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Saturday, May 5, 2007

Fist of the North Star Week Finale!

Thanks again to Russ for such a great week!

Part 5 – Hokuto no Ken Will Never Die

Appreciating the Classic: How to see the 1986 Fist of the North Star Movie

As I’ll make no attempt to hide, I sincerely believe the 1986 Toei animated feature to be the single most amazing piece of Hokuto no Ken entertainment in the near 25 years of the franchise. Unfortunately the title has been out of print for years in many countries the world over, so I’ll go over the available editions of both the 1986, and 2003 OVA’s – as well as some interesting facts concerning their release.

The 1986 Movie was released before the end of the first TV series in Japan (sometime between 1986-1987), on VHS, BETA and Laserdisc. The tape format releases were in fullscreen, the Laserdisc in widescreen. The LD also had an original theatrical trailer for the feature as an extra.

There are some misconceptions about this feature (and most other Toei movies from the 1980’s and 90’s), the most notable being the “proper” aspect ratio for Hokuto no Ken. Truth be told, almost all animation – short of it having the budget of a Ghibli film – was shot on silent 16mm film, which has a native aspect ratio of 1.48:1. This ratio is somewhat wider than a standard 4:3 TV set, though it’s notably less wide than a widescreen 1.78:1 HTDV set, which is in turn just slightly less wide than a standard 1.85:1 Japanese theater screen. While films are shot in a wide variety of aspect ratios, the most common for America and Japan are 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 (the latter of which is “scope”, often given to ‘epic’ or ‘action’ films). Toei animated virtually all of their theatrical features at 1.48:1, and then either cropped the top and bottom for Japanese theaters, or cropped the sides for video. All of the action would be framed in the center of the screen, to be sure that nothing important (like the top of someone’s head) would be lost on the big screen. Meanwhile the video version would have more information, though a hand full of Toei features have since revealed unfinished animation that, on the big screen, would have been cropped right out.

Even more interesting/frustrating is the fact that the Toei LD is cropped to 1.56:1, a ratio slightly wider than the negative, but not nearly as wide as a 1.85:1 theatrical print would be. As such, it’s not the “original” aspect ratio… and as various 4:3 versions have proven, it’s not the most opened up ratio either. Simply put, the LD is matted to make it “feel” more theatrical rather than to hide any flaws or fix any awkward framing. The feature looks fine in either ratio, and unless you’re watching it in scope via a PC’s DVD player cropping 50% of the picture out or something, it really isn’t worth worrying about.

While I’m on the subject of the feature film, I might as well try and fix one niggling little misconception: it’s been rumored for years that after the theatrical release, Japanese parents threw a fit and demanded that the film be censored for video. This is meant to explain why there’s a strange purple “blur” over many of the Hokuto Shinken and Nanto Suichou Ken scenes (such as when Kenshirou kills Z, the big thug with 666 tattooed on his forehead). If the censorship was really there due to concerns of censorship, it would most likely have been applied at the video editing stage, when the different reels of film were converted to video. Well, the US release through Streamline Pictures was mastered from a film print, and used an “earlier” production print of the feature, as there were no optical credits in Japanese over the opening or ending sequences. What this implies is that the blurry “censorship” was actually there on the film negative, rather than an effect applied at the last minute. Based on this, I have to assume that the theatrical versions were just as censored as the actual release. This was a feature for middle school children after all, and for comparison remember KITAMURA Ryuhei’s ultra-violent-ultra-cool action movie Versus (2000) got a PG-12 rating in Japan (12+), but still had to be edited by about a minute for a Restricted rating in the United States (17+). I think these rumors have persisted in part because of some unfinished, but uncensored footage found on the original theatrical trailer included on the 1987 Laserdisc release. But really – if the movie was ever censored, why would Toei bother editing the feature and not the original trailer?

Sorry to burst any bubbles with this theory, but I think the only way we’ll see an “uncensored” print of this movie is if somebody kept a workprint of the finished gore animation before the optical filtering.

In North America, Fist of the North Star was released on VHS in 1992, with a Laserdisc release through Image Entertainment bearing the copyright “1986”, with no mention of when the LD itself came out. The print used for these transfers has a very different color balance than the Japanese version, with a much warmer, more “red” tint to the feature. Flesh tones look a bit too orange, but they no longer look washed out or pale either. The print used was the US version of the feature, with English credits and a dub-only soundtrack, even on the LD port released on DVD in 1998. This title went out of print soon after, and both the LD and DVD are highly prized among collectors.

