Fist of the North Star: one-handed fist-pumping

May 14, 2009

Fist of the North Star/Hokuto no Ken
Directed by Toyoo Ashida
Based on manga by Buronson and Testuo Hara
1986, Toei Animation, 110 minutes.


Is there a dude hidden beneath those muscles? Fist of the North Star recalls every cliche western viewers held of the anime genre way back in the 1980s. Extremely stylized, fluid, and technically impressive hand-drawn animation; charming, comically straightforward and flat, rushed, monotone English voiceovers; scanty, man-handled women, and of course — absurdly gory violence and homoerotically charged representations of masculinity. The violence here, in animated format, is more gruesome stuff than in almost any other medium. It is simultaneously impressive, disgusting and… charming.

A lot of State-side-released Japanese anime in the ’80s carried an intriguing formula inherited from the Yakuza and “Japanesploitation” films of the 1970s: Lone Wolf & Cub, Lady Snowblood, the Yakuza films of Kinji Fukasaku, etc. A lot of violent, Shounen (male-targeted) anime involves cyber-noir — touching up Blade Runner and early William Gibson with a (intentionally?) juvenile interpretation of graphic violence. Like the movies they took influence from, many of these films contrasted the chaotic, gruesome atmosphere with reflective, even meditative, soundtrack pieces. This is a development upon or succession to the Enka and lounge singing found in ’70s crime films — or anything Meiko Kaji starred (and sang!) in.

But here the movie is taking quite a bit from the post-apocalyptic celebrations of the Mad Max franchise. The plot is something about 4 mystical martial arts brothers, the most ultimate badass muscle dudes ever, who all wish to be the true “North Star.” Ken is the obvious protagonist since he never breaks a sweat even when punching holes through people’s faces and mid-sections. It’s Fist of the North Star, so the violence is the meat of the film. This violence pornography is colored and animated with such loving, inspired detail, it calls notable attention to itself. Most of the manly confrontations feature exploding heads and body parts, organs squeezed out of lesser muscle men and drawn-out nonsensical shit-talking that would make one wish for the newest Pokemon release, were it not for the incredibly interesting dubbed English voice tracks. It seems to be a positive condition, that the the dialog, though incredibly terse and unemotive, engages the viewer with different layers of humor. Sometimes the comebacks and insults are on-point and timely delivered, intentionally humorous, and sometimes it’s like listening to a group of bickering robots. So FYI — the dialog is littered with awkwardly “logical”, formal statements of intent — literal Japanese-English translations.

The sexual undertones of the whole shebang are not subtle. It’s about big-packaged dudes and how great they are. To add literal hentai or erotic scenes to the presentation would be blasphemy, as it could only nullify the intense erotic atmosphere. The males, about 90% of the characters, are hideously muscular, filling grotesque stylized bodies even more creepy and bulging than any real-life Mr. Universe. The name of the game here is violence, gore, tough-guy bravado, betrayal and violent confrontation amongst brothers, incestuous innuendo, and experiencing women as brainwashable porcelain possessions (yet it’s still somehow reasonably tame compared to the 110% batshit-crazy recent anime, Baki the Grappler). A shounen anime to say the least, but FotNS takes all this stuff to an outrageous extreme. An outrageously extreme style, hahaha! (it was the ’80s, dude).

Nothing hidden beneath the covers here: it’s undeniably entertaining and it’s unbelievably raw. But that’s not a condemnation either. Fist of the North Star is engaging, filled with weird plot conveniences which are obscene excuses for the most over-the-top gore-o-mania ever. The violent imagery is so consistent, that when it reappears after brief respites, it shocks the viewer all over again. The violent expression is surreal, but different than the gore saturation of slasher and giallo flicks, for it is lushly animated and appears in vivid expressions of sexual aggression and repression — not exactly hiding the emotional schemata of the creators and authors. It’s the most literal orgasm of violence one could animate (although there are is a whole wide range of animes which sidle up to FotNS in this category: Wicked City, Violence Jack, Devilman) and to that end, is intensely creative for its direct sexual, artistic expression. Totalitarian dictators may have the same appetite for violence as the creators of this franchise, but the ending was abstractly climactic (even cathartic?) and surprisingly left me with a sense of well-crafted melancholy (no due in part to the wonderfully distinct synth and hair-metal soundtrack!).

@ Amazon
@ IMDb


One Response to “Fist of the North Star: one-handed fist-pumping”

  1. […] maiming other sentient beings. One might say this is comparable to overly violent stuff like the recently reviewed Fist of the North Star, but then that has high visual and musical […]

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