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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Fist of the North Star Week Part 2

Russ continues his in-depth and amazing look at FoTNS

Part 2 of 5 – The Manliest Action Around

The History of Hokuto Shinken

The TV series was broken up into 4 separate story arcs, each one of them given a new pre-credits sequence, and in the final story, a new set of opening and ending themes. The story arcs and episodes they reside in broke down as follows:

Chapter 1: The Bloody Cross (Episodes 01-22)

This first storyline covers the introduction of the lead characters in Rin’s village, the struggle against the GOLAN Red Beret squadron and their tower of illusions, Jackal destroying Bat’s childhood home and summoning Devil Rebirth from Villainy Prison, and ends with Kenshirou’s battle with Shin, King of Southern Cross and of Nanto Souchuu Ken (Nanto Eagle Fist), a madman who gave Kenshirou his signature seven scars and stole his fiancé Yuria.

This portion of the TV series is the most unlike the original manga, and features a lot of silly one-shot stories and events that, given the world the manga created, are simply not logical. Still, it was the start of it all, and is at the very least a well animated and produced TV series for its era.

Theme songs from now to Chapter 3 were provided by Crystal King, a pair of singers who are equally famous for singing the Lupin III theme in the early 70’s. They would return to sing a brand new version of Ai wo Torimodose!! in 2006 for the Raou Den: Junai no Shou movie.

Chapter 2: Wind and Cloud, Dragon and Tiger (Episode 23-57)

Starting at Kenshirou’s meeting with Rei, the Nanto Suichou Ken (Nanto Waterfowl Fist) master seeking a wicked man with Seven Scars, the two of them join forces to protect Mamiya’s village and rescue Rei’s sister Aili from the wild and probably inbred Kiba Ichizoku (Fang Family). After dealing with the Great Fang King, Kenshirou goes off to punish his brother Jagi, a madman who’s mutilated himself to sully Ken’s good name. After dealing with Jagi, Ken learns the whereabouts of his other two brothers: Toki, who has gone from a Christ like healer to experimenting with innocent sickly villagers like a mad scientist, and Raou, who has since dubbed himself Ken-Ou (Fist King) and is slowly conquering the remains of society. Learning Toki was an imposter, Kensirou leads an assault on Cassandra prison to free his kind hearted but radiation sickness riddled sibling*, while Rei fends off Raou’s front line from Mamiya’s village. The saga ends with Rei, wounded from his battle with Raou, using what little time he has left to avenge the Mamiya against the Nanto Koukaku Ken (Nanto Flamingo Fist) master Yuda, a mad transvestite who slaughtered her parents on her 16th birthday and violated her out of jealousy for her remarkable beauty.

Without a doubt, this is the storyline that will be most familiar to those who have seen the movie, since though Toki, Mamiya and Yuda are nowhere to be found, the storylines are basically the same otherwise. The animation budget increased notably from this point, and the violence – though still overly stylish as opposed to detailed – came more to the forefront of the story.

Chapter 3: Order and Chaos (Episode 58-82)

After the death of Rei, Kenshirou begins to wander anew, and finds himself locked in mortal combat with Shuu, the blind Nanto Hakurou Ken (Nanto White Heron Fist) master who sacrificed his own eyes for Ken’s life long before the war. Shuu, a just and kindly man, is waging a war on the Saint Emperor Souther, a cruel and seemingly heartless man who kidnaps children and forces them to work, knowing that more children have less of a chance of revolting against his wishes than fewer adults. Kenshirou joins in the battle, but finds that Hokuto Shinken is useless against Souther’s ancient bloodline. Defeated and imprisoned, Shuu’s own son sacrifices himself to save Kenshirou, knowing in his heart that without him the fight is already lost. Shuu himself becomes a martyr for the cause of protecting tomorrow’s heroes – the children of his village – and Kenshirou, revitalized and with a new strategy, faces off with Souther – master of Nanto Houou Ken (Nanto Phoenix Fist). With Souther finally out of the way, Kenshirou must face off with Yuria’s brother, who claims to have killed Toki. Kenshirou bests Ryuuga’s Taizan Tenrou Ken (Taishan Heaven Wolf Fist), yet Ken soon learns that Ryuuga – now a general in Raou’s army, working towards what he believes is the good of the people – injured himself in the hopes that Kenshirou would be the one to restore order in this savage new world.

