Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Fist of the North Starby Jason Thompson, Jul 18th 2013
There was a time when I thought all manga was Fist of the North Star. In my early teens before I'd read manga, when I was at best a video game nerd playing Double Dragon and Ninja Gaiden on the NES, I saw the influence of Fist in a thousand places without realizing it. That square-jawed, ultra-macho art style was everywhere in Japan in the late '80s, and so I had a vague idea that this was simply what all Japanese stuff was like (and here I am now writing this column, so maybe there's hope for your manga-hating friend too). It's hard to remember what manliness meant before Fist.
The year is 199X, or, in later editions of the manga, some nebulous time in the 21st century. ("199X" was once a super useful term; postapocalyptic anime and manga always used to be set then, and once at a party in August 1999, one of my friends complained "How are we going to fit all the events of Fist of the North Star into the next four months?") A nuclear holocaust has destroyed the world, and apparently dried up the oceans, turning the land into an endless desert broken by clusters of ruined skyscrapers like toppled gravestones. Of course, as everyone knew in the '80s, total nuclear war is just a way to clear the slate so man can be men, removing all the baggage of the past like computers, running water and country names.
The postapocalyptic world looks a bit like the prehistoric past in Arnold Schwarznegger's Conan the Barbarian, and as Thulsa Doom says in that movie, "Steel isn't strong, boy! Flesh is stronger!" In the world of Fist, muscle power is everything, and the surviving humans are informally divided into hapless victims and the gangs of enormous, sadistic, leather-wearing goons who enslave and prey on them. There are a few enemies who look like they might have once existed in the 20th century, like the pseudo-fascists in military uniforms early on, but mostly, Fist is its own world and you can't imagine these guys ever having been wage slaves or taxi drivers just a few years ago before the apocalypse. The biggest influence on the overall lookis the 1981 film Mad Max 2, both for the general postnuclear theme and especially for the costumes. The costume designer of Mad Max 2 outfitted the villains with, basically, a mix of punk and gay leather fashion—studded crotch straps, shoulderpads, chainmail, mohawks, feathers, black leather everywhere—with strong implications that these people weren't just postapocalyptic bandits, they were a bunch of kinky sex perverts. The sexual/subculture implications were almost certainly lost on the many '80s anime and manga artists who just loved the look and used it to wardrobe their bad guys.
Fighting these endless waves of scumbags, protecting the innocents, is one hero: Kenshiro, master of martial arts, the man with seven scars on his chest (in the shape of the Big Dipper). He walks alone through the wasteland, usually coming into town just in time to save some poor souls from being robbed and murdered…or at least to avenge them afterwards. Kenshiro is the chosen heir of the Hokuto Shinken martial arts school, which is based on the same principles as acupuncture and uses the pressure points of the body. Beneath his stoic exterior, he's incredibly fast, capable of grabbing arrows in midflight. He's incredibly strong, capable of carving a 20-foot stone block out of the solid rock with his bare hands. He's incredibly tough; In the 1980s anime movie, there's a scene where a skyscraper collapses on Ken as he's walking, and hejust keeps on walking through it.
But his real skill is the ability to use pressure points, activating the "708 vital points of the human body" with the miraculous power to harm or heal. With just a touch, he can give sight to the blinded, calm the panicked, give speech to the mute. He can also turn people into human puppets, blind them, or make them hypersensitive to pain so they scream at the slightest touch. Most of all he can kill, setting up a time-delayed reaction to cause his opponents' brain, guts or whatever to EXPLODE OUT OF THEIR BODIES seconds after he touches them. The true art of the Hokuto Shinken is to destroy opponents from within, giving them just enough time to repent, making them think they're uninjured until they hear Kenshiro say his signature line: "You're already dead."
