By Justin Graham / March 6th, 2013
Fist of the North Star is a martial arts anime series that began airing on Japanese television in 1984. Based on the manga by Buronson and Tetsuo Hara, it was produced by Toei Animation and ran for a total of 109 episodes. The series was immediately continued with a sequel that stretched another 43 episodes, for a total of 152. Of that total number, only the first 36 were originally released on western shores in an official capacity in 1999. It wasn’t until very recently that the entire series officially became available for western audiences. Because of the show’s length, we’ll be discussing Fist of the North Star in four parts, so let’s start by taking a look at those first thirty-six episodes.
For the sake of clarity, all character names will be addressed using the romanizations provided by the most recent DVD release.
Fist of the North Star is set in a world that has been devastated by nuclear war. With the world at large reduced to a wasteland, humanity struggles to survive in settlements where food and clean water are scarce. Lawless chaos rules the day, with the strong using their might to lord over the weak and take whatever they desire. And then there’s Kenshiro.
Kenshiro, or Ken, is the sole successor to the two-millennia-old martial art Hokuto Shinken; a fighting art that focuses on the manipulation of numerous power points in the human body. By properly striking even a single one of these points, Kenshiro can turn an opponent’s body into a geyser of meat and blood. His catchphrase, “You are already dead,” references the fact that his foes often only have seconds to live once they’ve been struck, leaving them screaming in terror as their torsos explode.
However, Hokuto Shinken isn’t a purely destructive art, and Kenshiro is not a destructive man. Just as he can make mincemeat out of an opponent, he can also use his abilities to heal, energize, and bring new life to those that are ailing. Both abilities are demonstrated in the very first episode, in which Kenshiro is imprisoned by villagers after he’s caught drinking from their strictly rationed water supply.
It is here that we’re introduced to two other major characters. Bat, a young boy imprisoned in the same cell for stealing food, and Lin, a young girl ordered to watch them. Unable to speak due to the trauma of seeing her family murdered before her eyes, she shows kindness to Kenshiro by giving him food and water when the adults aren’t looking. Kenshiro returns this kindness by using a technique to heal her voice so that a cry from the heart can free it.
But when the village is attacked by bandits, Kenshiro effortlessly breaks out of his cell when Lin is forced to join the fight. Seeing Lin held hostage by Zeed, the gang’s leader, he approaches, and Lin shocks everyone when she screams for Ken to stay back. Undeterred, Ken unleashes a torrent of blows on Zeed and saves Lin just as the gang leader explodes.
The Search for Yuria
Unable to stay in the village, Kenshiro soon leaves to continue his journey, followed by Bat (who at first sees him as a meal ticket) and Lin (who idolizes him). Together, they travel across the deserted wastes, stopping along the way to help those in need, whether it be an old man who has struggled for months to gather rice seeds to sustain his village or an entire town threatened by the remnants of a sadistic colonel’s special forces.
Kenshiro’s motivation to continue on his journey is Yuria; his fiancée, kidnapped by Shin, a practitioner of Hokuto Shinken’s sister art, Nanto Seiken. One year before, Shin attacked Kenshiro, leaving him for dead with a series of wounds that would eventually heal into seven scars in the formation of the Big Dipper, before disappearing into the wasteland with Yuria in his clutches. In the time since, Shin has built himself an empire, complete with a new capital city, Southern Cross, lavishing Yuria all the while with everything she could possibly want. Or at least, what he thinks she could want. But just as Kenshiro will stop at nothing to be reunited with Yuria, Yuria maintains her faith in Kenshiro; the only one to whom her heart belongs.
In the manner of many a villain before him, Shin sends his followers after Kenshiro, one after another, in the hopes of eliminating his rival. However, Kenshiro destroys them all. And when Kenshiro finally reaches Southern Cross, he finds it in ruins; Shin’s own army deserts him, feeling that his obsession with Yuria is a weakness.
When Kenshiro finally meets Shin, he unloads the full extent of his rage, knocking the smug, gloating grin off of his face as he completely overpowers him. With only three minutes left to live, however, Shin reveals a terrible truth. With Southern Cross in flames he promised Yuria that he would build a new capital for her. But Yuria had finally had enough, and unable to stand for the idea of Shin inflicting his heartlessness on yet more innocent people, she fell to her death, filled with regret that she broke her promise to Kenshiro that she would wait for him.
And so, Kenshiro’s quest for vengeance ends in mourning. Unable to be reunited with the woman he loves, he instead chooses to give Shin a proper burial. Because despite everything Shin had done, he had done it all for the love of the same woman.
Rei, Mamiya, and the Fang Clan
This mourning period doesn’t last long, however. After leaving the ruins of Southern Cross, Kenshiro, Bat and Lin run across a village under the threat of the barbaric Fang Clan. The village is led by Mamiya, a woman that bears a striking resemblance to Yuria, and Kenshiro agrees to stay in the village as a bodyguard to help protect it from the wild bandits.
