The Guiding Light of The Fist of the North Star
An original article about the history of Hokuto no Ken, written by Russell “Kentai” Smith
Part 1 of 5 – The World of the Fist of the North Star
“You are already dead!!”
Her voice rings out across a battlefield of fallen villages, their blood staining the sand between the buildings shattered and cracked after the war. She’s a tiny girl, held in the raised hands of a massive thug, he and his forces having ravaged the front lines of this peaceful village that lives in fear of its well being taken by men like him. The man she calls out to, dressed in a torn leather jacket and jeans, walks through the corpses with rage in his eyes. Three of the punks who aided their leader, a man just called “Z”, stand in his way.
The man named Ken looks at these three men, and cracks his knuckles. “Get out of my way”, he tells them simply. Not fans of being mocked, the three savages launch themselves at Ken, clubs and axes in hand, but he pays them no mind. With a single swing of his long leg, each one of them is smacked in the face, and without looking back he leaps over them, continuing on as if they never existed.
“What was that?” one of them asks, and the rest all prepare to leave their mark on Ken’s flesh… when they stop short, and shouting incomprehensible sounds of pain, their heads literally bloat and explode, as if a small bomb were shoved into their skull. From the sidelines of this hell on earth, the elder of this small village gasps, and mutters to himself ‘Could it be, Hokuto Shinken?’
Z stares blankly at his fallen comrades, and as Ken tells him to put the girl down, he bellows that Ken must be the one responsible for having killed his men. Without waiting for Z to take his frustration out on the small girl, a sweet and once mute child named Rin, he launches an attack of his own, his hands becoming blurs that strike Z in an endless volley of punches, chops and pokes, shouting “Atatata!” with every hit. Rin falls, and is caught in Ken’s outstretched arms.
Z gets up, seemingly unfazed by Ken’s strange assault. “Your little fists feel like mosquito bites!” he shouts, raising his arms to deliver a crushing blow that would be powerful enough to crush a lesser man’s head into nothing. Ken never even bothers to look back at his enemy.
“You’re already dead” is all that he tells Z, and sure enough, before his enemy can strike a fatal blow his entire body begins to rupture from the inside out, chunks of his brains and vital organs staining the sky crimson and his skeleton tries to escape through his skin, literally turning inside-out in a surreal display of power and justice.
The year is 199X. The man, known just as Ken to those close to him, is the master of Hokuto Shinken. And nothing in this world, no matter the odds, can stand in his way.
You’ve just been struck by the Fist of the North Star.
We Are Living, Live in These 80’s!
The forerunner of “Violence Entertainment Anime”, Hokuto no Ken – or Fist of the North Star, as it’s commonly known in English – was a savage melting pot of bloody entertainment that ushered in a new age of splattering gore, post apocalyptic chic, and superhuman martial arts in the mid 1980’s.
Originally a manga that began publication in Shounen Jump magazine in 1983, Hokuto no Ken became a success big enough to run for 6 years, and have a TV series that adapted roughly 24 of the 27 books of content (the last 2 short stories of which have never been animated). There was also a theatrical anime movie in 1986, a slew of videogames, action figures, and other various marketing tie-ins, and most importantly it started a general revolution in creating a more mature and flexible standard by which animation could be created. It’s arguable that without Hokuto no Ken, the world would have never seen other 80’s titles like Dragonball, Saint Seiya, Guyver, Violence Jack: Harlem Bomber, or countless more modern titles like Elfen Lied, Gantz and Blood+.
Despite its love for violence and mayhem – the series is about head-exploding, eye gouging, spine crunching, and limb-slicing martial arts after all – Hokuto no Ken was very much a morality play more than it was violence without rhyme or reason. Inspired by karate and samurai films of the 1970’s, Italian westerns of the 1960’s, and Australian and Hollywood action movies of the 1980’s Hokuto no Ken combined Japanese aesthetic and heroism, Chinese fighting styles and mysticism, and Western settings and showmanship to create a unique and memorable series which kept its heart rooted in love and justice, all the while never being afraid to set things right with the crushing power of a balled fist to some jerk’s face.
The general story begins in 199X (an unspecified time in the 1990’s), in which the world has been leveled by nuclear war. Most modern technology has become useless, and the most precious recourses – formerly cash, jewels, iPods and what have you - have been usurped in importance by clean water and fresh food. In this desperate time chaos has once more taken hold of the world, and warlords rule over the common people as slaves as they see fit. It’s in these troubled times that a man named Kenshirou, the man with seven scars in his chest and the master of the Hokuto Shinken style, must wage war with those around him once friend and foe alike.