Adding new animation techniques to the series, including impressive optical effects for the legendary battle between Kenshirou and Souther atop his master’s pyramid, chapter 3 brought both the technical and storytelling qualities to new levels, once more playing heavy handed morality along with the never ending wave of action and blood. Souther becomes at once the most evil and inevitably sympathetic villain in the series’ long run, and – frustratingly – it ends on a painful note of 5 back to back episodes of remembering the 5 Nanto Grand Masters we’ve been introduced to… two of which were not only from this chapter, but were both present at the exact same time! Ah well, at least it leads us directly to…

Chapter 4: The Final Chapter (Episode 83-109)

Starting with the appearance of Fudou, a massive but kindly Nanto Seiken practitioner, the final stretch of the original Hokuto no Ken TV series introduces the Nanto Goshasei, sworn protectors of the last Nanto Star – the last fighter who’s birthright it is to be considered a Nanto Grand Master. The five warrior Goshasei – Hyui of the Wind, Fudou of the Mountains, Jyuza of the Clouds, Shuren of the Flame, and their general Rihaku of the Sea, protect the final star from harm as Raou’s reformed army slowly approaches the last notable front of the world. While the first two Goshasei – Hyui and Shuren – sacrifice themselves without fail, it isn’t until the normally apathetic Jyuza is willing to sacrifice his own life at the cost of one of Raou’s fists that the prize at hand becomes clear. The final Goshasei, the one warrior to have not fought on the front lines, is none other than Yuria.

Fudou having revealed their well guarded secret to, he and Raou meet in the Goshasei’s fortress, with Raou gaining the upper hand in its’ collapse and taking Yuria. Kenshirou blinded in the battle, Raou cursed himself for nearly dying in a fit of fear at Kenshirou’s ultimate Hokuto technique, the Musou Tensei – a technique mastered by understanding the depths of sorrow, the mastery of which hadn’t been seen in a thousand years. Raou decides to face his fear head on and kill the first man to have ever made him show cowardice: Fudou, the Oni. As a youth, Fudou was a cruel and wicked man who rampaged on and pillaged from the wealthy Nanto families, until Yuria taught him how precious life was. Having given up his devilish ways (the Oni are a mythical Japanese beast not unlike an ogre), Fudou dons his armor once more and faces off with Raou. With Kenshirou rushing to locate both Raou and Yuria through his blindness, he learns that Raou has taken Yuria to the Hokuto’s holy land, the Hokuto Renkitouza. There, blood having washed his eyes clean anew, Kenshirou will face his greatest opponent yet, for his most worthy reward; the hand of his beloved Yuria.

Despite more “filler” villains this chapter, the handling of the saga is overall on par with the third, and features great animation, several vocal songs in the episodes, and a climax that put anything before it the series could offer to shame. Kenshirou and Raou’s struggle remains one of the most impressive parts of the series, and could have served as a perfectly acceptable climax… but Buronson and Hara had far more up their cut off leather sleeves.

Theme songs for this final stretch of episodes were provided by Kodomo Band, including the stoic Silent Survivor in the opening and the strangely romantic Dry Your Tears as the ending. Kodomo Band also provided the original songs for the Hokuto no Ken movie, including the insert “music video” song Heart of Madness, and the bittersweet ending theme Purple Eyes.

Hokuto no Ken 2 (Episode 110-152)

A decade after Kenshirou rode off on Raou’s horse with Yuria, the world is once again a society torn asunder by violence and chaos. The villainous Jakkou has turned the once glorious Gentou Empire into a den of chaos and violence, offering bounties for the capture of radicals of the Hokuto Army, a gang of freedom fighters who fight against the oppressive forces of the Gentou Empire for the miserable people it exploits. When times have reached their darkest, and a grown Bat and Rin have taken to leading the Hokuto army, their savior appears once more. Despite the bounty hunter Ain on Kenshirou’s tail, and Jakkou having the Gentou Kou Ken (Origin Dipper Emperor Fist) master Falco begrudgingly at his disposal, it takes all Ken and the Hokuto Army has got to free the Gentou Empire with his fists.

