HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Fist of the North Star Part 3

Part 3 of 5 – Hokuto Shinken is invincible! Well, except in America.

Viz Media: The Legend Dies Early

Viz Media, in and of itself a subsidiary of “Shopro”, a conglomerate of Japanese entertainment companies (including Shueisha, the guys who publish and co-own Hokuto no Ken) decided to release the Hokuto no Ken manga in North America back in 1989, believe it or not. Unfortunately, the concept of releasing manga in tankou book form – that is, a smaller sized graphic novel in the Japanese right-to-left reading format as is pretty much typical today – didn’t exist at the time, and instead the translated version of Hokuto no Ken, similarly released as “Fist of the North Star”, was released in the “Prestige format” – in other words, it looked like a typical American comic book, though it’s generally longer and has better quality paper. This was basically done to work as a tie-in to the release of the Nintendo game (actually, it was the second NES game, the first was never released outside), and lasted for 16 chapters, including the King and Golan story arcs. It didn’t break any records, and as was pretty common in those days, the title was quietly canceled due to lack of interest.

Fast forward to 1995, and the Streamline release of Fist of the North Star had reached its’ peak in terms of distribution, thanks in part to Streamline being bought up by a new distributor, Orin Home Video. (Ironically, Orion would fold 4 years later, prompting most of Streamlines titles to slowly disappear from the market place – including Fist of the North Star.) Viz released several more volumes of the manga until 1997, this time completing both the Jackal and Jagi story arcs, but alas, the title was canceled a second time, and all of the Viz media chapters were published in four American sized graphic novels.

The Viz translation was closer to the original dialogue than the Carl Macek dub, though certain inaccuracies – particularly Nanto Seiken being translated as “Fist of the Southern Cross” – remained all the same. One of the things I was most confused by was Rei’s sister, Aili, being called “Iris”. (Huh?) Due to the fact that Americans were then used to reading comics left to right, the artwork was flipped, leading to a world where every fighter was left-handed, and plenty of awkward attempts of “fixing” Ken’s wounds in the days before photoshop were made. Viz’ release was at least unedited, and presented Hokuto no Ken in a format no more or less a faithful than almost any other manga title at the time.

Hard Work and Gutsoon!

Viz wasn’t the only company to think releasing the Hokuto no Ken manga in the US was a good idea, though… they also weren’t the last to cancel it.

In 2003, Gutsoon! Entertainment made a loud splash in the US marketplace by offering the very first weekly manga anthology in English. The prices were fair – about $7 for a 200+ page magazine – and the titles included Bomber Girl, Fist of the Blue Sky (Souten no Ken – Hokuto no Ken’s official prequel), Baki the Grappler, City Hunter, and plenty of other titles intended to market directly to America’s love for action packed and often violent manga titles. Unfortunately, Gutsoon like so many other Japanese companies, overestimated the American marketplace, and soon realized that publishing a weekly magazine that, despite being incredibly cheap page-per-page in the American marketplace, simply wasn’t nearly as profitable in America as it was in Japan. Soon after the magazine publication began, some of their titles were released in the now-standard tankou format, but not Fist of the North Star redux… they had something special for that.

2003 being the 20th anniversary of the original manga, Shounen Jump came out with the “Master Edition” manga printing in Japan, an oversized square-bound deluxe magazine printing that, for the first time ever, featured Hokuto no Ken in full and bloody color. Various manga have been colorized outside of Japan before, with varying results: the Marvel Comics printing of Akira was oft considered appropriate and natural looking by fans, while the colorized Devilman featured in Verotik Comics look like a dark crayon smudge over the original artwork. Gutsoon! released released this deluxe, full color version and made it all the way to volume 9 of 27 – the Master Editions matched the Japanese release perfectly, with a brand new (and more accurate) translation than the Viz Media comic format release. Unfortunately, Gutsoon! as a whole folded in 2004, with it went what could have been the last hope for seeing all of Hokuto no Ken legitly available in English.

