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Friday, May 4, 2007

Fist of the North Star Week Part 4

Part 4 of 5 – Discovering Hokuto no Ken First Hand

So how can I enjoy the world of Hokuto?

Don’t speak Japanese? Can’t afford a grand to buy import DVDs? Still want in on this party? There’s still hope.

Heart of Madness, a pack of saints if you ask me (or perhaps Saint Emperors?) decided long ago that more Hokuto no Ken needed to be made available to English speaking individuals. So they set out on a mission to fansub the entire TV series and all of the movies – then just the original 1986 feature and “Shin” OVA’s, though as of 2006, the Hokuto no Ken franchise has grown some…

Currently episodes 1 to 116 out of 152 have been made available via the Bittorrent client, a program that lets you download large files by sharing chunks of the file with others as you also download it from someone else. It’s nothing like old file sharing software in that anything on your PC could be taken – just the file and bandwidth that you want, from a “wrapper” file you download first. It’s pretty easy to share the love with Bittorrent, and if you want more info on these releases and just what it is they do, just go to and check it out for yourself.

For the benefit of those who don’t know, a “fansub” was a fairly novel concept that started in the early 1980’s, when anime clubs would consist of a bunch of people who literally spent hundreds of dollars importing Japanese videos, and used a primitive computer and expensive video hardware to superimpose English subtitles onto VHS tapes. They would, after this labor of love, share the tapes for free with other clubs, and with the advent of the internet, fansubs would often be offered for non-profit distribution, with each tape being at-cost (or sometimes just bootlegged outright, of course). The quality was usually pretty crappy, the translations questionable… but for a long time, this was the only way to see plenty of hard to find anime titles, Hokuto no Ken included. I watched all 152 episodes this way, and let me tell you, staring at a jittering, fuzzy tape with illegible translations is not the ideal way to watch anything. Still, these were the good old days, and nothing can beat enthusiasm for keeping at it.

Nowadays, fansubs are usually made entirely on computers, compressed to small sizes using advanced video codecs (like XVID or WMV) and then distributed for download instead of on VHS. It’s a much easier method for everyone involved, and it means – in cases of popular titles like Naruto or Bleach – that you can literally watch a new episode the day it comes out in Japan, no matter where you live. The concept of fansubs since the early 1990’s has been to expose more people to any given show, and to get them to talk about it – review it, request it at anime conventions, whatever it takes to see a better version of the show readily available.

Nowadays, anime is generally shopped around for license before it even airs in Japan, and fansubs – while still often a good measure as to what shows will be popular when they reach America – have little effect in the title being released officially. To this end, fansubbers like the Heart of Madness are now much more about preserving titles that wouldn’t be particularly profitable, and allowing those few thousand (or few hundred… sometimes only a few dozen) fans who want to watch the show in English the chance that they need. If you’re interested in seeing all of Hokuto no Ken, by all means check out the Heart of Madness fansubs. They’re actually better quality than the bootleg DVDs in every way – translation and video quality, and you can fit about 15 episodes on a DVD-R as data files, too.

Mind, I’m not suggesting that you ever stop buying the movies and TV shows that you like. The “niche” DVD market is getting pretty stagnant these days, with a lot of competing licensors, increased costs, and a lot of business practices and unfortunate conditions that have slowly and quietly shattered any long term stability that the distributors of cult entertainment – like anime, foreign horror and martial arts movies – may have once had a chance at. But in the case of Hokuto no Ken, legit English media is in short supply, and what is out there is long out of print, so buying those won’t actually support anyone but whoever is actually selling it. I’m as guilty of buying bootlegs as anyone, but I always try to put my money where my mouth is and support legit niche releases of what I like.

Fisted by the North Star? Hokuto no Ken in Live Action

Without a doubt, one of the most fascinating aspects of Hokuto no Ken have been the numerous live action adaptations of the original manga. The anime, while a fairly accurate and exciting adaptation of the manga, is really just that; the original story with some new characters and color, set to a soundtrack. The 6 – that’s right, six – live action Hokuto no Ken titles to appear have all differed drastically from their source material for different reasons, and while I’ve yet to see all of them, what I have is some of the most unfortunately hilarious stuff imaginable.