If you have to describe Fist to someone in one sentence, that's what you tell them: it's about a martial artist who can just touch people and make their heads explode. Kenshiro and his mind-blowing power is the core creation that made the artist-author team of Tetsuo Hara and Buronson famous. At the time when Fist began, in 1983, Hara was a 22-year-old greenhorn mangaka who had been the assistant of Yoshihiro Takahashi (Ginga Legend Weed), but whose first solo work, Tetsu no Don Quixote ("Iron Don Quixote") had flopped. Nobuhiko Horie, then-editor of Jump (and unofficial co-creator of Fist) was the one who gave Hara a second chance, suggested the acupuncture theme, and hooked Hara up with Buronson, an older writer who was already famous for the '70s hit The Doberman Detective. According to some interviews, Horie also came up with the idea of basing Kenshiro on the most famous martial artist of all time, Bruce Lee. (Personally, though, I don't really see it. Bruce Lee was 5'7" and wiry; his awesomeness is partially because he's an endomorph who built himself up to a superhuman; but Kenshiro is drawn like a 6-foot-tall mass of muscle. On the other hand, his opponents are even bigger, so I guess Ken's still an underdog in the Fist world of 8-foot-tall mutants. Furthermore, Lee had a somewhat boyish handsomeness and had a lot of smiles and personality off-camera, but Kenshiro is all machismo: giant chin, no movement, no unnecessary expression. But I guess Kenshiro does have Bruce Lee's trademark "AH TAH TAH TAH!" battle cry, and his habit from the movies of criticizing his opponents' fighting style after beating them, so there's that.)
Fist was a megahit in Shonen Jump and ran for 27 volumes, and its art style and character design were incredibly influential. In some ways, though, it's atypical for a shonen manga: it's not a series (like the more-influential-in-the-long-term Dragon Ball, and most modern shonen manga) where the hero starts out weakish and gets stronger and stronger through a series of tough learning battles. Kenshiro dominates most of his opponents from the beginning. The excitement of Fist isn't wondering whether Kenshiro will win, but watching the bad guys act like total scum until you hate their guts and you just can't wait for Kenshiro to execute them with extreme prejudice. In a typical Fist scenario, we get to watch the bad guys lie, cheat, break promises, kill innocents, and kill their own henchmen. They're not just evil, they're pathetic (and usually hideously ugly), and you can't wait for Kenshiro to get angry, flex his mucles (thus blasting his own shirt off) and wipe them out.
With no expression except a stern look of pissed-off disapproval, Ken eliminates ugly, sadistic bad guys in gory fountains of blood that would never be allowed in Shonen Jump in the year 2013. (Ahh, for the early '80s, when ultraviolent manga like Fist and Jojo's Bizarre Adventure ran in Jump, and movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Poltergeist and Beastmaster got PG ratings! OTOH, even back then the violence was still too much for Japanese television, which censored a lot of the blood from the Fist TV anime.) The stupid bad guys (most of them) try to fight him. The smart ones, such as Jackal in the early chapters, run away and just try to get as much distance as possible between them and Kenshiro, but once Kenshiro is angry, he'll follow his prey to the ends of the Earth. (Kenshiro never demonstrates super running speed, so theoretically, the enemies could just keep running and always stay out of his reach, but here's a secret: he also knows tenha kassatsu, which lets him hit his opponent's pressure points from a distance, just with his ki.) Jackal, being crafty, also straps sticks of dynamite to crying toddlers and sends them running in random directions, knowing Kenshiro will chase after the toddlers to save them before he chases after Jackal to kill him. If Kenshiro has one weakness, perhaps it's his love for little kids. He's accompanied for most of the manga by Bat, an incredibly obnoxious street urchin (perhaps inspired by the "Feral Kid" from Mad Max 2), and Lin, a little girl who he heals with the power of his touch. (In the old Streamline dub of the anime, the scene where he heals Lin is accompanied by the unforgettable translation: "What I'm about to do may feel strange at first, but you'll get used to it.") Maybe Bat is intended as some kind of reader-insertion character, maybe as comic relief, but he's definitely no Daigoro from Lone Wolf and Cub. (Oddly, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which came out years after Fist began, has even more spunky orphan kids.) Anyways, having some kids around humanizes our hero: Ken doesn't just kill villains, he also touches the lives of the common folk on his travels through the postapocalyptic Earth. "In this world, there are many people like us, all waiting for his arrival," an old woman thinks. Or as someone else says: "The world needs your Hokuto Shinken! Use it to turn tears into smiles!"
This is the formula for the first few volumes of Fist, which, for many years, is all that was translated into English. Viz tried to publish Fist twice, first in 1989 and then picking up where they left off in 1996. (Viz also chose the title "Fist of the North Star" rather than the more literal translation of Hokuto no Ken, "Fist of the Big Dipper," which, although more accurate, frankly sounds stupid in English.) Sadly, sales weren't great either time, and between the two attempts Viz only translated the first five Japanese volumes.
