/bad girl/evil sorcerer’s daughter/doppelganger Black Swan as well (NOTE: I’m assuming you probably have a working knowledge of the ballet in question, but if not, look it up).

Lily (Mila Kunis).

A new dancer, Lily (the toothsome Mila Kunis), arrives and catches the director’s eye as a possible lead, but he nonetheless awards the role to Nina, urging her to get in touch with her wild sexual side by masturbating. We also get numerous glimpses into Nina’s fucked-up home life, where she, a twenty-eight-year-old, lives in a state of strictly-enforced infantilism wrought be her twisted mother (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer herself whop gave up the profession when she became pregnant with Nina.

Nina and her mom (Barbara Hershey): the most fucked-up onscreen mother/daughter relationship since that of Margaret and Carrie White.

Her mother seeks to vicariously enjoy the career that she gave up through Nina’s efforts and keeps her daughter in a dependent emotional state on the level of a semi-pubescent girl. As the story progresses, Nina comes to see Lily as a rival for the lead role and also witnesses the sad deterioration of the over-the-hill prima ballerina she replaced (Winona Ryder), and with that kind of mess fueling her already damaged psyche, Nina soon barrels headfirst down a path to outright insanity and hallucinations.

Nina walks on the wild side with a considerable amount of help from the outgoing Lily. Or does she?

Saying more would give away a number of wacko twists and turns, so I’ll stop with the synopsis at this point and simply recommend the film wholeheartedly. I will, however, state that the film’s much-mentioned girl-on-girl sequence involving Portman and Kunis is fairly tame (non trace of nudity, though nonetheless fun), but it did elicit some amusing responses from one of the ancient audience members. As previously stated, I saw BLACK SWAN at a matinee in CT with my 78-year-old mom and found it to be a film that contains a hell of a lot of stuff that most of the oldsters lured in by the film’s trailers and commercials definitely do NOT want to see. The many grannies in the audience were horrified and confused by the proceedings and my favorite audience moments were the following:

1. When a very vocal woman around my mother's age astutely and loudly noted when Mila Kunis was going down on Natalie Portman, "Oh, my GOD! She's A LESBIAN!!!" which was greeted by many of the others viewers with futile shooshing. I responded to the sight of a wild-eyed and eager Mila Kunis lapping on Natalie Portman’s oh-so-innocent pussy with an exclamation of “Thank you, Santa!” that brought appreciative laughs from the like-minded dirty old men in the audience.

2. There were many expressions of confusion from the audience when Portman began transforming into Daffy Duck in her bedroom (yes, you read that right). The previously mentioned old biddy loudly asked her equally aged hubby, "Do you understand what the hell's going on?" and her hubby responded with “She’s hallucinating, dear,” while the rest of those in attendance yelled for her to shut the fuck up.

I was very surprised to see my mom enjoyed it as much as she did because she is majorly opposed to foul language and any depiction of sexuality onscreen, especially anything having to do with homosexuality with either gender, and she nearly gagged when Mila "dined at the Y."

Anyway, BLACK SWAN is pretty over-the-top for an A-list Hollywood film and that’s the aspect that drew me to it from the get-go, although the VILLAGE VOICE’s claim that it was the most outrageous piece of camp to hit the screen since SHOWGIRLS is typical of their often-inaccurate hyperbole. Yes, it contains a ton of overblown hissy-fits, overripe dialogue, and cheesy psychological horror that brings to mind stuff like STRAIT JACKET and HOMICIDAL, but it doesn’t even begin to approach the excesses of the legendary SHOWGIRLS. But then again, honestly, what the hell could? Taken on its own unique merits, BLACK SWAN is a thoroughly entertaining fusion of the behind-the-scenes “arts” drama and old school potboiler horror of the type once common to the glory days of made-for-TV movies. It’s got a lot more genuine glitz and talent going for it than those fondly remembered chestnuts, but you get what I mean. In short, BLACK SWAN is more or less THE RED SHOES or THE TURNING POINT as filtered through an E.C. Comics sensibility, and on that basis alone it warrants your attention.

Nina dances the Black Swan and imagines herself physically transforming into the "bad girl" waterfowl.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

HEADING HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Okay, I admit it. I didn't get around to some of the stuff I hoped to have up before heading to the Connecticut homestead for Christmas, and for that I apologize. I'm slowly getting it together again, but apparently a tad more slowly than I would like, so I'll be working on that.

Anyway, have a very merry Christmas and try to weather the inevitable family dysfunction. And follow the Number One rule as set down in the Book of the Laws of Buncheness: NO DRUNK DRIVING! That is all, and I'll be back soon. Peace out!

A HENRY AND GLENN CHRISTMAS

SILENT NIGHT, HOLY SHIT!

Best Christmas commercial ever!


(special thanks to Phil Brucato for this one)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

MY LATEST PUBLISHERS WEEKLY PIECE IS UP

Go here to check out my chat with Jim Trombetta, the author of the excellent THE HORROR! THE HORROR! : COMIC BOOKS THE GOVERNMENT DIDN'T WANT YOU TO READ.

THE SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK INJURY LIST CONTINUES TO GROW

How many more actors have to get hurt before they just hang this thing up? Unbelievable. From CNN:

'Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark' performer hospitalized after fall

From Jason Kessler, CNN
December 21, 2010 -- Updated 0844 GMT (1644 HKT)

Reeve Carney is the actor who normally plays Spider-Man, but was not the one hurt Monday night, according to reports.
Reeve Carney is the actor who normally plays Spider-Man, but was not the one hurt Monday night, according to reports.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The New York Fire Department says the man fell 20 to 30 feet
  • Witness: A harness came off Spider-Man's back
  • A representative for the show says actor Reeve Carney is not the injured performer
  • He says nine stuntman perform Spider-Man's stunts while the character is masked

New York (CNN) -- An actor was injured after a fall during a performance of the musical "Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark" in New York on Monday night, a representative of the show said.

The New York Fire Department said the 31-year-old fell 20 to 30 feet and was alert when he was taken to a hospital.

Jonathan Dealwis, a tourist from New Zealand who was in the audience, told CNN the actor portraying Spider-Man fell "about six meters," or about 20 feet.

Reeve Carney is the actor who normally plays Spider-Man. But Carney was not the performer injured, show spokesman Jaron Caldwell said. Caldwell said nine stunt men perform Spider-Man's stunts when the character is masked, but did not confirm who the injured performer is.

Dealwis said the accident happened near the end of the show.

"Spider-Man was on a bridge, and Mary Jane was dangling from it," Dealwis said. "She drops down, as is meant to happen. Spider-Man went to the end of the bridge there. I think he was meant to sort of swoop over there, but he just fell off. ... The harness, you could see it just flick off his back and fly backward."

Afterward, Dealwis said, "it just went black, and the producer came on and said we're going to pause for a moment. You could hear Mary Jane weeping."

A producer then came by and said the show was over, Dealwis said. Some people "clapped awkwardly," and one girl "laughed mockingly," drawing "disapproving glances" from others.

Dealwis said the actor was wheeled away in a neck brace.

Rick Miramontez, another spokesman for the show, said in a statement that the actor fell from a platform, and the show was stopped.

"All signs were good as he was taken to the hospital for observation," Miramontez said.

The show, with music and lyrics by U2's Bono and The Edge, is the most expensive in Broadway history by a significant margin, but production has been beset by cast injuries and technical problems.

Monday night's performance was a preview performance -- the show is not officially open yet. Opening has been delayed repeatedly.

Caldwell declined to say whether the next scheduled performance will take place as planned.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A STOCKING FULL OF COAL: THE VAULT OF BUNCHENESS GUIDE TO SURVIVING THE CHRISTMAS SEASON

It happens earlier and earlier each year and this time it began before Halloween, for fuck's sake. Yuletide-themed television commercials, sickening holiday music wending its insidious way into the ether, endless cheap decorations depicting smiling Santas, reindeer and elves, the inevitable — and absolutely horrible — annual dusting off of Elmo and Patsy's "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer," vomitous cutesiness and happiness being shoved down our collective throat...Need I continue?

Yes, kids, Christmas has reared its monolithic head once again and it simply won't go away until about a week or two after the New Year.

Now don't get me wrong. I don't necessarily hate Christmas (despite my complete lack of interest in Christianity); what I hate is the utterly phony forced sentiment and commercialization that I only noticed once I was old enough to see the American Christmas season beyond my childhood greed for the Christmas morning haul of swag. Making the annual torture worse, my own mother aids and abets the holiday nausea by going totally Christmassy with a vengeance just after Thanksgiving by decorating everything in sight short of her own bowel movements and playing an interminable hit parade of saccharine Christmas music albums, the most recent of which was a collection that she described as "old Negro spirituals done in a holiday style." (Now correct me if I'm wrong, but my mom and I are Negroes, so why does she feel the need to describe the offending music as "old Negro spirituals?") I simply get no peace and find myself in an annual booze-haze from Thanksgiving until January simply in order to survive the onslaught.

Thankfully, I have found a few ways to counter the American "scorched earth" policy of X-Mas cheer enforcement and they involve forms of entertainment that intentionally set out to fist the oppressive Claus regime right up to its eggnog-basted liver. If you find yourself in need of a caustic blast of bad taste and negative vibes in order to maintain your sanity during this annual rough patch, allow me to make a few suggestions that will get you over the hump. Adhere to my own personal motto of "Why Be Bored?" and check out the following:

SUBVERSIVE CHRISTMAS RECORDS

More and more of these turn up each year and I welcome them like I would a horny, busty brunette lugging a perfectly roasted turkey and wearing nothing but a Santa hat. There's a lot to choose from so I'll point you toward the indispensables.

BUMMED OUT CHRISTMAS

Exactly what it claims to be, this is an utterly depressing collection of mostly non-humorous holiday tunes that are certain to anger your relatives. Highlights include "Christmas in Viet Nam," "Santa Came Home Drunk," and "Christmas Eve Can Kill You."