Raijin comics released the Master Edition of Hokuto no Ken back to Japan (in Japanese of course) and packaged the first volume with a mini figure, even. Sadly, this was canceled after just 4 volumes.

Souten no Ken, a title which recently got a 26 episode TV adaptation, was canceled in the Raijin collapse after 3 tankou volumes. The title is published in Weekly Comics Bunch to this day in Japan, and shows no signs of stopping at 16 tankou volumes thus far. Set in 1930’s Shanghai, Souten no Ken is a title that will appeal to fans of Hokuto no Ken’s martial arts and character drama fans, but lacking some of the ultra-violence and the Sci-Fi inspired post apocalyptic setting it lacks some of the other worldly flair that attracts some people to Hokuto no Ken in the first place.

Fascinatingly, the horrific and wanton violence was retained in all Gustoon! printings, but all nipples – nearly all of which were male in Hokuto no Ken – got the axe. Yep’. You can blow someone’s brain and eyeballs out of their skull, so long as we don’t see his man nipple. Neither Viz nor Shueisha ever had issues with this, and the majority of Hokuto no Ken features such smooth and chiseled chests that Hara didn’t bother to draw most of the nipples to begin with.

God bless America.

DVD Killed the VHS Star

Another notable disappointment for English speaking Hokuto no Ken fans was the Manga Entertainment release of the Fist of the North Star anime, a release which turned out to be roughly as unorthodox as you could get… yet in the grand scheme of Manga Entertainment releases, it was just business as usual.

Starting in March of 1999, Manga Entertainment started releasing subtitled and English dubbed versions of the Fist of the North Star TV series on VHS. This release had 3 episodes per tape, once a month, and was a planned 12 volume series. This would bring the total of episodes in English up to 36, a mere portion of the original 109 episode series, to say nothing of the 43 episode Hokuto no Ken 2. Still, any Hokuto no Ken in the US is better than none… or so we’d hope. The English dub, while generally more accurate (and more professionally acted) than either the Viz or Streamline translations before it, used a completely new soundtrack provided by Reinforced Records, a company owned by the same parent company that then owned Manga Entertainment. The original score was replaced with generally non-fitting and poorly synched techno, right down to the opening animation being completely replaced and given a new and not particularly fitting theme song. The subtitled version still had the original score, though anyone hoping to hear “YOU ÇÕSHOCK!” in the opening would be disappointed: the opening and ending themes were gone as well, as was the original “In the Year 199X…” pre-credits sequence. Manga Entertainment did include a dubbed prelude, at least.

Making matters even worse is the fact that, once more due to poor sales, Manga Entertainment canceled the VHS release after volume 8, effectively killing the series off in English the moment it started to improve in Chapter 2. Considering that anime to this day generally doesn’t sell 5,000-10,000 copies per DVD, I’d shudder to think how awful the sales on this title must have been for Manga Entertainment to pull the plug so early. Also worthy of note, each tape opened with information on a contest (with a “Fist full of prizes!”), in which the grand prize would be a chance to be in the last English episode of Fist of the North Star as a guest voice actor. To the best of my knowledge that contest was quietly canceled over time.

Poor VHS sales didn’t keep the show from airing on Showtime Beyond, however, and the English dubbed version was played in full (all 36 episodes worth) – twice! - on late-night cable. In 2003, Manga Entertainment began to release a bi-lingual DVD series, with the entire 36 episode English run spread across 5 DVDs. Having bought all 8 of the English dubbed tapes and fansubbed/raw Japanese videos besides, I never bothered with this release personally, though I know the techno riddled English dub and changed openings and endings remain. Sadly, cramming 7 to 8 volumes on a dual-layer DVD can also lead to compression problems, with macroblocks and other issues relating to MPEG video are reportedly visible on all 5 of the discs. At least these were dual layer DVD’s... as you’ll soon see, things can always get worse.