In France, a “Collector’s Edition” of Ken Le Survivant: Le Film was released in 2001 featuring HARA Tetsuo cover artwork. This PAL, R2 DVD was re-released in 2003, dropping the “Collectors” banner and featuring TV series artwork as the cover, despite the same disc being inside the case. This version features the 4:3 Japanese transfer of the film, and the option of watching the film in either French or Japanese with French subtitles. I’ve heard rumors that there is only French audio during the ending of the film and French credits, though not having seen the disc in action I’m honestly not certain. A Laserdisc was also released in 1996.

Fist of the North Star arrived on VHS (and VCD!) courtesy of Manga Entertainment in the UK circa 1992. It featured a sticker sheet, as well as the kanji title on the box. No LD or DVD versions were ever released in the UK, though the BBFC 18 rated version was identical to the US unrated version anyway.

In Germany, both VHS and LD versions of the theatrical film were available through Manga Entertainment, a company that soon learned it was far easier and more profitable to just buy the rights to whatever title they wanted for Europe as a whole, and then sub-license it off to local licensors. The German dubbed version of Fist of the North Star has never been made available on DVD. The Laserdisc was released through Laser Paradise, as was an uncut German dubbed version of AKIRA and Wicked City (Youjuu Toshi). It was granted an FSK-18 rating, and released uncut.

A VHS release of Ken Il Gurriero – Il Film was released in Italy. It has yet to be released on DVD, and I’m not aware of any LD release either.

In Korea, the Hokuto no Ken movie was released on DVD by Hongdangmoo, and fascinatingly there was an effort to remaster the video. Unfortunately, Korea was given the same 4:3 video master that was provided to France, which was made in the late 1980’s and features composite video artifacts, like cross coloration (“rainbows”) and dot crawl. A comb filter was applied to the video before encoding, which got rid of much of the visible artifacts at a slight softening of the general video. The loss is no worse than the gain, and as it stands the Korean R3 DVD remains the best version of the 1986 movie available on DVD today. The colors are very similar to the Toei LD, though the LD had a strange issue with boosted contrast, which is not an issue here. Sadly, no Korean dub was made (though both Korean and Japanese subtitles are included), and the only extras include some Korean text pieces, including an explanation of various Hokuto and Nanto styles played over clips from the feature itself. This is also the only DVD release to feature the “International” ending in Japanese. It comes packaged in a clear keepcase and a nice glossy slipcover, with the Japanese and Korean titles featured prominently, and the English title “HOKUTO NO KEN, Ken the Great Bear Fist”, and even an English quite from! Most odd is that the technical details and menus are all in English, and they even say the disc is a single-layer DVD when it’s actually a dual-layer disc. One of the few times I don’t mind my package being inaccurate, I must say.

Various pirate versions also exist on DVD, including a somewhat decent English subtitled version from “Manga International”, which recorded the Toei LD to a single layer DVD and put on slightly mis-timed but otherwise decent English subtitles. Unfortunately, the print is also watermarked with the “MI” logo once per chapter or so. There’s another shoddy release that features both the English dubbed version, and the Japanese version (taken from a VHS tape) with burned-in Chinese subtitles on a single-layer DVD. This version is utterly worthless, and looks even worse than the now difficult to find version with only the Chinese subtitled print taking up a single-layer disc.

There was a legit (I think…?) Thai dubbed VideoCD release a few years ago of the 1986 feature, and while I wouldn’t doubt that more legit media exists, this is the extent of them that I’m aware of. Of the still available DVD releases now, the Korean version seems to be the best of the lot: it uses a dual-layer DVD-9, doesn’t have any forced subtitles, and at around $20 USD retail it won’t make you go broke like the Image DVD or Toei LD will on eBay. If you need a subtitled version, that the Japanese language/English subtitled pirate DVD is the only option to buy, but as Heart of Madness subtitled that same DVD master, just download it from them instead.

The New Legend of the Savior

Starting in 2006, North Star Films began a brand new series of feature films, with a planned 3 theatrical films and 2 OVAs. The role they fill is one of half remake, half re-envisioning of the franchise from the ground up. As of this writing the first theatrical film and OVA are available on DVD in Japan, and the second theatrical feature has premiered, but as of yet hasn’t been released on DVD. This new series is known as Shin Kyuuseishuu Densetsu (The New Savior Legend), and insofar takes place during the original storyline, adding new characters and scenes to existing storylines, as well as streamlining some characters completely. These films stand alone, but will also appeal to life long fans of Hokuto no Ken.

