New Fist of the North Star vols. 1-3
Mike Toole rates it:
I recall a brief exchange I had some years ago about Fist of the North Star, a conversation I had with an honest-to-goodness Japanese person. This person fondly recounted how they spent their childhood riveted in front of the screen, watching the blood-soaked, musclebound, outrageously silly and oddly compelling adventures of Kenshiro unfold on television every week. The kicker? This person was a young woman, and I find it very amusing indeed to think of a slip of an eight-year-old girl going ga-ga for something like Fist of the North Star. But a whole lot of kids and adults liked Fist of the North Star quite a bit, so much that it's a long-established franchise that continues to generate toys, video games, comics, and new animation to this day. This OVA series would comprise the "new animation" bit, and frankly I was pretty hot to see it, because the brutally entertaining original series was made on the cheap, and consequently had some pretty terrible animation. Surely a new OVA would look fantastic, and with the plot coming from one of writer Buronson's original stories, how could they go wrong?
Of course, there are drawbacks to making new animation for a series that's about 20 years old. Absolutely principal among them is the almost unforgivable absence of Akira Kamiya, the original voice of Kenshiro and the one responsible for Ken's fantastic Bruce Lee imitations, not to mention numerous memorable lines spouted by the main character, "You... are already dead!" ("Omae wa mou... shin de iru!") being the best-known example. Kamiya, despite still being in excellent health (he's a regular on Detective Conan, and continues to make City Hunter TV movies every few years), is replaced in New Fist of the North Star by Takehito "Pumpkin Teeth" Koyasu, a talented actor responsible for bringing us gems like Weiss Kreuz. In fairness, Koyasu is great; he has a lot of dramatic range, and is a rare actor that can do both serious and comic roles really, really well. But as Kenshiro, he sounds strangely wooden and artificial; it's like they figured out how to make a Kenshiro voice synthesizer.
The OVA kicks off with a neat-looking rendition of the great war of 199X that turns the earth into a Mad Max-esque wasteland, a montage that had me hummming "We'll Meet Again" under my breath. This sets the visual tone of New Fist of the North Star right away-- it lacks the gritty, grainy look of the orignal TV series. It's all done in digital and done with some semblance of budget, so the entire look of the Fist of the North Star world gets a solid upgrade. The story kicks right off in the usual fashion, as a pack of big, dumb mohawked thugs (there are big, dumb mohawked thugs around every corner in any Fist of the North Star story) menace a group of weaker men trying to get pure drinking water for their impoverished village. Fans of the original know this formula well, and know to expect Kenshiro to come to the rescue, this time wearing what appears to be a do-rag.
This is where New Fist of the North Star's greatest strength lies-- predictably, its scenes of exaggerated hand-to-hand combat are absolutely fucking awesome. The director tries to shoot these scenes using a nifty, sloppy, over-the-shoulder-camera cinematic effect, and it works wonderfully well. From the initial shot of Kenshiro's first opponent staggering, sans head, blood sluggishly squirting from the top of his smashed neck, to the stock shots of thugs' heads noisily swelling and exploding, the fights in this series are fantastic and outrageously, hilariously gory.
We learn a few interesting things about this older, wiser Kenshiro. What surprised me the most is that he can drive; I'm used to seeing him walk across the desert like an unstoppable force of nature, or perhaps appear dramatically astride a horse, so it was weird to see him buzzing around in a jeep. Anyway, the aforementioned impoverished village is called the Village of Freedom (no, seriously!), and its de facto leader is Sora, a lady with some unusual healing skills. Kenshiro is shocked to see her practice these skills, because they appear to be a derivative of his dead brother Toki's healing version of Hokuto Shinken. But before he can really get to know the lady, she's spirited away by the local bush league Hitler, a bearded hulk of a man named Sanga.
As Fist of the North Star baddies go, Sanga is pretty crafty. See, he's a strong fighter, but he's gotten the idea into his head that it's a lot easier to command respect from a frightened population by creating gods for them to worship. To that end, he's recruited a strange kid with some sleight-of-hand skills, and convinced the people that the boy can spontaneously create water. The thing is, the people are getting tired of their graven idol, and want a new one. With her inscrutable healing powers, Sora is an obvious addition to Sanga's god-circus.
Of course, Sanga's a red herring (and his predictive fighting style is disappointing, merely echoing the same technique that the bloodthirsty Colonel of God's Army used in the TV series). The real bad guy is a nomad named Seiji, a man with a connection to Sanga who arrives just in time to find out that the guy's dead. He wastes no time stepping into the power vacuum that this creates, and Kenshiro finds himself stranded and distracted as Seiji launches a terrifyingly violent struggle with the city's inhabitants for control of the land. Of course, Seiji has plenty of martial arts tricks of its own, so it all leads up to a final confrontation between him and Kenshiro.
Part of the original show's tremendous appeal was its sprawling, ambitious storyline. Kenshiro had no end of hidden brothers, disgruntled dictators, and miscellaneous madmen to deal with; no matter how many bad guys he vanquished, there was always someone else (with some other mysterious connection to Ken) higher up the tree. Given the constrants of being an OVA rather than an extremely long TV series, New Fist of the North Star isn't like that at all. This is Fist of the North Star for the current generation, a show that focuses on the ridiculous violence of the original rather than the lofty, ambitious plotlines. It's not really a disappointment, it's just different.
So in the end, New Fist of the North Star is reasonably good stuff; there's enough brawling and blood to satisfy action junkies, and dedicated Fist of the North Star fans will be pleased by the stylistic and plot-driven nods to the original, even despite Kamiya's absence. The most interesting bit of this series, though, is the fact that it sports a Japanese celebrity among its Japanese-language cast. The character of Seiji is voiced by Gackt, a pop/rock star who rode the Visual Kei wave with Malice Mizer before going solo and finding greater success. Gackt is known to be something of an anime fan (one talk show segment features him impersonating his favorite Gundam characters and explaining that he's memorized the dialogue from the original movies), so it's a novelty to actually hear him voice Seiji. He does an OK job overall. Seeing him recording his role is revealing; ordinary seiyuu will record their lines as a group, but Gackt performs all alone in the booth.
It wouldn't be unreasonable to suspect that this might be the end of all Fist of the North Star animation, even despite the franchise's enduring popularity; there are story details that lead in that direction. That's unfortunate, really, because in spite of the show's kitschy 80s apocalyptic window-dressing, Fist of the North Star's latest incarnation is genuinely entertaining. It's flashy and a little cheap, but ultimately rewarding.
Added: Tuesday, December 21, 2004
Related Link: ADV Films