Unfortunately, Viz stopped just before Fist really becomes Fist; basically, just before Fist gets really good. Like most manga, Fist's early storylines are short and simple, in case it got canceled: Kenshiro comes into some town, beats some bad guys and leaves. The really major arcs don't get started until after Kenshiro meets Jagi (right where the Viz translation cuts off). Jagi is one of Kenshiro's four "brothers," his fellow students who were also trained in Hokuto Shinken, although only Kenshiro was selected by their master as the true heir. Jagi is the only person to have been struck by Ken's Hokuto Shinken and survived; his head is HALF-EXPLODED, held together with a metal frame which keeps him living, albeit in extreme pain, and with his exposed brain pulsing disgustingly in the anime. Still obsessed with his rival years later, he poses as a false Kenshiro, wearing a mask that covers his face, going around torturing and killing people after asking them "Who am I? Say my name!" (I wonder if the creators of Breaking Bad read that storyline?) Kenshiro defeats him, of course, but not before Jagi reveals that his other two brothers are still alive. Thus begins the epic storyine that will reunite Ken with his brothers and determine the true heir of the Fist of the North Star.
Way back when, when I'd only read the Viz-translated parts of Fist, a Japanese friend asked me "What do you think is the theme of Fist?" I answered "violence"; he answered "friendship." It wasn't just my ironic-hipster attitude that made me identify the gorn as the #1 feature of Fist; it was that I hadn't read the later parts where the story becomes more about characters and melodrama than just about Kenshiro killing random people. (And also, as the manga goes on, Kenshiro actually gets to fight some evenly-matched opponents instead of the losers he fights at the beginning.) Buronson described the theme of Fist like so: "The basic story is…when the societal structure disappeared, basically you could live through brute strength alone.…So when it all comes down to just physical strength, of course violence is going to rule. But what can triumph over violence? Friendship, love and the emotions that people hold inside them. All these win over violence. Love and compassion are more powerful than violence!"
Beneath the splatter-movie gore, Fist, like every really popular shonen manga, is about friendship and love. It isn't just a manga of manly blood, but of manly tears, and each new volume and new character adds more layer to the emo tragedy. Although the mooks he kills on the road may just be worthless scumbags (Kenshiro: "Evil men don't need gravestones!"), Kenshiro's major opponents all carry some misguided, tragic motive. Shin, Kenshiro's first major enemy, is one of the heirs of Nanto Seiken ("Fist of the Southern Cross" in Viz's edition), which allows him to slice opponents up with his bare hands, destroying them from the outside rather than from within. He's the one who gave Kenshiro the seven scars on his chest, and he and Kenshiro both loved the same woman, the beautiful Yuria (aka Julia in some translations). But even though Shin was a power-mad maniac, his love for Yuria was pure, and it was her rejection of him that ultimately drove him to despair and madness. When their battle ends, Ken weeps for his fallen foe. Bat asks "Why are you crying for him? He wanted to kill you!". Ken replies "Because this man loved the same woman as I did!" And so Ken continues on his way, carrying the tragedy of a lost love and a lost friend.
When Kenshiro makes friends with anyone, in fact, it's almost always so that they can die tragically later on, pages or volumes later. When he discovers that his "brothers" are alive, his first step is to look for Toki, a man so noble he stayed outside the bomb shelter during the nuclear strikes so that there was room for Kenshiro and Yuria to go in. Toki is imprisoned in the most inescapable prison in the world, and Kenshiro must break him out, after breaking through the 100-foot-high walls and fighting the sadistic warden who whips people's heads off and feeds prisoners to his giant pet eagle. The saintly Toki has hair like Jesus (apparently the radiation sickness didn't make him go bald), and his ultimate move is the "compassionate Fist of the North Star," which makes his opponents feel blissful happiness right up until their heads explode ("Those who are struck by Toki's fist go to Heaven before they are sent to Hell!"). He prefers to use his powers to heal.
Kenshiro's other brother is Raoh, who goes by the title Ken-oh, "Fist King." While Toki has retreated from the world and renounced violence, Raoh has vowed to conquer the planet and bring about peace through superior strength. (He's actually opposed to pacifism on principle, and wipes out a village of nonviolent resisters just because he disagrees with them ideologically.) A massive man who rides a massive black horse that can leap over skyscrapers, he leads an army of axe- and halberd-wielding warriors, sending them forth to conquer the land in his name. Raoh doesn't dismount from his horse unless he's facing a worthy opponent, which leads to an amazing moment when Kenshiro punches a horse in the face. Raoh's goal? The heavens! "I will fight God Himself!" he vows. Once Raoh enters the picture, we're in real Conan territory, with giant armies on horseback sweeping across the plains of…wherever Fist takes place, there's no map…clashing and destroying everything in their path. Raoh is one of the few people who is Kenshiro's equal in combat, leading to (SPOILER) one of the most flabbergasting scenes in the 1986 movie, which actually ends with Kenshiro being defeated by Rao and forced to wander the wasteland, his spirit crushed.