Ken isn’t alone in his battle against the world, however. Aside from Bat and Rin, a pair of kids he inadvertently took up protecting, he fights alongside Rei, Shuu, and Fudou (among several others), masters of the Nanto Seiken style of martial arts. Hokuto Shinken, the Holy Fist of the North Dipper (ie: Ursa Major – mistranslated as “North Star” in the late 1980’s to make the title sound more appealing) is a style based upon driving your ki, or life energy into tsubo, 708 pressure points around the human body. When done properly, this technique can alleviate pain, help the blind see and even bring voices back to the mute… but the style is also incredibly deadly, and with the right combination of tsubo the unfortunate opponent’s body can literally rupture and explode, be forced to convulse, or in some extreme cases convince an uncooperative thug to speak his mind. This style of over the top violence helped Hokuto no Ken get some early attention, though it was its attention to likable characters and a compelling story that kept viewers long after the shock of seeing someone’s body tear in half had worn thin.
Certain forms of karate (and other carious martial arts) are specifically based upon pressing tsubo across the body, so while the results of Hokuto no Ken are exaggerated, they are based at least somewhat on fact. Similarly, the various styles of Nanto Seiken, the opposing school of Hokuto Shinken with 102 masters and the Nanto Roku Sei (or “Nanto Six Stars”, those chosen to carry on the legacy of the 6 most powerful styles in the name of their Nanto star). The five Nanto Stars who join the fray – Shin, Rei, Yuda, Shuu and Souther – all use unique and powerful styles that relate to the characters on some personal level. Hokuto no Ken’s view of martial arts may be less than realistic in general (where’s the fun in realistic martial arts animated?), but I think their treatment of the material, that they were a path to enlightenment and ruin, is perfectly acceptable and exciting none the less.
While every form of Nanto Seiken (South Dipper Saint Fist) is indeed different, they all share the common ground of turning one’s ki into a deadly force, the users’ hands becoming deadly blades with the power to impale, dismember, or in more impressive cases simply cut the opponent as if they were struck with an egg slicer. As Hokuto Shinken was created by the Hokuto Souke ruling line on the island of Asura to protect their ancient bloodline, Nanto Seiken was created to guard the 6 gates of the Empire. Hokuto Shinken, unlike most Nanto techniques, is only to be passed from father to one son, and anyone who fails to become Hokuto successor would have their fists broken, and their memories erased. This tradition would hold true until 199X.
In days long since past, it was said that Hokuto and Nanto must form an alliance in times of chaos, to work towards a better tomorrow. Hokuto no Ken is seemingly in constant battle with this concept, with wicked Nanto Seiken masters being brought to justice through Kenshirou’s struggle, and equally righteous men being killed off in the name of power and conquest by Kenshirou’s two wicked brothers.
Hokuto no Ken continued to thrive and be a success for a number of years not merely because of shock value or moral preaching, but primarily because the series continued to evolve and change, bringing in new concepts and characters on a regular basis. These concepts, similarly, began to change and shift with the mood and concept of the series. For instance, in the first part of Hokuto no Ken 2 (the second series of the anime, and about 3/5 through the manga) electricity and even currency has returned to at least one major city. The power is made by generators turned solely by slave labor, and the money is doled out to bounty hunters for bringing in defectors of the Hokuto Army set on giving water back to the people, turning even the structure of the modern age itself into a symbol of wickedness and excess. Hokuto no Ken reinforces the concept that only water and food, the elements that continue life, are the only absolute powers in the world. Well… that, and Hokuto Shinken, perhaps.
A History of Violent Comics
Hokuto no Ken, despite changing the face of animation the world over into the chisled and unwavering face of a hero hell bent on righting wrongs through hard and fast brutality. But Ken, and the supporting cast of heroes and villains, wouldn’t be there without a rich and varied history of other “brutal heroes” in manga before him.
