Fist of the North Star Vol. 1 (VIZ Signature)

306 pgs. B&W (with select color pages) | $19.99 hardcover | W: Buronson; A: Tetsuo Hara

To be a longtime American fan of the Fist of the North Star franchise is to be used to disappointment—not disappointment in the content of the series, but that it will be frustratingly incomplete. The franchise first arrived in the US in 1989 in the form of an infuriatingly difficult NES game. The then-nascent VIZ Communications jumped on the manga license, releasing the series in extra-length square-bound comics (in the then-standard “flopped” format to read left-to-right), taking the unusual step to colorize the natively black-and-white artwork. The series lasted only eight issues, gone from the comic shop shelves before the 1991 stateside release of the Fist of the North Star movie by Streamline Pictures. The movie gained a sizable enough cult following for VIZ to resurrect their manga release in 1995, only to stop again a year and a half later, with two-thirds of the manga still left untranslated. Manga Entertainment gave a go at releasing the 109-episode Fist TV series, but their English dub crapped out after just 36 episodes. In 2002, Raijin Comics tried their hand at translating the manga once again from the ground up, producing nine volumes of their handsome, oversize, (again) fully-colorized “Master Editions” before ceasing publication. In 2018, the manga was finally translated in English in its entirety—but on a dedicated[1] e-reader[2] called an eOneBook with a price tag around $300. In late 2020, VIZ announced they’d be returning to the well one more time, publishing the entire manga in a series of hardcover collections. As a fan of the series going back to that NES game, I’m ecstatic…but I’ll believe it when I hold the final volume in my hands.

When a series holds that kind of quarter-century-plus fan dedication, you might expect it to be some kind of grand work that plumbs depths and tugs at heartstrings and speaks to the very nature of the human condition. Fist of the North Star is not that. Fist of the North Star is about a guy who punches people and their heads explode.

Wait, let’s back up. Inspired by Mad Max, Fist of the North Star is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where human society has crumbled and the few extant villages struggle to survive the roving gangs who pillage and plunder for food and water. In this world walks Kenshiro, a man with seven scars on his chest in the shape of the Big Dipper. He is known as the divine Fist of the North Star, the master of Hokuto Shinken, a mystical martial art that uses the pressure points of the body to heal the good or punish the evil. Its most powerful techniques can even cause the body to explode from within.

Fist starts with an episodic cadence as Kenshiro and his sidekick Bat—a streetwise kid who attaches himself to Kenshiro’s hip as a means to scam food, shelter, and a bit of fun—wander from town to town, encountering roving gangs that he dispatches with brutal efficiency. It isn’t until halfway through this first volume that he’s given some motivation in the form of a past rival and a stolen girlfriend, but even that is just another step in his wanderings. He’s always on to the next town and the next villain in need of punishment.

If this sounds like it could get a little repetitive, it very well could, but it’s a testament to the inventiveness of writer Buronson that it doesn’t. Each chapter arrives with some new, sadistic twist on villainy and a wild new way for Kenshiro to enact grisly vengeance. Buronson writes Kenshiro as a man of few words but when he does speak, the words have weight, putting the exclamation point at the end of each bloody sentence. By means of example: one fight ends with a technique Ken calls “Hokuto Fleeting Remorse” wherein he shoves his thumbs into the baddie’s temples and tells him he will die three seconds after he removes them. “Use those three seconds,” Kenshiro tells him, “to reflect on your sins.” It’s classic ‘80s action movie hero stuff, but there’s a reason why those classic Schwarzenegger and Stallone and Seagal movies were so huge. If you love seeing heroes beat insurmountable odds to take down bad guys with brutal efficiency and follow it with a killer quip, it doesn’t get much better that this.

For as influential as Fist is, it’s surprising how little of Tetsuo Hara’s art style can be seen in the shonen action manga of today. His style is definitely of the ‘80s, with a nod to the stylized realism of classic DC artist Neal Adams or peers like Ryoichi Ikegami (Crying Freeman) or Takao Saito (Golgo 13). He gives his characters form with a nice thick ink line, then adds detail and shape with fine feathering and cross-hatching but very little screentone—it’s the kind of inkwork where a leather jacket really looks like it’s made of leather. Hara draws exactly three kinds of people: burly musclebound villains, scrawny innocent victims, and Kenshiro himself, a muscular yet lithe hero designed to be quick on his feet, a cross between Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Lee. To make his compositions more interesting, Hara loves to play with size, letting his villains grow in stature during the course of a battle until Kenshiro barely comes up to their waist. Taken as literal, it’s preposterous, but Hara doesn’t want his art to be realistic, he wants it to look cool, and it couldn’t look much cooler.

And the violence, oh, the glorious violence is where Hara excels the most. He stages his fights perfectly, each one having a quiet-before-the-storm, this-is-your-last chance moment, giving that much more power to the epic release of carnage that breaks that silence, each decapitation and dismemberment captured in gory detail. The series’ steady rhythm, where Kenshiro unleashes a new brutal technique in nearly every chapter, is a recipe for repetition, yet Hara finds new ways to solve the same problem visually. Half of the reason you want to barrel on to the next chapter is to see what craziness he’ll draw next.

The translation by Joe Yamazaki is a pretty close match to Raijin’s (uncredited) translation, though a little smoother, a little closer in tone to the clipped 1980s action movie tone that Buronson was going for. There are a few little hiccups: the word “guerrilla” is misspelled twice, and one joke is translated to where it’s no longer a joke: In the final chapter, a villain says “God chose us for this war!” and Ken interrupts and—in the Raijin translation—says he didn’t choose them and introduces himself as the “God of Death.” (A nice twist of phrase! Kind of a badass action hero thing to say!) But in Yamazaki’s translation, Ken says he’s merely “The Reaper”—literally the same meaning, yes, but the parallelism between the use of “God” in the two, the whole villain-sets-the-ball-and-the-hero-spikes-it moment is gone, robbing the scene of a bit of its drama.

Minor translation quibbles aside, the series has never looked better than it does here, a sturdy hardcover with thick paper that reproduces Hara’s artwork impeccably without the muddying effect of past attempts at colorization. (In a nice touch, this book does retain the handful of pages that were originally published in Japan either in full color or in evocative black-and-white-and-red.) The pages are slightly smaller than a standard America comic book but larger than VIZ’s mid-‘90s releases, but at that size and a 300-page length, the book is a nice, readable size without being awkward to hold or losing artwork within the binding. It really is the best possible release you could imagine for this classic beat ‘em up book. Here’s hoping for a whole lot more just like it. | Jason Green

Click here to read a free preview, courtesy of VIZ!

Footnotes:

[1] “Dedicated” meaning that if you bought the e-reader, Fist was the only thing you could read on it; any other series required buying a separate device.

[2] The eOneBook is unusual among e-readers in that it literally unfolds like a book so that the art is viewed as two-page spreads, albeit with a rather thick blank area in the center to accommodate the spine.

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