YOU WA SHOCK!!!
By the way I’m aware the actual anniversary was in September but what can I say?…… it’s been a busy year!
In 1983 a martial arts adventure manga quite unlike any other appeared in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump. It was bold, bloody, larger than life and full of the sort of tragic storylines that could reduce even some grown men to tears. To say it was popular in its homeland of Japan was an understatement. The series ran for six years before finally coming to an end in 1989. However the legacy of Hokuto No Ken (Known as Fist Of The North Star in the west) continued far beyond that. The series has proved so popular over the years that it has spawned every spin off imaginable. A TV anime adaptation and theatrical anime movie, OVAs, videogames, toys, art books and a whole manner of product promotions. In fact there’s been several in this year alone proving that the series is nowhere near fading from the public conciousness in Japan over three decades later. It’s estimated that it is one of the world’s most profitable media franchises having raked in billions in merchandising over the years. Unfortunately it still has little more than a cult following in the west.
Created by artist Tetsuo Hara and his editor Nobuhiko Horie and further developed by Buronson (the pen name for writer Yoshiyuki Okamura ) the manga told the story of Kenshiro. A survivor of a barren post apocalyptic world and the 35th successor of a deadly martial art called Hokuto Shinken. The series begins seemingly as a tale of revenge with Kenshiro dead set on finding a man called Shin, a former friend and fellow martial artist who betrayed him and kidnapped his fiance Yuria, leaving him with his infamous seven scars in the process.
However the series soon shifts focus after Shin’s surprisingly early defeat and becomes a sprawling epic as Ken battles his fellow Hokuto Shinken student “brothers” over who is the rightful successor to their art and uncovers not only the truth about Yuria’s fate but some dark secrets about the history of Hokuto Shinken and even his own past.
The series is of course remembered more than anything for Kenshiro’s superhuman martial arts techniques. His style Hokuto Shinken translates to something like “Divine fist of the big dipper” in English. He strikes the pressure points of the human body rapidly (often too fast for a non-martial artist to see) which causes a number of effects (most resulting in an explosively gory death for his enemies) however it has other uses too: he can also heal the sick and wounded, control his enemies and even unlock the potential of his own strength or that of others.
Even if you haven’t read any of the series or watched any of the anime adaptations you’ll still likely be aware of Kenshiro’s move the Hyakuretsu Ken (One hundred crack fist) due to its usage in online memes and parodies in pop culture. Amusingly it is used only once in the manga although Ken uses similar rapid succession punch attacks individually and as part of bigger special techniques. The anime used it quite a bit however leading to the common view that it is Ken’s “signature move”.
You may have also heard his Phrase “You are already dead” or in the original Japanese “Omae Wa Mou Shinderu”that comes in the brief pause before his enemies ultimately explode. Although it’s used nowhere near as many times as internet humour would have you believe (Unless you count the next episode preview in the early episodes of the anime version).
The stars in the sky and the destiny of Kenshiro and his opponents as well as the martial arts styles they wield are intimately linked. Kenshiro and Hokuto Shinken symbolise the north star and the wounds on his chest from rival Shin make the shape of the big dipper. A permanent reminder of his blood soaked destiny. As the old man Ken encounters in the first story arc says “Wherever Hokuto appears Chaos follows”.
The series will always remain a favourite of mine because of the fact it was the first anime I ever watched (knowingly anyway) and it’s one of the most consistently good long running manga that I’ve ever read. Considering I first read it in its entirety almost 20 years after it first debuted by which time I’d read a lot of manga and I still thought it was more than deserving of its classic status says a lot.
My history with Hokuto No Ken is ten years younger than the series. I discovered it in 1993 as a thirteen year old and subsequently was given a kind of baptism of fire into the world of anime and manga. A friend of mine who loved martial arts movies brought over the VHS tape to my house one weekend. At this point I had no idea what anime or manga was and I was quite amazed by the fact that this was an animated movie obviously aimed at adults. Even before we popped the tape in (When my parents had went out of course) I was stunned by the fact that I was looking at a video case that showed an 18 rating yet the film inside was quite obviously from the artwork and screenshots ” a cartoon”. After the movie was over I wanted to find out as much as I could about these Japanese cartoons and sought out more titles on the same video label (Manga Video). Soon my knowledge of the medium was growing and I was reading the magazines Manga Mania every month and whenever I could find it Anime UK as well.
Despite my teenage brain being attracted to the gore and action of the movie it was the psychedelic visuals and awesome animation that made the most impact on me as well as the imaginatively designed fighting styles of characters like Kenshiro, Shin , Rei and Raoh.
The movie lit a fire within me to consume as much anime (and later manga as well) as humanly possible and even though I later watched and read a lot of material held in high regard I never forgot about Hokuto No Ken.