JINGLE BALLS (JOHN VALBY)

Without question the dirtiest and most offensive Yuletide album of all time, this gets my highest recommendation. Possibly the strangest "concept" album ever, this depicts the drunken post-Christmas Eve party at the North Pole in which the oh-so-sweet elves let their hair down, hire John "Dr. Dirty" Valby to regale them with his trademark obscene versions of well-known songs (this time around they are utter desecrations of the Christmas songs you love to hate) and engage in flagrantly offensive and lewd behavior. After this one, you will NEVER be able to hear classic Christmas songs again without hearing the dirty lyrics in your head. It's all juvenile as hell, has been played in my home annually since 1985 (it is now available on CD) and features many gems such as the immortal "I'll Be Stoned For Christmas," "Santa's Whore Is Comin' To Town" and "Leroy the Big-Lipped Nigger" (don't worry folks, there is no ethnic/religious group that gets away unscathed here, with the possible exception of Asians).

PUNK ROCK CHRISTMAS

Self-explanatory in the extreme, this has a lot of great stuff on it. The two indisputable classics found here are "Daddy Drank Our Christmas Money" by TVTV$ (who???) and "Homo Christmas" by Pansy Division (the line about "licking nipples, licking nuts/shoving candy canes up each other's butts" is one for the ages).

BLOWFLY DOES XXX-MAS

Second in filthiness only to John Valby, Clarence "Blowfly" Reid has been cranking out dirty parody albums since the late 1960's and is celebrated by aficionados of black American humor for his deft corruptions of countless R&B/disco/rap mainstays. My favorite on this one is his take on "Jingle Bell Rock":

Jingle Bell Jingle Bell Jingle Bell Cock Jingle Bell Prick That’s Hard As A Rock

Seriously, what's not to like there? Yet I still think his all-time greatest lyrics go to the brilliant “Show me a Man Who Don’t Want To Fuck You” from the 1980 BLOWFLY’S RAP album, such as:

Now I want to fuck you/From dusk to early morn ‘Cause I love pussy/Like a hog loves corn

Rodgers and Hammerstein, eat your hearts out!

CHRISTMAS EL BUNCHO- this is the now-infamous compilation that I assembled a few years ago and it contains thirty-three classics that you should never play for your family. Guaranteed to have the Pope show up at your door and punch you square in the mouth. Last year I made CHRISTMAS EVIL 2009 and there's a 2010 edition as well, which I will outline here tomorrow.

SUBVERSIVE CHRISTMAS MOVIES/DVDs/TELEVISION- There are about eleventy-jillion feel-good Christmas movies and TV offerings, but what you really need are the following:

BLACKADDER'S CHRISTMAS CAROL

The venomous British comedy classic has seldom been better than the Dickens-derived Christmas special. Ebenezer Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) is the nicest man in England and a total doormat who puts up with colossal amounts of shit from relatives, neighbors and charities; in other words he is absolutely nothing like his infamous ancestors. After his Christmas Eve is utterly ruined by the avarice of all who surround him, Blackadder is visited by the drunken spirit of Christmas (Robbie "Hagrid" Coltrane) and shown how his evil ancestors — and a descendant in the far future — totally fucked over those who chose to ruin their holiday schemes by usurping power, plotting thievery and resorting to outright murder. Blackadder awakens on Christmas morn a new and completely evil son of a bitch, and the refreshing anti-moral is that no one ever gets anywhere by being kind and loving.


A valuable lesson to say the least!

SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT

The heartwarming tale of young Billy, a boy who witnesses his parents being murdered by a knife-wielding creep in a Santa suit after his previously catatonic grandpa warns him "If you see Santy Claus, you better run, boy!"


The most heartwarming moment in Christmas-movie history.

The film chronicles his emotionally-scarring upbringing in a Catholic orphanage (complete with the mother superior from Hell) and moves on to his young adulthood when he inevitably snaps and goes on an insane Christmas Eve rampage while clad in Santa drag. Brandishing a fireman's axe and shouting "punish!," Billy works his merry way through the neighborhood meting out appropriate rewards for those he deems naughty or nice until his inevitable confrontation with the fuzz. It's pretty bleak stuff, but it's so over-the-top that it's great fun for like-minded curmudgeons everywhere. And whatever you do, skip the sequels!

CHRISTMAS EVIL

A middle-aged toy factory floor manager with a serious Santa fixation keeps tabs on the kiddies in his neighborhood and records their naughty or nice behavior in huge leather-bound ledgers in anticipation of handing out holiday justice. He endures the requisite abuse from co-workers and the general public and soon embarks on a truly inspired bloodbath, ferried from place to place in his reindeer-adorned van. Originally entitled YOU BETTER WATCH OUT, this one has an ending that has to be seen to be believed.

XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS-"A SOLSTICE CAROL"

The pre-Christian Christmas episode of the much-missed mythology-meets-ass-whuppin'-chicks TV series in which Xena and her sidekick Gabrielle meet an ancient Greek toymaker named Senticles. You do the math.

THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT

Geena Davis stars as an amnesiac assassin possessed of startling combat acumen in this holiday-set violence fest.


Shitloads of action, Samuel L. Jackson and unexpected maternal instinct make this Modesty Blaise plagiarism an underrated classic. And chicks dig it!

THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS

Contrary to popular belief, this was not directed by Tim Burton (who merely produced) and is therefore watchable. Excellent stop-motion animation is the star here and the novel storyline is nearly submarined by an overabundance of irritating Danny Elfman songs, but whatever you do, do not miss the "Kidnap the Sandy Claws" number in which three goblins describe in graphic detail their plans for the abduction and torture of Saint Nick.

A CHRISTMAS STORY

One of the few movies that really gets across how badly childhood sucks. Sure it has moments of sentimentality, but the plot is driven by one child's greed for the ultimate Christmas present: a Red Ryder BB rifle, which everyone on the planet is convinced will shoot the young hero's eye out.


Too many funny moments to even attempt to go into here, so just trust me on this one.

BAD SANTA

The Yuletide analog to Chernobyl. Obviously not for kiddies, it tells the fantastically offensive and puerile tale of an alcoholic safecracker (Billy Bob Thornton in his greatest performance) and his dwarf accomplice (Tony Cox, who steals the movie) and their annual scheme to rob yet another shopping mall during the most lucrative season. I won't say any more, but this is a seriously profane, offensive, anti-social, anti-Christmas, anti-feel-good movie that will have you pissing yourself at the sheer evil on display. For example:


It does run out of steam about ten minutes before the end, but this is totally worth your time if you like this sort of stuff. And on that note...

Happy Holidays, dear readers. May you quaff much eggnog, get laid as often as possible, receive a buttload of prezzies, and hopefully survive New Year's Eve. BAH HUMBUG, MOTHERFUCKERS!!!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

FUN WITH CAPTIONS!!!

Joe Shlabotnik, Charlie Brown's favorite ball-player, shows his disdain for the opposing batter by unleashing an intense "onion ring screecher."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

FUN WITH CAPTIONS!!!

The local Cormorants hated it whenever Peter North competed in the annual surfing competition.

Friday, December 17, 2010

SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK OPENING PUSHED BACK UNTIL FEBRUARY

(Photo by Jacob Cohl, cribbed from The Wall Street Journal)

The troubled multi-gazillion dollar Broadway production of
SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK's opening has once again been pushed back, this time to February. From this morning's NEW YORK POST:

'Spider Man' in web of problems, delays Broadway opening again

Last Updated: 7:05 PM, December 16, 2010

Posted: 7:01 PM, December 16, 2010

“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” its delaying its opening a third time, moving the official debut of Broadway’s most expensive musical from Jan. 11 to sometime in February so the creative team can work on the ending and other issues, a production source said Thursday.

The musical was originally set to start previews last February, but financial problems put them off until the fall. Last month the show delayed previews again, to Nov. 28, and bumped the Dec. 21 opening to January to allow more rehearsal time.

The more than $60 million production, which features technically complex stage flying, is directed and co-authored by Julie Taymor with a score by U2’s Bono and the Edge.

The show recently received more scrutiny when a lead actress, Natalie Mendoza, became the third performer to suffer an injury. She sustained a concussion in an offstage accident, missed two weeks of performances and returned to the show Wednesday.

The delayed opening would mean an unusually long preview period of at least nine weeks as musical previews typically last four to six weeks. The show declined to comment on any possible delay or whether any performances would be canceled as a result.

Reviews typically do not appear until after a show opens, although since the first “Spider-Man” preview theatergoers have voiced their opinions online, sounding off on the script, score and special effects. Even during previews, ticket prices can still soar to roughly $300.

Read more: http://blogs.wsj.com/metropolis/2010/12/16/spider-man-in-web-of-problems-delays-opening-again/

Thursday, December 16, 2010

FUN WITH CAPTIONS!!!

And Aquaman was never seen again.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

MY CHRISTMAS WISH

Other than getting my very own copy of THE MAKING OF THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (Come on, Santa! Ohpleaseohpleaseohpleaseohpleaseohplase), the thing I'm most looking forward to this Chistmas is seeing the infamous 1972 seasonal kiddie flick SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY, with running commentary by the RiffTrax guys (Mike, Bill and Kevin from the post-Joel years of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000). I've heard about its zero-budget incredibleness for ages and now I get my chance. I mean, how could I not want to see this on Christmas Eve, cushioned with a few beers?


Am I wrong, or is Thumbelina kinda hot, in a Susan Dey/Laurie Partridge kind of way? (God, how I had the hots for her when I was a wee Bunche...)

Susan Dey, circa 1971. See what I mean?

And I love how when Mr. Bird is flying, you can see his wing's shadow against the blank studio wall that's meant to be the sky. And what the fuck are Tom and Huck doing in this film, while an all-kazoo version of "Ol' Man River" plays on the soundtrack?


I've heard numerous reports of how this film is like the kiddie movie equivalent to Chernobyl, but to a guy like me it sounds like a must-see.

The RiffTrax version won't be released unti 12/17 but I wll order my copy on that date at midnight, guaranteeing that it'll be in my hands just before I head home for Christmas. I plan on subjecting my old pal Chris to it on Christmas Eve while my mom is off at midnight mass, but you can read a detailed overview of this lysergic triumph here.