New Life in Shattered Fists: DVD Restoration

Speaking as a person who watched old 4th generation (and beyond) VHS copies of the entire Hokuto no Ken series over the course of about 3 years, my mind was finally set at ease when in 2002 Toei Animation announced that it would release the ultimate Hokuto no Ken TV collection.

For those well off or dedicated (or just… insane) enough to have pre-ordered one when it first came out, it looks like it didn’t disappoint. The entire 152 episode saga was split across 26 DVDs, packaged in a set of 4 gate-fold boxes with brand new artwork. Also included was a 100 page booklet, mostly filled with Hara artwork (and probably liner notes, knowing Toei) as well as an exclusive repaint of the first 200X Kenshirou “Violence Action Figure” released by Kaiyodo in a unique all-plastic package and an alternate paint job. The price for this titanic box set? 100,000 yen, which in todays exchange rate is about $850 USD before taxes and shipping. Should you be of a frightening dedication to Toei’s amazing box set, it was re-released in 2006, and is still available in Japan for the same price – the only difference this time is the exclusion of the action figure.

For those of us who can’t take out a second mortgage just to buy DVD box sets (and hell, I can’t buy ramen noodles after buying a couple American DVDs!), Toei Animation also started releasing the same content as DVD singles in 2003, with the last disc released in 2006. Each DVD is identical to the disc included in the massive box set, with 5-6 DVD’s per DVD, in Japanese with a Dolby Digital mono track as the only language option. At 98,800 yen for the singles and 100,000 yen for the box set, the price difference is basically negligible, so the difference really comes down to whither or not you prefer the standard keepcase or gatefold packaging, how much you want the collector’s box and booklet, or if you feel spending $850 (and then some) all at once, or over the course of several orders, is more worthwhile.

For those of us Americans, it’s worth pointing out that the Toei Japan DVD’s are only in Japanese (no English subtitles or dubbing), and are Region 2 only, meaning they won’t play on a standard American Region 1 DVD player unless the region has been cracked somehow. All the same, if you’re spending $850 on these DVD’s, another $100 or so for a region free (or even a high quality Region 2 only Japanese) DVD player should be a drop in the bucket.

The Toei R2 DVD’s – though sadly I’ve never watched them personally – have been confirmed as the ultimate Hokuto no Ken release the world over. For one thing, keeping only 5 to 6 episodes on a dual-layer DVD is near optimal compression standards on DVD, meaning that there’s virtually no issues with over-compressed video files, like macroblocking or banding or pixilation during the high-motion scenes (of which Hokuto no Ken is full of). Another positive is that all 152 episodes were remastered from the original Toei film masters, and were given a frame by frame restoration to remove print damage and restore both the colors and level of detail to how the film masters looked back in the 1980’s. Hokuto no Ken really can’t look any better on DVD than the Toei release does, with the entire TV series (and the movie) having been shot on cheap silent 16 millimeter film stock some 20 years ago, the slightly dull and grainy look is simply the way the series has – and will – always look. Increasing the color vibrancy or contrast would only lead to bleeding and unnatural images, and removing the grain would only serve to soften the picture, removing actual detail along with it. For a look at to how not to remaster traditional anime, just rent a volume of FUNimation’s new Dragonball Z Season One box set: it’s not pretty, and is a blatant travesty when compared against even the edited US DVD’s from 1999, let alone the Toei imports.

Toei also released a trio of “Best Of” Hokuto no Ken DVDs with 7 episodes a disc, selling at 3800 yen each. These discs are typical high Toei quality, and the limited edition of the first volume also included a collector’s box to keep all 3 DVDs together. With 21 episodes collected, it’s hardly a complete set, but for the price it’s the best Hokuto no Ken collection from Toei one can build. These however aren’t the same as the pair of VHS tapes Toei released in the late 80’s, which also collected the best fight scenes from various parts of the TV series.

