Fist of the North Star Anime Review
Hokutou no Ken
Fist of the North Star
US Release By
Ultraviolent Post Apocalyptic Martial Arts
In the near future, a nuclear war destroys nearly all life on the planet. The few survivors wander the barren land either trying to avoid roving gangs of violent thugs that terrorize the land, joining the nation headed by the Fist of the North Star (a powerful and mysterious warlord), or falling victim to one or the other. A lone wanderer, Ken, travels the land searching for his lost love, Julia, but he knows that she is still with the man who took her from him--his own brother. Meanwhile, another powerful warrior, Rao, watches and waits for the moment to strike with his armies and claim the shattered remains of earth for his own. There can be no winner in this battle, but one thing is for certain: there's going to be a bloody lot of mayhem before the dust settles.
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This notorious theatrical remake of the Fist of the North Star TV series boils all the martial arts mumbo-jumbo, post-apocalyptic drama, and over-the-top musclebound freaks beating each other to a gooey pulp of the original down into an abbreviated version of the seminal exploding-head-a-minute splatterfest romp. It tries (rather unsuccessfully due in part to Streamline's cheesy dub) to be more serious than the TV version, the viscera is executed (put intended) with an interesting sort of artistic flair, and there's a clunker of an cerebral ending thrown on top, but in the end the movie knows its audience is just waiting for the famous line "You're already dead.", and it serves it (and the subsequent popped crania) up with appropriate relish and glee.
Higher entertainment, Fist of the North Star is not, but it defined the splatterfest genre in the early years of modern anime in the US, and for 90 minutes of late-night heckling with some friends or fans of classic '80s gory anime, it's hard to go wrong with this film version of the genre-defining original.
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One of the prominent words on the back of the Fist of the North Star box is "splatterfest." Although you won't find that the Oxford English Dictionary, if you did the definition should read "See: Fist of the North Star." This film version of the camp-classic TV series didn't just kick (or punch) start the genre of ultraviolent anime gore-fests in the US, it defines it.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a higher exploding head count than Fist of the North Star racks up, and if you did, I doubt it would be coupled with the same blend of martial-arts mumbo-jumbo, deep-yet-nonsensical plot, and cheesy one-liners. It would be equally hard to mistake this movie for high-quality cinema, but those among us who enjoy grabbing some friends and plopping down in front of a TV for some late-night heckling of a well-done bad movie are sure to have a bash (pun intended) watching it.
Fist of the North Star is set in a classic Mad Max-flavored post apocalyptic world, well-stocked with big, ugly bad guys terrorizing defenseless villagers. It distinguishes itself from some of the more "realistic" movies in the post-apocalyptic and splatterfest genres in how far over the top the villains are. A 20-foot-tall metal-skinned ninja-army-squashing fat guy is a sight to behold, as is an even fatter guard and his exploding... well, you get the point.
Speaking of exploding, Fist of the North Star is memorable in the genre it founded by the glee with which the graphic violence is executed (again, intentional choice of words). Instead of the usual horror-centric gorefest with a bunch of poor fools getting torn to shreds by some bad guys, most of the violence here is played as much for humor as shock value, although the classic B-movie dialogue in the dub deserves some of the credit. It's actually toned down a bit from the violence-porn of the TV series, but still comes down to Ken's famous line: "You're already dead." Followed, of course, by the inevitable spray of gore. You're waiting for it, the film knows you're waiting for it, and you're expected to be cheering the mayhem.
Speaking of the TV series, the film's story is sort of an abbreviated summary of it. It takes itself rather more seriously than its source material, but is still hard to watch with a straight face, especially with the help of Streamline's cheese-heavy dub. (Not that fans of intricate storytelling would have been a target audience anyway.) To be fair, the characters have a modicum of depth (par for a decent action movie), there is actually some character development (other than Ken shaving his Eric Clapton inspired beard, that is), and there's even a bit of drama to be found scattered about, but the TV series (or manga) are a better choice if you actually care for a plot.
The movie's big failure, plot-wise, is the end: though the final battle gives some meaning to the scattered bits of abstract martial arts philosophy, it's disappointingly "deep" (for lack of a more insulting word). Under most circumstances, the rather cerebral (irony!) climax would have been an interesting turnabout, but here I just ended up wishing the translators would have taken some liberties and made it into some kind of joke.1
Art-wise, Fist of the North Star offers about what you'd expect from a theatrical movie made in the mid '80s: chunky character designs leaning toward realistic proportions (very similar to the TV series), slightly rough art, and bleak, loosely-painted backgrounds (appropriate for the post-apocalypse). The animation in general is fair, but not particularly praiseworthy. The action does have a certain sense of style, though, with a couple of cool effects (Ray's laser-like finger cutting easily topping the list). Of particular note on the stylized front is the gore: whenever somebody erupts in a shower of blood and viscera, the film briefly kicks into this very blurry look with oversaturated colors and stuttering animation. I'm not entirely sure what the logic behind this was, and while artistically it looks kind of cool, it also serves to (sort of) mellow the graphic violence. Not that people's heads aren't exploding, it just looks kind of arty. The gore isn't otherwise particularly realistic or well-drawn (Genocyber for one has better chunks), but it makes up for it by emphasizing fun over grossout.