LIFE'S NO PIC-A-NIC...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

THE DEVIL IN DESIGN: THE KRAMPUS POSTCARDS (2004)

NOTE: this one's a rerun from two years ago, but it's still quite relevant and definitely seasonally appropos. Also, since I first ran this piece and though it's still listed on Amazon, this book has apparently gone out of print and is now an expensive collectible.

The Christmas holidays are rolling around again, so I'd like to offer a fun gift suggestion for those of you who may know friends and family like Yer Bunche who are sick to bloody death of the usual Yuletide nausea (which, BTW, I began noticing as early as three weeks prior to Halloween!). Back in 2004 Fantagraphics Books issued this delightful collection of antique seasonal postcards from Germany featuring the sinister visage of the Krampus — distinctly not the personification of an aspect of women's monthly concerns — and it makes for a great gift or addition to your own oddball book collection.

The Krampus (or just Krampus for short) is a demonic sort who's actually the helper of St. Nikolaus insomuch as he was an instrument of social-control terror who tormented bad children until they agreed to be good. Armed with a bundle of sticks with which he'd administer a serious "birching," chains for shackling (of himself as well as bad kids; don't ask me what that's all about) and a basket over his back for dropping the naughty into before literally casting them into the flaming pits of aitch-ee-double-hockey sticks, the Krampus is the kind of Christmas spirit I can get behind. I always thought that lyric about Santa Claus knowing when your sleeping, awake and all that other shit was rather ominous because of it's warning to "be good for goodness' sake" hinted at something very bad indeed eventually turning up to lay down some kind of righteous ass-kicking (or birching), and now I know what to expect.

In fact, the existence of "No Presents for Christmas" notwithstanding, I'm kind of surprised that ultra-Satanic heavy metal vocalist King Diamond never tackled another tongue-in-cheek Yuletide tune, only this time about the Krampus, especially considering just how right up his alley the damned thing is.

I don't know about you, but if I saw this fucking thing saunter into the room I'd shit hard enough to fill a ten-pound bag and expire on the spot!

This book is a terrific alternative to the forced-down-your-throat cutesiness of the season and is a mindblowing cornucopia of imagery featuring many interpretations of the Krampus that range from downright Satanic to whimsical, erudite and seductive. There's plenty of attention given to the birching of bad kids, but the Krampus is also frequently depicted as something of a ladies' man, even cleaning up his hirsute act and donning stylish hats, fashionable suits, and even sporting that signature mark of Germanic class, the monocle. All of it is in good fun, but the famously-disturbing Teutonic sense of humor runs rampant throughout and yields images that simultaneously manage to charm and repulse. I mean, what the hell kind of Christmas greeting is this? (see below)

That apparently-tarred and dripping child's corpse dangling from the end of a trident doesn't exactly bring the strains of "Jingle Bells" to mind, now does it?

Surprisingly, the Krampus has actually made its way into American entertainment via the wholly appropriate venue of Cartoon Network's THE VENTURE BROS., an often hilarious sendup of sci-fi/superheroic adventure stuff in general and JONNY QUEST in particular.

The animated Krampus: Rudolph he ain't.

The 2004 episode "A Very Venture Christmas" features the title characters looking for anything that could entertain them during the family's Christmas party, passing on viewing seasonally-themed porno flicks entitled "Miracle on 69th Street," "JIngle Balls," "Frothy the Blow-Man" and "Rudolph the Redknobbed Reindeer," and instead reading aloud from the spell book of Dr. Orpheus, the show's blatant Doctor Strange stand-in. Not comprehending the words they randomly chose to read, the boys inadvertantly summon the Krampus and he proceeds to make the rounds at the party in search of the attendee most deserving of his attentions thanks to their overwhelming wickedness. Unfortunately for him, the boys' father turns out to be the Krampus' prey and gets the birching to end all birchings,

followed up by a vigourous attempted-sodomizing in front of all assembled (until ultimate badass Brock Samson shows up and engages the demon in asswhuppery).

When asked just "what kind of kinky Christmas spirit" the Krampus is, Dr. Orpheus simply says "It is Germanic in origin," as though that's all one needs to know, and for me that sums him up pretty well.

So if you're of a like mind and can appreciate the seemingly-incongruous fusion of the traditional Yuletide cheer and demonic discipline, check out THE DEVIL IN DESIGN: THE KRAMPUS POSTCARDS, available through Amazon.

The Krampus, apparently befuddled by the chess prowess of a pulchritudinous redhead. This card is unfortunately not included in the book, but how could I not include this one? And that's definitely the Krampus and not some other random escapee from a Venom album cover, the birching switch being the dead giveaway. From the looks of things, the poor guy is pondering the possibility of doing something other than spanking those inviting buttcheeks...

A SECOND OPINION ON SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK

A visibly spent Bono finally removes his mic from Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man's sundered butthole.

As stated in my own review of SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK, my girlfriend was sitting right next to me as the spectacle/train wreck unfolded, and here is her response to what I wrote about the show. Take it away, "She Who Cannot Be Named!"

As I said after the show, that play was a “hot tranny mess.” Thank god you explained the second act so clearly here, because I honestly didn’t know what the hell was going on. I haven’t read the comics and hardly recall the movies — actually I’m not even sure if I’ve seen all of them — but anyway they’re not fresh in my mind. So I was VERY confused.

The club scene is horrible; I’d say more, but that about sums it up. It does, however, bring me to the music, which is so stuck in the 80’s that it has no hope of exit. Allowing Bono to do the music for this was just plain stupid. If it’s supposed to be a contemporary musical, we need contemporary music. Where was the hip-hop, the rap, the modern rock? I don’t really recall “The Boy Fell From the Sky” except for the hook, which was OK. And “Bouncing Off the Walls” was an acceptable number in terms of the music, plus the moving walls were amusing. As for the dancing shoe number with Arachne…well I can hardly put my thoughts into words. Scratch that, I don’t have any thoughts. Rampant laughter to the point where the guy in front of us kept looking back at me like he thought I was such a jerk. That is the only possible expression of my experience with that number. Perhaps the moral was that to be a super-villainess you need lots of really hot high-heeled shoes? Or that high heels are empowering? Hell, any female over the age of seven knows that, so why make a song about it?


The fact that they came straight to Broadway with this show explains a lot. The stunts are fun and our seats were pretty good for viewing them, but I didn’t believe the producer who introduced it when he said the Foxwoods Theater “was the only theater that could accommodate them.” I think it was the only theater that the director wanted and the only theater that would work with them, considering the potential financial liability incurred by breaking the actors and putting the audience in harm’s way.


And did this nonsense really cost $65 million?! Please tell me that was a typo and you meant $6.5 million.
(NOTE: that was not a typo.) It’s “Springtime for Hitler and Germany,” alright! You are also right that the Swiss Miss needs to go. That latex fetish silver costume is a fright best left to nightmares. I didn’t mind Arachne, but mostly because I like the dance scene where several spiders fall from the sky to create a web from enormous gray ribbons. So Arachne can also be deleted. The second act doesn’t in any way explain to us why Arachne is necessary. Plus if their core audience is meant to be comic book readers and Spider-Man movie fans, it’s just bad business to flip the script so much.

At moments, they did a good job of bringing the visual of the comic book to life, but not always. I liked the giant visual projections, though the one with all the small television sets (sorry to anyone who hasn’t seen this train wreck I just can’t describe that scene) was a little too like “Max Headroom” for my taste. I also liked SOME of the dancing. I love dance, and watching how people move, so for me this is a very important element. Some of it was good, but lots sucked in terms of choreography. The sad thing is that they had good dancers. But seriously, in 1985 – the year in which that music was stuck – most of those dancers were either babies or weren’t alive yet. I give them credit for doing their best to “sell it” to a crap soundtrack. The same can be said for the actors. They did the best they could with the bullshit they were given. And the women who play M.J. and Arachne are good singers. With luck, someone important will notice them and put them in a decent play.


I could continue ad infinitum, so let it suffice to say the second act HAS NO PLOT. You are totally right in saying that the only way to salvage this horror is to return to the comic books for inspiration, fire Bono, try to pull Julie Taymor out of her ego-trip and rewrite the entire script.


Folks should only spend the money on this if, like me, they have a student discount that brings the tickets down to 1/3 the box-office price. They are worth that much for the laugh, because the dancing spider was probably the best laugh I’ll have all month.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

WEB GOO OVER BROADWAY — SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK

You have no doubt heard about the problem-plagued Broadway translation of everyone’s favorite webhead, SPIDER-MAN: TURN OF THE DARK, a production notable as the most expensive musical in the history of the Great White Way (with an estimated cost in the neighborhood of $65,000,000), with music and lyrics by Bono and The Edge from pop music perennials U2 and helmed by the visionary Julie Taymor (she of THE LION KING renown). The show’s cost-overruns, questionable choice of composers for a Broadway show, seemingly ludicrous inclusion of the Taymor-conceived villainess Swiss Miss, wimpy would-be-show-stopper “The Boy Falls from the Sky,” and unfortunate technical glitches and cast injuries during the early previews are the main elements that have kept this troubled show in the theater headlines for months and made it into a media whipping boy, fueling a cruel sense of schadenfreude in comics fans and theater mavens alike (to say nothing of the critics and Broadway pundits).

As a lifelong comic book freak, the first words out of my mouth when I heard a Spider-Man musical was in the works were “Oh, for fuck’s sake…” and I freely admit that my disgust at the current state of mostly-soulless Broadway fare led me to instantly hate on the production, sight unseen, causing me to rail against one of the great pop culture heroes of the latter half of the 20th century joining the likes of lazy “jukebox” musicals, awful musicalized version of movies, and the seemingly endless plague of corporate Disney-based shows cluttering up the place like empty, sauce-smeared Big Mac containers found tossed out of the car window onto the side of I-95. I followed each new news item on the show with a morbid and cynical interest and decided I wanted to see the show because, in my mind, it could not possibly be anything other than a noxious turd floating in the Broadway punchbowl, it’s presence causing those at the gala party to hurl up partially-digested canapés. Anyone who knows me even peripherally knows I have a sick fascination with all things “bad,” so it was a given that I would simply have to bear witness to SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK for myself, so, with the aid of my girlfriend "She Who Cannot Be Named"’s kind use of her grad school student discount, I procured us a pair of tickets for the show’s previews. However, as the date of the performance we were to see approached, my own shadenfreude over the show gave way to a realization that the cast and crew of the show were slaving away under the very tight and merciless scrutiny of the public and the media to create a spectacle unlike anything yet seen or experienced on the Broadway stage. Taymor’s THE LION KING was a groundbreaking effort that translated the animated source’s sense of wonder to human-performed, colorful life, so her innovate chops would be sorely tested in the course of staging the king of wall-crawling, web-slinging, bad-guy-ass-kicking we have rightfully come to expect from Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man since he first graced the printed four-color page back in 1962. Being an artsy sort myself, I was finally moved to give Taymor and the rest the benefit of the doubt and hope against hope that the nay-sayers were wrong and that they would all be left with nothing but their Playbills lodged deep within their collective colon when the smoke cleared.

