Hokuto No Ken
AAATATATATATATATATATATATATATAAAH! [pause] You are already dead.
With that phrase, one of the most alternately popular and ridiculed characters in anime made his mark. Although new anime fans probably have never heard or seen Kenshiro's trademark attack, it is famous throughout Japan. With a long-running television program, manga, and both an animated and live-action feature film to its credit, Hokuto no Ken once was the king of bloody martial arts anime. Its disappearance from the scene is not widely mourned, though, as time shows us that the main character is the only cool thing in what was mostly an inane gorefest.
Hokuto no Ken is set in the wasteland of a nuclear apocalypse not dissimilar to that of The Road Warrior, where no one is safe and law has no meaning. Into this world comes Kenshiro, a martial artist with a sense of justice. He befriends two orphans, Bat and Lynne, who accompany him on his journeys. Ken is not an aimless wanderer, however; the point of his quest is to eventually find Yuria, his long-lost love stolen from his side by an old rival. Ken searches the barren countryside for any sign that Yuria might still be alive and waiting for him. Along the way, of course, he meets countless evildoers with their eyes set on carnage and destruction. Ken is the only thing stopping them--and stop them he does.
Hokuto no Ken makes horror films like Evil Dead and Friday the 13th look pedestrian in comparison in terms of splatter. Anyone remotely squeamish should stay away from this series and particularly from the movie, which shows far more that they couldn't get away with on television. Ken's fighting technique is to hit various bodily pressure points so that his opponents literally come apart from within. As such, the show looks for various creative ways for these folks to burst apart at their own seams. At times, the whole thing is so completely and unbelievably gruesome that it turns into comedy. (Actually, it's so over the top that laughter is inevitable, which destroys the drama but can't be helped.) This show defined the edges of what television animation could get away with in the 1980s for violence.
Hokuto no Ken will always be remembered for its ferocity, but beyond that, there's little here. The artwork is characteristically dull, with flat character designs and blatantly cheap animation, even in the feature-length film. Though the pop music within is sometimes passable, the soundtrack is pretty much a miss. Production is not a strength here.
All would be forgiven if this show really got anywhere, but it doesn't. Both the film and the television show cover a lot of the same ground, though the film condenses everything dramatically. The storyline with Yuria, a primary driver in the film and a background issue on TV, is really only there to keep some sort of forward movement going. The main problem is that a show of this sort can never have a proper resolution. What would a wanderer show be without a wanderer? Indeed, at one point the manga does tell us of Yuria's fate, but by that time Ken is so used to his life that he cannot settle. Bat and Lynne grow up over the course of the manga; even then there isn't much actual growth. And who needs little kids in a story like this? They just get in the way. This show thrives on the new villain of the week, and the film just throws fight after fight at us until we get to see boss after boss explode. Sometimes it manages to surprise and impress us with its coolness, but otherwise it's all too familiar.
Back in early high school, my friends and I would stay up late on Friday nights and watch all sorts of movies. Occasionally, somebody would get a video that was sure to be cool to everybody because it was somehow verboten, usually due to horror or violence. Hokuto no Ken was just that sort of violent, testosterone-driven show we might have checked out. However, to older audiences this will just seem silly. I still recall when I took a friend to see Hokuto no Ken: The Movie back when it was playing at a local theater without knowing what we were getting into, and it nearly scared him off anime forever. As I put it in my original pocket review, I find the whole thing pretty dumb. If you enjoy the laughs the show provides, as backwards as that sounds, that's really the best (and, in my opinion, only) reason to watch.
Hokuto no Ken TV -- graphic (but often silhouetted) violence -- C
Hokuto no Ken: The Movie -- EXTREME graphic violence, brief nudity -- C-