Not to be deterred, the Fang Clan attempt to subvert the village’s defenses with a mercenary of their own. They hire Rei, a master of Nanto Suichoken; an art capable of slicing men to ribbons with one’s own bare hands. Rei is to infiltrate the village as another bodyguard and help the clan take over, but he only sees this agreement as a step in his desire to avenge his sister Airi, who was taken away on what was to be her wedding day by a man with seven scars on his chest.
Yet, upon seeing Mamiya’s pain at being forced to sacrifice her own brother Koh for the sake of the village, Rei has a change of heart. Unwilling to sacrifice the lives of innocents for his personal vendetta, he aids them in stopping the Fang Clan’s invasion. In a thirst for revenge of their own, the clan then attempts to get a one-up by locating Airi, who had been sold into slavery, and using her as a pawn. They even manage to force Kenshiro and Rei to fight one another. But in the end, Kenshiro and Rei save Airi and destroy the Fang Clan, top to bottom.
Airi, in her utter despair, having been sold from one master to another, had given up hope, and blinded herself as a means to lock away her agony. But just as he had done for Lin’s voice, Kenshiro is able to give Airi her sight back. He then reveals the seven scars on his chest to Rei and earns his full trust; after all he had done for both Airi and himself, there’s no way that he could think of Kenshiro as his enemy.
So then who was the man with the seven scars on his chest that abducted Airi? As it turns out, it was Jagi, one of Kenshiro’s three adopted brothers. From early childhood, Kenshiro was raised by the Hokuto Shinken master Ryuken and trained in the art with three others, Jagi among them, though only one would be allowed to continue on as the sole successor of the art. Jagi, a brutish, power-hungry man dependent on dirty tricks, became enraged when Kenshiro was chosen and tried to force Kenshiro into renouncing the successorship. He’s no match for Kenshiro, however, and though Kenshiro is unwilling to kill him, Jagi is left with a painfully disfigured face.
Since that time, Jagi has taken to wearing a helmet to hide his face, and scarred his own chest. He terrorizes villages in Kenshiro’s name to ruin his brother’s reputation and draw him out. But when he uses a pair of brothers as pawns in his game, he invokes Kenshiro’s rage and pays the consequences. But just before he dies, he tells Kenshiro that his other two brothers are still alive.
With this knowledge in hand, Kenshiro chooses to seek out his brother Toki. Unlike Jagi, Toki is a benevolent man who, prior to the nuclear war, had desired to use Hokuto Shinken as a medical art to aid the sick and the weak. He had supposedly taken up residence in the Village of Miracles, where a lone man used miraculous healing powers to restore health to a population decimated by a plague. That is, until the day he had changed, and used the townspeople as test dummies for cruel experimentation on power points that warped and killed.
But just as Jagi had pretended to be Kenshiro, this new, cruel Toki wasn’t Toki at all, but another imposter. Amiba, a former Nanto Seiken student and a self-proclaimed genius, altered his features to resemble Toki while attempting to learn the secrets of Hokuto Shinken through experimentation on test subjects. Why would he do such a thing? Because Toki slapped his face when he foolishly tried to emulate Toki’s healing abilities and caused pain to an innocent man.
With his scheme outed, Amiba attempts to use his own self-discovered power points to increase his muscle mass and fight Kenshiro with “Amiba-style” Hokuto Shinken. But in doing so, he causes his own hands to swell and explode. Kenshiro then uses a technique to force Amiba to uncontrollably walk backwards to a deadly fall. With his last breath (or rather, scream of terror), Amiba calls out to his master, the mysterious Ken-Oh.
And those are just some of the high points of the first thirty-six episodes. Over the course of these story arcs, we’re introduced to Kenshiro, his companions, and a host of villains both relatively mundane, such as the Fang Clan, and entirely fantastic, like the literal giant Devil Reverse. It’s also full to bursting with martial arts action. But there’s more to the series than hyper-violence. Acts as simple as Kenshiro’s healing of Lin and Airi may not be as iconic as his unleashing the Hundred Crack Fist on and making a thug’s head explode, but these moments are just as important. His stoic, cool exterior belies a warm heart, burdened first with the loss of Yuria to Shin, and then by the cruel fate of her death.
Another important aspect of Fist of the North Star is its emphasis on sibling relationships. This is a topic that we’ll touch more on as we delve deeper into the series, but it’s one that will come up time and again. Kenshiro’s relationships with his three brothers, Rei’s desire to first avenge Airi, and then rescue her, and Mamiya’s pain at being forced to sacrifice her brother for the sake of her village are only a small fraction of the ways in which the narrative focuses so heavily on sibling rivalry and love.
Next week, we’ll continue our look at Fist of the North Star with a second swath of episodes, beginning with Kenshiro’s continuing search for Toki in the prison of Cassandra.
Fist of the North Star was released on DVD in North America by Eastern Star, a Discotek Media label. The first thirty-six episodes feature an English dub previously produced by Manga Entertainment, as well as the original Japanese with English subtitles. The series is not rated, but contains graphic violence and brief nudity.
anime of the pastEastern Starfist of the north starToei Animation