Like the philosopher Ice-T once said, “any problem that I have, I just put my fist in it.”
The best version of the sprawling epic that is Fist of the North Star is the original 27-volume 1983 comic from by writer Buronson and artist Tetsuo Hara. The Toei Animation TV series brings the kitsch, but cuts much of the visceral visuals of the comic and replaces it with horrible filler. The newer Oriental Animation Videos and gaiden series’ have their hearts in the right place, but it’s not the original. The full power of what Buronson and Hara wanted to convey to Japan’s male youth (and later, Western Europe’s and a few dozen dead enders in America) can only be appreciated in the comic they slaved over for five years. And I put a beret on as I say that. Every time.
Toei’s 1986 movie adaptation is the odd one out. Take the term “adaptation” lightly, the film is more accurately a re-imagination with brain-skull explosions and internal rib cage eruptions left intact, but several significant rewrites scrawled onto plot, back story and themes, an anime movie practice made infamous later with the Escaflowne film and by now pretty much de rigueur for Japantoon films (stay tuned for our forthcoming review of Psalms of Planets Eureka seveN: good night, sleep tight, young lovers: Pocket Full of Rainbows). It works well enough, but it’s not the original.
Most likely realizing an attempt at truncating the entire sprawl into one two-hour gutbuster would be impossible and/or horrible, Toei adapts a plot arc or two and “Streamlines” them for the movie format.
The premise of Fist of the North Star? I’m sure you at least have a passing knowledge, unless you stumbled onto this site looking for “anime girl explodes in blood.” Well, you get half of that equation in this movie: in the technology-starved post apocalypse the most powerful are those individuals who can manifest power through violence, preferably through their bare, gnarled hands. Chief among these power brokers of the fist are the students of two opposed, but eternally coexistent ancient Chinese martial arts:
Hokuto Shiken and Nanto Seiken. The followers of these deadly arts do battle with each other and among their own ranks, some in a fight to bring about a rebirth of the Earth, others to gain total dominion over the irradiated sands that are left.
The successor to Hokuto Shinken is a guy named Kenshiro. Now, unless you just gained an interest in anime yesterday or you are a fetus, you definitely have at least a passing of this indelible icon of 80s anime and shonen fighting manga. A seamless fusion of the physique, looks and fighting abilities of Sylvester “Sly” Stallone, Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba’s assassin martial artist character in The Street Fighter, Kenshiro, in the earlier volumes of the manga especially, is the embodiment of an earlier aesthetic in Japanese action heroes that’s all but gone now, the male hero as a force of nature.
Recall Duke Togo, or for the Golgo 13 impaired, Steven Segal in every real and made-for-TV movie he’s ever starred in. Unstoppable monoliths of violence. Oh, an antagonist could perhaps wound them, or probe some sort of inner weak spot (for Kenshiro it’s children, and not in that way, you sick fuck). Kenshiro fits comfortably into that milieu, there’s not much indecision, hesitation or conflict of interest going on deep inside his soul. Here stands a man who just wants to get back his girlfriend; and maybe see the rebirth of the Earth.
Legend of the Century’s End Savior starts with the famous scene of Kenshiro’s first Nanto Seiken nemesis, Shin, ambushing him and Yuria on their way to, uh, somewhere. This scene happens late into the manga and then only as a flashback. Recounting events in chronological order the way the movie does is very progressive and slick for Fist of the North Star, which typically approaches storytelling the way molasses approaches movement.
The movie pays particular attention to Kenshiro’s girlfriend issue, placing the pursuit of Yuria at the center of things, making her the engine behind the story’s forward motion. By comparison the comic takes a couple volumes to introduce Yuria as anything except a name fleetingly mentioned by a few characters. In that time Ken and youthful helpers Bat and Lin pass time wandering from post-apocalyptic hamlet to post-apocalyptic hamlet in the shonen fighting manga equivalent of role-playing game random encounters. It’s all very Wasteland-esque, though I don’t think Ken ever fought true blue “cyberpunks,” complete with VR visors and Qwerty keyboards sewn diagonally onto the front of their neon yellow T-shirts. Presumably Hara, Buronson and the powers that be at Shonen Jump spent this time developing an actual story along the lines of the one we all know and pretend to understand today.