Well, folks, here’s what I got, and HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

The show consists of two acts, the first of which cribs heavily from the first Spider-Man film. Act One basically retells (for the umpteenth time) the story of how bookish high school student Peter Parker (Reeve Carney) gets bitten by a scientifically altered arachnid and becomes Spider-Man, while scientist Norman Osborn (Patrick Page, hamming it up with a southern accent) tests one of his experiments upon himself and ends up as the insane and utterly homicidal Green Goblin. Mary Jane (Jennifer Damiano) is also there as the love interest, and the proceedings are commented upon by a contemporary Greek chorus of comic book geeks whose presence adds nothing whatsoever to the narrative.

The most major addition to the familiar tale is Arachne, the figure from Greek mythology who lost a weaving contest to a jealous and pissed-off Athena — who, along with being the goddess of wisdom, the city, and warfare, was also the patron deity of weaving (go figure) — and, after attempting to commit suicide, was turned into the world's first spider for her efforts and inadvertently giving us the word “arachnid” in the process. Arachne is thus rendered immortal and portrayed as an artist frustrated at being robbed of her self-slaughter by the goddess, and as the story progresses she chooses to gift Peter Parker with spider-powers. Exactly why is anyone’s guess, and the Greek mythology element was wholly unnecessary, so I chalk that one up to Julie Taymor’s directorial/auteurist masturbation, visually impressive though Arachne may be. Nonetheless, the character shows up at various intervals in the show, but more on that later.

The first act annoyed me for its aping of the first movie, and it’s a rather generic affair as musical entertainment goes. The songs are like an unwelcome time warp back to the late-1980’s, and even for U2 the tunes can only be described as cookie cutter confections. No lie, Bono and The Edge (oh, that ridiculous moniker!) pretty much phoned the songs in and I defy anyone who sat through the show to find any of them truly memorable.

Also of great irritation to me was the totally pointless “re-imagining” of the death of Peter’s Uncle Ben, the single most important element in galvanizing Peter into becoming a true hero who understands the maxim that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Peter’s early assholism as the fresh-out-of-the-gate Spider-Man originally led him to not stop an escaping robber when said criminal stole cash from a TV producer who stiffed him for monies owed (in the most famous version of his origin). The robber later ended up murdering Uncle Ben, causing Peter to forever bear the guilt for his uncle’s needless death, a terrible loss that could have been prevented if only he’d done the right thing and not been a dick. In terms of comic book legends, this was the equivalent to heart-wrenchingly tragic opera; in Taymor’s version, Peter does not act when school bully Flash Thompson’s car is stolen, and as a result Uncle Ben, who attempted to give chase, is run over and killed. Sure, it’s tragic, but there is a considerable qualitative difference in the personal narrative power of a homicide versus that of a hit and run, which remains unresolved in the play, thus losing Peter realizing the killer was the guy he didn’t stop and throwing that shocking realization’s gravitas straight down the bowl. Even people who are only familiar with Spider-Man’s origin from the movies can tell that’s bullshit, so what was the need to change it? Certainly not to prevent there being any deaths in a family show, since it’s made clear that people are killed left and right during the Green Goblin’s rampages, plus to say nothing of a visually interesting puppet dismemberment perpetrated by Swiss Miss during the second act.

When the fifteen-minute intermission happened, "She Who Cannot Be Named" and I compared opinions and both agreed that the show was rather unimpressive save for the truly spectacular sets, costumes and amazing aerial stunts that required Spider-Man to somersault and land about fifteen feet away from where we were seated in mid-balcony (which afforded an excellent view of all the action on and off stage, except for when the flying and web-swinging combat moved to just below the balcony’s edge).

Then the lights dimmed and Act Two began, and what followed caused both myself and "She Who Cannot Be Named" to consider the possibility that, mediocre though it may have been, the first act was at least carefully thought out, but after that the show’s creators must have went off and downed some serious quantities of the highest grade peyote imaginable. And let me be clear: I do not mean that in a good way. What coherence the first act had went out the window as Arachne grew pissy about Peter not living up to her as-yet-unstated agenda, so when Peter gets disgusted with the burden of being Spider-Man and gives up his role as NYC’s protector, she influences the Goblin and several other baddies (Electro, Kraven the Hunter, Swarm, The Lizard, and the living Swiss army knife, Swiss Miss) to go on a murderous spree in the midst of a citywide blackout. Peter eventually gets it together and recovers his suit from the office of J.Jonah Jameson at the Daily Bugle (as seen in the movie), but when it comes time to confront the villains, although we see an impressionistic depiction of the retrieval of the suit and Spider-Man donning it, a maskless Peter shows up to fight wearing a jacket with a big red spider emblazoned on the back and a pair of jeans. As Mary Jane dangles from one of the gargoyles on the Chrysler Building, Peter stands in front of huge projected images of his foes and strikes stylistic combat poses meant to symbolize him punching and defeating the villains, and neither actively has a final confrontation with the Green Goblin nor is seen rescuing Mary Jane. No climactic, cathartic battle, no romantic rescue of the girl he loves. Bubkes. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Fuck all. Instead, his heroic actions meet the approval of Arachne and somehow grant her the right to finally make good on her suicide attempt, once more becoming human and being drawn to the heavens with a noose around her neck (this is apparently the turning off of the dark mentioned in the title). Then a huge banner with a drawing of Spider-Man drops from the rafters and obscures the stage. When that happened, "She Who Cannot Be Named" sat stunned, looked at me and observed, “Well, that certainly ended on a strange note,” to which I observed, “Nah, it’s not over yet. He’s still got to fight the Goblin and save M.J.” But I could not have been more wrong; the house lights came up, the banner was reeled in, and the cast came out and took their bows to less-than-thunderous applause. I sat there feeling like I’d been beaten about the head with a burlap sack full of quarters. This admittedly visually spectacular triumph of stagecraft did not have an ending.

No, I swear to god.

IT DID NOT HAVE AN ACTUAL ENDING.

Even with the student discount taken into account, I felt profoundly ripped off. Much of the audience that I overheard as we exited shared my sentiments and there was much discussion of the show’s many, many faults while acknowledging that it did at least bring the eye candy. Nonetheless, it was in no way worth the exorbitant full price, which for some seats ran as high as $140.

So I unequivocally state that, for all its lofty intentions, SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK was the most stunning train wreck that I have seen in my thirty-six years of seeing shows on Broadway (I've been going since I was nine). Never in my life have I seen a show go so precipitously off the rails as this one did with that “Was I just dosed?” second act, so I strongly advise all and sundry to steer clear, unless you have that kind of money to throw away in this economy. This show may be in previews at the moment, but its problems are too many to tweak without completely starting over from scratch with the book, and that ain't gonna happen before the show's proper opening in January.

That said, I would like to conclude with a few notes on some of the show’s points of interest, both the good and the howlingly bad:

• Reeve Carney and Jennifer Damiano are largely blameless and both are quite good for what they are given to do as Peter and Mary Jane. Both have good (miked) voices and can carry their respective tunes, but they exhibit little if any chemistry, and that’s a problem when trying to sell a show’s emotional core.

• The Greek chorus of comic book geeks is annoying and unnecessary, eventually getting literally chased off the stage during the “Deeply Furious” number (more on that shortly), never to return. Since this show is still in previews and said previews are when tweaks are made before the show’s proper opening, the Greek chorus gets my strongest nomination as the one element in the show that could be completely excised without hindering anything in the least.

• I would have also suggested the removal of Arachne because, for the life of me, I could not figure out just why the hell she was there at all. But then, quite unexpectedly, she turns out to have influence over the bad guys as part of her ill-defined plans for Peter. At one point she states that she is “the only real artist working today,” which makes me think that Julie Taymor is using her as a blatantly allegorical mouthpiece for her thoughts on Broadway and her own career. Maybe I’m wrong, but…

• The plot notes that during the blackout and villains’ rampage, fifty shoe stores were robbed of their stock, an event deemed un-newsworthy by J. Jonah Jameson (and me). That pointless bit comes back later and provides the impetus for the single worst number I’ve ever seen in a live show, specifically “Deeply Furious,” in which Arachne’s Furies, a number of half-human spider-women with well-crafted extra arachnid limbs, take the aforementioned shoes, put them on their multiple feet, and sing about how they’re going to “shoe chop” Spider-Man.























It was like some scene that loony film director Ken Russell had left on the cutting room floor during the editing of his balls-out lysergic LISZTOMANIA (1975), and as it played out onstage, "She Who Cannot Be Named" nearly laughed until she puked, while I sat through the entirety of the number with my mouth hanging open in complete and utter disbelief. I looked around to see how the rest of the audience was reacting to it, and all I saw were stony faces like a multitude of deer caught in the proverbial headlights. When the song ended, I looked at "She Who Cannot Be Named" (who was still collecting herself) and asked aloud, “Did I just actually see that?” I genuinely hope that the segment gets taped for posterity so future generations can gaze upon it in wonder and outright confusion.

• The song “D.I.Y. World,” sung by Norman Osborn and fellow scientists at OsCorp in praise of their own work and genius, felt like an unintentional throwback to “Oh Happy Day” from the musical version of LI’L ABNER (1956), some fifty-four years after the fact.