In the spring of 2006, Raou Den: Junai no Shou (Raou Legend: The Chapter of Martyred Love) was released into Japanese theaters as a PG-12 action feature which, despite the title, features Souther as the central villain. This new film introduces a 21st century aesthetic to the world of Hokuto no Ken, with the war of 199X playing like pixilated night vision footage we’ve all seen on the news from recent Middle Eastern conflicts, sawn off shotguns are now in the possession of random punks who roam the wastelands, the gray skies now leak dreary rain across the desert sands, and most impressively, Toki and Raou can carry on a conversation without immediately trying to take one another’s lives.

While the cast is once again new, we’re mercifully spared pop stars and pro wrestlers, and while I’m not personally a fan of UKAJI Takashi’s Raou, I’m fairly impressed by ABE Hiroshi’s Kenshirou, and while I can’t believe it myself I think I prefer OUTSUKA Akio’s Souther. The action set pieces, while far removed from the spaghetti westerns that inspired Ashida, now bring with them the careful composition of lighting, color, and emotion more comparable to the candy-colored horror films of Dario Argento, or even the martial arts epics of Zhang Yimou. Having only seen the DVD version (marketed as a Director’s Cut), I don’t know what footage was removed from the theatrical version… but assuming it had the scene an hour in, in which Kenshirou revives underground and smashes through Souther’s soldiers set to the 2006 version of Ai wo Torimodose!!, all is well. If you can watch this sequence and not excited, you really have absolutely no reason to watch any Hokuto no Ken. Or anything good, for that matter.

With a second Raou film currently in theaters, and a Yuria Den OVA currently available on DVD, this represents only 3 out of 5 of the expected New Savior Legend material: this fall a Toki Den OVA is expected, and the cinematic trilogy will end with a Kenshirou Den next Spring. While Shin Hokuto no Ken went a long way in introducing new fans to Hokuto no Ken, I don’t think it truly brought Hokuto no Ken to a new level of cinematic greatness. While I have some issues with Raou Den: Junai no Shou, I’d be lying if I didn’t say the epic and artistic qualities, coupled with the best of modern animation techniques, didn’t make for an immensely satisfying vision that Ashida and Toei could have only dreamed of in the series’ heyday of 20 years ago.

As Raou, Rei, and Yuria-centric manga appear in weekly and monthly magazines, merchandising continues to flourish, ranging from T-shirts to pachisolo slot machine and arcade style fighting games to action figures and everything else in between. While Hokuto no Ken may not be as big now as it was 2 decades prior, both its place in modern Japanese pop culture, and the nostalgia from those who watched the show as a child originally, have brought the series to what 5 years ago I would have assumed would be nothing short of ridiculous heights. Hokuto no Ken may not compare to the voracious fandom of more modern and specifically otaku-oriented titles (just say “Haruhi” around certain people and watch the fun unfold…), but to those who remember, or just want to experience it for the first time, Hokuto no Ken is an unsurpassed and epic piece of entertainment.

They Say That Imitation…

As I noted above, Hokuto no Ken inspired a whole generation of animation, not the least of which was the start of notably violent shounen (young male) animation in Japan. Saint Seiya, Dragonball, and several other titles collectively seen as “fighting anime” flourished in the years following the debut of Hokuto no Ken, and with the OVA now a viable way to release titles directors were free to bring the aesthetic of Hokuto no Ken beyond what TV censors would allow, leading to titles that seemed poised to out-offend the latest competition. The sentai hero was revived in the guise of a ceaselessly violent slayer of rubber suit monsters in Bio-Boosted Armor Guyver: Out of Control, the western was once again re-envisioned – but this time as an action packed horror film in the form of Vampire Hunter D, machismo was squared and then combined with aliens in Battle Royal High School, a Rambo look-alike was sent on a mission to recover a cure for AIDS in Dog Soldier, violence and sexuality were pushed to the utmost brink in the never ending Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend saga, and literal adaptations of Go Nagai manga, among them Shutendouji, Devilman, Violence Jack, and the early works of controversial KAWAJIRI Yoshiaki, like Goku: Midnight Eye and Wicked City may not have ever appeared, had Hokuto no Ken not proven to producers that there was a market hungry for violent animation that broke all boundaries before it. I can’t give Hokuto no Ken all the credit for 80’s anime, though: let us not forget that Kinnikuman (M.U.S.C.L.E.), a macho comedy about professional wrestling, started a year before Hokuto no Ken and also lasted for 5 years.

