Fist of the North Star

Iconic, violent action from the first half of the eighties. The world’s most dangerous man wanders a post-apocalyptic wasteland, exploding people or otherwise killing them in poetically-just ways by hitting their pressure points.

Fist provides silly fun with its weird one-off villains and absurd violence. But in its serious confrontations the show can also move you in its own naive way. It pays little attention to the nuclear war which ruined the world—this is just an accepted part of the premise—tying its main plot instead to the destinies of a small coterie of martial artists.

I think it was Jason Thompson who pointed out that Fist stands out among shounen action stories in having its hero be immediately and obviously more powerful than most of his opponents. The excitement in the smaller battles is often in seeing just how Kenshiro will defeat a minor villain’s gimmick, rather than in wondering whether or not he’ll win. This makes the real battles noticeably more tense: proper martial artists are rare and clearly differentiated from more humdrum opponents. You know when someone’s a threat.

While I was watching Fist, someone wondered aloud if there’re any guides to its essential episodes out there anywhere. I don’t know if there are, but yea or nay I’m not sure it’s such a good idea. True, there is filler, of sorts, which varies in quality: the ‘Elton John and his zombie army’ and ‘human cannonballs with swords’ episodes, for example, are really quite entertaining. Unusually, pretty much all the filler sits in the story’s first arc. After that most episodes contribute something, however small, to the plot. And I suspect the final chapter only reaches the heights it does because you’ve seen Ken and the other surviving characters wade through blood to get there.

That final chapter kicks in, with new narrative urgency, around the eightieth episode. It brings a new OP, which steps back a little from the excitement of its more famous predecessor and takes some time to remind us of some of the significant characters who’ve already died. Fist maintains quite a small cast, as important people tend to die, and so has little of the onwards’n’upwards feeling you get in a lot of anime which share a similar sense for absurd action. Rather, Fist‘s plot is the fatal working-out of grudges and desires which were instigated before the first episode, often before even the nuclear apocalypse. Loss becomes a dominant theme: the loss of friends, of rivals, of faculties—and at one point, the lived experience of loss as a source of power.

Ultramuscled designs are the order of the day. There are some excellently grotesque giants and mutants and super-obese villains. The show looks cheap but not awful. Stock footage is common, though it’s often intelligently laced in with new animation to keep the fights looking fresh. Characters sometimes seemingly change in size, and I would like to believe that this is to indicate their importance, threat and possession of combat momentum. Although a lot of the more excessive blood sprays are shiny rather than red, the animators didn’t hold much back in rendering the twisting, slicing, snapping, splattering and detonating of the human body. A skilled martial artist is a scary, scary thing!

I enjoyed Fist a lot. I dug all the crazy enemies and their bizarre techniques, and I bought into its story of a few deadly men clashing in a world that’s gone horribly wrong. Its simplicity pleased me. I’m too young to have been around for Fist‘s period of currency among Anglophone fans. Mostly, this was an advantage, letting me come to the show knowing only what little I’d picked up from reflexes of and allusions to it in other anime.

Not sure I’d just recommend this to just anyone who likes anime, though. If you enjoy simple, heartfelt stories with wild fighting, try it. If you’re just interested from a cultural-literacy standpoint, maybe give it a few episodes, but don’t expect it to blow you away.

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