There's much more to it in the manga. Raoh's rivals for domination of the Earth (or what's left of it) are the Six Nanto Stars, whose number included Shin, and who all variants of the same opponent-dismembering finger-blade slice-and-dice technique. The Six Nanto Stars are mostly beautiful men like Shin; the most extreme is the narcissistic Yuda, who likes to use his enemies' blood as makeup. Souther, perhaps the strongest of them all, actually manages to capture and torture Kenshiro, and enslaves thousands of people to build a giant star-shaped pyramid in honor of the Nanto Seiken style and in memory of his deceased master. Shu, a noble blind martial artist (he gouged out his own eyes to save Kenshiro when they were younger), is also captured by Souther; Souther cuts the nerves in his legs and then forces him to carry the capstone to the top of the pyramid, staggering and gushing blood all the way up. (Incidentally, most of the Nanto martial artists, indeed most of the major enemies Ken faces, have light-colored hair; Fist isn't blatantly nationalistic like Buronson's other postapocalyptic story, Japan, but it might be worth mentioning that most of Kenshiro's serious opponents are light-haired like Super Saiyans and Kenshiro is dark-haired. On the other hand, maybe Hara just did it for visual contrast.) Rei, another one of the Six Stars, performs an impressive one-upmanship of Kenshiro's techniques when he slices apart a man who Kenshiro just hit with Hokuto Shinken ("You will die in five seconds." "That's too long! Just die now!")
There are other fighters whose allegiances shift and change, such as Jyuza, an easygoing wandering fighter who loves women and laughter and food, a kind of Han Solo guy who wants to be "free as a cloud" (a bit like Hara's later characterization of Keiji Maeda in his historical manga Keiji). Or Ryuga, whose patron star is Sirius, and who doesn't just slice people apart at a distance: he attacks with two fingers and gouges chunks out of them. The one thing these men have in common is that they're good-looking; in the Fist world, handsomeness equals inner nobility, even if you're a total psychopath. The gross-looking villains die the fastest, such as the Wolf Fang Clan of bestial giants and dwarves, or even Devil, a 50-foot-tall giant released from a hole in the Earth to ravage and slaughter. ("He's murdered over 700 people and has been executed 13 times!") The scarred Colonel, one of Kenshiro's early opponents, has superhuman senses and can predict Kenshiro's movements. But Kenshiro's training is superior, as Kenshiro explains succinctly: "Your superhuman powers are the result of 20 to 30 years of training at best. But the Hokuto Shinken has been passed down from master to student for 2000 years! I was already an assassin when I was born!" Villains such as these are just stepping stones on Kenshiro's way to fight the true badasses of the postapocalyptic world, people who even Kenshiro must struggle against. Kenshiro's not afraid of jumping into battle against someone who's much stronger than him. "Even if I have a 99% chance of losing…if there's a 1%, I still must fight!" One running plot thread involves the "harbinger of death," a little star next to the Big Dipper that only certain people can see: if you see it, you're certain to die.
So, although Fist of the North Star starts out like a postapocalyptic Wild West movie with a single hero coming into town and saving everybody over and over, eventually it becomes more like Saint Seiya, with a group of heroes that bleed and cry and fight for each other and sometimes blind themselves and regenerate their eyeballs. The guys may look super-manly, but Fist has a boyish shonen heart, and in flashbacks we get to see Kenshiro and most of the other characters when they were cute little kids, practicing the martial arts and getting their asses kicked by the master. A theme of sibling rivalry—brother vs. brother—runs through the manga. This being the '80s in Japan, girls are excluded. In this manga, women are healers and nurturers, not fighters. As Rei puts it: "In these times, the lives of men are short. But women give birth to children…and they tell them stories…stories of the fights of men!" Even the occasional woman who puts on knee-length boots and fights, like Mamiya, "a woman who renounced love," usually ends up just getting kidnapped so she can get rescued by the male characters. Perhaps thankfully, despite the incredible amount of blood and guts in the manga, there's almost no nudity and no sex, consensual or otherwise. (On the other hand, the really scummy villains are forever saying standard creepy shonen manga threats like "I love to hear the sound of a woman's bones crushing!" or "I love to see a beautiful woman's blood!": suggestive, but not rapey enough for Jump to forbid it.)