Perhaps the one title that owes more to Hokuto no Ken than any other is RIKI-OH, a manga that, having started in the mid 1980’s, brought Hokuto no Ken’s love for violence and hard bodies to ridiculous new heights. With flaming homosexuals, one-eyed one-handed perverts, bloated cannibals, and drooling yakuza inmates peddling drugs from inside prison, Riki-Oh, a just student who allowed himself to be caught after slaughtering a pusher in the streets of Tokyo. Punching through his opponents and breaking their heads (quite literally), Riki-Oh would growl that he had come to deliver these villains their Karma before delivering their just deserts. If there was any doubt that this title was completely insane, it can be put to bed the moment the crooked warden turns into a hulking, snarling monster. RIKI-OH is the most blatant Hokuto no Ken knockoff the world has ever seen, yet it has a dumb charm of its own, particularly in the live action Hong Kong adaptation Story of Ricky, which wasn’t afraid to keep all the wanton violence, and even stole some plot points (such as the loss of his lover) from Hokuto no Ken directly. A pair of OVA’s were created in 1989 and 1990, and while the first episode is a decent production that never goes nearly as over the top as the source material, the second episode was an under-funded literal adaptation of the manga, which has been called “the worst anime ever made” by’s resident expert John.

It’s a hard call to argue.

Hokuto no Ken has also been lovingly ripped off in the art of the spoof, among them a girl student in Project A-Ko who looks like Ken in a skirt, an episode in which the title character GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka is incognito as Kenshirou (and Doraemon!?), and even an entire episode of Excel Saga dedicated to the post-apocalyptic world of Hokuto no Ken, complete with the ACROSS style of martial arts, which makes thugs explode and turn in to… Di Gi Charat style mascots. Even the episode of South Park, Fun With Weapons, features a general spoof of action anime with character designs not too far off from Hokuto no Ken and the various titles it helped to create.

While modern day anime might seem to not have anything to do with Hokuto no Ken’s glory years, let us not forget that the ultra-violent Sci-Fi title GANTZ includes a flashback with two lead characters as children, saying “you’re just like Kenshirou, and I can be Gokuu!” It becomes harder to connect Hokuto no Ken to much later titles, but tie parallels between Hokuto no Ken and other more modern TV shows like Baki the Grappler and Berserk become almost too easy. More than anything, Hokuto no Ken created an aesthetic that led to more mature anime, an aesthetic that would mature and grow without it. Animation is now produced for seinen audiences (young adults) directly, and with Japanese audiences having mostly gravitated towards moe shows, cutesy and oft endlessly suggestive titles with fluff storylines and cute female protagonists, brutal and manly anime is a less profitable venture than it once was. (Though even moe can become incredibly dark and twisted if only as a vicious irony of the genre, if Elfen Lied and Higurashi: When They Cry are any measure.) Still, Hokuto no Ken continuing to have OVA’s and features produced into 2008 proves that the market for such material hasn’t vanished yet, and I can only hope that in the coming months that international markets will be able to buy officially translated versions of the New Savior Legend saga.

Don’t Kill the Fight

While Hokuto no Ken has never been more than a cult favorite in America (and now nostalgia for European audiences), it’s a sorely overlooked title in my eyes. Not everyone in the world can fully appreciate 152 episodes of head-popping manliness, but for those with a thirst for iconic justice dealt by the strongest man to survive the nuclear war, Hokuto no Ken is a no brainer.

I’ve been a fan of Hokuto no Ken since I first watched Carl Macek’s dub of the movie about a decade ago, and seeing an accurate translation of the Japanese script in English was one of the many things that convinced me I should start seeking out unedited foreign films. I owned a pirate copy of the Hokuto no Ken movie before I owned a DVD player, and my prized 27 volume tankou book version of Buronson and Hara’s original manga was what convinced me to start learning Japanese. This has led me to a part-time career with a niche film distributor, timing and editing – and more recently translating – foreign films for US distribution. It’s not the most glamorous or profitable career, but it’s one that I really enjoy, and one that I don’t think I would have ended up in without having learned the word “Hokuto Shinken”.