Having freed the rightful Gentou Empress (Rin’s sister Rui… yeah, you heard me), Kenshirou must journey to the island of Shura, a legendary place of madmen to save his former loli sidekick. Falco accompanies him, and is bested on the beach by one of the many assassins that protect this ancient and brutal land. Kenshirou soon learns that the most dangerous foes he’ll ever face are here, among them the “World King” Kaiou, master of Hokuto Ryuu Ken (Hokuto Lapis Lazuli Fist), and his student Hyou… a man that Kenshirou once called brother.

Without a doubt, Hokuto no Ken 2 is the wildest and most insane part of Hokuto no Ken, introducing characters who are blood brothers to character we’ve known the whole time. Add in a bounty hunter who thinks he’s Elvis, a pair of kind hearted pro wrestlers encased in concrete, a martial arts style based on Persian legend, an Island of Deadly Men, a kindly aborigine demon-servant, a plot to impregnate a character we’ve known since childhood by force, and a climactic battle along the side of a volcano and you’ll begin to understand why Hokuto no Ken 2 is, quite literally, the most awesome anime “evah”. It doesn’t make any sense, and you have CHIBA Shigeru screaming like a coke fiend as narrator, but it’s a small price to pay to get to watch Kenshirou put on a pair of Cobra sunglasses and then go beat up pirates. I’d say I was kidding… but I’m not.

Theme songs for the final Hokuto no Ken TV series were provided by TOM*CAT, a band with primarily female vocals, who’s presence didn’t keep the opening Tough Boy from being hands down the most rowdy song Hokuto no Ken had in it’s musical arsenal. This was, however, evened out by the seemingly throw-away ending theme… Love Song. “I don’t like love, ‘cause I love you.” Huh…?

Hokuto no Ken 2 similarly had 2 story arcs, the Holy Capital and Shura arcs, each with a slightly different opening. These arcs were never given specific start and end points, however.

Ashida would continue directing the series right to the end of Hokuto no Ken 2, including the 1986 theatrical movie, which gave him a chance to revisit much of the material he had completed with bigger budgets and better visual techniques. While the TV series gained quite a bit of popularity in France (as “Ken le Survivant”, Ken the Survivor) and Italy (as “Ken il Gurriero”, Ken the Warrior), America just wasn’t ready for a macho hero that blew up heads in the mid 1980’s, no matter how just he was. At that time Saturday Mornings were dominated generally by fairly awful, predictable tripe like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, and (god forbid) The Smurfs. It wasn’t until the end of the 1980’s that Americans turned to the Far East to get a taste of mature, violent animation… all it took was a little company called Streamline Entertainment, and one movie (then released as “Video Comics”) called AKIRA, to bring anime into America’s hungry pop culture.

Carl Macek: God or Devil?

Perhaps the biggest mistake made in the United States was introducing most Hokuto no Ken fans to the animated movie before much of the original manga or any of the TV series to help give it some context. The movie is amazing, don’t get me wrong, but make no mistake – it was released in March of 1986, perhaps the height of Hokuto no Ken’s popularity. It was intended to be a big, loud, bloody spectacle the likes of which due limited budgets, network censors, and tight schedules the TV series could never quite bring to life the way they had been in the original manga. As such, the feature film, Seikimatsu Kyuseishu Densetsu HOKUTO NO KEN Gekijouban (End of the Century Savior Legend – HOKUTO NO KEN The Movie) was never really meant to be a stand alone feature film (despite adapting the material in a clever way that sums up a lot of the original story without detailing everything), rather it was meant to play as more of a “greatest hits” collection showing off familiar characters and fights with far better animation and no TV centric censorship. This strategy became fairly common in the mid 1980’s, when OVA’s – Original Video Animation (ie: direct to video episodes and movies) – started to appear en masse, and would often take as much of the original manga or novel or, whatever it was based on, and try to cram in as many great scenes as it could while still trying to tell a coherent story. Even AKIRA, the film that started America’s interest in anime as a piece of imported culture rather than as just a funny looking poorly dubbed cartoon, tried vainly to compress far more story than the 2 hour long feature could possibly contain. As such, the Hokuto no Ken movie was exactly what it was supposed to be: a lot of flash, but not as much substance. Viewers in Japan already had the original manga and TV series to fill that need, after all.