Some readers of the comic, such as myself, might be put off by some of the re-imagining and abbreviations made in the name of movie pacing. Bat and Lin don’t meet Kenshiro separately; instead they know each other from the beginning of the movie. This is a miniscule nitpick though, especially when the tradeoff is being able to witness a Road Warrior multiple car-and-motorcycle death race on a city highway where Bat and Lin attempt to outrun a gang of axe-wielding Billy Idol music video extras in a dune buggy.
If that isn’t enough appeasement the entire chase sequence is simply buildup for the movie’s awesomely re-imagined Kenshiro introduction scene. One of the punks attempts to squash Lin under his jackboot, only to initiate her unconscious Newtype flash (with the same sound and everything), awakening Ken from who-knows-how-long slumber in the city ruins. You’d think a standard shot of rising Athena-esque fully formed from the ashes/rubble would suffice, but Toei obviously put some thought into this scene. Ken emerges as a brown clay golem with glowing eyes radiating enough Hokuto Shinken energy to knock over a nearby skyscraper with the back of his crusted over hand. Why does he knock it over? Hell if I know! The ruined tower proceeds to fall over on top of his head, not killing him immediately but instead cracking, crumbling and disintegrating around his cranium and shoulders, as if in awe of his pure martial artist spirit, as he continues to walk forward towards the aggressors, clay dust and inexplicable cloak falling away to reveal Sylvester Stallone’s facial hair from the 1981 movie Nighthawks. He then proceeds to dispatch them with a level of graphic ultra violence the TV series never came close to approximating; one of their heads explodes in the center of the camera, spitting forth his skull with intact staring eyeballs in what can only be an anachronistic homage to Mortimer “Mort” Rictusgrin from Planescape: Torment
The real damage inflicted is on the character of Rei, Kenshiro’s Nanto Seiken-wielding sidekick. Gone are Yuda and Mamiya, two characters central to Rei’s story.
Rei’s motivation is to find his lost sister, Airi. In the manga she’s held captive by Yuda, a barely closeted Nanto Seiken master who surrounds himself with dozens of nubile female pleasure slaves, perhaps to convince the post-apocalyptic world and/or himself against the most obvious. Also he has a crush on Rei. It is the shame of this captivity that drives Airi to blind herself with some sort of poison in the manga. In the movie she’s simply held prisoner by Jagi, Kenshiro’s shotgun-happy elder brother who otherwise has no connection to Rei. The movie’s explanation for Airi’s blindness is a vague and, frankly, lame spiel about no longer wanting to see the horrors of the savage world. For what it’s worth, however, in both versions of the story Airi’s sight is restored when Ken punches her in the face.
Mamiya is a female “warrior” (she fights with yo-yos) who serves as Rei’s romantic subplot in the comic. True, she never was the most remarkable of characters, but she served as another anchor to Rei’s character and gave him an actual reason to do battle with Raoh the Ken-Oh, Kenshiro’s other brother and primary nemesis for much of the story. In the comic Mamiya and Rei stay behind to start a sort of hippie commune where Wastelanders can live in peace while Ken moves on to continue searching for Yuria. Raoh’s imperialistic dream of uniting all of the wasteland under his banner by martial force eventually leads him to this settlement. In the movie there’s no Mamiya, no commune. Rei seems to basically pick a fight with Raoh because he happens to be holding onto Yuria, the same chick he heard Ken maybe talk about a couple times.
The re-imagined/remake anime movie doesn’t sound like a fundamentally flawed concept at first glance. Many of the originally properties are simply too vast to ever condense into movie form, and creators get a chance to showcase their creative chops without the burden of having to cook up an entirely new franchise that can fill up 24 episodes or ten volumes. The flipside is that many of the resultant movies suck. They’re doomed to suck.
It’s terribly hard, probably impossible, to attain a workable balance between new/renovated content and content keeping fidelity to the original work. The other balance is between pulling back in the dyed-in-the-wool fan base and enticing newcomers. The calculus of what each side likes and wants to see is not so simple as it seems on the surface. There are too many pitfalls and too few rewards to be had in attempting to cross that high-publicity, high-budget tightrope. And yet Japan tries, tries and tries again.
Legend of the Century’s End Savior fares better than later examples. Despite some jarring writing decisions, the movie is beautiful to behold, the best attempt at pacing ever seen in Fist of the North Star and largely true to the original in content and spirit. Like professional wrestling, it’s soap opera for young men. And like soap opera, it’s not the brain that counts, it’s the heart. Kenshiro can and will destroy both.