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Fist Of The North Star
 
 
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Fist Of The North Star

creator: Tetsuo Hara

1200 minutes (18) 1984
Manga DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Manga's bumper pack of Fist Of The North Star will bring a strong dose of nostalgia to those, Stateside at least (it was too violent to air much, if at all, back in the UK), who remember the original TV airing. The series itself retains something of a cult following - not least because of its distinctive tone and setting, which packages pounding martial arts action, a deconstruction of the family, as well as interesting homoerotic undertones - all set in a Mad Max style post-catastrophe landscape.

After its success in the comic Shonen Jump, Fist Of The North Star first appeared on the small screen in the early 1980s, leading to an animated feature film in 1985 (the much less engaging live action version came out in 1999, an indication of continuing appeal). The Manga set helpfully includes a prologue, setting much of what is to follow in context. After a devastating global war, we are told, life for mankind has turned into a nightmarish struggle, not only because of the barren environment but through the depredations of mentally deranged, mutated savages.

Ranged against them, and all evildoers, is Kenshiro "a beacon of hope for the lost... a man of power and purity." Ken is master of a particular fighting technique, Hokuto Shinken, a virtually unbeatable martial skill that works on manipulating the secret power points of opponent's bodies, destroying them from within. Ken was trained up with his evil half-brother Shin, the Fist of the South Star, and who represents a polar opposite from him. He practices Nanto Seiken, a martial art that destroys from without, in far less subtle fashion but with just as deadly an effect. But Shin stole Ken's beloved Julia, this after fighting our hero, marking his chest with the seven distinctive scars which echo the sign of the Big Dipper and leaving him for dead. The narrative of Fist Of The North Star primarily consists of Ken's attempts to regain Julia and overcoming various champions of Shin, now installed as the leader of the 'Army of God' with its distinctive bloody cross emblem.

The series makes almost no concessions to reality - not least of which are the sheer number of Shin's followers duly met and thrashed on each occasion by Ken (or come to that, the number of thin red T-shirts which the hero destroys, then replaces unseen, with each encounter). His opponents are generally the mutants, who as a group are unsympathetic, grotesque and brutish. Many viewers have commented on the surreal arrogance of these killers, their bodies often drawn ridiculously out of proportion, towering over Ken and the regular humans. But mutation is just as it suggests, although the animators feel free to add to the macho incongruity of it all by adding Mohican haircuts, outrageous outfits and snarling dialogue. In comparison Ken is a model of sobriety, often warning his opponents to cease their activities before he strikes.

On his travels Ken is accompanied by two youthful helpers, both acquired in the first few episodes. One is the orphan girl Lynn and her puppy. The other is Bart, Ken's self styled 'business manager' as he makes clear in an earlier episode always, ostensibly on the fighters behalf, always looking for the main chance to profit from Ken's unique skills. Together with a repeated emphasis on Ken's lost love Julia, this group makes up a peculiarly fractured family, with normal relationships distorted by the world in which they find themselves. From this point of view, Ken's repeated attempts to get his woman back, as well as his repeated rescuing of social groupings (the mutants never have kin), equates a drive for regular familial balance.

The twist is North Star's visual insistence at the same time on butch body display and the repeated physical contact between the vaguely camp males making up the greatest number of dominant characters each week. (My favourite is the handlebar-moustached and splendidly named Colonel Mad, who fights with his blades dipped in scorpion venom.) In fact Ken faces no villainesses at all, at least until well into the second volume. This is a series where the exaggerated torsos of the combatants is a hallmark, only equalled by their swollen braggadocio, itself suggestive of sexual taunting. Blood in the show is never the common red; rather it assumes a weird milky colour, exploding into the air at the climax of each encounter, while Ken's characteristic chest scarring was interestingly produced by the slow penetration of his skin by Shin's powerful fingers - a moment echoed later in the series. The result of all this imagery is thematic psychosis, arguably as pronounced as that enjoyed by the mutants who populate the landscape of future Earth: heterosexual Ken has a lady love and two children in tow; 'other' Ken with his body builder physique, has an intense relationship with his half brother, wears tight T-shirts and sleeveless jackets, and spills all that uniquely coloured blood in one casual encounter after another...

The distinctive 1980s' animation style is an advantage when depicting such a barren landscape, the desolation of which also reflecting Ken's emotional emptiness, deprived of Julia's presumed humanising contact. Manga's boxset offers generally excellent picture quality. Opinion has been divided over the relative merits of the two soundtracks on offer; the original Japanese suffers from its mono origins while the re-release English dub offers a more visceral techno musical score, which more easily conveys the urgent brutality of it all. However this reviewer, at least, prefers the original with its far more sympathetic voicing of Ken's young followers - his modern voice in particular makes of Bart an irritating brat - while the score, although less monolithic, has a contemporary charm. Most especially, each episode is interrupted for an on-screen announcement of the baroque martial technique Ken has selected for the current fight ('Spinning Wheel Explosive Punch', 'The Hundred Crack Fist', 'Mountain Splitting Wave', etc). The modern version does its best, but the original intonation makes such moments highlights in themselves.

Fist Of The North Star is full of such ritualistic moments: the repeated (and failed) attempts of Shin to woe Julia for instance, or the rending of Ken's red shirt; the various exploding heads, or the fighter's famous pronouncement over those opponents whom, it appears, he has just touched, and who continue their arrogance yet: "You are already dead." In addition, each of the episodes is named in vengeful, declamatory fashion: Villians! Ready Your One Way Ticket To Hell!; Stormy Times, Titanic Battles, Is Battle All That Awaits Me?; Sinners! Thy Name Is Fang! etc. It's a characteristic that seems bizarre to western eyes, but the self-awareness reveals something about the original, local deliberation behind the series. Fist Of The North Star is a peculiar experience, and the comparative rarity of the TV episodes has made it something of a 'forbidden fruit' to UK fans. Seen today, despite - or because of - its extremes, and curious undertones, it remains strangely addictive.

The boxset is substantial, but purchasers should be aware that it only offers part of the North Star saga. Manga have apparently just licensed the first 30-odd episodes out of well over 100 made, and while this present batch is more than enough to be going on with, fans will naturally enough miss the rest. Extras are limited to a photo gallery, Japanese credits, character biographies and further previews from the Manga range, some enticing, some not.
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