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Fist of the North Star: The Movie
"Fist of the North: The Movie" makes no false claims as to what it is. The cover of this new DVD edition proudly boasts the film as being, "The Most Violent, Action Packed Animated Film of All Time." I can safely say, this isn't a case of false advertising. If you're looking for a film where, "fists fly, heads explode, and super powered men clash" (another line lifted from the back case), then this new DVD will definitely fill that void in your life. However, be prepared for that action to be padded by some truly nonsensical, unoriginal storytelling.
This 1986 animated film attempted to bring the first three years of the original manga to the big screen, but from what I've researched took numerous liberties with the mythology of the series and the end result is "The Road Warrior" meets "The Big Boss." The main protagonist of this tale is Kenshiro, Hokuto Shinken martial arts master. Ken's tale begins with him being left for dead by his brother Jagi after being betrayed by rival martial arts master Shin. A year passes in this post apocalyptic world and during what is assumed to be one of many attacks by bandit gangs on surviving citizens, Kenshiro returns to the world, more powerful than before. He dispenses justice with his mystical Hokuto Shinken or Fist of the North Star. When Ken punches someone they explode, literally. This gimmick quickly becomes the standard of the film and the creators seem to try and outdo themselves in pure carnage the more the film progresses.
The violence of this film was so controversial at the time that the film was edited of certain scenes in Japan and to my knowledge this is the first time the original uncut edition of the film has seen the light of day on home video. It will be very obvious what scenes were added back in as there is a significant difference in video quality (more on that in the video section); what is interesting, is these cuts further elevate the violence to a level that is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. The most absurd scenes would have to go to Ken punching a guy in the chest repeatedly, followed by the foe, writing in agony as his head breaks apart and a fountain of blood sprays out.
Fortunately, the film isn't 110 minutes of pure mayhem; unfortunately the story is so clichéd that one will seriously question whether the editor on this film did anything at all. As Ken returns to the world, he sets out on a quest to find Shin, his betrayer and reclaim the woman he loves, who is being kept prisoner. His quest will lead him to Rei, another martial arts practitioner who seeks to save his sister from Ken's corrupt brother Jagi. The two encounter a number of small gangs, each ending in a "boss fight" and each leading them closer to their intended goals. While this type of plot might work in a video game, or as the conclusion to a film (such as the "boss fight" theme in the finale of the previously mentioned "Game of Death"), to stretch the idea out for nearly two hours is a sign of poor writing.
The writers had one other chance to redeem themselves, and that regards the setting. Instead of coming up with some original concepts for a post-apocalyptic world, they instead rehash themes from Mad Max and The Road Warrior, right down to Jagi sporting a very, Lord Humungus inspired mask. The only thing missing from these two films are the charm and likeability. Ken and Rei are both underdeveloped, basically unlikable characters. The only characters that end up being interesting and having real depth are two of the films latter villains. This is yet another sign of a real inconsistency in story telling quality.
In terms of performances, the original Japanese cast actually does admirably. The voices thematically fit the characters they are attached to and what little soul is present in the primary heroes, is largely due to good voice work. The same cannot be said for the English dub which is a very stereotypical late 80s/early 90s piece of work. Dialogue is stilted and much to my surprise seems to be working from a completely different script. I watched sections of the film with the English dub, with the subtitles from Japanese audio running as well. The English dub throws out the mythology of the martial arts the characters in this film practice and in its place lies a lot of macho talk about revenge.
Despite its many flaws, I didn't hate this film as might be expected. I enjoyed the martial arts mythology presented, despite it's limited focus, and there were a few standout action pieces. Once the film gets past it's very arduous set-up, despite being the Mad Max rehashes, is decent escapist fair for the ensuing fifty minutes. When the plot shifts towards the ultimate finale, the story feels like it's been stretched out way too thin and at this point, I began checking my watch more than once to see if there really was forty minutes left. The ending, without giving details, felt like a cheap hook for a proposed sequel. Would I watch the film again? Maybe, but there's a tremendous amount of anime out there that I would check out first.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer is quite excellent. I did a bit of research into this DVD release and it appears that the film was remastered recently and the quality definitely shows, with a few very obvious exceptions. I mentioned the reports of the film having been censored for years and snippets of additional violence being added back in here; if this is the case, then the source material for these additions was in terrible shape, akin to second generation VHS quality. These additions are very jarring and the film goes from a truly pristine looking remastered transfer to a grainy, unrestored clip, and then back to the remastered picture. It took me out of the film on more than one occasion and its very unfortunate the same remastering process wasn't applied to these restored scenes. The rest of the film had no detectible digital flaws and this does nothing but help, the sometimes less than stellar quality of animation.
"Fist of the North Star: The Movie" is presented in both stereo original Japanese and English dub tracks. I highly suggest you watch the film with the original audio and subtitles, for two reasons. One, the atmospheric audio is much better than I would expect, with the surrounds picking up environmental noise and the sub coming alive during moments of the better than expected score. If there is one complaint I have with the Japanese audio track, it's the sound level of the voices. There are times where certain character voices will undergo moments of distortion, as if the sound mix was much higher than it should have been. The English dub suffers from flat, hollow sounding voices and due to the complete gutting of an already thin story, should be avoided. Standard English subtitles for the Japanese audio track are present as are English subtitles for the hearing impaired.
The sole extras are two original Japanese trailers, a still image gallery, and a set of character profiles. The character profiles are helpful after watching the film, if one were a bit lost on who was who, but be warned, there are major spoilers contained it the profiles.
Despite it's infamous reputation, an overly long, unoriginal, weak story keeps "Fist of the North Star: The Movie" from being more than just a cult classic. Viewers wanting substance should look elsewhere and those wanting animated mayhem should take into account, that there is a lot of plot to sit through to get to the insanely violence, but often brief action scenes. If you were a previous fan of this film, this new DVD is a must buy due to the remastered transfer and possible addition of previously cut scenes. For everyone else, this isn't the worst anime film, but it's also far from the best. Rent It.