• The Daily Bugle’s set was highly reminiscent of that seen in the “Shall I take dictation” sequence in the dystopian porn film CAFÉ FLESH (1982), complete with surrealistic lighting, minimalist furnishings, and typists with typewriters and no desks (in the movie there was only one; here there are several). Also, the Bugle’s staff was an assortment of Broadway musical reporter clichés whose costume designs intermingled looks ranging from the early-1930’s through roughly 1964, lending the whole thing the look of a newsroom in another dimension.

• How the Green Goblin knew who Peter Parker was when he captures and unmasks him is not explained. He is also aware of Peter’s relationships with M.J. and Aunt May, also unexplained. That info was all given in the movie, so I’m guessing the script was counting on its audience having seen that film. If so, that’s lazy scriptwriting at its most egregious.

• The ludicrous and much-decried Swiss Miss is only in it for maybe four or five minutes and she has no lines.

• Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, John Romita Sr., and J. Michael Straczinski are all name-checked as scientists on staff at OsCorp. For those not in the know, the first two are the co-creators of Spider-Man, the third defined the character’s more polished and romantic look once Ditko left drawing the comics (odds are if you’re familiar with Spider-Man’s signature image over the past four-plus decades, you know Romita’s take on the character), and J.M. Straczinski wrote the character in recent years. A wee nod for the geeks in the audience.

• During some of the fight scenes in the first act, the tired trope of “Pow/Biff/Thwack” sound effects a la the classic Adam West Batman TV series from the 1960’s are seen. That gag was tired by 1972 and does not hold water in the 2000’s.

• Most obnoxious moment in the entire show: a dance club scene where the song the crowd is dancing to is U2’s 2004 hit “Vertigo.” Dudes, you wrote the music for the entire show. Do you really need to do product placement for your own records as well? Majorly douchey move.

• The only memorable thing about any of the show’s music is the guitar hook that thankfully dominates “The Boy Falls from the Sky.”

Proof that I bore witness.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

ON MY WAY TO SEE SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK

Tonight the girlfriend and I hit Broadway for the much-discussed "potentially biggest flop in the history of the Great White Way," namely SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK. I freely admit that I only want to see it so I can witness the potential train wreck with my own eyes (and hopefully have its ludicrously pretentious title explained in a convincing way), but I would not be disappointed if it actually turns out to be good in spite of music from Bono and The Edge (douchiest rock moniker ever). Check back tomorrow for a detailed account!

IT WAS THIRTY YEARS AGO TODAY

Dear Vaulties-

here's a re-run from the past couple of years, complete with the title change to render the accurate passage of time. Bear with it, because this has become an annual fixture.

NOTE : every word of the following story is true (or rather remembered as exactly as humanly possible given that nearly three decades have elapsed since it happened), and if you find some of it offensive at this late date, imagine being in my shoes at age fifteen!

December 9th, 1980-

It was the start of my tenth grade school day morning and I was disgruntled (as usual) at being denied sleep and instead being herded along with the rest of the cattle at Staples High School into yet another inane class. The first item of regurgitation/education of the morning was English with Mr. Dyskolos (not his real name; changed for reasons soon to be apparent), a late-forty-something red-headed guy who then looked like what Danny Bonaduce looks like today who was also among the minute handful of teachers whose classes would keep students awake because he was genuinely interesting, did not talk down to the kids and had not allowed the thankless teaching system to beat him down and force him to consider his job a mocking reminder of wage-slavery (I'm the son of a teacher, so I speak with a working knowledge of such things).

As the students took their chairs we all noticed that Mr. Dyskolos's usual laid-back manner seemed somewhat "off" that morning and after nearly a minute of total silence as he stared into space as though contemplating some cosmic truth or inevitability, he suddenly focused himself, looked at us and said, as serious as a heart attack, "By the look of you, you haven't heard what happened this morning. I'll just get right to it. John Lennon, de facto leader of the Beatles, was shot dead by some lunatic fan." Most of the class had indeed not heard about Lennon's murder and those of us who hadn't, myself among them, were stunned. But before the horrible truth could fully set in, Mr. Dyskolos continued. "You kids probably know a lot about the Beatles from what your parents or maybe your older brothers and sisters played for you, but you can't even begin to imagine the worldwide pop culture impact those guys had at the time. Obviously I was there for the 1960's and can tell you firsthand what it was like, but I'm gonna spare you that nauseating, self-indulgent trip down memory lane. I guarantee you that all your other teachers are going to suspend actual teaching for the day and drag you along for their reminiscences of their flower-power salad days, but I'm not gonna do that to you. Instead, I'm gonna tell you a few truths that you won't hear anywhere else in this school, or damn near anywhere else, on what's gonna no doubt be a day of worldwide mourning."

He leaned forward in his chair, his face a mask of utmost solemnity, and uttered words that blew the minds of the roomful of privileged suburban white kids (and me): "The Beatles sucked. They were a bunch of marginally talented 'heads' who started out ripping off the work of their black American influences and made a hell of a lot of money for no good reason, killing real rock 'n' roll in the process and unleashing legions of even less-talented imitators in that godawful British Invasion nonsense. And then they went to India, supposedly to gain 'enlightenment' or some other George Harrison-inspired bee-ess, but if you ask me all it did was make their music more annoying." To emphasize that point of criticism, Mr. Dyskolos began making a nasal and high-pitched "neeeeeeer neeeeeer neeeeeeeeeee neeeer" sound by way of approximating the tones of a sitar.

By this point in his diatribe you could have heard an amoeba fart. Young eyes practically bugged out of their sockets and jaws had fallen into laps. This was rock 'n' roll blasphemy in the extreme, and on the morning of the senseless slaughter of a man held by most in the room to be a hero of peace, love and great music, no less. Our worlds were shaken to the core. And then Mr. Dyskolos continued, still looking solemn, but his mouth betrayed a slight half-smile as he was very obviously enjoying his class' speechless outrage.

"Then they put out that asinine White Album that had exactly two good songs on it — 'Birthday" and 'Back in the U.S.S.R.,' and those two were good because they sound like actual rock 'n' roll! — and had the fucking unbelievable nerve to include that 'Revolution 9' horseshit! What the hell was that? (assumes comedic Liverpudlian accent) 'Noombuh nine? Noombuh nine?' What a load of crap! I'm telling you kids right here and now, remember how 'deep' that bullshit is when you decide to give acid a try!" (NOTE: this was the first time I ever hear a teacher curse when not discussing some of the content in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE.)

Before he could say another word, Mr. Dyskolos was cut off and drowned out by an aural assault of irate dissenting opinion, his every word being tarred as the rantings of an anti-peace & love curmudgeon who "just didn't get it." "Who do you think you are???" shrieked several of my classmates. "The Beatles were the most important band in history! John Lennon and Paul McCartney were two of the greatest songwriters who ever lived! Are you crazy?" Dyskolos responded with a sneer that would have done Vincent Price proud and uttered my favorite comeback heard in all of my teenage years, whether I agreed with him or not: "What the hell did they ever write that was worth a goddamn? 'We all live in a yellow submarine?' Puh-leeeeze. The only reason you kids enshrine those hacks is because of nostalgia filtered down from parents who were barely your age when the Beatles showed up and absorbed by the general public and your older brothers and sisters who used that garbage as a soundtrack for when they'd sneak off to smoke weed in the back of a van. Which also explains how anybody could ever find the stomach to listen to those Doors assholes! Face it, kids. For some of what are supposed to be this country's brightest young minds, you sure are a bunch of programmed parrots!" And when one of the students blurted out that John Lennon was a symbol of "give peace a chance," our sage teacher batted that one aside with "You've obviously never heard about the time when Mr. Give Peace A Chance went to some club and hung out with a Kotex stuck to his forehead," a then-shocking truth that only elicited more teenage keening.

That was the real meat of it but the back and forth ranting went on for the class' full hour, with order barely being restored with the ringing of the bell marking the rotation to the next class. Each of my classmates and I zombied off to the next class and swiftly discovered that Mr. Dyskolos had been correct in his auguring; indeed, each and every teacher I had to endure for the rest of the day derailed the planned curriculum in favor of rose-colored reminiscences of "a more innocent time" full of free love, "the people getting together, man!"and how the Beatles were the troubadours that saw them through all of it and changed to reflect the time. That was all well and good in theory, but not for hours on end as heard from speakers of wildly varying levels of eloquence (to say nothing of interest), with lunch being the only respite from what was essentially the same story only with the most minor of variations.

When the day finally ended I headed downtown to do my volunteer teaching of a cartooning class at the local YMCA and the journey allowed me some time to process the events of the day and the "truths" imparted. I'd grown up liking the Beatles quite a lot but didn't own any of their albums thanks to their many hits being available in endless rotation on some of the nascent stations that played what would come to be known as "classic rock," and as the seventies ended I avoided the agonizing repetition of disco and such by listening to the excellent oldies station WBLI out of Long Island, a radio entity that served to plant the seeds of my passion for pre-1970's rock that was either primitive and raw or bizarre and very much off the beaten path. WBLI played some of the standard Beatles hits, but they also threw stuff like "Dig A Pony" and "Rain" (nowadays my favorite Beatles tune of all) into the mix and showed me just how much the classic rock stations played the same Fab Four songs over and over and over and over and over again, ad nauseum, and taking into account the espoused theory — voiced with absolute certainty of its veracity — that myself and my fellow students may have been a bunch of programmed drones, I began to wonder if Mr. Dyskolos had in fact done his young charges a favor by showing none of the rote reverence extended to the favorite sons of Liverpool by all who drew breath. He had effectively "killed our idol," on the day when one would expect nothing but 100% adherence to the party line, and that greatly intrigued my punk rock-influenced sensibilities.

As I pondered these thoughts, I wandered past Westport Record and Tape, one of the town's most accessible record stores, and greeted Jean, the sweet southern proprietor. I asked her if the shooting of John Lennon had affected her sales that day and she said, "Honey, look over at the Beatles and John Lennon sections. Whadda you see? Tumbleweeds 'n' cattle skulls, that's what! Folks came in and cleaned the place out like they were a bunch of vinyl-eatin' locusts! On sales of Beatles and Lennon records alone, I could close early today." And it was true. Every single Beatles/Lennon platter had vanished into the Westport ether, bought up by fools who believed those perennial best-sellers (okay, maybe not SOMETIME IN NEW YORK CITY) would become instant collector's items.

