Why And How Was Fist Of The North Star Censored?
by Justin Sevakis,
I have read that people who used to rent Streamline Dubbed Fist of the North Star movie on Orion pre-release VHS rental copy, remember all gore scenes uncut and uncensored with no blurring or filter. I have heard some of the collectors have 35mm film of Fist of the North Star movie uncut. Many fans believe that 35mm prints were destroyed in the fire and the semi-uncensored Italian VHS version is the closest they'll ever see. Do you know anything about this?
Fist of the North Star is one of the anime that, even decades after its release, I'm still in awe that it even exists. This is a manga, TV show and feature film that was made for ten-year-old boys, that is so ludicrously gory and violent that it often crosses the line into tongue-in-cheek comedy. It was serialized in Shonen Jump well before that magazine started catering to a wider demographic than grade school boys, alongside benign series like Captain Tsubasa, Dr. Slump and Kimagure Orange Road. Violent though it was, there's only so much gore you can perpetrate in the black-and-white, cheaply printed pages of a weekly manga. The later TV adaptation was even more tame, shying away from the use of red coloring and graphic detail in its violence. Nonetheless it was a huge hit with kids of the era, and made parent groups enraged.
So when the Fist of the North Star movie came out, the pre-release materials made a big deal about how it was the goriest, most splatter-filled animated film ever made. (Given the mountain of ludicrously gory anime that followed for the next decade, it obviously doesn't still hold that title, but it probably ranks pretty high nonetheless.) It was a huge hit, although I can't quite figure out how huge: Japanese Wikipedia has an estimated amount of ¥1.8 Billion, or around $17.3 Million in today's US dollars, but that would put it squarely at the #5 film at the Japanese box office for the year, and none of the historical top grossing movie lists for 1986 seem to list it at all. Regardless, it was huge, but so was the backlash from parents and the media. Bowing to pressure, Toei delayed the home video release while they censored it. Most of the over-the-top splatter shots were "enhanced" with an early video processor, which blurred the image significantly, and also tinted it to diminish the visceral impact of the blood and gore. Director Toyoo Ashida also animated a different ending for the film's climactic battle in a way that arguably made more sense for the characters. This version wasn't released until 1988. The original theatrical version has never been released on home video in any form, in any country.
The internet is full of rumors about this, and most of them are probably false. The idea that the original theatrical cut was "lost in a fire" is one that I just roll my eyes at, because according to the internet EVERYTHING that's never been released was lost in a fire. More likely, the original negative was damaged or destroyed in the process of making the censored version, or is being withheld at the request of the original manga artists Buronson and Tetsuo Hara. Buronson in particular is known for exercising tight control over the release of his work. There's also an old Italian VHS release that was partially uncensored: only one scene is restored (wherein Ken gets his scars), and another scene isn't tinted blue (but still has the video effect). I have no idea why it was like that, but Toei Animation has never allowed those shots to be released again. Subsequent home video releases in Japan and other countries have restored the original theatrical ending.
The last rumor, that an early Streamline VHS release in the US was uncensored, is demonstrably false -- I wouldn't put much stock in the memories of people who rented a VHS tape 15 years ago. There's not enough information to determine what version Streamline released to theaters during the film's brief theatrical run in September 1991. We DO know that it had the original theatrical ending (because they only dubbed one, and it doesn't match the home video version), but all existing home video releases aside from that Italian VHS have the exact same censorship applied. Streamline Pictures only ever had one video master of Fist of the North Star, and didn't do VHS rental-only releases. According to Fred Patten's amazing Streamline Pictures memoirs that he's been publishing on CartoonResearch.com recently (do check them out, if you're interested in that era), their first release of Fist of the North Star was released in September 1992. Orion later made an ill-fated deal with Streamline to distribute their entire library, which caused everything to get repackaged and re-released, often at a lower price. But that didn't happen until August 1994. Copies of both releases were very common -- it was one of the best selling anime in Streamline's catalog -- and yet no uncensored footage from any of these supposedly-uncut releases has surfaced.
Today our only glimpse of the version that was shown in Japanese theaters is an uncensored shot in the trailer that was later censored (which is included in many DVD releases), and the new home video ending, which was included as an extra on the first Japanese DVD release (and is included on the new Discotek Blu-ray). Occasionally those two shots from the Italian VHS find their way online. But that's it. There simply is no way to see this film in its original form, and unless something major happens in Japan I don't see that changing any time soon.
Full disclosure: I worked on the recent Discotek Blu-ray release of Fist of the North Star.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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