First up, naturally, is the Tony Randel directed Fist of the North Star, a Hollywood, Japanese and Hong Kong co-production released in 1995, after the anime release had become widely available via Streamline Pictures. Randel, probably best known for his stylish and gross yet wholly incomprehensible sequel Hellbound: Hellraiser II, the live action version includes an unlikely international cast, with British martial arts star Gary Daniels in the role of Kenshirou, Malcom McDowell slumming as his father Ryuuken, Costas Mandylor as the flaming Lord Shin, the beautiful Isako Washio as Julia, former heavyweight WWF superstar Vader as Goliath, Downtown Julie Brown (I swear to god…) as the village leader, and the late Chris Penn as Jackal.

Right away, we’ve got some big, big problems. Malcom McDowell, while a splendid actor as proved in films like A Clockwork Orange and even Caligula, is painfully out of place in a role that… well, probably was tailor made Pat Morita, if anyone. He clearly doesn’t show up on set with any other cast member, and his inclusion – while classy enough – kind of sets up how painfully misguided this whole affair is.

Gary Daniels, similarly, seems horribly mis-cast, though his impressive physique is certainly put to good use in his shirtless leather vest, and his real life training in various forms of martial arts give even the appearance of the Hokuto Hyakurekken – this time a flurry of outstretched fingers and chops to the torso – a certain sense of realism and purpose. The problems begin whenever he has to speak. Not only is he desperately trying to hide his British accent (with mixed results), but his forte is in being a tough guy, not a soulful leading man with a tormented past. He wasn’t a bad choice, just a slightly imperfect one.

The rest of the cast is slightly less interesting: the supporting cast (including Dante Basco as Bat, and Nalona Herron as a blind and singing version of Rin/Lynne) is always competent, but rarely impressive. When Julie Brown, a former MTV Video Jockey is a headliner… well, really, need I say more? Far worse trouble arrives in the form of Costas Mandylor, formerly known for romantic leads. His performance as Shin comes off as utterly homosexual – and not in the roaring, blood soaked, tight leather wearing butch way that Hokuto no Ken demands. More the screaming, sparkling eyed, fluffy haired bitch sort of gay one would associate with Saint Seiya. The only member of the cast otherwise that stands out in any way is Chris Penn, who’s ultra sleazy and wise cracking performance of a character that’s equal parts Jackal and Jagi steals the show in every shot he’s in.

Other aspects of the production are horribly flawed, including… among others… the very fact that the entire movie was shot on a sound stage, with painted background. (Yes, you can see the canvas backgrounds flap, too.) While this does allow Randal impressive use of overcast lighting, it starts to look very cheap about 10 minutes in. The gore – what little the film has to offer – is unimpressive, and with the drastic changes made to the story comes across as almost unnecessary. Watching Daniels perform complex katas in slow motion ends up being far more impressive than seeing Chris Penn’s head bubble over like a pot of water (and Yuria/Julia being the one to make it happen is just… *sigh*). And if proof is needed that Randal’s directorial skills were perhaps wasted on the endeavor, one needs only to seek out the Hong Kong Legends (UK) DVD of the film, with the feature length Japanese produced making-of, featuring alternate takes of the major fight sequences that, due to the documentary directors’ better eye for composition, look a lot more realistic and painful that the angles chosen for the actual film.

The only real positives I can give it are the soundtrack composed by Christopher Stone (which was released on CD along with the original pieces for the Horror movie “Ticks” – presumably Stone re-used some of the pieces in that), which is decidedly epic and beautiful with occasional bouts of metal and carefully balanced sorrow. Along with McDowell, it gives the film a sense of high class and maturity, even if it otherwise doesn’t deserve it. Similarly, the set designs inspired by Soviet Russia, and the costumes made up largely of trench coats and mismatched military uniform pieces, though nothing like the source materials, are at least interesting and visually appealing. It’s clear that everyone involved in the films’ technical and artistic design were taking things seriously, but the finished product is so uneven and segmented that it’s pretty hard to appreciate how meticulously wasted each of these positive attributes were. And – if you’ve seen it – what’s up with the final shot? Seriously, what the hell?