If you’ve never seen the movie it’s a fun film and beautifully made but compressing a manga that ran in weekly chapters for six years into a movie that’s under two hours long means it misses out (and changes) a hell of a lot. That bothered me. Once I learned that it was based on an absolutely huge comic and TV series I deperately wanted to experience the whole saga but that road was an extremely long one. While Manga Video did eventually release some of the TV series it was exactly that….some of it. In the late 90’s they put out a number of seperate VHS releases each with a small number of episodes (the first 36 episodes if I remember correctly) however they were all dubbed (a pet peeve of mine) and worse still they’d replaced some of the series iconic music with a terrible drum and bass soundtrack plus a new opening and ending theme which I found painful to listen to. They didn’t get any further than dubbing those 36 episodes. In the mid 2000’s they re-released those same 36 episodes again but with dual audio (still unfortunately with butchered music) and misleadingly called it “Fist Of The North Star: The Complete Collection” despite it being over 120 episodes short of being complete. We still don’t have the anime series in the UK and we’ve never had a re-release of the movie on DVD or Blu ray either however thankfully a US company called Discotek have since released both the show and the movie on both formats. The manga on the other hand has never had a complete English release outside of Japan (Yes, you read that right; Japan got an English release earlier this year but I’ll get to that).
VIZ liscenced it in the US in the 90’s and released a slew of single issues as well as 4 collected volumes before discontinuing it. In around 2002 a company called Raijin also released a computer coloured edition of the manga in deluxe softcovers with dust jackets calling it “Fist Of The North Star: Master Edition” this version also got discontinued after Raijin abandoned the English market due to poor sales with only 9 of the 27 volumes seeing the light of day.
If you follow my blog however you’ll be aware of the E-one book. A digital comic reader with the feel and look of a physical book that was released this year in Japan. The first title to be released on this format was of course Hokuto No Ken. It has a dual language feature allowing you to switch between English and Japanese at the press of a button. I reviewed the device here and was very impressed with it and of course I was just glad to finally be able to own the manga in its entirety in English after a long journey that’s lasted around 25 years.
Thanks to online manga translation groups I did get to read it in the early 2000’s prior to the partial Raijin release but I always wanted to own an official version as I’ve always much preferred the manga version to the TV anime. The TV version doesn’t adapt everything and they added a lot of silly humour and some of the animation and art hasn’t aged particularly well next to some other 80’s classics made in the same era.
A fansubbing group called “Heart of Madness” (after the infamous Komodo band song that plays during Rei and Raoh’s duel in the 1986 movie) subbed the TV series prior to Discotek’s release and again while I was very happy to finally see it I still wanted a release with better quality video and audio. Sadly Discotek’s first DVD release had some pretty bad subbing errors and was also mega expensive and not up to the standard of Heart of Madness’s fansubs. Thankfully their blu ray released late last year is much better. It still has some minor subbing errors but is much improved over the last one and the episodes look great even though they’re in standard def on Blu Ray rather than HD.
I feel that Hokuto No Ken gets a bit of bad press in the west for being a dumb series and to the casual observer who perhaps hasn’t experienced much of the series except memes and clips taken out of context from the sillier non-manga episodes of the anime I can kind of understand why. However the story (particularly in the manga) is not only a lot better written than many give it credit for but is also a fairly unique one among shonen. It’s not about being the best at something or or trying to achieve something grand.
Ultimately Fist is a story about the power of love, friendship and a compassionate heart and having the ability to understand and appreciate others no matter what. While many of the nameless villains or low key lackeys Kenshiro kills are ruthless and iredeemable, the foes who prove a match for Kenshiro are often misguided people who took a wrong turn in their lives because of some awful twist of fate. Kenshiro often comes to understand their pain and suffering and even empathise with them despite their misdeeds all because of his capacity for kindness and love. When his tears fall (which is often) it can be because he’s crying for a friend as well as a foe. He has a level of compassion that most people can only dream of having. Seeing how these tragedies shape his character, how he endures them and keeps on going despite the sadness within him is inspiring to me. If you’re familiar with at least a handful of shonen series then you’ve no doubt seen a familiar scene of a protagonist training to achieve a new level of strength or learn a new technique knowing a dangerous decisive battle is on the way. Ken is never seen training (except in flashback) because he is already a master of his art with barely any room to grow as a martial artist. He already possesses all the neccessary skills to win, much of the fun of the series is in finding out how he will succeed against his current opponent rather than wondering IF he will. In fact in one rare case of him finding a new reserve of strength it comes from a completely unexpected source (Spoilers ahead).
Kenshiro’s ultimate technique that he uses against Raoh, the Muso Tensei is born not out of hard work or determination but of sadness and the losses of many of his friends and rivals. Only someone compassionate who has experienced a great loss and despair can master the technique. All of the tragedies Ken has faced up until this fight are what makes it possible for him to wield it. There’s a beautiful message and poetry in that; that love gives birth to the greatest strength imaginable. Just one of many, many reasons that I love the saga and the character of Kenshiro.
2017 and 2018 have been marvellous years for western fans. In just two years we’ve gotten the TV series and the movie on Blu Ray and the chance to own the manga via the E-one book and finally this month Sega released the Fist Of The North Star: Lost Paradise videogame in the US and UK. It really is a great time to be a fan.
Join me soon for an overview of many of the series past installments and Lost Paradise (which I’m currently working my way through on Playstation 4).