Later that night as I lay there in my bed staring up at the white stucco ceiling, I listened to my cassette tape of SERGEANT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND and experienced it in a way that I never had before. I'd listened to it about two dozen times since acquiring it a couple of years previous, but now it served as a poignant grave marker for my favorite member of the Beatles and its words took on a whole new timbre. No one would be "fixing a hole" in Lennon and ensuring he would live to see sixty-four and beyond. He would not be getting better and there would be no more good mornings for him. Yet tragic though it was, this was just another day in the collective life, and that life would go on without John Lennon (though obviously not "within").

I remember the hue and cry when Elvis Presley, the so-called King of Rock 'n' Roll, gave up the ghost and people acted as though the world had come to an end and I frankly didn't get it. I liked some of Elvis's music, but it didn't really speak to me in the way that the Beatles had and I now chalk that up to the Beatles happening during what could arguably be considered the most pivotal period of the twentieth century, a time that redefined much of American culture and into which my generation was born. We didn't grow up with Elvis, whose music helped set the template of rock 'n' roll, but we did come along during the rise of the Beatles and reached early sentience while under the influence of their sound. We couldn't know at the time just what their contribution meant, but we did know that we liked it. Obsessive poring over the minutia of the whys and wherefores of their lives, art and careers would come later. At that point in our young lives love was indeed all we needed, and in the wake of the plastic disco era and what small impact punk had in the U.S. at the time, that wasn't a bad thing.

So today marks the thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon's senseless slaughter and for me the day that it happened becomes ever more remote, so I figured I'd jot down my experience of it before age robs it of what clarity remains. If any of you have tales of that day, please write in and share.

Monday, December 06, 2010

"YOU WA SHOCK!!" FIST OF THE NORTH STAR: THE TV SERIES Overview-Part 1

NOTE: this is a long one, folks, so if you have no interest in FIST OF THE NORTH STAR, bail out now.

The first boxed set of the complete unedited and subtitled run of FIST OF THE NORTH STAR is finally out in legal, licensed form in the U.S. (as opposed to the previously available and horrendously subtitled “gray market” version from Hong Kong), with the second (of a total of four) just recently out as well, so now is as good a time as any to give you my overview of the whole shebang. The first boxed set contains episodes 1-36, but first a wee bit of history for the uninitiated. (NOTE: though I've seen the entire series all the way through in various states of translation ranging from the totally untranslated — when I was first watching it on tapes culled from the original Japanese airings in the mid-1980's — to the passable and the downright awful, this viewing of these fully-authorized and professionally subtitled episodes is the first time I'll be making my way through all of it with a quality, unified vision of the story told in English, so this is as almost as much of a journey of discovery for me as it is for you, dear Vaultie.)



A strong contender for the title of "Best Cartoon Theme Song Ever."

Much has been written on this blog about my undying love of HOKUTO NO KEN, aka FIST OF THE NORTH STAR, in all its many iterations, but the one that started me on all of this is the animated TV series that ran from 1984-1987 and it's immediate sequel series, HOKUTO NO KEN 2 (1987-1988). Based on the landmark manga series by artist Tetsuo Hara and co-writer Buronson that ran in weekly installments in Japan's SHONEN JUMP weekly comics anthology from 1983-1988 (and as of 2007 was the 7th best-selling collected manga series of all time), the TV adaptation followed its source's template of over-the-top martial arts super-heroic ultra-violence and manliness, and even went it one better by exaggerating its already considerable excesses from the ridiculous to the sublime. While definitely possessed of skills and abilities that would meet anyone's definition of the term "powerful," the characters became kuh-razy super-powerful in the TV version, and it is from that launching point that all other versions of the series' signature mega-martial arts stem. It was the element of a very Japanese take on superheroes combined with an equally Nippon-tastic spin on what one could get away with in what was originally considered a kids' series that guaranteed HOKUTO NO KEN classic status, and it is in many ways even more popular today than it ever was in the first place.

A typical day in FIST OF THE NORTH STAR's post-apocalyptic shithole of a world.

The show's basic premise is the same as the manga's: in the year 199X, World War III breaks out and after the nuclear holocaust's smoke and fire clears (to say nothing of the attendant fallout), the earth has been rendered a scorched and barren wasteland where lawlessness and savagery rule and the weak are the pathetic prey of the strong and cartoonishly sadistic. Out of the blistering, Sergio Leone-esque wastes strides Kenshiro, a tall, stoic and impossibly-muscled warrior who is a completely flagrant fusion of the ENTER THE DRAGON-era Bruce Lee's martial prowess (taken of course to an insane next level) and Mel Gibson as Mad Max, for both the Aussie hero's post-apocalyptic setting and basic visual. (NOTE: Kenshiro can't be considered a total visual ripoff of Mad Max because Ken's leather jacket does not have any trace of sleeves!)

Mel "Sugartits" Gibson: the sartorial template for Kenshiro.

It is at this point that I’ll break down the episodes contained in this first boxed set by which installments the viewer really should not miss, with notes on the various important characters encountered along the way. There will be spoilers, but they don’t really spoil anything because, if truth be told, about two-thirds of FIST OF THE NORTH STAR’s early run is simply not very good, and I say that as a hardcore fan.

The series' first twenty-three episodes comprise "Chapter One" and what's contained therein is rather a mixed bag, as we shall see.

Our protagonist: Kenshiro, the 64th successor of Hokuto Shin Ken, the deadliest martial art known to man.

Episode 1: In which Kenshiro wanders out of the wasteland and begins has ass-kicking career in bloody earnest. This implacable and initially-unexplained warrior arrives in a small town that's been attacked by a gang of Mohawked and feathered biker thugs, hulking human vermin who don't hesitate to kill any who offer them the slightest resistance when they come to raid the place for food and water. Before the awed and horrified eyes of the townspeople, Kenshiro (Ken for short) single-handedly, fatally and quite literally explosively sorts out the gang in a spectacular and jaw-dropping display of the secret martial art of Hokuto Shin Ken — literally "North Star God Fist" or "the Holy Fist of the North Star" — a discipline that grants its adepts a vast array of superhuman powers and abilities, and causes those struck by it to blow apart from within.

Kenshiro powers up: when the aura's sparking and the leather jacket burns away, that's your ass.

The typically shirtless Ken. Where does he get replacements for all the sleeveless leather jackets he burns through?

Fit to burst: Hokuto Shin Ken in action.

When the gory and decidedly one-sided melee is over, Kenshiro departs and makes his way once more into the desert, single-mindedly continuing upon a quest in which his every step is galvanized by visions of a mysterious beauty named Yuria. What follows is a harrowing odyssey of escalating violence and literalized "martial" law through a savage new world, and we, the viewers, are taken along for one hell of a ride.

One of the show's many awesome/amusing tropes: a killing move is executed, the action is freeze-framed, and the move is identified, often with a lengthy narrated explanation of its particulars. In this example, Ken's move causes the bad guy's eyeballs and brain to spew out of his face.

It should be noted that the first episode introduces the only three characters who are there for the entirety of both the original and sequel series. Characters in FIST OF THE NORTH STAR in any version tend not to survive any given story arc, not even the favorites of the fans, or they get completely written out, so the trio of mainstays includes Kenshiro (obviously), Bat (or "Bart," depending on the translation) and Lin, a pair of orphaned survivor kids.

Lin and Bat: the show's only other full-time cast members.

They meet Ken when he staggers out of the desert demanding water and is immediately imprisoned, pending a determination of whether he's kosher or just another biker thug; Bat's in the same jail cell, also held on suspicion, and Lin is tasked with bringing them food and water. Once the biker gang shows up and Ken gorily reduces them to splattered chutney, saving Lin from getting her head torn from her body in the process, Bat follows Ken on his quest, declaring himself Ken's "manager" and intending to trade Ken's lethal skills for food. Lin soon joins them, and it's at that point that the viewer's patience begins a serious endurance test; both Bat and Lin embody two of the worst and most common aspects of manga and Japanese animation, specifically the unnecessary "cute" and comic relief characters in a series that would almost definitely be better off without them. A series as grim as this definitely requires some kind of levity and tender human feeling to alleviate some of its unrelenting tragic tone and there is certainly plenty of that to be had in Kenshiro's snide interaction with his opponents/Hokuto Shin Ken fodder and some of the other later supporting characters, but Bat and Lin are damned near insufferable from the moment when they show up, especially Lin. Almost universally reviled by even the most diehard fans, Lin's endless and shrill screams of Ken's name ("Keeeeeeeeeeeeen!!!") will make you want to shove the nearest pointy object through your eardrums, and that agony goes on unabated until the sequel series, at which point the plot skips ahead by several years and Lin is a grown woman.

Bat, while certainly annoying and abrasive in his own right, is at least around sixteen when we meet him, so he's not in any way "cute," but his self-serving shtick wears out its welcome pretty swiftly. Both kids follow Ken with full awareness of the incredible violence and danger that marks his journey, which at times makes them both look like self-destructive idiots while simultaneously painting Ken as huge douche for doing little or nothing to prevent them from barreling headlong into peril (not that his warnings or orders ever stop them). In their defense, the pair do kinda/sorta grow to have their place in the story as Kenshiro's surrogate children (which evolves in a couple of weird directions in the sequel series, but more on that when we get to it), with Lin frequently displaying great (if possibly suicidal) courage while Bat slowly learns from Kenshiro's selfless example and reveals himself to be less of an opportunistic turd than he wants the world to believe he is.

Anyway, as the series progresses, we discover that Kenshiro is on a mission to rescue Yuria, his fiancee, from the clutches of Shin, a master of Nanto Sei Ken ("Southern Cross fist"), the martial art that is the yang to Hokuto Shin Ken's yin, and affords its masters the ability to carve through even the most dense of matter, but mostly people.

The deadly hands of Shin, master of Nanto Sei Ken, the "Southern Cross fist."

