[1 February 2004]
Fist of the North Star, Volume 5 offers another variant of anime’s post-apocalypse theme. A lone traveler wanders through a wasteland, encountering and vanquishing, in 30-minute episodes, mutant lowlifes and evil-doers, with a “purpose” tacked on for continuity. It’s Kung Fu meets spaghetti Western, spliced with Mad Max and steeped in a healthy helping of blood and gore.
Collected from the original Japanese television series that ran during the early to mid 1980s, this fifth (and apparently final) installment of Manga Entertainment’s DVD collection of the series brings us into the middle stages of protagonist Kenshiro’s (Akira Kamiya) epic journey. Those not familiar with the earlier episodes of the series may wish to peruse the first four DVD collections, but as with any long-running series of this type, it’s not necessary. Regular flashbacks bolster current content with historical background.
Kenshiro is Fist of the North Star and master of the martial art Hokuto Shinken (according to the series’ mythology, Hokuto Shinken has survived for 2000 years, passed down from individual master to individual master). He is seeking his beloved Julia, currently in the grips of his evil alter ego, Shin (Toshio Furukawa), the Sacred Fist of the South Star (a.k.a. “the Supreme Ruler of the City of Wailing Demons and the Cassandra Prison”). Each episode presents a morality play of sorts, in which the force of “good” (Kenshiro) encounters some formulation of “evil” (often represented as a mutant or otherwise deformed), followed by a battle in which “evil” is vanquished and “good” flourishes, for the time being.
While the moral stakes are abstract, the day-to-day stakes of the series are more specific and corporeal in nature. Bodies matter in Fist of the North Star; they’re the surfaces on which Kenshiro inscribes his story of redemption and revenge. He is himself inscribed by seven scars (in the pattern of the Little Dipper), the residue of injuries inflicted by Shin, but also the indications of his rightful place on the side of “Truth” and “Rightness” (in other words, signs of grace or beatitude—the symbolism is hard to miss).
Each highly ritualized battle becomes the affirmation of one body (always Kenshiro’s) over another (an evil beast or henchman), with the result being complete carnage. And since Hokuto Shinken involves striking the “power points” on an opponent’s body, causing the body to explode, the lesson is hammered home with consistency: the body is the path to righteousness, and superior technique implies superior morality. So, when Kenshiro manages to thwart a “wild monkey fang death blow,” but his enemy fails to defend against his “spinning wheel explosive punch” (happily for the viewer, the characters provide the name of each blow prior to employing it), we understand that “spinning wheel explosive punch” reaffirms Kenshiro’s moral superiority.
While all of this may sound silly (a strike called “burden of regret walk punch,” which makes the opponent’s legs walk backwards, is patently silly), it nonetheless indicates an interesting narrative strategy. Kenshiro confronts a desolation that is mediated not on the broad social plane (amongst, say, competing institutions), but on a circumscribed physical plane. In a real world that seems increasingly beyond the individual’s control, such a narrative offers at least the fantasy of self-determination, combined with the sustained relevance of a very personal form of “tradition.”