Perhaps the biggest change in manga was the late 1960’s, which gave the Japanese PTA an enemy against morality and good taste that everyone could agree was worth fighting against: GO Nagai. Starting with Sci-Fi ninja pot boilers like Kuro no Shishi (Black Lion) and bawdy high school sex comedies like Harenchi Gakuen (Lewd School), he quickly made a name for himself as a controversial creator who combined graphic violence and suggestive innuendo in the name of children’s entertainment. Parents may have hated him, but kids loved him, and in the early 70’s Go’s storytelling was stretched into new and more mature ways, with the creation of the epic horror title Devilman, for which he’s best known in the West, as well as starting the 70’s mecha craze with Mazinger Z and Getter Robo. The most relevant creation to Hokuto no Ken, however, is without a doubt Violence Jack, the tale of a huge beast-like man who wanders the remains of Japan after a massive earthquake was said to have opened the very gates of Hell. In 1986, the first of 3 Violence Jack OVA’s would be released, Harlem Bomber Hen (aka Slumking), and in many ways was patterned off of the Hokuto no Ken TV series. Later episodes, including Jigoku Tai Hen (Evil Town) and Hell’s Wind, would become far more brutal and disturbing than Hokuto no Ken ever would.
Similarly, the late 1960’s gave Japan its’ first ever wrestling superhero, Tiger Mask. A manga in 1968, and a TV series that started in 1969, Tiger Mask was the first Japanese costumed hero to deliver bone crunching moves against his opponents in animated form. Tiger Mask also garnered a sequel in 1981, with the original TV series lasting a respectable 105 episodes (with Tiger Mask II only lasting 33 episodes). While watching grappling in a ring seems pretty tame by today’s standards, it was a shocking step towards the modern age nearly 40 years ago. The trend for in your face sports titles would continue in the form of feel good drama titles, like Ashita no Joe in 1970, Captain Tsubasa in 1983, Slam Dunk in 1993, and even Hajime no Ippo in 2000.
Hokuto no Ken owes another manga adaptation a good deal of credit, though this title has never been animated. The Kozure Okami (Lone Wolf and Cub) film series, based on the KOIKE Kazuo and KOJIMA Goseki manga, ran from 1972 to 1974 across 6 feature films, before being released in a heavily re-written and re-edited form known as Shogun Assasin in 1980. While the samurai by nature were deadly warriors who were known to cut their opponents in half with the tempered blade of a katana, the jidai geki (or period costume drama) genre had prior always shown Japanese swordsmanship to be an elegant, bloodless affair through popular television serials and film adaptations like Yojimbo and Zatoichi. OGAMIi Ito, the titular lone wolf, was a just and righteous man who, his child Daigoro ever by his side, dealt a swift and brutal end to those who stood outside the lines of good and evil, becoming a demon himself to put a stop to demons around him. The popular film series remains one of the most shockingly violent 1970’s samurai film, with duel compositions carefully setup between two halves of a head split down the middle, and blood spraying as fiercely as in the now infamous Koroshiya-1 (Ichi the Killer) live action feature.
Kenshirou himself is very much a fusion of many of these heroes before him, with more than a slight nod to the ultra-macho wave of action films in Hollywood that, ironically, both started and ended their reign of popularity with the popular gritty post-modern action film First Blood in 1982, ending in the testosterone addled cheese fest that was Rambo III in 1988. Likening Kenshirou, or even Hokuto no Ken’s aesthetic as a whole to just one cinematic leading man or series is seemingly fruitless, and with an influx of action packed TV shows, pro-wrestlers, emerging video games and an endless influx of historical and fantastic inspiration, Hokuto no Ken created characters that could look like Conan the Barbarian wearing armor patterned after Attila the Hun who’s general, a gigantic whip-wielding Spartan leads armies of Persian “Immortal” warriors (using Roman weapons) against Mongolian nomads led by a Chinese pirate who uses a secret sumo breathing techniques to literally turn his flesh into iron, only to have his metal body shattered by Conan the Hun, who never bothers to dismount from his horse. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But that’s exactly what the battle in the 1986 anime movie between Raou and the Fang Family amounts to. Hokuto no Ken is historical and inspirational madness, focused beyond all logic to give an exciting and always surprising twist on familiar concepts.
HARA Tetsuo and Buronson vs. ASHIDA Touyo
Let it not be said that ASHIDA Touyo wasn’t the right man to adapt Hokuto no Ken into a weekly television program as general director. While the first 22 episodes had a lot of issues – in particular the restructuring of events in making Shin the third villain, instead of the first, as well as a lot of one-shot “filler” villains meant to effectively double the length of the first story arc – there were many positive qualities, in particular the vocal cast, soundtrack, and the clear dedication to the source material… when they weren’t making something new up, at least.