For better or worse, Streamline Pictures – Carl Macek’s dubbing studio created to release unaltered Japanese animation directly to the masses, after several years often heavily re-written and notably edited anime releases like Robotech – purchased the rights for, and dubbed, the 1986 movie into English and released it as a stand alone feature film, later licensing the film for release in Europe through Manga Entertainment. Streamline Pictures, for the record, was the very first company specifically created in the West to release anime, and also the first studio to offer Japanese animation in Japanese on home video. For all the atrocities they committed in the name of profit, without Macek there probably wouldn’t be an anime industry in the US… and you probably wouldn’t be reading this now.

Fist of the North Star, as it was now known in the US, had the high quality animation and seemingly mature storytelling that Americans interested in the art form wanted to see. Akira had, without any question, paved the way for more mature titles in the Western world, and Streamline did their beast to cater to this audience with Vampire Hunter D and Fist of the North Star in 1992. While the violence and animation was left intact, the story took an unexpected hit in the English localization, with all mentions of Hokuto Shinken and Nanto Seiken having been deleted, and plenty of helpful dialog that propelled the story forward having been substituted for bad puns and corny performances that, I can only assume, were meant to mock some of the less than impressive English dubs of 1970’s martial arts movies. Some sound elements – particularly the music during the fight with Heart – are almost impossible to hear, and most surprisingly the American version used a completely different version of the films’ ending.

There’s been a lot of contention about which ending was “right”, and while all Japanese VHS, BETA and LD versions have used a poorly edited version of the ending in which Ken and Raou fight to a draw (as they did in the manga version of the story), the US, French and Korean versions have all used an alternate version of the scene in which Raou… y’know, if you’re one of those “OMG spoilers!” people, skip the rest of this paragraph, and the one right after it. Now! *Ahem* The Japanese video version uses the scene in which Raou actually wins the fight, but decides against killing Kenshirou off when Rin walks onto the battle field and talks him out of it. The “Raou Wins” ending was used in the color ‘Anime Comic’ adaptation of the feature film (stills from the film with dialog and sound effects), and having never seen a Japanese 35mm print I can’t be sure what ending Japan actually saw on the big screen. What I do know is that the animation on the Japanese video ending is fairly poor quality, and there are several shots in which Ken has literally been pasted in as an optical effect. As Buronson and Hara wrote the screenplay for the 1986 movie, what gives?

My guess is the “Draw” ending exists solely for the sake of home video, which would explain why the new animation literally looks like it was cribbed from one of the final TV episodes. After all, the VHS and LD releases would have been released shortly before the climax of the original Hokuto no Ken TV series, and playing an ending that sets up Ken and Raou’s final conflict at home would only further point towards a need to see the rest of the weekly series. For whatever reason, Toei has never released the “Draw” ending outside of Japan, and never released the “Raou” ending inside of it.

Between the poor English dub, the general lack of any explanations, and the fact that it could best be described as a “splatter movie for kids” (and it was, make no mistake) Fist of the North Star soon became a cult classic in the US and UK, though it would never even begin to approach the level of respect given to some titles also released by Streamline, among them the aforementioned controversial Sci-Fi thriller AKIRA, the stylish and erotically charged Wicked City, or various MIYAZAKI Hayao pictures (Nadia, Laputa, Castle of Cagliostro, My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service – years before Disney decided to promote his name around as they saw fit). Fist of the North Star just wasn’t a story that could be summed up in 110 minutes with the focus on the visuals the movie afforded… so when the manga or TV series was released in America, it would have to be a hit, right? …right?

…clearly, you see where I’m going with this.

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