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If you are young, you probably don’t know about the cultural impact that the Fist of the North Star series had in the anime industry back in the 80s. This series, created by writer Buronson (pen name) and artist Tetsuo Hara in 1983, preludes a lot of the classic shonen stories you are familiar with and cemented a lot of the tropes that are popular to this very day.
Before Dragon Ball, there was Fist of the North Star. Before Goku, there was Kenshiro. And the impact of this series would be notorious, becoming, as of this writing, the 24th highest-grossing franchise of all time, influencing an entire generation of manga authors (including Berserk’s Kentaro Miura and JoJo’s Hirohiko Araki), and becoming one of the highest-selling manga series of the 80s. All of this is thanks to a story that mixed the likes of Mad Max, Violence Jack, Bruce Lee movies, and some Western elements to create an all-time classic.
Fist of the North Star had a very successful anime series in the 80s, and in 1986, right around the franchise’s peak, TOEI Animation released a movie that was a summary of the manga. It combined several different storylines and arcs in a two-hour film, which helped gain the series even more notoriety. And today we’re going to discuss this movie, what worked, what didn’t, and the overall impact that it had on the franchise.
It’s the year 199X and the entire world has been destroyed by nuclear war. In the aftermath, the remains of the human race are struggling to survive and they are getting by with what little clean water and goods they have left. Laws and money are no longer important and strength is all that matters.
In this context, we are introduced to our protagonist, Kenshiro, who is the heir of the deadly Hokuto Shinken fighting style, which is centered around destroying his opponents by hitting the pressure points in their bodies. Many of his brothers, including two of the main antagonists of this movie, Jagi, and Raoh, were trained in this fighting style as well, which led to them having less than heroic aspirations with this power.
Kenshiro and his love interest, Yuria, are walking one day when they are attacked by their childhood friend Shin, who is also the heir to the Nanto Koshūken fighting style. Shin claims Yuria as his woman and defeats Kenshiro in the process, leaving him with seven deadly wounds in his chest, arguing that he is weak and taking Yuria away from him. Shin leaves Ken for dead and then Jagi finishes the job by throwing him from a cliff.
Time passes and Kenshiro comes back, now stronger than ever before, and has developed a killer instinct, and saves two kids, Bat and Lin, who become their allies in his quest for Yuria. Meanwhile, he joins forces with a warrior named Rei, who is the heir of the Nanto Suichōken and wants to rescue his sister and the man who kidnapped her, which happens to be Jagi. Thus, the events of the Fist of the North Star movie begin.
The first word that comes to mind when I think of this movie is “fun”. Regardless of opinions of this film from a narrative and writing perspective, it is Fist of the North Star in its purest essence: the action, the violence, the desolated lands, the contests of strength between characters, and the sheer badass energy that someone like Kenshiro transmits. It’s classic 80s shonen anime and it is fairly logical when you consider that the series defined 80s shonen anime.
In terms of the actual story, this Fist of the North Star film is a very interesting case. Imagine if they did a Dragon Ball Z movie connecting the Frieza, Cell, and Buu arcs all in a two-hour storyline. It would be kinda weird… but that’s pretty much what they did here.
The first couple of scenes introduces the motivations of our three main antagonists: Shin, Jagi, and Raoh, who happens to be the final boss. Well, these three are by and large the most popular villains in Fist of the North Star, so TOEI decided to mesh their arcs in a single plot, which flows a bit well, but some characters end up suffering because of this.
One of the key examples of that last part is Shin. If we’re straightforward, he is the one that kicks off the plot. He is the one that kidnaps Yuria and leaves Kenshiro beaten to a pulp, thus motivating our hero to get his revenge and save his loved one. But by the time we see Shin again, he is quickly defeated by Raoh, dies a bit afterward in Ken’s arms and all of the sudden has a change of heart, saying that he always knew Yuria loved Kenshiro and not him.
This is one of the big problems with this movie: they try to combine all these different elements and storylines to promote the series. In music terms, this is like a Greatest Hits compilation album and even those usually struggle because also want the sleeper tracks (or at least they did when people bought albums, but that’s a different story). It condenses so much that some key moments don’t hit you the same way.
The Shin example is a very notorious case, but I think another one that is affected greatly by this is Rei. He is one of Kenshiro’s best allies in the entire series and his having his agency, fighting style, and sense of honor is great, which is why we would like to see more of him during the story, but things happen way too quickly.
We are introduced to Rei and he thinks that Ken is the one that took his sister away from him. Rather than confronting each other, understanding that is a misunderstanding and slowly gaining a sense of camaraderie, all of this happens in basically one scene. I understand that this is due to time length and the fact that you have to juggle this with three antagonists, but it makes the character of Rei suffer.
I make emphasis on these things because it plays a big role in how things flow and, as a professional writer, I tend to give these details a lot of attention. Fist of the North Star is one of manga and anime’s most important franchises and this film is often referred to as a great entry point for beginners I agree, but this doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its shortcomings.
Now, it seems like I’m being very critical about this movie and that I didn’t enjoy it, but to the contrary, I thought it was great. As an amalgamation of three different arcs while introducing the world of Fist of the North Star, I think it does a solid job, characters suffering from that notwithstanding.
The movie showcases the worldbuilding in a very effective manner, depicting a planet that has lost any sense of morals and righteousness. Kenshiro is the only beacon of hope and his character, strengthened after the loss of Yuria and his desire to save her, turns him into one of the most iconic flat character arcs in manga and anime, as I explained in a different article.
I also have to highlight the animation. A lot of people tend to use animation and special effects to criticize older productions, but I always like to point out that it was a product of its time and that plays a big role. Regardless, here the movie flows very well in that department, and scenes like the one where Kenshiro has a skyscraper fall over him (one of the coolest moments in history) are something that looks spectacular.
Another aspect that I enjoyed greatly about the movie was the character of Raoh. He develops his purpose at the start of the film and quickly becomes the embodiment of all the different things that plague this wasteland of a world. He rules through power and fear, much like a direct contrast to Kenshiro.
Their final battle, after a great sacrifice by Rei, is the stuff of legends in manga and here it didn’t disappoint. I also enjoyed the fact that neither came out as the winner, which was a very interesting resolution, especially considering the theme of the story. It was also a nice touch because Ken had been an unstoppable force of nature until that point, defeating everybody that crossed his path.
Overall, Fist of the North Star is a very enjoyable experience for people that want to get into the series and understand what the whole fuss is about. This story is a classic and I think that the people involved in this film gave it a lot of love, even if combining all three storylines was a bit risky and it had its natural consequences.
I will say that the manga is still the best way to enjoy this series, but the movie is a very nice way of knowing the world and what to expect as you dive deeper into Fist of the North Star. Certainly a very nice entry point for a lot of newcomers to the world of one of manga and anime’s most important franchises.