Hokuto no ken Raô gaiden: Ten no haô Review
For those unfamiliar with the Fist of the North Star franchise, be it through incidental lack of exposure to the series or willing aversion, it is a long running manga and anime epic set in the wastelands of a world devastated by nuclear apocalypse. The popularity of the title grew until it became a fully fledged franchise with tentacles creeping into every area that money could be made from. First came the manga written by Buronson and illustrated by Tetsuo Hara. It established itself in the Japanese market of the mid-to late eighties and earned itself a run in the West thanks to Viz Media. In its native Japan it proved a worthy enough story to translate into a fully-fledged anime series, which went on to run for a mammoth 152 episodes throughout the original Hokuto No Ken (109) and sequel series Hokuto No Ken 2 (43). The popularity rose still and it spawned all manner of merchandise and tie-ins, including Pachinko slot machines, videogames (albeit of varying quality), figures and capsule toys.
The West was treated to a dubbed version, but the VHS releases were only for the first 24 episodes at the time, though 36 were actually made (and aired, later to be collected on DVD). Thanks to region free DVD players and the birth of worldwide trade via the internet many since then (myself included) have sought out the entire original series, which came at quite a hefty price tag. The continuing reruns on television networks and the cache that the title still holds in its native Japan meant that it was only a matter of time before someone re-tapped the rich well of post apocalyptic martial arts and chose to update the story with some much needed gloss – the original was great fun, but it would be hard for even the most ardent fan to make the case for it being a paragon of animation. So, after the instantly forgettable (at least I wish I could) camp horror show that was the ill fated live action 1995 movie, in 2003 we were finally bestowed with the update we all wanted – the New Fist of the North Star OVAs (Original Video Animations, basically episodes, sometimes feature length, released specifically for home formats) 3 episode DVD set told a new anime story from the North Star universe based on a work by Buronson and Hara that takes place after the culmination of Hokuto No Ken 2.
Snowballing after this success, a more ambitious project was announced that would look once again further backwards into the story fans knew so well, and 2006’s The Legends of the True Savior focussed on elements that were already familiar, with each segment looking at a key character of the narrative. Both series proved successful enough to keep the ball rolling, but fan approval was far from forthcoming. The problem with New being arguably that it was too far removed from the long standing duels everyone knew, and perhaps the stumbling of True Savior was that it tried to look too closely at issues that weren’t that complex to start with. Fist of the North Star has tried to be legitimised by some who seek to attach thought to a series that has always aimed squarely at the action crowd – it became a success not because of the layered characters, which have always been fairly two-dimensional at best, but because it fitted in with the eighties sensibilities of feeling like apocalypse may be around the corner, with the Cold War in full swing and riots on the streets, this insane Mad Max with kung fu animation was the perfect salve. As such, it falls to the latest release - Legends of the Dark King to attempt to redress the balance and re-establish the name of the series in the fans’ good books, or it could be forced back into the anime wilderness for another fifteen years.
Set prior to the original series, it looks at matters entirely from Raoh’s perspective as he wanders the wasteland following his destiny to rule all before him. One of four brothers adopted by aging kung fu master Ryuken, they were taught the deadly martial art style Hokuto Shinken or “Divine Fist of the North Star, which is supposedly without equal. Hokuto No Ken showed us the fates of the brothers interweaving as they all chose to follow different paths, be it peaceful (Toki) or power crazed (Raoh). As is usual for prequels, the opening chapters are essentially scene-setters, there merely to introduce, or reintroduce, characters to the audience, outlining their overall persona and key traits in a simplistic and easily digestible manner. Being based on the Youkow Osada spin off to the original manga, it was always likely to follow a slightly varied route, but it soon becomes apparent that much of Buronson’s flair for the stoical has been lost on Osada. Establishing the cast can be tricky and truth be told Hokuto No Ken was never exactly adept at it, preferring large set-pieces that show how evil/saintly those who inhabit this world are. However, though the template is largely followed, the execution of it falls below par in these initial moments, and I’m not just talking about the new title sequence that fails to live up to the catchiness of the eighties cheese-fest that was the insane shouting of “tough boy” repeatedly as a chorus (having said that, there are some similarly grandiose examples of phraseology in the intro – “The heavens rage, appease it” and “A lonely might, feel the love” being two such beauties).
