Monday, April 1, 2013

1984: The Year of the Fist

Milo is a hot-blooded Puerto Rican who has been writing about comics, animation and movies for the last three years on He wears a suit to work, drinks too much alcohol, and sleeps four hours a day. He also tweets at @northstarblog and tumbles images at irresponsibly.

1984 was a year of limited options, unless you watch way too much mecha anime.

In preparation for writing this Golden Ani-versary post I reviewed all the installments posted so far, and I think we can all agree: damn, a lot has been said about robots! It was inevitable, considering the focus of this blog is upon television shows, and robot shows were among the most conspicuous parts of televised anime, especially in the 1970s and '80s. However, considering so much has and will be written about mecha, and that I cannot summon the willpower to even say the words “Yoshiyuki Tomino” (there I did it once, that’s it, that’s all I can do), I decided to skip that material entirely in talking to you about 1984, the year the Fist of the North Star television show began airing.

In my defense, 1984 was not a terrific year of anime television. In fact, aside from the third part of the Lupin the Third television show, there isn't much in the way of cartoons about adults doing interesting things at all. It's all "children this" and "machines hitting that," and while you could probably assemble a diverse Super Robot Wars videogame cast from the mecha shows which debuted in this year alone, I ultimately think Fist of the North Star was put in a position to succeed by virtue of the fact it was such a refreshing change from everything else being offered.

So while it's going to annoy certain people that I'm not waxing poetic about mecha classics like Giant Gorg, Panzer World Galient, and Heavy Metal Gaim, the simple fact is none of these anime particularly stand out from the series that have already been written about on this blog. Even the Go Nagai anime of the year, God Mazinger, is a universally-ignored property that borrows the name of one of his best-known creations to tell a pedestrian fantasy-themed story. Aside from recognizing God Mazinger's cameo appearance in the Dynamic Super Robots Grand Battle animation test released around fifteen years later, there's no reason to remember the show even exists.

So Eighties: A Product of the Cold War

Fist of the North Star, known as Hokuto no Ken in Japan, stands out as a hyperviolent television show for kids, often abbreviated as that crazy series where a muscled protagonist uses martial arts to make peoples’ heads explode in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future. Bruce Lee meets Mad Max and all that. For those reasons it tends to be remembered as an "enormously Eighties" sort of phenomenon. The Eighties, after all, was the decade of the originally X-rated film Robocop (and the children’s cartoon based upon it), as well as the Rambo movies (and the children’s cartoon based upon them).

It was a time where young kids were expected to be somewhat familiar with the R-rated stuff their parents and older siblings were seeing in theaters and renting from video stores, if they weren’t being exposed to it directly. It was a very different decade from the one I spent most of my childhood in, the Nineties, where meeting other kids who had their minds warped from being exposed to so much sex and violence at an impressionable age was a less common occurrence.

Much like Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Fist of the North Star takes place in a dusty apocalyptic setting where civilized society has fallen under the control of various factions of sociopathic goons. It also has something of a Western tone to it as well, with the burly protagonist Kenshiro being a wandering gunman of sorts. Instead of using a six-shooter, he is the heir to a martial art that destroys people's bodies from the inside out. However, Fist of the North Star is more sadistic and depraved than most Westerns. The mohawked, leather-wearing thugs who terrorize the innocent, either putting them in tortuous no-win scenarios--forcing, for example, son to kill father or be killed himself--or outright slaying people for the fun of it.

The writer of the original Fist of the North Star manga, Sho Fumimura (pen name Buronson), stated that visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia made a huge influence on his writing of this story. With the Cold War still raging and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still vivid in the memories of Japan, it's easy to see why. Where the zombie fad and other fictional apocalyptic visions of today exist as a kind of cathartic escape from the shallow capitalist lifestyles we’re stuck in, Fist of the North Star, much like the Akira manga and anime, channeled legitimate anxieties about living in a post-nuclear, war-ravaged wasteland. Perhaps that is why it's so merciless to its cast of characters.

Directed by Toyoo Ashida, sung by Crystal King

It would be far easier for me to relate the details of Fist of the North Star to you by speaking entirely of the original manga incarnation, which began only a year before the anime and set the tone for it so perfectly. To do that, however, would be to overlook the contributions made by series director Toyoo Ashida, who, in translating Tetsuo Hara's detailed drawings and Buronson's savage writing to the small screen (and later to the big screen, in 1986), created one of the most unique weekly kid cartoons of the Eighties and stuck with it for all 152 episodes. While the show evolved visually in the five years it aired, it ultimately remained consistent under the supervision of a single man.

Toyoo Ashida, after a long and productive career in the field of animation, passed away in 2011. Anime scholar Jonathan Clements, in compiling the details of his life, mentions Ashida was known for the unique techniques he occasionally incorporated into Fist of the North Star episodes. One which particularly stands out is when a villain whose body explodes in half also has his animation cel tear in half and crinkle on screen. It happens so quickly that you might miss the technical details of how the effect is accomplished, but the moment holds a lot of impact regardless.

