In the mid-1980s, there were two shōnen titles that redefined our general understanding of battle manga. One was Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball, a series that started off somewhat childish and parodic towards things like martial arts cinema, but eventually paved the way for the type of modern shōnen storytelling that you see now in One Piece and My Hero Academia. However, one year before the publication of Toriyama’s creation, there was Fist of the North Star, which Viz Media has begun re-publishing in hardcover editions.
Set sometime in the 1990s where a worldwide nuclear war has destroyed most of civilization, turning the world into a desert wasteland, what’s left of humanity has led to a cycle of violence where the strong prey on the weak. Wandering the post-apocalyptic world is Kenshiro, the successor to Hokuto Shinken AKA the Fist of the North Star, an ancient martial art of assassination that trains its practitioners to kill from within an opponent’s body through the use of hidden meridian points. Along with young thief Bat, Kenshiro travels to help those in need away from the violent forces that rule this world.
Buronson has cited Bruce Lee and Mad Max as being major influences towards this manga, and Fist of the North Star wears those influences proudly. From its desert wasteland to the mohawk-wearing punk gangs, the Mad Max inspiration is perhaps tiresome by today’s standards, but Buronson does not hold back from showing the brutality that this world can unleash. Despite being marketed towards a young teen male readership, the book’s mature content is not for the faint of heart. It’s a clear influence on works like Kentaro Miura’s Berserk.
Following an archetypical western frontier movie motif, in which the lone wanderer fights from one location to another to rid of any bad people, the storytelling can be repetitive. If you are well-versed in the genre of battle manga, much of the action is basically Kenshiro fighting one big boss before moving onto a bigger boss. Later in the volume, we do see some of Kenshiro’s backstory and there is a big section where the action takes a personal turn with Ken reuniting with familiar faces old and new.
Going back to the Dragon Ball comparison, you can’t think of a greater contrast to Toriyama’s cartoonish artwork, especially when it comes to the heightened martial arts action. Tetsuo Hara’s art is more brutish — all his male characters are all about muscled anatomy, and all the female characters are drawn with a touch of innocence and elegance. There isn’t much detail in the background art that showcase the desert wasteland, as there’s more emphasis on the expressive, violent man-to-man action where certain martial arts moves have the gory impact to rival the fatalities of Mortal Kombat. Despite a few color pages that always look a bit off, it’s a good thing that the rest of the manga is black-and-white as the gory violence would be too much if colorized.
Although this is dramatically inert compared to the future works that this inspired, Fist of the North Star remains an important and well-crafted battle manga that wears its own influences proudly.
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