For those of you looking for a bargain release of Hokuto no Ken, one may always consider the Catalyst Logic Region 3 DVD box sets from Taiwan. At a retail price of 2,000 Taiwan dollars each (for 3 sets), that’s about $60 each… though with some diligent searching, I know for a fact that all 3 sets can be had – shipped! – for about $50. Each box set contains 4 DVDs in 2 keepcases, for a total of 57 episodes, or the first 2 chapters of the original TV series. Each set was noted as “To be continued”, with the third set having come out in October of 2006. I don’t know for sure if we’ll get the rest of the show from them, but it’s a nice cheap way to get a part of the series. Also, along with the original Japanese dialogue a Mandarin dub is included, an addition which may liken Hokuto no Ken to an old school Hong Kong martial arts more than ever.

Sadly, I don’t know for sure if the Catalyst DVDs are single or double layer. Taiwan DVDs – yes, even the legit ones – tend to just copy and paste the Japanese video and audio masters, adding Mandarin dialogue and/or Chinese subtitles with new menus and packages. Sometimes new DTS or PCM tracks, too. With fewer episodes per disc, these may be new, lower bitrate encodes. They might not look quite as good as the Toei imports because of it, though I imagine the differences would be minimal.

France continues to release Ken le Survivant on R2 PAL DVD, with vol. 14 being the latest release as of this writing and containing episodes 69-72. Each French DVD contains 4-6 episodes, retails for 20 Euros, and (unfortunately) only has French audio. It’s probably an NTSC-PAL conversion, which would lead to ghosting and a softer image, though I don’t know for certain. There is currently a box set of volumes 1-8 for 100 Euros, and I imagine as more single DVDs are available more box sets will come out as well. There was also a “Ken 2 – Fist of the North Star” DVD released in both in singles (retailing for 28 Euros each) and a 5 DVD box set (for 105 Euros) in France, which is also PAL and has only Japanese audio with French subtitles, leading me to assume Hokuto no Ken 2 was never aired on French TV. I can’t vouch for the quality of these DVDs personally, but at at 8-9 episodes per DVD they might suffer from heavy MPEG compression artifacts.

Despite Ken il Gurriero’s popularity in Italy during the 1980’s, the Italian version has so far never been released on DVD.

Pirates of the Carribe-er, of the Pacific

“But what about all those cheap box sets on eBay with the whole series with English subtitles?” I can hear some of you thinking.

Don’t buy them. Seriously, just don’t bother.

Before you misunderstand, I’ll say that I have no problem with people buying illegitimate media, but just when there’s no local alternative available. If an anime series you’re interested in is available at Best Buy for $20 a volume (times 6 or 7) and you opt to get the whole 26 episode series on 3 DVD’s for $30… well, that’s not cool. The anime industry in America is a widely noted niche market, and every dollar you spend on them is a dollar keeping them alive to release more titles in the future. Most anime DVDs struggle to sell 5,000 copies for a title that isn’t on mainstream cable, and between the cost of $20,000-30,000 to license a single episode and another $10,000-20,000 to dub it into English, the profit margins are almost non-existent, unless the studio releasing shows was lucky enough to have even one “big” title that has either nostalgia attached to it, or is just a plain ol’ marketing powerhouse. But not every anime is Dragonball Z or Pokemon, and the majority of titles in the market today are struggling to make a profit, and some – even sequels to well established and popular titles from yesteryear – struggle just to break even.

Every dollar you give to pirated “HK DVDs” – a term that isn’t really fair, since not only does Hong Kong produce thousands of legit DVDs with English subtitles, but also because most of the pirate DVDs are made in Taiwan these days (a country that also produces legit DVDs, though most of those lack English subtitles and a region code) – not only are you not supporting the anime industry in any way, but the trafficking of bootleg products in Chinese speaking countries is primarily done by organized crime. That’s right, every time you buy a “HK DVD bootleg” you’re supporting the villain of a Triad movie, which is exactly why many Hong Kong DVDs have a short, but often fairly amusing “Thank you for not supporting organized crime” message in front of legit media. Sorta’ beats the guilt tactics used by the MPAA telling us the lighting guy doesn’t get paid if you steal a Hollywood feature, even though his work is union based, and he got paid regardless of wither or not the big stars, producers and directors get the royalties they’re hoping for.