Ashida brings the world of Fist of the North Star to life expertly using every tool in the animator's toolbox. Music, painted backgrounds, voice actors, animation, and sound effects all work in concert to make the drama of the story real. And Fist of the North Star is nothing without its drama...

Fist of the North Star also has one of the most well-remembered opening songs in all of anime. "Ai o Torimodose!!" ("Take Back the Love!!"), performed by Crystal King (who everyone mistakenly assumes to have a female vocalist), sets the tone of the series with its hot-blooded vocals. With lyrics like "My heart, wandering in search of you, now burns passionately" and "I never want to see that your face has forgotten how to smile”" "Ai o Torimodose!!" tells you everything about what Fist of the North Star ultimately is: a melodrama for boys.

Even when the theme song ends and the animation freezes on a shot of Kenshiro jump-kicking a 400-foot-tall mutant, it is ultimately in service of a greater plot that leads Kenshiro back to Yuria, the love of his life. In the end, while it deals with the heavy themes of good versus evil in a world overpoweringly dominated by evil, Fist of the North Star is also a story about star-crossed lovers.

Kenshiro is a protagonist of intense strength and reserved nature, but he also displays enormous generosity and sacrifice. Emotions aren't a force he grimly suppresses; they are most often the source of his power. In fact, one of the strongest techniques Kenshiro masters, "Musou Tensei", is literally perfected by his own sorrow. He is a stoic adult male character who doesn't shy away from crying when sadness overtakes him, either.

Fist of the North Star is a story that takes its emotional dimensions seriously. The fact that it's viscerally hyper-violent while also being heartfelt and sincere is why it had such an enormous impact on Japanese youth in the Eighties, and why it's so well-remembered now, thirty years after the manga first debuted in Weekly Shonen Jump.

Final note from Milo: in conclusion, I wanted this post to be a celebration of anime, and to do that I decided to focus in on a series that was doing unique and exciting things. If you disagree with my choice, you're more than welcome to take me to task in the comments section.

Next time: It's 1985, and the reign of the OVA shows begins...


  1. As soon as I saw this post on the main page, I said to myself "why doesn't this whole write up be about Hokuto No Ken. It might as well be." I'm glad I was right about that.

  2. Awww man, Heavy Metal Gaim is something I've been dying to hear more about! America only got Mamoru Nagano's Five Star Story in a hilariously fractured and overpriced installments, and a dvd-release of the tease of the movie. Hokuto no Ken fared much better: video games, comics, English dubbing, even a live-action adaptation.

  3. I'm certainly welcoming of Fist of the North Star receiving wider exposure, but to imply that 1984 was lacking in quality might be a bit of a stretch. Gisaburo Sugii turned in a fine albeit incomplete adaptation of The Glass Mask (soon to be resurrected by way of parody shorts), and Hayao Miyazaki worked on a significant portion of Sherlock Hound. A year where those two guys are still working in TV can't be THAT slim pickings, can it?

    To be fair, most of the top picks of 1984 in my memory are theatrical offerings rather than televised works, and you noted that "the focus of this blog is upon television shows." This slightly confuses me, as no such restriction was requested of my 1980 writeup, and the 1985 post after this one focuses on the then-emergent OAV market. I suppose the blog slogan does state "50 years of televised win," but I must confess to not paying much attention to it until right this instant as I type this because my instinctive reaction to seeing anything described as "win" is to look away. Besides, Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still is embedded right there in the blog's sidebar artwork.

    With that in mind, I note that the theatrical anime productions of 1984 weren't just among the greatest titles of that year, but in all of anime history. Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, Oshii's Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer, and Kawamori's Macross: Do You Remember Love? all embody the concept of "the 1980s were the golden age of anime" to a T.

  4. 1984 is a tough year to beat for theatrical anime films, with three genuine classics, Macross: DYRL, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer.

    1. Those tend to be the three I often cite as what made 1984 such a pinnacle year for anime.

  5. @Daryl Surat, @Ralph Jenkins:

    I did ask Geoff if I could write a separate post about 1984 in anime movies, but he said: "Realistically, the point of this blog is to put more attention on the television and OVA shows from the past fifty years. Perhaps mentioning something about the movies may help. How was FotNS similar to or different from those blockbusters?"

    I didn't want to compare the FotNS TV show to Nausicaa or DYRL. They merit their own discussions, and I opted to not mention them at all given the choice between that and shoehorning them into the subject of this post.

    Daryl, considering what Geoff said about the long-winded nature of your writeup on ANNCast, I'd wager the communication between the two of you on "restrictions" wasn't really hammered out beforehand at all.

    To all:

    I tried to write this post without exhaustively listing information from ANN or Wikipedia. I don't find those kind of posts interesting to write or read because I go to the ANN Encyclopedia or Wikipedia for that. It was intentionally pointed to convey information about a show I'm passionate about without going all fanboy or pedantic.

  6. Keep in mind that it's all in jest, Milo. I really wasn't too serious with length. As long as you guys don't kill me with a phonebook.