Shin visually resembles nothing so much as the "Fragile"-era Rick Wakeman decked out in an assortment of flamboyant outfits that look like castoffs from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, thus rendering him the first in a long line of opponents — and sometimes allies — whose perceived borderline-flaming "fagginess" stands in direct contrast to Kenshiro's stoic, bikery butchness. Also going by the honorific of "King" and fronting a conquering army of ragingly sadistic assholes, the chiefs of which each bear ridiculous playing card-based names, Shin brutally ravages his way across the wasteland while making his base at the city of Southern Cross. (As Hokuto denotes the northern art, Nanto represents the southern flipside.)
Episode 5: After witnessing Ken in action for four episodes and noting the seven scars on his frequently-exposed chest, the viewers are granted the first look into his past and shown the shattering event that set him on his path of rescue and revenge. At an unspecified time in the past but likely about a year before the events seen in the first episode, Kenshiro and Yuria, his fiancee, pay their respects at the grave of Ken's father and prepare to venture into the hostile wilderness, ready to start a new life flush with young love.
The romance of Kenshiro and Yuria: the catalyst for a cornucopia of tragedy and death.

That plan is immediately derailed when Shin arrives and declares his intent to take Yuria for himself, citing that she needs a real man to protect her in the harsh post-nuke world and challenging Ken for her hand. At this point in his life, just after being declared the successor to his family's sacred martial art, Kenshiro was in no way the kung fu powerhouse that he would evolve into, and his resolve in the fight against Shin is hampered by two crucial points: the two-thousand year law that Hokuto and Nanto must never come into conflict because that battle of united opposites would potentially destroy the world (exactly how or why is never really made clear), and the fact that Ken and Shin grew up as friends. The fight goes quite badly and Kenshiro suffers severed tendons in his arms and legs. Then, adding enormous insult to equally dire injury, Shin forces Yuria to declare her love for him by using his stone-penetrating fingers to slowly poke deep holes into Ken's chest, holes that form (and mock) the Hokuto symbol, the constellation known in the West as the Big Dipper.

Shin disrespectfully marks Kenshiro's body with what would become the Japanese answer to Superman's "S" crest.

Not wanting Ken to perish, Yuria proclaims her love for Shin and tearfully goes off with him. Galvanized by the trifecta of crushing defeat, grievous injury and having his fiancee taken away against her will (an act he knows she allowed to save his ass), Kenshiro somehow survives and doggedly begins killing his way through Shin's forces, a battle that continues over the next seventeen episodes.

As a bad guy, Shin is admittedly somewhat nuanced, but he's barely more than a post-apocalyptic mustache twirling "boss" villain. His love for Yuria is genuine but he is so deluded that he cannot accept that she will have room in her heart only for Kenshiro, so one would feel quite sorry for Shin if not for the fact that he clearly enjoys killing innocent people, all in the name of conquest that he is somehow convinced will be understood by Yuria as love offerings from him. The only truly interesting thing about him is that although he kidnapped Yuria with the clearly-stated intention of taking her as his woman, he is clearly shown not to be a rapist. He never once attempts to take Yuria sexually without her consent and would never raise a hand against her; instead, he seeks to win her heart by lavishing gifts upon her and ruthlessly conquering villages in her name, something that only drives her deeper into melancholy.

Yuria: the face that launched uncountable deaths.

For her part, Yuria is a bland and virtually undefined character, which comes as little surprise since this was originally very much a "boys only" manga, but that's rather beside the point. In fact, calling her a character at all is almost a stretch, since she only serves the narrative as an objective for Kenshiro's quest and the unrequited focus of Shin's demented ardor. She's passive in the extreme and has no real personality to speak of, yet she ends up as the over-used catalyst to many other as-yet-unseen characters' motivations and agendas (as we shall see as the series progresses) but her near-total lack of personality other than being "the girl" makes one wonder just what the big deal about her is. As previously stated, I've been a big fan of FIST OF THE NORTH STAR for twenty-five years, and I have yet to understand her appeal to any of the characters whose lives she is later revealed to have so drastically affected (with one major exception, but he doesn't show up for quite a while yet).

Episodes 6-8: the "God's Army" arc.

As his pursuit of Shin continues, Kenshiro runs into a highly-skilled paramilitary force known as God's Army, a vicious lot who prey upon the weak for provisions, kidnap women for breeding purposes, and mercilessly kill all who oppose their reign of terror.

Kenshiro tells the finest paramilitary force the world has ever known to "suck it."

Kenshiro would not have put up with their bullshit for long anyway, but when they make the drastically bad move of kidnapping Lin as an underage broodmare (she's maybe ten), God's Army signs its own death warrant. Kenshiro fights his way into their citadel and hands out the most righteous ass-whuppings of his career to date, but after he kills the rat bastards he still has to contend with The Colonel, their one-eyed leader, whose psychic powers allow him to read and counter Kenshiro's moves before he even makes them.

The Colonel orders his men to find and kill "the man with the seven scars." Yeah, good luck with that.

This arc marks the point where the show re-arranges the manga's storyline and juggles several elements that came after the conclusion of the Shin story, apparently in an effort to keep the thrills coming where the manga kind of floundered once Shin was out of the picture. Any fan who's read the manga can tell you flat-out that perhaps the greatest flaw in the early run was that the creators seemed to meander with the narrative until the series finally figured out what its real point was, but more on that later. The God's Army arc was hands down my favorite portion of FIST OF THE NORTH STAR's early period and I loved it for its non-stop action and genuine testing of Kenshiro's early-period skills (I've gone into detail on the manga version elsewhere), all of which is to be had in the TV version, even if the evil soldiers are now written to be underlings of Shin. That aspect is total bullshit because, even as formidable as he and his forces were, I very much doubt that Shin could have taken God's Army's elite warriors. Oh, and this arc is also of note because The Colonel explains to Ken (and, by association, us) exactly how and why World War III happened, a bit of exposition that one would think would be very interesting and important, but it's given pretty short shrift and is never mentioned again (until somewhat retconned in one of the recent theatrical film retellings).

Episodes 9 & 10: These are the first of several disposable and awful "filler" episodes that were thrown into the series in order to pad out the season, and they can be skipped over without missing anything. Anything, that is, excepting a great moment in Episode 10 where a member of a biker gang recognizes and identifies Kenshiro, prompting the whole lot to take off in the opposite direction at very high speed, a tactical decision that saves their worthless lives. That rare moment of intelligence in the series' villains would not be repeated, and as such it's pretty damned funny.

Epsiodes 11-13: the Jackal arc.

One of my least favorite sequences in both the manga and the TV series, this is of note for an interesting look at Bat's pre-Kenshiro existence and what spurred him to become a scavenger. The sequence's Big Bad is Jackal, a large but rather cowardly biker gang leader and pragmatist whose advises his men not to fight anyone who is stronger than they are, and he should know because he's no kind of match for Kenshiro and doesn't even try to prove otherwise. Instead he resorts to every bit of underhanded chicanery that he can muster, which makes him a very disappointing villain for a series that relies on the hero fighting worthy martial foes. Once Ken finally kills Jackal's gang and goes after the head man himself, Jackal runs to a conveniently-located prison that holds "Devil Rebirth" (often mis-translated as "Devil Reverse," as it is here) a towering giant of a man whose mastery of the ancient and unspeakably deadly "Arhat Deva fist" has turned him into a mass-murdering martial arts demon. Jackal unleashes this living horror against Kenshiro, giving our hero his first bout against a straight-up monster. Each week, FIST OF THE NORTH STAR's opening sequence famously depicted Ken launching himself into the gaping maw of some unexplained creature roughly the scale of King Kong, but that scene never occurred in the manga or anywhere in the TV version.

The end of the show's weekly opening sequence: a battle that never came to pass, but considering where Kenshiro's skills ended up going, I totally believe he would have kicked that monster's ass.

But Ken's encounter with Devil Rebirth is the closest we get to him fighting an actual giant monster, so I'll take what I can get.

Jackal unleashing Devil Rebirth.

I'm guessing the confusion over the translation of "Devil Rebirth" comes from the fact that his name in the original manga was in English and written phonetically with Japanese kanji, so its sound could easly be taken as "Devil Reverse." I go with "Rebirth" because the character is very much a an ogre-like horror straight out of Japanese yokai mythology, whereas a "devil reverse" would seem to be something of innate goodness, which this bad guy sure as hell ain't.

Episodes 14-21: Nothing but filler here, all of which can be skipped over, with Episode 17 holding the dubious distinction of being the first of many, many full episodes that recap the entire series up to that particular installment. There is a stunningly ludicrous scene where Ken fights a WWII-style tank with his bare hands and wins, but even that is not worth sitting through the entire episode.

Episode 22: The end of Chapter One, in which the well-tested and fully-motivated Kenshiro finally confronts Shin.

Kenshiro delivers a killing bow to his rival.

Driven to a berserker rage by the sight of Shin seemingly killing Yuria, Kenshiro puts an end to his rival once and for all, but all is not as it seems. Upon examining the body, Ken discovers that Shin had actually attacked a lifelike manikin, knowing Ken would think it was Yuria and thus put Shin out of his misery. When asked why he did this, Shin tearfully explains that upon hearing of his latest plan for violent conquest in her name, Yuria threw herself to her death from the tower of Southern Cross rather than bear the guilt for one more innocent life that would be lost. Despite his own demise by Hokuto Shin Ken being imminent, Shin makes like Yuria and takes a tower dive rather than suffer the indignity of exploding from his enemy's polar opposite fighting art.

With the long haul of the Shin storyline finally over and done with, the second chapter begins, and it is there that the first inklings of what made FIST OF THE NORTH STAR a classic are seen.

Episodes 23-29: This arc finds Ken and his young companions encountering a village led by Mamiya, a fierce warrior-woman armed with much moxie and razor-edged yo-yos that she wields like a champ. She also bears a strong resemblance to Yuria, which freaks Kenshiro out to no small degree.

Mamiya deploys her lethal yo-yo acumen.

Very tough and capable (though her skills are only within the boundary of normal human abilities), Mamiya is a worthy addition to the cast and becomes the series' lone regular female badass. (We learn a good deal more about her in the stories found in the next boxed set.)