Unfortunately, what makes for a fascinating experience in B-movie Sci-Fi/Martial Arts equates to a lousy and insulting adaptation of Hara and Buronson’s original masterpiece. But could it get any worse? Well, in the late 1980’s, a Korean film studio decided to adapt Hokuto no Ken into a pair of direct to VHS features, in which Hokuto no Ken is played out with cheap 1980’s music video special effects and punks attack Kenshirou in generic looking warehouses and construction sites. Having seen only the original trailer for the first film, I can say that while it looks pretty god-awful… at least I recognize that it’s supposed to be Shin, Kenshirou and Hokuto no Ken in some low-tech way. Sadly, these videos have become scarce since the late 1990’s, when Toei caught wind of their very existence. The Korean film studios never paid for the use of the story or characters, and as such, the very existence of these two movies is considered illegal. A similar situation happened in the late 1990’s, when a Chinese comic book publisher was sued by Shueisha for “Hokuto Ou Ken” – the Hokuto King Fist – an unauthorized sequel to Hokuto no Ken. Finally, a Hong Kong film studio also created a pair of Hokuto no Ken movies (with battles by the beach, no less!), which were released on VHS in Korea… by the same distributors who got in trouble for the Korean productions. I don’t know if these films were a licensed adaptation or not, but considering Hong Kong’s infamy in adapting Japanese properties without buying the rights first (Dragon from Russia was an unlicensed Crying Freeman movie, and Avenging Fist started out as a Tekken adaptation, dropped the story and characters… but kept the outfits), the likelihood that this pair of films wasn’t 100% legit is pretty high.

The only other live action Hokuto no Ken film was a 6 minute long TV special aired in 1987, shortly before the premier of Hokuto no Ken 2. It featured a live action Kenshirou and Raou battling, though the production values in that make even the illegitimate Korean videos look pretty impressive.

All in all, avoid Hokuto no Ken in non-manga or anime form where at all applicable, unless you really, really dig cheesy B-movies. Or as an added bonus, buy the Japanese DVD of the Randal film – it features a Japanese language dub using the original anime cast. Now, I don’t know that hearing Gary Daniels growling “Omae wa mou, shindeiru!” in KAMIYA Akira’s awkwardly synched voice will make the film any ‘better’ in the traditional, academic sense… but I’m positive it would make the film far more amusing in some ways regardless.

New Fist of the North Star: Hara and Buronson’s Last Stand

Hokuto no Ken would gain new life starting in 2003, with the release of the Shin Hokuto no Ken (or New Fist of the North Star) OVA series. Using the mid 1990’s novel Hokuto no Ken: Jubaku no Machi (The Cursed City) as the basis, this sequel starts several years after the end of Hokuto no Ken 2, in which Kenshirou ends up defending a frail and broken down village who’s last hope rested in the hands of a fellow Hokuto practitioner, the kind and lovely Saara. Sanga, the tyrant leader of Last Land – a massive city built upon a reservoir of clean water – kidnaps Saara to be used as a tool to convince the people that he owns a Goddess. While Kenshirou leaves to aide a dying child, the “demi-god” Vista, Sanga’s son Seiji returns to claim his birthright: Last Land, and every soul inside of it. Despite Vista’s brother Tobi putting up a resistance force of the enraged Last Land serfs, they are no match for Seiji’s strange Hokuto based fighting style or army of defending soldiers, and if Ken doesn’t return in time from finding the medicine he needs to save Vista there may be no Last Land for him to save.

