Monday, May 12, 2014

Fist of the North Star (Anime 1984)

It was the mid-80's when I went to the theater, the Music Box, and first saw the movie, Fist of the North Star.

 It was an intense action movie with ultra levels of violence that brought two of my favorite things, anime and kung fu, together into a glorious feast for the eyes. I would later buy it on VHS and DVD while one of my friends owned it on laserdisk. The laserdisk version was a fantastic transfer while the VHS and DVD copies were terrible in color and quality.

Even back then though, the movie didn't make a lot of sense. It had so much going on that seemed to belong to something else.

So on +Hulu they have both seasons of the original anime from 1984 and it's like over 150 episodes.

And I see that Amazon has a few of them, but I'm not sure if that's the 'revised' one or the original ones.

It's one of the reasons I've been quite over here. I've been trying to plow my way through it. Back in the day, Viz comics was publishing the Fist of the North Star in monthly serials. They folded. Then another company was publishing master editions in full color that were graphic novel sized. They stopped production around seven or eight.

So I was always curious to know, "WTF was all that?"

Having seen it all, m'eh.

Part of this is just the age of it. The subtitles are terrible in some instances. Like flat out wrong. In addition, it was done in a time before widescreen so you've got the black bars common to those older shows. This shows up in the quality of the animation as well as the sound of the animation itself.

And remember how I said it was ultra violent? Like martial arts whose techniques involve cutting through people like katanas or making them blow up by hitting pressure points?

Censorship from Japan must have been weird in those days. If the character has blood on him, it's okay if it's red. If it's an explosion of blood, it's white. Which looks funny and in some instances "wrong" depending on where all the blood is splashing.

I enjoyed some of the characters. The designs on some of them are very 'super heroic' and at the same time, very 'Mad Max.'.  It's certainly inspiring for anyone looking for visuals in a wasted world where strength is the only law. It's great for those who want names for special martial art maneuvers for whatever games their players.

For anyone who wants a coherent story? Ugh. The translations are terrible to start with, and more worrisome is the soap opera nature of things. Hidden brothers, hidden half brothers, hidden blood lines, hidden martial arts and a whole slew of things that just go straight into that soap opera realm.

In terms of themes, well, people are going to die, especially people you love. That seems to be one of the biggest themes. You may be the strongest fighter there, you may be able to come back from beatings that should have killed you, but if you have any loved ones, wish them good bye when you see them, often getting killed just as you arrive.

The other problem, and I'm pretty sure it's not just the anime, was the consistency of the character's in terms of their size. Ken is the main hero of the story. Everyone whose 'good' or 'non-monstrous', is drawn like Ken in terms of body type. In that aspect, it reminds me of how toys used to be designed. Every toy was the same damn toy just with different outfits and accessories.

But the 'monstrous' characters, like Raoh? In some sequences he's a little bigger then Ken, in others he's like three times Ken's size.

There's also the whole internal consistency of things. When Ken is angered and going into an all out attack, he often bursts straight out of his clothes. In the post apocalypse world, who is repairing those clothes?

And after watching the whole thing, I have to wonder, what the hell planet is this supposed to be? There are some bits that are like, "Well, maybe it's Earth in the future (from when it was done), but no one calls any of the places by their old names. The technology is a mix of motocycles, because they look cool, crossbows and arrows, and well, in some sequences, a city whose lights are powered by slave labor. Those things were just a little annoying, but paled in contrast to the whole drama of the series.

For example, we learn that Toki and Raoh are actual blood brothers. Toki takes Ken to graves for his parents and for himself and Raoh. All a big revelation at the time. But later on, when Ken crosses the sea to fight Raoh's older brother, we see in a flashback that Ken and Raoh talk about the later's older brother. And their mother died on that other shore so whose buried in the graves? Messes like that show up all over the place.

For a bigger example, Ken is supposed to be the sole heir to the martial art, Divine Fist of the North Star, because it's such a dangerous martial art. But there is Toki, Raoh, and well, a former teacher who decided not to pursue the art and I'm sure a few others I'm missing. But when Ken finally does decide to do something about Raoh, to "seal his fists", he's already let Roah kill hundreds if not thousands of people and it feels very forced.

These inconsistencies go on and on. The one that annoyed me personally is when we see Souther, a man who has a secret that makes him immune to the deadly martial art that Ken pratices. Because of that, Ken is beaten like a dog and hung out to drain of his blood. While Ken recovers, another martial artist fights Souther and is killed. In the meanwhile, turns out Toki knew the weakness. Good work Toki, you managed to get more people killed by not telling anyone ahead of time.

Again, ugh!

The thing I'll give Fist of the North Star over say, Dragonball Z, is that the battles are relatively quick. In some episodes of Dragonball Z you could leave and come back four episodes later and the same fight is still going on. Here that may happen once or twice with the biggest villains of the series but for the most part, the fights against one specific individual are done in one while the battles against that person's minions may take a while, which in and of itself is actually more boring. "Oh, fifteen people that are all freakishly large with giant mohawks. I wonder how long it'll take to kill them."

And then that gets me thinking about how stupid everyone is in the series. Raoh takes over territories and gives them to people who aren't 'super villain' evil, but 'stupid villain evil'. "Ah, in this desolate time of no food and water, I villain A will waste all of the food, while villain B wastes all the water!"

I can see the whole series being a touch different if written today.

"Roah, come out and face me!"

"What, what is it Kenshiro!"

"I've come to seal your fists!"

"Didn't we already do this whole fight thing?"

"Yes, but now I'm possessed by justice!"

"Ken, you're like the most honest guy I know. Turns out these warlords I've been using are stupid as hell, How about being an agent of good and going around killing the corrupt and incompetent idots out there so that we can get some work done eh?"

"Raoh, you want to conqueror the heavens!

"Turns out they don't care. I took my big ass horse to the biggest mountain and hey, it was cold up there and the air was thin. Seems that I should actually you know, prepare for the invasion of the other land. Maybe give Falco and a few other people a call and see if they're looking for jobs. Some good people that aren't getting properly used."

"I hate you Roah."

"I love you Ken."

No, seriously, like 90% or more of the villains of the series would've been normal people if they just had some normal conversations with people before they were on the verge of death.

Anyway, I'll probably have more to say about the anime in terms of inspiration. When I was a young man, that experience at the Music Box opened my eyes to how powerful and ridiculous you can make martial arts and that served me well in many games ranging from Champions to Rifts. As an older man, know that I already know that, the storylines here make me cringe, but some of the names and visual executions of the moves are still popcorn worthy.

Long live the Fist of the North Star!