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In the year 199X, human civilization has been all but destroyed by a nuclear holocaust. In an age where the strong rule over the weak, the survivors of the fallout struggle over the remaining supply food and water left. Kenshiro, successor to an ancient, deadly martial art known as Hokuto Shinken (Fist of the North Star), wanders the wasteland with seven scars in the shape of the Big Dipper on his chest. This infamous style uses the body's hidden 708 pressure points to destroy opponents from within and allows practitioners to unleash 100% of their humanly strength. Accompanied by a young thief and an orphan girl, this messiah brings justice to this lawless world with the strongest fist in the world. Written by
This series itself retains something of a cult following - not least because of its distinctive tone and setting, which packages pounding martial arts action, a deconstruction of the family, as well as interesting homo-erotic undertones - all set in a Mad Max style post-catastrophe landscape. After a devastating global war, we are told, life for mankind has turned into a nightmarish struggle, not only because of the barren environment but through the depredations of mentally deranged, mutated savages.
Ranged against them, and all evildoers, is Kenshiro, master of a particular fighting technique, Hokuto Shinken, a virtually unbeatable martial skill that works on manipulating the secret power points of opponent's bodies, destroying them from within. Ken was trained up with his evil half-brother Shin, the Fist of the South Star, and who represents a polar opposite from him. He practices Nanto Seiken, a martial art that destroys from without. But Shin stole Ken's beloved Julia, this after fighting our hero, marking his chest with the seven distinctive scars which echo the sign of the Big Dipper and leaving him for dead. The narrative of Fist Of The North Star primarily consists of Ken's attempts to regain Julia and overcoming various champions of Shin.
The series makes almost no concessions to reality - not least of which are the sheer number of Shin's followers, duly met and thrashed on each occasion by Ken (or come to that, the amount of thin T-shirts which the hero destroys, then replaces unseen, with each encounter). His opponents are generally the mutants, who as a group are unsympathetic, grotesque and brutish. Many viewers have commented on the surreal arrogance of these killers, their bodies often drawn ridiculously out of proportion, towering over hero Ken and the regular humans. But mutation is just as it suggests, although the animators feel free to add to the macho incongruity of it all by adding Mohican haircuts, outrageous outfits and snarling dialogue. In comparison Ken is a model of sobriety, often warning his opponents to cease their activities before he strikes.
On his travels Ken is accompanied by two youthful helpers, both acquired in the first few episodes. One is the orphan girl Lynn and her puppy. The other is Bart, Ken's self styled 'business manager' as he makes clear in an earlier episode always, ostensibly on the fighters behalf, always looking for the main chance to profit from Ken's unique skills. Together with a repeated emphasis on Ken's lost love Julia, this group makes up a peculiarly fractured family, with normal relationships distorted by the world in which they find themselves. From this point of view, Ken's repeated attempts to get his woman back, as well as his repeated rescuing of social groupings (the mutants never have kin), equates a drive for regular familial balance.
The twist is North Star's visual insistence at the same time on butch body display and the repeated physical contact between the vaguely camp males making up the greatest number of dominant characters each week. (My favourite is the handlebar-moustached and splendidly named Colonel Mad, who fights with his blades dipped in scorpion venom.) In fact Ken faces no villainesses at all, at least until well into the second DVD volume. This is a series where the exaggerated torsos of the combatants is a hallmark, only equalled by their swollen braggadocio, itself suggestive of sexual taunting. Blood in the show is never the common red; rather it assumes a weird milky colour, exploding into the air at the climax of each encounter, while Ken's characteristic chest scarring was symbolically produced by the slow penetration of his skin by Shin's powerful fingers - a moment echoed later in the series. The result of all this imagery is thematic psychosis, arguably as pronounced as that enjoyed by the mutants who populate the landscape of future Earth: heterosexual Ken has a lady love and two children in tow; 'other' Ken with his body builder physique, has an intense relationship with his half brother, wears tight T-shirts and sleeveless jackets, and spills all that uniquely coloured blood in one casual encounter after another...
The distinctive 1980s' animation style is an advantage when depicting such a barren landscape, the desolation of which also reflecting Ken's emotional emptiness, deprived of Julia's presumed humanising contact. Manga's box set offers generally excellent picture quality. Opinion has been divided over the relative merits of the two soundtracks on offer; the original Japanese suffers from its mono origins while the re-release English dub offers a more visceral techno musical score, which more easily conveys the urgent brutality of it all. However this reviewer, at least, prefers the original with its far more sympathetic voicing of Ken's young followers - his modern voice in particular makes of Bart an irritating brat - while the score, although less monolithic, has a contemporary charm. Most especially, each episode is interrupted for an on-screen announcement of the baroque martial technique Ken has selected for the current fight ('Spinning Wheel Explosive Punch', 'The Hundred Crack Fist', 'Mountain Splitting Wave', etc). The modern version does its best, but the original intonation makes such moments highlights in themselves.
Fist Of The North Star is full of such ritualistic moments: the repeated (and failed) attempts of Shin to woe Julia for instance, or the rending of Ken's red shirt; the various exploding heads, or the fighter's famous pronouncement over those opponents whom, it appears, he has just touched, and who continue their arrogance yet: "You are already dead." In addition, each of the episodes is named in vengeful, declamatory fashion: Villains! Ready Your One Way Ticket To Hell!; Stormy Times, Titanic Battles, Is Battle All That Awaits Me?; Sinners! Thy Name Is Fang! etc. It's a characteristic that seems bizarre to western eyes, but the self-awareness reveals something about the original, local deliberation behind the series. Seen today, despite - or because of - its extremes, and curious undertones, it remains strangely addictive.
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