The acting in Streamline's dub is... well, suitable for the sort of really cheesy movie that Fist of the North Star is. True to the tradition of late-night kung fu flicks, when you take a movie that was probably trying to take itself seriously, throw in some awkward writing, a few really awful one-liners, and slightly corny acting, you get something that is more fun than it probably should be (at least in that Mystery Science Theater 3000 kind of way). The dub ups the cheese factor significantly, but I'd personally say it's better to be fun and bad than just mediocre (if it would have been--not having seen the Japanese original, I don't know). Fans will be pleased to note that Ken's other trademark--the Bruce Lee-inspired high-pitched "a-cha-cha-cha" accompanying his flurries of punches--survives into the dub.
To sum up Fist of the North Star, take all the basics for a serious post-apocalyptic action movie, throw in some beefy guys duking it out, season with more exploding heads than you can shake a stick at, and top with a cheesy dub, and you get a movie so bad it's a classic. Every anime fan should see this at least once--it is, after all, the roots of modern English-translated anime (as sad as that may be). Besides, it's fun; mind-expanding entertainment it's not (unless you count the literal mind expanding that goes on), but for a late night with some friends, you aren't going to find a better 90 minute splatterfest party. And, if you're a fan of classic '80s gory anime, it's the film adaptation of the genre-defining original.
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The Fist of the North Star TV series is a must-see, and is a lot more fun than the somewhat more straight-faced movie take. Go Nagai's Violence Jack travels a similar path, though it isn't as much fun overall, and his Red Lion is a much, much sillier but similarly gory ninja flick. Other splatterfest shows include Genocyber (which focuses as much on the truly disturbing), and the two MD Geist shorts, particularly the latter.
Notes and Trivia
Based (loosely) on the epic TV series that ran from 1984 to 1988, which was in turn based on a long-running manga series from about the same period by Buronson, with art by Tetsuo Hara. Buronson has a list of manga to his name stretching from the early '70s to today, of which Fist of the North Star is probably the most famous. His pen name comes from actor Charles Bronson; unsurprisingly, he lists Bruce Lee and Mad Max among his inspirations.
The Fist of the North Star franchise also includes a number of other manga and novels by various authors, some more recent anime adaptations, and literally dozens of video games for just about every system from the original NES through the PS3 and Xbox 360 (including one of the worst Street Fighter-style brawlers ever released for the original GameBoy).
The strangest entry in the franchise, however, may be the 1995 medium-budget Hollywood action movie based loosely on this film. It probably cost more than the original to make, though even when it was first released it was far from a mainstream blockbuster. In any case, it did about as good a job as you could expect in trying to live up to the original, but you can only do so much with live action. In an amusing bit of questionable casting, Kenshiro and Shin both seem to be Australian, while Julia is Asian. Go figure.
This anime adaptation is one of the earliest Streamline Pictures releases, and hence among the first anime movies to reach the US. The TV series did eventually see a (much better) English release, and most of the other anime adaptations as well as several of the video games are (or were) also available in English.
Footnote 1: My other endgame beef is kind of a spoiler, but I have to ask: When Ken goes off searching for Julia at the end, where did she go? Last I saw her, she was tied to a giant cross in the middle of town. How exactly was she supposed to have run off during the fight? Did the wind blow her pole or something?
US DVD Review
The original DVD release, one of the handful produced by Image Entertainment from Streamline material as that company was fading away, is about as minimal as they come. It features a box, an English soundtrack, and not much else. There are no subtitles of any sort, no other soundtracks, the video transfer is rough, and it's not letterbox (though in fairness, I'm not sure that the movie was originally). Also, if you do find a copy somewhere, beware--the film transfer isn't horrible, but it is very shaky.
More recently the cult film company Eastern Star released a DVD that claims both languages and subtitles, but I don't have any further information about it or whether it uses a different video transfer.
Violence, violence, and more violence make for an easy 16-up.
Violence: 5 - Despite how ridiculous it is, the sheer volume of gore stands alone.
Nudity: 1 - One very brief and undetailed shot.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - Zip.
Language: 3 - Some crude language in the dub.
Available in North America from Eastern Star on bilingual DVD. Was originally available in the US from Streamline Pictures on dub-only VHS and, briefly, on a dub-only DVD produced by Image Entertainment, both long out of print.