But the real reason to avoid them is simple. Bootleg DVDs made in Taiwan, Russia and other countries where bootleg media is just as (if not more) common than legit media have absolutely no quality checks or basic standards to uphold. In the case of the most common Hokuto no Ken bootlegs available now – the 24 disc box set containing the movie, the Shin Hokuto no ken OVAs, and the TV series on 20 discs housed in a shiny silver box – the quality is in every way just plain awful. For one thing, two out of 3 of my DVD players refuse to read over half of the discs. Even those that will start to play on my computer will die about half way through, so the likelihood of them even working is low. Another issue is that 7 to 8 episodes are packed on a single-layer DVD, meaning that they honestly don’t look much better than the average VCD from a decade ago. Every single scene of motion is soft and blocky, and the end credits during the song “Dry Your Tears” are so awful you can’t even tell it’s supposed to be raining. The biggest strike against them, however, is the incomprehensible “Chinglish” subtitles.

For those who have never seen a bootleg of Hokuto no Ken, let me quite, word for word, what one of them has to say:

“Let’s wait until you recover Never take action right now”

“It’s a great urgent if we can get miken…”

“We can be loyal to them but we are no dogs!”

Truth be told, these bootlegs have come a LONG way since reading crap like “If can’t didnt’ go we be suspected” on bootlegs of Amon: Apocalypse of Devilman, or the burned-in subtitles on old VHS taken from cropped theatrical prints where half the translation is quite literally gone, but as most of these translations are accomplished by hiring someone to translate the Japanese into Mandarin, and then feeding the Chinese subtitles into a Chinese-English translation program… well, one of the easier to understand rambling subtitles you wind up with might be “I’m preoccupied with sin I wanna destroy the Hokuto family”. You’re lucky if they keep the names in Japanese and don’t change “Ryu” to “Shaolong”.

Most of these pirate copies are from a studio called “Manga” – not to be confused with Manga Entertainment, a studio that legally released Hokuto no Ken in the US, UK and Germany. The Manga bootlegs are available either in a box set with the movie and the “Shin Hokuto no Ken” OVA’s, or in a set of 4 gatefold box sets. The gatefolds use 17 dual-layer DVDs, while the single “complete box” uses 20 single-layer DVDs. The gatefolds are a bit more watchable, fitting about 5 episodes per layer instead of 8, but they use identical subtitles, and the dual-layer versions also have a burned-in subtitle saying “This DVD was made by Anime Cartoon! You can eMail us at…”, so any “increase” in quality is sorta’ nixed right there.

1 comment:

Immortal_Knight said...

Hi there. Just wanted to comment that i found this article, after trying to find information on the series having bought a bootleg boxset of my own.

Whats interesting though, is that the one i have (which i found at goodwill for 10 dollars!) is the same as the above mentioned 24 disc set, minus the shiny silver box (it's shiny yes, but black with the shows logo and an image of kenshiro on it) and the substitution of disc 1 which actually is what would be the first disc of the also above mentioned catalyst series set. also disc 24 (which has the 89 movie on it) is i believe part of that set as well. So yeah, im missing like 3 episodes, and the first 5 arent subtitled in english XD but its interesting to find one disc of an entirely different set in this (especially since all the discs look identical) also on the back i should mention is the entire opening monologue with an image of i assume is kens girlfriend (havent really gotten into the series yet) holding a helmet of some sort. Have you heard of anything happening like this?

PS: the third ova also isnt subtitled either D: