Stephen reviews: Fist of the North Star (1986)

Fist of the North Star: the Movie [劇場版 世紀末救世主伝説 北斗の拳 Gekijōban Seikimatsu Kyūseishu Densetsu Hokuto no Ken, Fist of the North Star the Movie: Legend of the Century’s End Savior] (1986)

Starring Akira Kamiya, Chikao Ohtsuka, Kenji Utsumi, Toshio Furukawa, Kaneto Shiozawa, Mie Suzuki, Tomiko Suzuki, Yuriko Yamamoto, Junpei Takiguchi

Directed by Toyoo Ashida


I hope you’re ready for the most intense, hyper-masculine orgy of ultra-violence ever made, because I sure as hell am. I haven’t seen this movie since high school, and after watching Expendables 2 I was suddenly in the mood for cocky, musclebound men performing manly feats of impossibility. So I tracked down the DVD and found that Fist of the North Star has aged like a fine wine; its ridiculous violence and ’80s styling making it a savory delight even better than I remembered.

The DVD case proudly advertises Fist of the North Star as “the most violent and action packed animated film of all time,” and my first reaction when I saw the box was disbelief. There has to be something even more over the top. But I really couldn’t think of many examples. Maybe Berserk or Claymore, but even those didn’t seem to fit the bill. Now that I’ve watched the film again, I can say that no, there is nothing I am aware of that has more violence and more machismo concentrated into one package.

Do you like exploding heads? Well, I lost count of how many are in this movie. I was going to make a pathetic GIF to amuse you until I realized that the trailer has a beauty of one already, so check it out. There are at least a couple dozen exploding heads over the course of the film, and if that’s still not enough for you, people’s whole bodies explode from the sheer manliness of their opponents’ punches. You haven’t lived until you see a fat man explode in a pillar of blood rocketing into the air.

Even the plot is the most masculine plot imaginable: some good, old-fashioned revenge. Kenshiro is a master of martial arts, but he gets beat up by his childhood BFF who then steals his girlfriend and leaves him lying face down in his own blood. Then poor Ken’s older brother tosses him off a cliff and dumps an avalanche on him for good measure. But just like Kenny from South Park, our man Ken isn’t going to let something as lame as dying stop him from tracking down the traitorous bastards and getting his woman back.

Ken storms across the post-apocalyptic wasteland like the miraculous lovechild of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Lee. He strides like the Terminator with his hulking muscles and implacable pace tossing out short, terse phrases to assert his greatness, only to burst into high-pitched shrieks of rage while unleashing rapid-fire flurries of punches and kicks against enemies 10 times his size. It’s amazing how they managed to make him seem like an enormous mass of bulging muscle while still being the smallest man in the room.

Along the way, Ken teams up with a guy named Rei whose metrosexual charm could only have been cool in the ’80s. Rei waves his hands around and makes glowing geometrical patterns in the air before dashing at his opponents and slicing them to ribbons with his fingers. His final battle in the movie is a glorious montage of awesome rock music that also could have only been cool in the ’80s. I had to rewind and watch it several more times, never mind that I had already watched that scene more times than I can count.

But as much as I love that scene, the final showdown with Ken and his eldest brother is even more intense, as the two brothers are on such a testosterone high that they literally float into the air and cause earthquakes and tornadoes just by glaring at each other. Dodged punches topple buildings on the other side of town, and by the end of it they are both spurting blood across the screen in massive streams. If Vampire Hunter D‘s climax was too short, Fist of the North Star‘s is just right, savoring the epic clash of manliness and gusto.

It’s not a perfect film, though. The most glaring problem is the obnoxious kid named Bat whose voice was doing a pretty poor job of disguising the fact that he was voiced by a woman. It really wasn’t making his scenes any more entertaining. What might be a bigger problem for most people is that its ending is as unexplained as they come. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say, you won’t know why the hell it happens. But I can chalk that up to the confused abridging of the story that this film, like most anime, is. But this movie has far too much entertaining insanity to let such minor quibbles as plot problems bring it down, and I can’t bring myself to care about its faults.

Fist of the North Star is a true classic of the industry filled with intense action, copious gore, and hilarious absurdity. I can’t believe I forgot about it for so long. Any fan of ultra-violence owes it to themselves to check it out.

10 comments to Stephen reviews: Fist of the North Star (1986)

  • Ever since I knew about anime, everyone told me to watch this. I never have, but now having seen some footage and some screenshots, I think I will finally rectify that. It sounds much too fun to pass up!

