In the wake of an apocalyptic nuclear war, humanity survives. Some band together to rebuild. They seek to forge communities. Others mistake strength for divine right. They gather followers and seek to forge empires. Still others are just plain rotten. They seek to take whatever they can get their grubby mitts on, no matter who they have to kill to claim it. Amidst the chaos, there walks a hero: Kenshiro—the 64th successor of the unstoppable assassin’s art Hokuto Shinken, the Reaper, the Man with Seven Scars… the man who will one day be called the Savior of the Century’s End.
As the master of Hokuto Shinken, Kenshiro (Ken to his friends) is an expert at the manipulation of the body’s pressure points—through precise strikes in precise sequences, he can both deal out astoundingly brutal deaths (fair warning, NSFW carnage abounds) and heal otherwise untreatable injuries. Despite the harshness of the world, the frequent cruelty he encounters, and the fact that Hokuto Shinken is literally capable of making people explode, Ken is a deeply good man. He’s compassionate, open with his emotions (and quite emotionally intelligent on top of that), and remarkably warm to his friends.
Ken does not kill for the sake of violence, and he recognizes humanity even in people he has good reason to hate. But at the same time, he will show no mercy to those who would prey upon others weaker than they, and he is not to be trifled with.
When first introduced, he was wandering the Wasteland in search of his beloved Yuria and his former best friend Shin. Shin gave Ken his infamous constellation of scars while abducting Yuria, his viciousness driven by the warped belief that only someone willing to cast aside their morality could protect others in the brutal new world. After recovering, Ken set out to rescue Yuria and take revenge on Shin—both by defeating him and by maintaining his compassion and fundamental decency no matter how harsh the world might be.
In Fist of the North Star‘s first volume artist Tetsuo Hara and writer Buronson introduced Ken, his ludicrous lethality, and his young pals/traveling companions Bat and Lin. He settled the score with Shin, learned of Yuria’s (apparent) death, and vowed to continue wielding Hokuto Shinken to protect those who could not protect themselves. Volume 2 sees the continuation of Ken’s adventures in battling malign megacreeps, a revelation about Bat’s past, and the introduction of long-term supporting character and fellow martial artist Rei.
There are a number of reasons why Fist of the North Star remains beloved and influential to shonen manga and action comics in general at 38 years old. Aesthetically, Tetsuo Hara’s ravaged world is one of the great post-apocalyptic Wastelands. It’s a place where rising from the ashes is not just possible but genuinely doable—but the nature of the rise can vary wildly. Sometimes it’s people pooling their knowledge and skills to build a new home. Other times it’s cruelty heaped upon cruelty, with the wicked ascending mountains made from the corpses of those they’ve abused. It’s a world of beauty and ruin, and it’s tremendously striking.
As for the action that takes place within this world? It’s terrific. Whether Kenshiro’s laying waste to hordes of goons or trading blows with those few foes who can match Hokuto Shinken with styles of their own, Hara keeps the fights creative and kinetic. Consider the spread below, where a gaggle of wannabe special forces-types proves to be no match for Hokuto Shinken whatsoever.
Kenshiro is always fun to read, both in action and at peace—whether he’s bouncing off someone’s head or bouncing off Bat and Lin. His deeply ingrained decency and the work he does to maintain it amidst his violence-filled life make for a compelling narrative throughline. It’s particularly welcome in volume two, which struggles to build and maintain momentum compared to volume one. None of the short-lived bands of evildoers Kenshiro comes up against make a strong impression, especially not compared to Shin.
While Shin did not have a great deal of page time, Hara and Buronson used what they had given him incredibly well—establishing his personal history with Kenshiro and Yuria, the ways he tries to rule over the Wasteland, and the ways in which his Nanto Seiken style contrasted with Hokuto Shinken visually and thematically. Volume two’s goons, by contrast, are a much blander lot.
The special forces leader Ken faces off with early on in the volume could have been an interesting fallen hero-type given his backstory, but he lacks the capacity for self-reflection that would make his insistence on brutal militarism particularly wicked/tragic. He’s most interesting as further proof of Ken’s decency—he tries to point out to the other man how far he’s fallen, but the special forces leader’s too flat a character for anything to take.
Indeed, that exchange sums up the best and worst of Fist of the North Star‘s second volume quite well. Hara’s action remains a joy to take in. Kenshiro, Bat, and Lin get some solid character moments. And there’s a slight but noticeable aimlessness to the story, which is not helped by the volume’s weak villains.
Still, volume 2’s final chapters pick up a bit from this relative lull with the introduction of Rei, a Nanto Seiken master who can both keep up with Ken in a fight and introduces a new turn in the story that should give it the push it needs to match what it accomplished in the first volume.
It’s taken a long while for Fist of the North Star‘s original manga to make it to the US. I’m very, very glad that it’s here. The action/violence is a blast. The contradiction between that violence and Kenshiro’s compassion is narratively intriguing. Kenshiro is a stupendous protagonist. Despite the flat villains, Fist of the North Star‘s second volume is well worth checking out. I am tremendously excited to read volume three.
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