With 3 individual hour-long episodes to tell a complex story, I’m afraid that director WATABE Takeshi just doesn’t get deep enough into the new concepts of these fledgling societies, or the idea that there is a new form of Hokuto being practiced in the mountains to protect the world from a second nuclear war. The OVA’s come across as filling for time, with Kenshriou barely present in the last 2 episodes and the new supporting characters not having the depth and spark that made former sub-heroes and villains in Hokuto no Ken so interesting. The animation is equally a mixed bag, featuring generally great 2D animation, but occasional lapses in the CG material, where a massive stone palace will look more like a paper model than something genuinely substantial. The soundtrack composed by TAKANASHI Yasuharu and performed by the band yaiba, however, crossed 1980’s metal with Japanese taikou festival drums, for a constantly impressive score that crossed the traditional with the modern in typical Hokuto no Ken fashion. Kenshirou’s theme in particularly brings the Shin Hokuto no Ken aesthetic to life perfectly.

The biggest problem in this OVA series is really the casting. For reasons unknown, Kenshirou was re-cast for the first time in nearly 20 years with KAMIYA Akira being usurped in the role by KOYASU Takehito. I’ve enjoyed Koyasu in various other roles, like as Ilpalazzo in Excel Saga and Luke Valentine in the Hellsing Ultimate. Unfortunately, as Kenshirou his performance is flat and forced, sounding completely fake and lacking anything resembling the strength or conviction needed to bring this now-iconic hero to life. Ironically, the J-Rock star Gackt, a singer who also did the theme song for the sequel to the popular Final Fantasy VII franchise, not only performs the closing theme (an okay piece that is put to shame by the instrumental opening), but also performs as the lead villain Seiji. Similarly, he’s wholly mis-cast, with his smooth and almost syrupy voice trying like mad to reach the booming and fearful heights reached by UTSUMI Kenji (Raou), GINGA Banjou (Souther), or GOURI Daisuke (Uiger), he ends up with an almost amusingly tiny emulation of those men before him. Frustratingly enough, his actual acting skills aren’t half bad, proving if he were a voice actor in a less “manly” title he’d probably have a bright career in the business. Magnum Tokyo, a Japanese pro wrestler, also puts in a cameo (effectively as himself) but the role is so inconsequential that it’s only a big deal if you believe the hyperbole on the DVD extras.

For the first time in this series, the English dubbed version might be the better choice with all this crazy celebrity musical chairs casting. Robert Kraft puts more conviction into his role than any other English speaking performer in the role of Ken ever has, and while Adam Dudley’s Seiji has been compared to a Dragonball Z villain, I really fail to see how that’s a problem compared to sounding like a girly pop star. The only notable disappointments on the English version are Joseph Paul Sheppard as Sanga and Katie Gilette as Saara, who’s roles are eclipsed almost completely in the original Japanese version by IZHIZUKA Unshou and HINO Yurika, respectively. They both have a certain lack of understanding for the characters they’re playing, with Sheppard’s Sanga being more like a confused madman than a ruthless tyrant, and Gilette simply lacking any emotion in the role, be it excitement or sorrow or… well, much of anything beyond the line itself.

Shin Hokuto no Ken is still a well produced and exciting revival project that coincided with Hokuto no Ken’s 20th anniversary, and for being what it is – an attempt to bring the title to a new audience, it did well enough. The modern animation, revamped soundtrack and… *cough* creative casting brought an audience that would have looked at the classic series as “too old” or even “lame”, and the violence – though ironically, the best gore in the whole series wasn’t carried out by a Hokuto or Nanto master! – is heaped on heavily in the first and third episodes, giving life long fans the violence entertainment we’ve been lacking for so long. The title also brings a new level of sexuality to the title that, despite some brief nudity and mature (read: creepy) situations the original contained, bring sexual desire and assault to the formerly “child friendly” world of Hokuto no Ken. It doesn’t make the title inherently any better or worse, though after 20+ years of Hara drawing unimpressive and forehead-heavy women, it was nice to see SOTOZAKI Haruo, Shin Hokuto no Ken’s character designer, bring a more feminine and elegant touch to the women who have always supported the lead male characters.

