Here is where things start to get interesting. While the first volume of Fist of the North Star is a terrific read and involves some of the most important events and villains of the series, there is no denying that it is the earlier part of the work and it shows. From the art to the structure to the focus, Volume 1 represents the formative moments of the series, but it’s also clear that Buronson and Tetsuo Hara were still finding their footing. With Volume 2, we start to see the shape of what the series will eventually become. While Fist of the North Star started with Volume 1, it’s here where its legacy truly begins.
There is no radical departure between the volumes per se. The story beats are similar: Kenshiro wanders from place to place, encountering people and places in his travels. Life is tough, resources are scarce, and common folk are desperate to survive the harsh realities of life in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. Bandits and marauders run rampant and Kenshiro puts an end to their predations with hilariously violent and incredibly cool martial arts. While it would not be entirely wrong to say that the series is still episodic and formulaic at this stage, it’s also a gross oversimplification of the shifts we see in these chapters.
God’s Land gives us the first inkling of a wider thematic undercurrent running through the text. As usual, Kenshiro blazes a trail through the various commando dudes in spectacularly gory fashion, but it is the final encounter with Colonel that is the most shocking twist. Colonel – who is undoubtedly an inspiration for the Street Fighter character Rolento – reveals the reason why his men are so ruthless: during the Cold War, he had a meeting with the generals and found them living it up in hedonistic excess with business magnates, while his men were fighting and dying for their wars. Furthermore, they consider him useless and obsolete in the face of nuclear weapons, since a single push of a button can cause far more destruction than his entire commando unit. Ultimately, it is the ease with which devastation on such scale can be released that damned the world to an apocalyptic nightmare born of hellfire and greed.
This segment does not make the God’s Land warriors sympathetic but it does make their motivations understandable. The violent excesses of the roving bandit gangs might seem callous and ridiculous, but Colonel’s revelation makes us question the peace of the world that was. Were things any different in the “better” world, where “peace” is upheld by the power to wipe out humanity in the press of a button? Was life really better, or had we simply become accustomed to being preyed upon by a different breed of violent gangs, ones who wore tailored suits instead of spiked armor? And is this post-apocalyptic hellscape any less of a might-makes-right situation than the prior world leaders’ geopolitical maneuvering, sending strike teams and missiles to fight proxy wars in distant lands?
Kenshiro kills Colonel for his unforgivable sins – and make no mistake, God’s Land is a place of villainy – but this time the reader has more to ruminate on after the action dies down.
Another highlight is Jackal, who is a more cerebral enemy than he appears at first glance. Jackal is one of my favorite minor villains in the series. He has nowhere near the gravitas of the great villains coming down the pike, but he exists in a really fun space for the series. Most of Kenshiro’s opponents are either deeply personal and important villains connected to his past, or one-shot episodic villains who get pasted pretty quickly in between the bigger arcs. Jackal manages to stick around for a long stretch while also being “just” a random villain. But furthermore, he is not a threat due to his martial abilities, but rather his cunning.
Jackal is a ruthless survivalist, willing to do anything and use any technique to survive. He ties sticks of dynamite to his chest and threatens children. He steals a pendant with the Devil of Villainy Prison’s mother and pretends to be his brother to get him to fight Kenshiro. He has no hope of beating Kenshiro in a one-on-one fight, and yet pulls out all the stops to threaten the people Kenshiro cares about. These aspects are what make him such a great counterpoint to Kenshiro and a memorable villain for the audience. We can loathe him utterly but still admire his tenacity, his drive to survive in the face of whatever comes his way.
We also see hints of future themes in execution, sometimes quite literally. I have often said that Kenshiro is essentially a horror movie monster. The villains have moral failings and meet ironic, bloody ends at Kenshiro’s hands. We see him outfox Fox’s jumping powers by getting beneath him. We see him hang a goon who was about to hang a child (with one hand over a cliff, no less). We see him leave a stick of hissing dynamite for Jackal while still in the fraternal clutches of the Devil who was, ultimately, convinced of their brotherhood. Kenshiro does not just mete out random justice, but ironic vengeance tailored to the sins of his opponents – and to the catharsis of the readers.
We also get our first glimpses of Mamiya and Rei in this volume. If you’re new here, you probably do not know how important these characters will become based on the few chapters they have. But suffice it to say, both of them – especially fan-favorite Rei – become integral to the series and Kenshiro’s journey. Rei’s popularity in particular is no doubt related to the absolutely iconic death scenes of villains chopped to bloody chunks by his Nanto Suicho Ken style. It’s hilarious and awesome every time, and I am as engrossed by these gross out moments today as I was the first time I saw them as a young man.
The art is beginning to mature as well. The quality was there in those early chapters, but it was still a pastiche of its influences. It’s apparent that Tetsuo Hara is becoming more confident with what Fist of the North Star‘s style is in these chapters. Kenshiro looks less like Bruce Lee cosplaying Mad Max and starts to look, well, more like Kenshiro. The bones were always there, but the style and technical prowess get cranked up to eleven. Evocative panel layouts, distinctive character designs, jaw-dropping backgrounds – the world and characters are leaping right off the page to match the intensity of what is happening in the text.
If it sounds like all I am doing is gushing about how great this volume is, that’s because… I don’t really have any negatives to speak of. Other than a few typos in the translation, Volume 2 is basically perfect. Fist of the North Star is my favorite series and Volume 2 is where you can begin to see why it became one of the most legendary comics of all time.
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