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.
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
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.
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...