Fist of the North Star has attracted fans not only in Japan, but North America and the rest of the world as well. Combining elements of traditional Japanese story telling, Asian martial arts films as well as a large helping of western post-apocalyptic imagery, Fist of the North Star stands out as a truly unique undertaking.
Kenshiro, the hero of the story, is easily one of the most recognizable figures in anime with the ultimate catchphrase of, "You're already dead." OB Planning, working with one of the original creators of the series, Buronson, re-imagined the work for a whole new generation of fans. Old school fans aren't left out either as this New Fist of the North Star relies heavily on what made it originally a fan favorite.
Buronson and Usami Ren, producer of the animation, took a bit of time off from their busy schedules to visit a little event in Anaheim called Anime Ex'po 2004. While there, they electrified legions of fans by showing off scenes from New Fist and going into details of what led to this new incarnation.
I had a chance to sit down with these gentlemen in the crowded dealer's hall of Anime Expo. Surrounded by fans, we spoke about Buronson's influences and feelings about the entire endeavor.
Allen: What were the influences that shaped the original creation of Fist of the North Star?
Buronson: Influences, eh? Hmmm, truthfully speaking, the basis for Fist of the North Star story was… well, Mr. Hara teamed up with Horie-kun, the co-editor, and they completed a small manga. When it came time to run the manga serially, the story began to grow - impossible for Mr. Hara to handle alone. I was called in and subsequently remained on board. The story was originally based on Mr. Hara's small manga which provided the martial arts of kenpo and Hokuto shinken. But when my story came along – the new Fist of the North Star currently running serially – I changed the story setting completely. Originally, the protagonist was a high school student. I changed the setting to the near future, this new setting being heavily influenced by the film Mad Max. It was all my idea to make the story setting like Mad Max. So, while the source of the story is Mr. Hara's work, this is a completely different Fist of the North Star. We were all influenced by films, you know, from Bruce Lee movies to Mad Max. And everyone was like, "Let's make a completely new Fist of the North Star."
For the character, you had Bruce Lee, you had kenpo, and then for the story – providing the interesting elements of the story setting – you had Mad Max. And the best setting for portraying the kind of physical strength that comes through mastery of kenpo is the near future, a "weaponless age." In constructing that setting, we were influenced by Mad Max.
Allen: Where do you start when it comes to returning to a series that is already considered a classic?
Usami: You know, 10 or so years earlier, the Fist of the North Star TV series was really popular. In the world of Japanese anime, it was a big title, a really big hit. Because of that, when this new Fist of the North Star came up, we had to make it even bigger than the original. Now of course, because this time it wasn't a TV series, we had to give it a whole extra level of quality. And that's not all – to remake this kind of big title, the animators themselves had to really, really have confidence in their skills. Only a certain kind of person could work on a project like this. And because we're producers, because this is such a big title, we wanted… well, no matter how many people we wanted to get working on this, we needed more. It's that big of a title. And because it's that big, there were some things we were very insistent on. Just getting the staff together was difficult in and of itself. But the ones that signed on to do this were full of drive to make this title succeed even more than the previous work. And the finished product is really quite good. Now for us, as a company, blending 2-D and 3-D animation is our forte, so what we wanted was to make a new kind of work, completely different from anything that had come before. One where we planned out, scene by scene, on when we'd use mainly 3-D animation and when we'd make the animation via some new technology. That was how this project got underway.
Allen: With the ability to mix 2-D and 3-D elements into the animation, do you feel the story was better told this time? How did you see your vision coming to life with this technology?
Buronson: Mmm, the speed and the camera work are completely different with this new technology. Because it's 3-D… for example, in desert scenes or something, we could do scenes from up high – aerial shots – as well as these sweeping panoramic shots. And in scenes with motorcycles or something, we could have the bikes racing forward in 3-D. What's more, we used 3-D animation to insert these kinds of "proto-characters," print that out, and then replace the proto-character with its 2-D counterpart. Also, the movements of motorcycles or what have you, become quite realistic. Things that simply wouldn't be possible through conventional animation can be done through a mixture of 2-D and 3-D animation. Still, when you do a character completely in 3-D, it looks pretty unrealistic, so just the characters are done in 2-D. This results in an animation that has a completely different sense of motion to it.
Allen: You helped evolve the original story into what it is now. How do you feel about seeing it animated?
Buronson: Well, the first thing that pops into my head is… I should've done everything myself!
[Both Buronson and Usami Ren laugh]
Seriously, though, when you have a story that you've made, you're going to have your own image of it in mind. So once it's all over and done with, you're going to have some lingering doubts about it all, like "That was different or that was different…" But, I mean, this is something that someone else has made, so of course it isn't going to match your own preconceptions. If you've got the time, the money… if you've got that vested interest in it, then if you want the end result to match your vision, you've gotta do it all yourself. Otherwise, once you see the finished product, you can't go on about "Well, there was this, and then there was that," can you? You can't, but…[Usami Ren laughs]. Look, considering the problems that arose, we couldn't be 100% satisfied, right?
Usami Ren: What percent are you satisfied, then?
Buronson: Uh… well, I'm gonna be honest, about 80%. There was just too much blood flying all over the place. I don't like that; really barbaric scenes like that.
Usami Ren: Ah.
Buronson: Because those kinds of scenes are in there… well, I guess it's more like 70% satisfied.
Allen: On the topic of violence, Fist of the North Star comes across in North America as a very dark story. Were there any over-reaching themes you were trying explore in this story? And was there a point to having the setting so extreme?
Buronson: Mmm. The basic story is… well, when the societal structure disappeared, basically you could live through brute strength alone. That was the kind of age we envisioned. So when it all comes down to just physical strength, of course violence is going to rule. But what can triumph over violence? Friendship, love and the emotions that people hold inside them. All these win over violence. Love and compassion are more powerful than violence. This is the theme I wrote into the story. If that theme wasn't properly conveyed then… well, I'll just chalk it up to a lack of skill on my part.
Usami Ren: No, no! It's my attempt at creating this story wasn't up to par!
Buronson: But you know, this is a sad story. In the first part of the story, we see the sadness of both man and woman, and that you have to endure. You have to be strong even when you're not, to live for the sake of someone else. You, yourself, don't matter - you live for someone else. Truth be told, I wrote New Fist of the North Star thinking to myself, "I should have these kinds of sad elements in the story."
Allen: To go beyond the three parts you've made of this New Fist of the North Star, where would you start and what approach would you use to continue the story?
Buronson: Well, we'll probably change the production company [everyone laughs].
Usami Ren: You mean Horie!
Buronson: If we were to do another one, we'd probably have to create an all-new story, and it'd be quite different. We'd probably start Fist of the North Star all over, from the beginning. I quite like Rao [Kenshiro's older brother in the story], you know. I'd like to draw Rao a bit cooler. I mean, the protagonist is already decided, so if we make a new one, Rao would be the only cool, strong character. Aside from that, yeah, just start from the beginning and do it all over again. I think that'd make for a more interesting story. That and… well, I'll be changing production companies, won't I? [Again, everyone laughs].