There are three new characters in the central cast; Sakuya, a strange and mysterious female that purposely strives to join forces with Raoh, and Reina and her brother Souga (not to be confused with Souza/Souzer/Thouzer depending on what the chap doing the subs on the imported DVDs chose to write as the whim took him), who appear to be thrown in for the more modern crowd more used to buddy anime where a mismatched group of pals are the centrepiece rather than an individual. Their function, from an audience perspective, is to relay what Raoh is thinking and what his options are. The intended result being a figure that appears to have numerous hard choices ahead of him, and who must weave his way through the moral maze of living in a lawless world. The problem with this is instantly striking for those who’re familiar with the original characterisation of Raoh by Buronson, namely that he does not care for morality, only power. Take the scene from Hokuto No Ken where Ryuken places Kenshiro and Raoh in front of two large, and noticeably a bit miffed, tigers. The latter takes it to be a test of might and rips the big cat’s head off, whilst Ken needs to use little more than his aura to have the beast submit. This highlights, in a very simplistic way, how the elder brother, Raoh, misunderstands the teachings of his master and is intent on showing his brute force at all opportunities. Quite simply, he’s a steroidal meat head who likes pulping anything at hand. As that series progressed it tried to show some different sides to him, but it never really got far beyond the novel idea of him having emotions, culminating in a fairly damp squib of a final fight with his younger sibling. Osada’s writing has done away with this simple lust for power and wedged in its place a misguided drive to help the chaotic world by stamping order upon it by force, sort of like a latter day Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China.
Luckily this newly caring Raoh is still not afraid of reducing those who cross him to a jigsaw puzzle of broken flesh and bones. Be it a physical or territorial challenge or a perceived weakness that he will not allow to go unpunished, the walking slab of granite finds all sorts of reasons to make an unsightly mess of the dusty plains and dilapidated buildings. These action sequences highlight a key flaw in Legends of the Dark King though, as the style of martial arts practised by Raoh is distinctly un-cinematic. The kitsch charm of Hokuto No Ken was almost directly centred around Kenshiro and his faux Bruce Lee mannerisms (Buronson admitted he partly based his creation on Lee). The fights were, for want of a better word, cool because they imitated a timeless figure of kung-fu cinema, from the blurring of fists in slow motion to the wiping away blood on minor wounds, it was an animated kung-fu flick in many ways. As such, Ken’s fluid style of lighter punches allowed for an ebb and flow to the battles – Ken would be beaten back, he’d throw fast punches and kicks and ultimately could finish someone with a deft thumb upon a vital pressure point or a devastatingly vicious boulder-breaking blow. Raoh lacks this versatility and merely walks headlong into battles with sheer might on his side, which can make the hand-to-hand combat rather uninspiring, with the novelty of a punch decimating an individual soon losing its novelty, and the supposed new techniques all look very similar, basically when in trouble, give your next strike a fancy name and magically it will be stronger.
Fortunately for the monosyllabic man mountain he has people to fight and speak for him, the two primary examples being Reina and Souga, who not only act as our go-between with Raoh’s inner thoughts but also as the King of Fist’s (as he chooses to be known) General and strategist respectively. They directly relate (for narrative purposes) in many ways to Bart and Lynn from the original series, but allying Ken, a kind hearted man whose life is tinged with tragedy, to such underlings is far removed from repeating the process with a power-hungry and cold-blooded killer like Raoh. Little is known of their bond to start with, beyond that they are clearly allies that have history together, but from episode four onwards we get to see a little more of why they are banding together. However logical it may be from a storytelling point of view to have them included, the result is sadly a negative for the narrative, as the previously aloof figure who craved nothing more than unlimited power is reduced to looking like the odd one out in a weird post-apocalyptic pop band. The two siblings flanking the sides of a man that is supposed to be the very visage of megalomania just undermines him. It’s like if George Lucas was to go back and tell us that Darth Vader was a happy-go-lucky fresh faced kid who..….oh, wait a minute. Still, this argument is to some extent moot, as Hokuto No Ken and its sequel series were nothing if not formulaic in their approach to immediate changes of character, the typical story arc going: Saintly villagers killed, Ken hears of evil man, Ken fights evil man, Ken looks like he’s going to lose but instead gets angry and wins, evil man tells death bed sad story of how he lost his loved one/puppy got run over/dropped his lolly into sand (deleted as applicable) and that’s what turned him magically evil. It was never deep and you could always rely on the series to spin a ridiculously melodramatic story upon someone’s demise that went against the grain of all that had gone before.
These sensibilities and tolerances fans have built up for slapdash characterisation and simplistic storytelling, woven around action sequences, have their limits though - nothing can prepare you for the most wonderfully absurd episode of the whole series. The episodes work primarily to introduce you to different characters, and logically it makes sense to put in an iconic character early on as it is pivotal to the image of another, namely the horse Raoh rides. Who can forget the first time in the original series you saw a figure atop a distant mountain, underneath him a jet black steed all eyes of red and snorting like an enraged dragon. It is clear that the mount needed to be brought into the fray, but the way in which he comes to be allied with our protagonist is not only ridiculous, but it also serves as a highlighting of all the major flaws that Legends of the Dark Kings suffers from. Firstly there is little that happens that is free from being depicted as a major event. True it is only a 13 part series, but not every episode or incident has to be monumental, arguably the best, and bloodiest occurrences in Hokuto No Ken came when Kenshiro found himself up against characters that would not be coming back or hold any significance to the greater story arc. Here, even the acquisition of a suitable steed is seen as an opportunity to philosophise about the nature of power. The horse is not just any old nag, but is in fact known as The Black King, the leader of a vicious rogue pack of stallions that are capable of crushing armies. Raoh, deciding that he needs to confront these pesky ponies himself, is embroiled in a truly astonishing sequence of events, the least of which for us is witnessing a horse face off against two tigers, only for Raoh to stop anyone intervening saying “This is a battle between men”. There is some ensuing equine kung fu that resembles an episode of Black Beauty directed by Yuen Woo Ping, after which we are not even treated to a direct conflict between the two Kings.