With KAMIYA Akira in the titular role of Ken, Hokuto’s fist, his deep and stoic voice brought a level to the character that the written word could only begin to convey in the same way. Several other notable voice actors joined the cast – FURUKAWA Torisho as Shin, SHIOZAWA Kaneto as Rei, and UTSUMI Kenji as Raou just to name a few – every one of them breathing an undeniable sense of life into the series that could have fallen flat without them. Watching the title dubbed into other languages, of course, brings new interpretations on the characters, some of which are justified and none too shabby, while others are but pale imitations of the world so beautifully brought to the TV screen in Japan the first time around.
The soundtrack, similarly, brought a new layer to the series that the source material lacked completely. AOKI Nozomu created a score that combined the various genre that Hokuto no Ken pulled its’ core inspirations from – kung fu and karate cinema provided a rumbling and powerful bass, westerns gave us arid and lonesome string pieces, and perhaps most importantly is the presence of romanticism that resonates from the characters themselves, and their never ending struggle to defend the people they care the most for. The sound of Hokuto no Ken as a whole is perfectly in tune with the visuals, and while I in many ways prefer the manga version to the weekly TV show, I can’t deny that the audio end is something I wish the manga could somehow be combined with, because it was simply such a perfect fit.
But Ashida did far more directing the series than apply sound to the images: the animation itself, while somewhat dated by the standards of modern digital animation, were a constant stylistic struggle to keep the show both looking polished, but still within budget. Early episodes would often feature lengthy still shots of Kenshirou walking against the sun using optical tricks to make the image appear to be warping in the heat, and the graphic head explosions – both to keep censors happy and to keep expenses down – would often be a dark silhouette exploding white “blood” against a red background. Later episodes would actually paint a face on various animation cels, and then photograph them before they were dry, pulling the various layers against each other to make faces “melt” and “tear” as a special effect for the results of Hokuto Shinken. This technique saved a lot of money, and in many instances – such as the battle with Jagi – ends up looking impressive and very unique.
I could bitch about some of the lesser aspects of the anime: such as both Bat and Lin having larger roles, including Bat getting a souped up dune buggy and Lin a puppy. Sometimes they would do a “recap” episode, in which a character would reminisce over past episodes in a last ditch effort for Toei to stretch time and money before animating another full. If I really wanted to I could berate it for all the dumb filler villains, like a guy who launched himself out of a cannon with a floret raised. (Yawn.) And God save me if I ever have to watch the episode again with Zaria, a crazy Shinto priest who turns a town into zombies using church bells and sends an army of headless KKK members after Kenshirou. I swear I’m not making that up. Still, cheesy plotlines that don’t go anywhere for an episode or two basically come with the territory of weekly kids’ shows in Japan, in part because the animation is usually produced at the same time as the manga, and when the TV show catches up… well, there’s nothing left to animate. It’s very, very rare for Japan to take a break and come back a year later with a second season (though it can happen – Tsubasa: RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE comes to mind), since investors are no longer certain that fans will still want to watch the show a year later. Tastes change, after all. So if we’re to complain about the original content in the Hokuto no Ken TV show, we might as well complain that it exists to begin with. Besides, the filler material gets far less… well, dumb, after the first chapter ends episode 22.
Besides: Hokuto no Ken 2 was pretty dumb on its own without Ashida giving Hara and Buronson any help.
YOU ÇÕ SHOCK! …So, you are shocked? You are shocking? Seriously, what?!
One of the more memorable things the TV series gave Hokuto no Ken was its soundtrack, and along with that came various theme songs, all of which helped Hokuto no Ken find its place and attitude with the viewer. All of them featured “Engrish” phrases – something that’s become commonplace in anime over the last 20 years – and in many ways continue in the vein of presenting modern music with traditional sounding vocals. If further proof is needed that I believe this music to be not only a major component of the series, but also good music besides, let it be said that I quoted a line from Ai wo Torimodose!! in my wedding vows.
Seriously, I did: “Ore to no Ai wo mamoru tame, omae wa tabidachi. Ashita wo miushinatta. Hohoemi wasurete kao na dou, mitaku wa nai sa, Ai wo Torimodose!!”
The (mostly) accurate translation that I gave to guests was “You left on a journey to protect our love, even though you lost sight of tomorrow. I don’t ever want to see your face without a smile… I will take back our love.”
My family figured I was insane, but my wife didn’t mind, even knowing what it was from. That’s love, ladies and gentlemen.