I. Was. Shook.
Folks, I have to be perfectly honest with you. I always dreamed of this day, but I never believed it would actually happen, certainly not in this fashion. Finally, after decades of waiting, Fist of the North Star is once again back in print with an official translation.
(Yes, I understand that technically there was that release that was specifically done for a one-off tablet/reader device with Fist of the North Star already installed but… look, I’m not counting that as a real release)
So here we are, a legendary work that has long since been revered and respected is once more back in print in the United States, allowing an entire generation to experience it once again. And not only that, I get to be the one reviewing the release for this fine website. It’s all very humbling.
So what is Fist of the North Star and why should you read it?
Well, Fist of the North Star – also known as Hokuto no Ken – is considered one of the all-time greats of shonen action manga. In many ways, it is the ur-text of the genre. For many people, the simple mention of anime or manga would conjure up stereotypical images of a pair of brawlers who make intense fashion choices and punch each other with energy fists. This is obviously a gross oversimplification of two incredibly varied mediums, but the fact remains that some of the most popular anime and manga to date do roughly adhere to that mental image – Dragon Ball, Bleach, Naruto, One Piece, My Hero Academia, the list goes on. Many if not all of these works have, either directly or indirectly, a little of Fist of the North Star running through their DNA.
Fist of the North Star hit the stage in 1983 and essentially set the mold for the Weekly Shonen Jump action-adventure manga going forward. It is one of the most popular titles of one of the most popular comic magazines of all time, both in its heyday in the mid-1980s and in the years that have followed, largely due to its intense focus on wuxia/martial arts tropes such as varied fighting styles, Chinese-inspired mythology/history, and use of Hollywood-style post apocalyptic imagery. Kenshiro is Mad Max 2 starring Bruce Lee, at least in the initial pitch, and quickly grows to become a grand and dramatic tale of brotherhood, conflict, and loss.
Okay, but why do we have to read this manga ? Why not just give it a nod for its historical importance and move on?
Simply put – you’d be missing out on greatness.
Fist of the North Star is more than just a historical phenomenon. It is more than just “the coolest thing at the time” or a draft run for great ideas. Fist of the North Star is worth reading right here, right now, and can still easily stand toe to toe with other works currently on the shelf.
Perhaps the biggest draw is Tetsuo Hara‘s art. Few mangakas have had an impact on future generations quite like Tetsuo Hara. When you look at these pages, you will see the unmistakable influence he has had on countless other artists down the line, such as Hirohiko Araki, Eiichiro Oda, and the late Kentarou Miura. His characters are larger than life, rendered in unbelievable detail, and they brutalize one another in over-the-top displays of meticulously realized violence.
And what violence! Fist of the North Star revels in violence in all its visceral reality and comic absurdity. Plenty of the death scenes in this manga – of which there are many – are more horror movie than action flick, existing somewhere in the Venn Diagram of “car wash full of spaghetti sauce” and “uncomfortably detailed autopsy.” It is meant to shock, to excite, and to entertain – and it does this in spades.
But Fist of the North Star also has at its core a meaningful and resonant story. I would not go so far as to call it complex plotting – when by the creators’ own admissions this was a work done under pressure and with the fear of imminent cancellation often hanging over their heads should its popularity dip – but it is not all mindless violence and shock factor. Kenshiro’s journey only begins in this volume, and while things seem straightforward enough, it is no less powerful for its simplicity. Buronson guides us slowly but inexorably from humble beginnings into a world that is, if not complex, then carefully textured to give each fight progressively higher and more meaningful stakes. Kenshiro is one of the most iconic manga characters ever created not only because of his immediately recognizable look or his toolbox of pressure-point-manipulating martial arts, but also because of the deep pathos that runs through his life story.
Even though Fist of the North Star helped solidify the many tropes of shonen action manga going forward, you will not find a bright-eyed, naïve hothead protagonist in Kenshiro. Kenshiro is a man who has faced countless sorrows in his past, and as the story unfolds you will come to understand that he is the Man With the Seven Scars in both body and in spirit. This first volume presents a rather simple world and protagonist, but they are the seeds of a much richer emotional complexity down the line. There’s no arguing that this is a story about exploding heads and football-armored motorcycle goons, but deep down it is also about brotherhood, sacrifice, and the true cost of two warriors risking everything in a contest of will.
So, I implore you, pick up this manga. Whether you are getting it for its historical significance or its absurd violence, its vision of a retro-future wasteland or its beefy shirt-busting brawlers, its legendary artwork or its emotionally-driven story, I think you will find that few other works can compare to the 1800 year history of the invincible Fist of the North Star.