Fist was a megahit, and is still popular in Japan 30 years later, even if that popularity is now tinged with '80s nostalgia. Like G.I. Joe and Transformers, the tween and teenage fanboys that loved it back in the day are now thirtysomething and fortysomething fanboys, and they're still supporting Fist anime, Fist spinoffs, and gaiden manga exploring the backstories of the various heroes and antiheroes. Unfortunately, despite a small hardcore Western fanbase, its massive popularity in Japan never translated into fame in the USA. Raijin Comics, a venture directly funded by Tetsuo Hara and Nobuhiko Horie, rereleased it in English in 2002 but it sold poorly and was canceled midway through then too, despite being published oversize and in color for the American audience (under the title "Fist of the North Star Master Edition"). In fact, the coloring was probably part of the problem. The color Fist was obviously aimed at some hypothetical audience of traditional American comics fans, but there was no disguising Fist as an American comic, certainly not in 2002 when Americans were reading comics like Grant Morrison's New X-Men. Fist was too simplistic and dated-looking to appeal to Western comics readers, and the old-fashioned, manly art—like a Neal Adams pastiche—and oversize formatting didn't appeal to the new generation of manga fans either. In general, 'macho manga' has never sold as well in America as it does in Japan. Like many '90s anime and manga fans, I personally was much more fascinated by the soft-hearted yasashii titles, romantic comedy stuff like Rumiko Takahashi that spoke to my wimpy otaku heart. Here was something REALLY new to me: something nothing at all like American superhero comics and G.I. Joe cartoons and Mel Gibson movies. OTOH, I did like red-blooded ultraviolence, but I preferred violence with a touch of quirky weirdness and irony, like Hirohiko Araki. And for postapocalyptic stuff, I preferred things like Violence Jack, a series which is REALLY postapocalyptic in a black-hearted, nihilistic, crazy way, unlike Fist's compassionate, crying heart. (This really just tells you about my personal tastes and nothing at all about Fist, but…) Of course, that compassion, that non-ironic manly friendship and love and perseverance through tragedy, is what made Fist so successful. It's what makes it Fist.
Rumor has it that the Raijin executives simply couldn't believe that the English Fist sold as poorly as it did, and when Fist and Raijin failed, they abandoned the American market. It's a shame, since Fist would fit nicely in something like B&W Omnibus Editions or a digital-only release, like the Comixology releases of Shotaro Ishinomori's backlist. Then again, I don't know how well the Ishinomori titles are selling either.
Despite the fact that I'm just a Level 3 or 4 Fist fan (for instance, I've never read the Hokuto no Ken Gaiden manga), when Raijin reclaimed the rights to the manga in 2002, shortly before they published the Master Edition, I felt that we'd lost something important. Fist had been one of the first manga I'd read, and this was one of the first times that a manga I'd read had gone out of print. Together with some other Viz employees, I arranged a "Goodbye Fist of the North Star" party in the office. Here are the ingredients, you can have one yourself:
* blood-red punch
* a pinata (we bought one in San Francisco's Mission District)
* candy for the pinata
* a DVD player playing Streamline Pictures' 1980s dub of "Fist of the North Star"
* a complete set of Hokuto no Ken tankobon
* a cake (from "The Cake Gallery SF", specializing in "baby shower cakes, birthday cakes, erotic cakes") with a big not-especially-erotic picture of Kenshiro on it
It was a pretty awesome afternoon. In a year, a quarter of the staff would be fired or quit in the wake of the changes at Viz due to the launch of Shonen Jump, but at the time, manga was still a tiny low-stakes niche of publishing, and we were just goofing off and enjoying quoting lines from the Fist anime and eating cake and reading oldschool shonen manga. My friend Mr. N____, one of the Viz staff who had been a manga editor in Japan before moving to America, was busy in delicate negotiations with Shueisha, the publisher of Fist and Shonen Jump, that afternoon and only got to stop by the party at the very end. He had somehow missed the sound of the drunken manga editors bashing the pinata with baseball bats. "What's going on?" he asked.
"We're having a Fist party!" I told him.
"Just don't tell Shueisha," he said.
I didn't. They never found out. And he had some cake.
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