Hokuto no Ken has never been a huge success in North America, and there’s a multitude of reasons for that, not the least of which is that it’s fundamentally a violent martial arts title for children. With less graphic anime like One Piece and Dragonball Z still heavily edited to comply with FCC regulations, marketing Hokuto no Ken as entertainment for middle school kids – which is what the title was, in Japan and the rest of the world – simply isn’t an option. Meanwhile, marketing the show to adults who have been jaded by later and works that are more mature, both thematically and more graphic in terms of violence and sex, hasn’t yet been profitable or well received. Certainly Hokuto no Ken has more understanding and respect in the fairly small but vocal fan community in the US, but “respect” doesn’t necessarily equate “fans”. Hokuto no Ken isn’t very easy to run across in the US, and if you’ve even had a taste tracking down more of it can be so frustrating or expensive that it’ll turn off potential fans from putting in the effort to begin with. Hokuto no Ken is a title that requires a little patience and dedication, with amazing rewards for those with an appreciation for it.

I’ve spoken several times of aesthetic, and I think what I’m speaking of requires a little clarification. Certainly the gaudy images of shirtless men standing in crumbling cities covered in gore and staring down their opponent set to a combination of 70’s funk and 80’s rock is an aesthetic into itself the likes of which the world had never seen before. But more than that is the sense of justice, and hope that Hokuto Shinken carries with it beyond the battles. Kenshirou wasn’t a selfish individual: every blow he struck in the story was to save those around him, without fear of his own death. In even the first story, Kenshirou was willing to rot in a village prison, and didn’t bother breaking out of his cell until he was certain that Rin, the only person to have been kind to him since his arrival, would be doomed if he didn’t. Kenshirou’s justice extends beyond those who have been kind to him however, and not long after he saves a farmer from meeting the god of death who clutches a bag of rice seed to his breast as he’s filled with arrows by an arrogant punk who thinks the world belongs to the strong. Kenshirou hears the man speak of ‘tomorrow, not today’ and says that for the first time since he can remember, he feels like he’s met someone human. Hokuto no Ken’s aesthetic is about far more than bronzed fighters beating the bloody hell out of each other. Hokuto no Ken is a tale of justice, a story in which every action is either right and wrong not in what a man does, but why a man does it. Heroes kill just as many men as villains, and what separates them is why they kill. In a world where there is no law, no future, and no justice, what can he do?

He can fight. He can fight to protect the people that he loves, and the morals and values that he thinks are right. Some men, like Ryuuga, fought for what they thought was right even if it meant fighting along those they knew in their heart were wrong. Others, like Shin, fought for what was wrong only because he was convinced that performing acts of evil would do good for the woman he loved. Kenshirou considered both of these men who tried to take his life friends. Kenshirou, and every other true hero in Hokuto no Ken, are men who valued others over themselves, and fought not for fame or power, but to protect the small things that make life worth living. If Hokuto no Ken is truly about anything, it isn’t about gore or wild characters or even martial arts. It’s about the endless struggle of creating a better world, and a better life, no matter how hopeless the world may seem.

“Ore wa ima tatakau.”

I’m fighting. Are you?

- Russell “Kentai” Smith

P.S. – To clarify a few spellings used in this article:

Yuria – Macek went with “Julia”, as ‘Yuria’ is a very archaic katakana spelling of the English name Julia (just as ‘Yuda’ is also an archaic Japanese spelling of Judas). Manga Entertainment went with “Yulia”, a German name. Buronson and Hara have since stated they intended for the name to simply be exotic and not of any particular origin, and thus ‘Yuria’ is the official spelling.

Rin – Similarly, the translation “Lynn” and other spellings have been common in English, but when we consider that A) ‘Rin’ is a Japanese name, and B) that she has a sister named Rui (and “Lui” would be very similar to the name ‘Louie’ in Japanese), I think ‘Rin’ is perfectly appropriate.

Bat – I’m… not sure where the hell “Bart” came from. The name is written as ‘Batto’, not ‘Baato’, which would be “Bart” in katakana. Manga Entertainment was just crazy.

Mind that even “official” translations can get pretty strange. The recent arcade game, for instance, has Souther (spelled ‘Souzaa’ in katakana) spelled as Thouther in English characters. Yes, Thouther. Japan can be silly like that.

This article is © 2007, Russell “Kentai” Smith, and written exclusively for HK and Cult Film DVD News for Fist of the North Star Week. Hokuto no Ken is © Buronson/Tetsuo HARA/Shueisha Corporation, 1983. Hokuto no Ken animation is © Toei Films 1984. All rights reserved.

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