Fist of the North Star (1986)


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Hokuto no Ken (original title)
Not Rated | 1h 50min | Animation, Action, Drama | 27 September 1986 (USA)

Warning: Spoilers

I first saw Fist of the North Star as a very young child. At the time, I had a bizarre interest in films with 18 certificates, probably because I felt as though they were out of bounds. If I recall correctly, the staff of the local video shop would let me take out a film provided it was universal or parental guidance. Those were ratings denoting who could take them out. Everyone could take out a universal, hence why it was called a ‘universal.’ Parental guidance meant a parent had to guide, I suppose. I think on rare occasion I was turned down when I tried to take out a PG, as it’s called for short.

Other than these two ratings, there were ratings: 12, 15, and 18. This is here in the UK. In the US they have a different rating system, although the two are mutually intelligible. Basically adult content was off limits to children like myself. This included on a psychological level and on a physical level in terms of violence. My mother would take out any film I asked for from a certain age onwards, I forget how old, but it was from quite young. Perhaps she shouldn’t have done this but she was not fond of rules in some respects, this being one of them.

I tended to watch martial arts films such as the ones starring Jean Claude Van Damme. Funnily enough, I became fascinated, almost obsessed with martial arts, but most specifically exercise. I would exercise a lot because I thought Van Damme had a brilliant physique, but when I would look in the mirror I noticed I did not have a physique like the one he had. Of course I know now he not only exercised a lot but took steroids as well. That being said, I did develop a somewhat athletic body as a result of this, even if it didn’t look like anything special. I retain quite a bit of this athleticism to this day, maintain it, and play a few combat sports regularly.

I almost never watched Disney movies. I wonder how that affected me and perhaps still affects me. Disney movies are meant to instil a strong moral compass in the viewer, whatever his age, although this is more likely to be successful if he is very young, for reasons I hope are obvious. One thing I vividly recall was wanting to not be strongly affected by depictions of violence. This was because I was affected by them. After watching many action movies for young adults, I did get a bit used to it, but never completely. Even now if I watch one from the Resident Evil series, I get a bit uncomfortable at some of the depictions involving violence and gruesomeness.

Now let’s go back to Fist of the North Star. I have sentimental feelings about it because I saw it for the first time while so young. I have seen it a number of times since. The first time I saw it, I was mostly struck by its cartoon violence. I mean literally cartoon violence, as it is an anime. Some people use that term to describe live motion films as well, but Fist of the North Star really is a cartoon. An adult cartoon, but not a pornographic one, to be clear.

Beneath the violence, the metaphysical musings of a character called Ryuken struck me. I was fascinated by the stars at night already, and certain star constellations are shown early on in the film and the meaning of constellations is central to it, as you may have guessed, with it being called Fist of the North Star. There is mention of polar opposites, of balance, and things being one way for a time until eventually they are the other way, due to the nature of life.

Despite this, much of the story is immature, but this fact is in a way highlighted by the character Ryuken, who is older, wiser, and knows some of the protagonists are idiots, despite their prowess in some areas. Usually only one area – fighting. I know a bit more about the story than is depicted in the film, because it’s based on a comic and there are a few TV shows based on that also, so I will sometimes mention things not shown in the film.

Ryuken is a master of a martial art called Hokuto Shin Ken. It’s passed down through the generations of his family bloodline. Unfortunately, he does not manage to have any children, but tasked with continuing on the family tradition, and calling that is an understatement, he decides to adopt 3 boys. The rule is that the most competent son is the one who continues on the tradition of having children, teaching them the art, and choosing the one to be the successor. The other sons must cease to practice the art. They may have children but they may not teach them the art. Only the successor can continue to practice the art and must pass it on.

The reason why is because it’s a difficult task and must be done with maximum competence. It’s importance to the bloodline is not bordering on spiritual – it is spiritual – to them. Although nothing exactly like this exists in real life, there are elite families who pass down knowledge generation after generation, and most especially pass down wealth as well. It’s also interesting that there is a genetic interest in some cases also, because some families do not want their heirs to have children with people not also from an elite family. Due to this practice, the resort to inbreeding has occurred, especially with royal families. It’s odd because usually inbreeding is associated with intellectual impairment and various issues but in the case of the elite families and royalty, the opposite is intended. It is believed there is some innate quality they possess that puts them above the herd, and the hope is people from other elite families have this quality too, and it can be preserved and passed down through breeding together.

Now in practice, whether it actually works, is up for debate. Perhaps it does sometimes and doesn’t at other times. It’s quite well established that genetic diversity increases the chance of good health and generally better physical appearance. This goes against the elite family idea, but I’m sure there are many more variables and things we don’t understand. It’s evidently the case many people are sheep and cannot think for themselves. Those who rise to the top tend to be able to act on their own initiative, bring something new to the table, and resist the urge to just go with the herd.

Anyway let’s explore the general outline of the film’s story. Just a bit into it, after we hear Ryuken’s voice over, we’re introduced to the characters Julia and Ken. Ken is Ryuken’s adopted son and Hokuto Shin Ken successor. Julia is his fiance. There has been a nuclear holocaust, and there doesn’t seem to be any plant life as a result. Julia carries seeds in a pouch and hopes to grow plant life. Terribly unfortunately for Ken, his so called friend Shin appears and is in love with Julia. Shin is the Fist of the South Star. He practices an equally formidable martial art to the one Ken practices. Julia explains how the Fists of the North and South are not supposed to fight and that he knows this. He ignores her. His intention is to beat Ken, to show her he is better than him.

He does beat him but it only upsets Julia. He begins to torture Ken in front of her. He tells her he won’t stop until she admits she is his. That she does, and he takes her away, leaving Ken on the floor but still alive. Ken’s two brothers watch all of that play out from somewhat afar, and it angers one of them, Raoh, because he would probably have beaten Shin, but was not chosen as the successor. The other brother, Jaggi, is a good fighter but the weakest of the three.

It was Jaggi who convinced Shin he could have Julia if he performed this diabolical stunt. Jaggi becomes known as ‘Jaggi the Pretender,’ because he goes around pretending to be Ken while committing terrible acts. He does this to do as much damage as he can to Ken’s reputation, which was very good prior to his cunning intervention. He even drags Ken’s body to a canyon edge after his fight with Shin, to toss him over it. With it being a supernatural story, Ken survives, and even comes back stronger.

The rest of the film is about Raoh’s fight for power and recognition, despite being rejected by Ryuken, about Ken’s search for Shin who has Julia captive, about whether or not Jaggi will get his comeuppance, and some other little story lines along the way. The most poignant thing for me was that Raoh was not chosen as successor because despite his competence and prowess, he is an idiot. The best part of the film is right at the end when he realises this, after causing an untold amount of carnage. It’s a message to everybody but especially the people who need to hear it most – the idiots of the world just like him.

Reviewed by Alistair Martin


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