This disappointing lack of violence continues unabated as the series admittedly gets better by bringing in much loved figures such as Toki, Raoh’s biological brother and fellow student of Ryuken’s, and the spectre of The Holy Emperor, a figure tantalising waved in front of us as a mysterious stranger we may all know. It is always pleasing to see characters that were only given low key treatment in the original’s basic style, allowed to shine a little more thanks to improved animation techniques, but although the build up of the two siblings meeting is perfect, once again the crescendo never appears. It is arguably logical in the case of this particular confrontation, but it doesn’t make the series any more thrilling. Once you strip away all the machismo and no longer have the ability to implement long story arcs, what you are left with to make something out of is a propensity for overly dramatic dialogue and the downright bloodthirsty fight sequences that should by rights be even more absurdly brutal now. The animation has improved, and sensibilities finally allow the makers to show all the claret they wish, but in many ways it has actually detracted from the appeal. The gushing of white blood in a polarized shot in Hokuto No Ken may have been a ratings necessity, but it was also an incredibly effective way to culminate battles. Take that away and what we’ve got is a simplistic splatter piece. Thankfully, the lines spoken by Raoh are still as preposterously pompous as all protagonists in the North Star universe should be, with some of the choicest examples coming as soon as his Herman Munster boots loom into view crushing rocks beneath them, such as “If I stray from my path, the heavens will laugh”. Add to this the street toughs’ and biker gangs’ usual lingo that frequently comes off as if it were the height of knowing kitsch straight out of a Roger Corman double bill.
Legends of the Dark Kings is not without its good points. The mix of nostalgia and new elements can work well, but for the most part this exegesis only really helps with those elements that viewers are already familiar with. The back-story of how Toki was captured, Uighur became in charge of the prison Cassandra, and Raoh made Devil Rock Castle his fortress, are all interesting inclusions to the North Star story, but the key additions of two lightweight figures in the form of Reina and Souga give the whole saga a distinctly buddy feel, like a dark hearted Pokemon, replacing the lead characters desire to collect pocket monsters with that of crushing rival fiefdoms. It is only really the implementation of Thouzer as a key rival to Raoh that gives anywhere near the same feeling of a rivalry that Hokuto No Ken so often played off, drip feeding information about a fierce warrior into the plot bit by bit, knowing that there would have to be a culmination to it all. The violence isn’t as stylised, nor as well orchestrated, but the technique symbol screens, for want of a better phrase, whereby fighters stand and tell their combatant what devastating attack they are about to launch, will certainly keep the waves of nostalgia lapping.
If you can put up with the immensely skewed characterisation in the first episodes that has Raoh showing compassion and proclaiming charitable lines such as “I shall use the fists the heavens have granted me, to save this worthless god-forsaken world”, as well as the introduction of new characters that would seem more comfortable in a series of significantly lighter tone, then you may just be able to appreciate the reinterpretation and find the trip down memory lane fun. If not, and you were hoping for this series to wholeheartedly redeem the missteps taken before it in the newer OVAs, then this experience will drag for you. It arguably repeats the original template in too many ways, coming complete with impossibly sudden personality shifts and merely offering up a conveyor belt of opponents for the protagonist to defeat. The established figures from the original series make this a worthwhile prospect for fans to seek out though, as it fills in some gaps about Toki’s time in Cassandra and shows more of a gradual curve to Raoh’s mania that, if you can ignore how it jars with many sequences shown in Hokuto No Ken, is arguably completely logical. Just sit back, disengage your brain and watch a man get punched in half, as the ensuing shockwave destroys a building behind him - Fist of the North Star was always mindless fun and if you accept that, then you should find this slight reinterpretation more than passable. It may start poorly, but the fact that it gets better with each episode bodes well for any further series, and the way everything ends, it’s set-up perfectly.
Full episode list:
My fists are for the heavens!
Kings understand Kings!
No castle can stand against me!
These fists are for other people!
The demon awakens!
The blue wolf tears across the earth!
Wailing resounds through the darkness!
A woman’s battle!
Fists smashes in hot sand!
The Holy Emperor cometh!
The King of Fist’s office is falling!
I walk the path of the heavens!