    • Stephen

      It definitely is! It has to be one of the most over-the-top crazy action films ever made.

      The sad part is that a studio fire seems to have destroyed a few bits of the film forever. It probably also explains the odd bits that had fuzzy picture quality. At first I thought they were deliberate attempts to make the exploding heads look creepier, but after learning about the fire, I suspect they just had to make do with low quality copies that survived. I guess I should just be happy we still have the film at all.

      • Ah man, that’s crazy about the studio fire! Sounds like they had to use some rough cut footage from VHS or something to make up for the lost film. Is it weird that this makes me want to see it more?

        • Stephen

          That is a bit weird, but it sounds like you, so I’m not that surprised.

          I think they must have had a high quality version made for television broadcast that had edited out a lot of the gore, because whenever the picture goes fuzzy you know somebody’s about to die horribly.

          • See I could really get into that.

            [Picture goes fuzzy] “Oh shit, here it comes!”

            I’ve seen a few horror movies like that, where gore footage was reinstated from a workprint, so whenever the picture quality went to shit you knew you were in for some wild shit that didn’t pass censorship.

  • OK, I watched this… and it was awesome. Probably the most enjoyable anime I’ve seen other than the Miyazaki stuff. The gore was gnarly and super fun; I loved how in the end fight they’d hit each for a while and then their shoulders and other body parts would just explode. Great fun.

    And as expected, I really enjoyed the shitty video quality the worst of the gore was presented in. It gives it something of a “you’re not supposed to be watching this” vibe. Also, the gore reminded me a lot of Story of Ricky, so I definitely think you should watch that one based on your love of this one.

    The story is pretty disjointed in spots, for sure, but it seems more like a cause of the adaptation than bad filmmaking. The ending is definitely one of the most obvious moments of this, but like you said, none of that really matters. It’s incredibly fun regardless. Now onto the live-action one.

  • Stephen

    Yeah, it’s such a fun movie! I’m glad you got to track it down. It’s full of awesome weird shit, like the guy with the huge whips in his helmet. So hilarious! I hope you enjoy the live action one, too. It’s a very different film, but still good fun.

    I’m so used to the disjointed stories in anime now that I hardly notice it any more. But it’s also one of the reasons I like Miyazaki’s and Shinkai’s films so much. I hope that they (as well as Satoshi Kon and Mamoru Hososda) have paved the way for more original concepts to make films of. Sidestepping the whole adaptation mess lets them craft stories that fit the framework of a feature film better.

    I really do need to find Story of Ricky. It sounds like too much fun to pass up.

    • I’m worried that the live-action one won’t go far enough with the gore, something I’m always disappointed with in a lot of low-budget movies, but other than that I expect it to be a good time.

      Yeah, it seems strange to me that so many anime films are series adaptations that instead of trying to tell one story, they cram like 100 episodes into one movie. I wonder what the thought process on that is like. But this movie still moves pretty well, and because of its inherent fun, I never cared about plot points coming together or paying off as they normally might. This is clearly something else entirely. And yeah, I hope you’re right and we see more original anime films, I think that’d be the best for everyone involved.

      I think Netflix has Story of Ricky on both disc and stream. Although I think the stream is the incredibly shitty dubbed one, so maybe that shouldn’t be counted.

      • Stephen

        The gore in the live action doesn’t come anywhere near the degree of the anime version, but what is there is pretty well done. It doesn’t seem to be the focus the way it is in the anime so I think it still worked. I only wished it had shown the exploding heads better.

        I know why there are so many adaptations rather than original content. Anime studios are to afraid of risking a ton of money on a movie that turns out to be a flop, so they adapt already popular franchises that will have a built in audience at the start. But as to why they need to cram the entire story into one film I can’t say. I would think that taking a smaller part of the story and doing it justice would be a better strategy, which is where the live action Fist of the North Star succeeds.

        Yeah, I dropped the Netflix streaming service because it had no subtitle tracks for anime. Oddly enough, the player had language options, which is at least a step up from Amazon’s streaming service, but none of the stuff I was watching made use of it. With my focus being anime, it just wasn’t worth it, so I stick with the DVDs.

        • That makes total sense about the anime adaptations. It’s the same reason we have remakes and reboots and re-everything. Unfortunately, no one likes to take chances on original content.

          It is weird that Netflix has added the ability to have language options but it very rarely utilizes them in any meaningful way. Most of the movies have English captioning available now, which is great for those that need that, but it would seem like a priority to also work on getting subtitles for foreign stuff. I’m sure they’d love to but it’s probably more of a rights issue than something they can specifically control.

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