There are a multitude of officially licensed DVD editions, and I’ll go over the pro’s and con’s of each for a moment:

The US rights are held by ADV Films, who released Fist of the North Star in two versions: a “single” release in which every hour long OVA was its’ own dual-layer DVD with special features, including original press conferences, dubbing sessions with Gackt and Tokyo Magnum, an interview with the composer, behind the scenes of the English dub, interviews with actual martial artists who comment on how Hokuto Shinken relates to real life fighting styles, and an English language commentary on episode 3. Each volume was available for $30, with Vol. 1 offering a cardboard box to house the whole show in for an additional $10. Less than a year later, ADV offered all 3 episodes on a single dual-layer DVD with no special features of any sort and new cover art for $30. Both versions feature a letterboxed widescreen presentation and 5.1 Dolby Digital Japanese and English audio with optional English subtitles, and fairly clunky looking English episode titles placed over the original kanji titles.

In France OB Planning bought the rights, and released Shin Hokuto no Ken in a fairly unimpressive set of single DVDs which included a 5.1 and 2.0 audio track, with optional French subtitles and only a still gallery as a special feature. The discs are letterboxed PAL and Region 2, and each volume sells for 15 Euros, or a complete box set for 30 Euros. Interestingly, two editions were made available, one being in Japanese only, and the second substituting the Japanese stereo track for a stereo French dub. Both contain French subtitles though, and the packages used different artwork for each version.

In Italy, “Ken Il Gurrerrio – La Trilogia” was released through an Italian distributor Mondo. Each disc featured 2.0 Italian and Japanese audio, and was 4:3 letterboxed PAL and coded for Region 2 playback. Extras included a collection of original Italian trailers (some of which would serve as special features on the ADV release), and booklets talking about the series’ origins in Italian. The price per volume was 25 Euros. These basic editions were later usurped in price by a series of Italian-dubbed only budget DVDs for 12 Euros each, and a deluxe box set that included full bitrate DTS 96KHz/24 bit encoding, Dolby Digital EX 6.1, the 2.0 Italian version played on Italian TV along with the original 5.1 Japanese track, all housed in a handsome art box. Last, and perhaps least, all 3 episodes were also released on CD’s encoded in the DIVX MPEG-4 video codec through EXA Cinema, at 6 Euros per episode or 10 Euros for all 3 in a box set.

In Germany, OVA Films released the series on 3 separate DVD’s for 25 Euros per volume. Each episode came in a cardboard Digipack with a “laser cel” as a bonus, and contained the same extras as the Japanese DVDs – basically the ADV extras, minus the American interviews and Italian previews. Japanese 5.1 Dolby and German 5.1 Dolby and DTS audio were available, as was optional German subtitles. The most striking feature of the German version was the fact that the DVDs were 16:9 anamorphic PAL, unlike all NTSC versions (including the Japanese DVD release) which were letterboxed 4:3. The transfer, despite the increased resolution, is still an NTSC-PAL standards conversion, so how much better it looks has yet to be confirmed with a side by side comparison. While it’s likely the show was animated in high definition, all the DVD releases (aside from this and the next) have been non-anamorphic, and I’ve yet to see any proof that these DVDs didn’t just upscale the non-anamorphic master, which will actually harm the master more than it will improve it.

The last version I know of was the Thai release, which has been fascinatingly mis-translated on several sites selling it as “Fist of the North Star: Theatrical Version Vol. 1-3”. The technical specs indicate that the disc is 16:9 Anamorphic and includes both a 5.1 Thai track and 2.0 Japanese, with Thai, English and Chinese subtitles. Thailand is a PAL country, and the disc is restricted to Region 3 playback. I can only assume the same master as the German DVD was used, and if you can find it (and don’t mind the lack of special features) the price is a fraction of what the German edition usually costs, and includes English subtitles too. A VCD version was also released by the Thai distributor (who’s name I don’t know), which is only in Thai and has no subtitles.

Shin Hokuto no Ken is a somewhat flawed series, though this can be said of the original macho-marinated and sometimes cheaply animated TV series as well. Fans of Hokuto no Ken will enjoy it, and people who couldn’t get into the TV series due to its vintage might find themselves enjoying this modern day sequel instead. Besides, without it we’d probably have never seen the 2006 revival effort…

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