When Ken and the kids arrive, Mamiya and her people are waging a decidedly one-sided battle against the wolf-like Fang Clan, an apparently limitless legion of waaaaaaay vicious and sadistic wolf-themed killers who are all the sons of a hulking leader who can literally turn his skin to impenetrable steel. Being the BMF that he is, Ken makes quite an impression when he kills scores of the Fangs, so Mamiya offers him the job of her town's protector, complete with housing, food and water, along with certain other "benefits" being hinted at. She digs Ken bigtime, but his heart only belongs to Yuria, and that's that.

Rei: the bishonen badass and the other true star of the early portion of the series.

The most significant element of this arc is the introduction of Rei, one of the top masters of the Nanto disciplines, in this case the spectacular Nanto Suicho Ken ("Southern Cross Water Fowl Fist"). Not dissimilar to Shin's style, Nanto Suicho Ken is also a martial discipline that principally concentrates on hand attacks, but as it is based upon the movements of a swan, it grants those who master it a superhuman grace that is seen to great effect when the style's moves are executed.

Rei's very memorable first appearance. (Sorry about the horrible English dubbing.)

Along with enabling its user to slice through virtually anything with surgical accuracy (accented by psychedelic laser-like trails streaming from the fingers), the art also grants its user the ability to "take flight" for impressive aerial attacks, lending the user the aspect of some great and beautiful bird.

Rei, seen in mid-air assault against the dastardly Fang Clan. They didn't stand a chance.

Nanto Suicho Ken's effect on the human head.

A classic '80's example of the manga/anime trope of the bishonen ("beautiful male") and pretty enough to believably pass himself off as a girl (which at one point he does, with hilarious results), Rei arrives from out of the desert in search of his sister, Airi, who has been sold into what is heavily implied to be multi-owner sexual slavery, and her abductor has been described by an eyewitness as a man with seven scars on his chest... Rei intends to visit some major and fatal hurt onto his sister's abductor and during the course of his quest for vengeance he has lost a good deal of his humanity, callously killing anyone who gets in his way and being willing to whore out his considerable skills to whichever side seems to have the upper hand. Playing the Enkidu to Kenshiro's Gilgamesh, Rei eventually succumbs to Kenshiro's example of decency and selfless protection of others, and in no time the two recognize kindred spirits in one another, forming one of the great bromances of manga/anime (to say nothing of introducing an intriguing somewhat-homoerotic subtext that has been the subject of much debate and conjecture among fans for twenty-five years). Though initially siding with the Fangs, Rei soon joins Kenshiro and Mamiya to form a heroic trio that lasts well into the next boxed set, with some very interesting results (which will be discussed in the review of the second boxed set), and the damage they inflict upon the Fang Clan leads the head of the clan to pull some seriously nasty business that cannot go unpunished.

Rei, Kenshiro and Mamiya: my vote for the defining superhero trio of '80's manga/anime.

Righteous punishment does indeed come, but not until our heroes engage in several memorable and definitive battles in the process. Among other highlights can be counted Ken's utter decimation of Madara, a Fang Clan member who is apparently some kind of horrifying human/lupine mutant hybrid,

Madara meets Ken's fist. Note the depth of impact.

and Ken's dispatching of the formerly steel-skinned clan leader with a move called the "mountain- splitting wave."

The devastating power of...

...the "mountain-splitting wave."

Episodes 30-32: the Jagi arc.

Once the Fang Clan is wiped out and Rei's poor, abused sister is rescued, Kenshiro susses out that the mysterious villain with scars that match those on his chest is none other than Jagi, Kenshiro's presumed-dead adoptive older brother and rejected contender for successorship to Hokuto Shin Ken.

Jagi: shattering proof of what can happen when you teach superhuman killing skills to a sociopath.

Sometime before the first episode of the series took place, Jagi, angered at being passed over for the successorship, confronts Kenshiro and demands that he renounce his new position and cede it to him. Ken ain't havin' it, so he thrashes Jagi to within an inch of his life, hideously disfiguring him in the process (thus necessitating Jagi's subsequent wearing of a face-obscuring helmet), yet allowing him to live because of their familial connection. That was in the days before Ken grew himself a real pair, and the mistake of not putting Jagi down when he had the chance has now come back to bite a huge chunk out of his ass; following his beatdown and banishment, Jagi scars himself and wanders the wastes, committing acts of wanton murder, rape (implied but not explicitly stated) and other evil, all while identifying himself as Kenshiro in an attempt to besmirch his younger brother's name. When Ken finally faces Jagi, a number of interesting revalations roll out, allowing us our first real glimpse into Kenshiro's family and the Hokuto Shin Ken training process/culture, along with the fact that Jagi was the catalyst that spurred Shin to kidnap Yuria. But the biggest bombshell of all is that Ken's two eldest brothers, Toki and Raoh, also survived, and the two of them in many ways make Ken look like a weak younger sister. That leaves Kenshiro no choice but to find them and settle the matter of successorship once and for all.

Episodes 33-36: the Amiba arc.

This one's a bit of a throwaway, but it does serve to fill us in on even more about Kenshiro's family, specifically his much-admired elder brother, Toki. A sweet-natured pacifist who wanted to use his art to heal rather than kill, Toki would have been chosen as the successor to Hokuto Shin Ken if not for him being exposed to severe radiation when the bombs fell, which turned his hair white and left him only a limited amount of time to live. Toki apparently settles into a town that comes to be known as "the village of miracles" once he moves in and starts healing all and sundry, but then Toki's personality abruptly changes from kind to sadistic as he has a private gang of thugs kidnap innocent people for his twisted and painful medical experiments.

Kenshiro's older brother, Toki...or is it?

This change in temperment is questionable to say the least, so Ken sets out to prove whether it's an impostor or if his beloved brother has inexplicably snapped and turned completely evil. It spoils nothing to state that the evil healer is indeed not Toki, but a jealous impostor named Amiba, a self-proclaimed martial and medical genius who can mimic most of the particulars of any fighting style he sees. Incorrectly thinking he's mastered a form of Hokuto Shin Ken — exactly how and where he would have seen it is never made clear, and it makes no sense since none but the chosen ever witness its training secrets — Amiba sees Toki's successful healing of the sick and tries to duplicate it. When Toki sees Amiba injuring someone Toki had just healed, Toki slaps him aside and comes to the victim's rescue, warning Amiba not to use skills he has not mastered. Outraged at being hit by Toki, Amiba somehow manages to get rid of the healer (how is never made clear), alters his features in order to pass as Toki, and sets about attempting to reinvent Hokuto Shin Ken in his own image. Needless to say, Amiba needs killing, and Kenshiro's the guy for the job... END OF BOXED SET.

Once Amiba's splattered hither and yon, we move on to the next chunk of the story and the real point of the entire epic: Kenshiro's brothers — the gentle Toki, and Raoh (about whom we know nothing yet) — are still alive, so now Ken must settle the whole succession issue and reluctantly face his destiny as the potential savior of the post-apocalyptic world. The big stumbling block to that goal is...well, that would be telling, and all of that is found in the next boxed set.

Two more Hokuto brothers remain, and with that fact the glory days of FIST OF THE NORTH STAR kick into high gear (in the next boxed set).

If all of that seems rather convoluted and potentially confusing, it certainly is, but that's the unfortunate flaw of the early FIST OF THE NORTH STAR, in both manga and animated form. The Shin arc meanders quite a bit and once that's done things continue to ramble on seemingly without a point until Rei enters the narrative. I honestly think the creators didn't really have much of an idea for the manga at first, other than "badass kung fu superhero guy wanders a post-nuke wasteland and kills shitloads of evil scum in creative and gory ways," but with Rei and Ken's brothers added to the mix, an avalanche of excellence and unbridled badassery gets properly underway (with the next boxed set) and propels the series to classic iconic, landmark status. Nonetheless, considering how deeply flawed — no, make that downright bad — the show was for much of its first year, it's a miracle the series survived long enough to get good. Though this was perhaps the most action-packed anime series ever made up to that time, it had several aspects that turned off all but the most diehard of fans (who learned to ignore those aspects, for the most part), including frequent re-usage of footage and recaps up the ass (which really become egregious after the episodes covered here), plus to say nothing of the fact that when one really looks at the story's setting, it does not bear close examination and makes little sense in any kind of science-fictional context. I mean, think about this:
  • If the nuclear apocalypse happened in "199x" as is stated at the start of the story, the level to which what remains of society has sunk would have to have required maybe a minimum of two decades for such outright and fetishized tribalism to have taken root and become a part of actual cultures.
  • What would have been unquestionably high levels of radiation are apparently not an issue.
  • Considering the aforementioned radiation, the lack of outright mutants is surprising. Creatures like Devil Rebirth and Madara are given no plausible explanation at all and are not declared to be mutants, but maybe we are supposed to infer that that's indeed what they are. Who knows?
  • Plant life is practically nil, so crops are extremely unlikely and there would not necessarily be enough plants around to generate breathable air.
  • Cannibalism would be a viable and likely nutritional option, yet it is not addressed.
  • The world seen in the sequences depicting the days before the war seem to be somewhat multi-culturally futuristic even by early-1980's standards, so the stated start date of 199X seems seems a tad early.
  • Where is everybody getting all that fuel for cars, trucks, dune buggies, and motorcycles (not to mention the aforementioned WWII-style tank)? Considering that THE ROAD WARRIOR was an obvious cribbing source for all of this, I'm guessing the creators may have assumed everyone had seen that and would apply what was seen there to the world of FIST OF THE NORTH STAR.
"I object to your pointing out of my story's logical inconsistencies. NOW YOU DIE!!!"

There are many, many more such questions raised, so I'll answer all of them with this simple explanation: the series has nothing to do with realism (well, duh) and the creators used WWIII as an excuse to rewrite the human landscape into one of pure (if horrible) fantasy. FIST OF THE NORTH STAR has always struck me as kind of an heroic campfire story or epic poem told by tribal storytellers in its dire future, a tale about destiny, loyalty, family drama and romance (though that element is given admittedly-short shrift), and as such it works just fine. Just sit back and let it take you on its crazy ride. It obviously worked for a good number of people because it's still here after over a quarter of a century, and it's popularity shows no sign of slowing down. And if you've made it through the first thirty-six episodes, trust me when I say that what follows is brilliant (up to a point), as we shall see when I do a writeup on the next volume.

STAY TUNED!!!

Packaging art for the boxed set.