Today we take anime and manga for granted. Manga sits on the shelves near the regular trade paperback versions of American comic books, video on demand is chock full of anime TV shows, OAVs (Original Animation Videos, kinda like straight to video mini-series) and anime feature films. The likes of Pokemon and Yu Gi Oh have completely crossed over and you can’t visit a fan convention without seeing cosplayers portraying thousands of anime and manga characters. But back in the early to mid-90’s it was a very different state of affairs. Perhaps you might have heard of Katsuhiro Otomo’s seminal masterpiece Akira but you had to either be very active on the tape trading scene, or had a lot of disposable income to purchase the expensive and very limited releases of anime on VHS. It is then not terribly surprising that when the film industry took notice of the interest in this niche market, it was with an eye for producing lower-budget, straight to video fare rather than a major studio dropping $100 million+ on a lavish production. Produced in 1995 and erroneously marketed in some countries as the “first live action manga movie” (Japan had been adapting manga to live action for years and there were two English language Guyver movies made in 1991 and 1994) Fist of the North Star was nevertheless quite a big deal in anime/manga circles on release despite its modest budget of around $7 million. It, along with a live action Crying Freeman that has still never seen a US release (it’s actually really good), attempted to reproduce what made their source material so successful while keeping a close eye on the budget. How successful was this outing in doing so?
Set in a bleak future following the planet being devastated by nuclear war, Fist of the North Star stars Gary Daniels as Kenshiro. He is a tortured soul wandering the wasteland in the wake of his former friend Shin murdering his father, kidnapping his fiance and leaving him for dead. He and Shin were both the masters of their two martial arts disciplines: Northern Star and Southern Cross. With Northern Star seemingly destroyed, Shin was able to marshal enough forces under his command that he was able to form city of Southern Cross, sending out his Crossmen minions to raid other settlements for their supplies and forcing them to live under his rule. Kenshiro cares only for revenge, even trying to deny his fate as the soul inheritor of the North Star style and the responsibility that position holds. Finally after meeting youngsters Bat and Lynn and seeing the plight of their people he is unable to stand idly by as innocent people are beaten and killed at the hands of Lord Shin’s Crossmen. Kenshiro must finally realize his true potential and fight to save not only the woman he loves but everything good left in humanity.
The live action FOTNS takes an approximation of the first story arc from the series, Kenshiro’s pathway to his confrontation with his nemesis Shin and disregards or trivializes many of the encounters he experiences on his way to getting there. This might be off-putting for some fans of the source material but one must remember that with an approximate $7 million budget sacrifices were going to be made. Leave it to a director who had spent most of his career making horror movies to know how to make best use of a limited budget. Best known for making Hellbound: Hellraiser II and Ticks, Tony Randel brought his horror sensibilities to an adaptation of a manga and anime famed for it’s violence and gore. Afterall, Kenshiro holds the secrets to a martial art where contact with certain secret pressure points cause his enemies to explode into bloody messes. Lord Shin has the power to make people’s veins pop and explode blood out of their bodies. It is good to see a low budget feature to it’s best to bring as much as that comical violence as possible to live action. Indeed we are treated to exploding bloody wounds, displaced pieces of anatomy, and a head popping open. Wheeeee!
Randel also knows how to bring the occasional arty-looking shot into some visual storytelling and also gives time to the more emotional aspects of the story. While Kenshiro metes out justice in the wastelands Randel and co-writer Peter Atkins give some time to the Shin/Julia storyline. Costas Mandylor brings real acting chops as the increasingly tragic Lord Shin who in his own misguided way is trying to create a new empire fit for Julia to be Queen of, to prove to her his undying love that will never be returned. The original series captured this melancholic edge to the villains and it’s pleasing to find it reproduced quite effectively here. Where Randel falls down a little is the world building seeing as much of the world exists in the form of miniatures. It is also very obvious that a lot of the wasteland scenes are shot on a soundstage with drag matte paintings in the background. Alas, such is the way when it comes to making an effects-heavy sci-fi action movie on a budget that wouldn’t pay for Michael Bay’s fur coat collection.
Also a little problematic is the lack of experience Randel had in shooting martial arts sequences. If you learn anything from watching classic kung-fu movies of the 70’s and 80’s, it’s that you keep the camera panned out as far as you can so you can capture as much full-body motion as possible. 9 times out of 10 if the action is shot in very close-quarters with lots of quick cuts it’s because you are hiding a lack of actual skill. This was definitely not the case with the movie’s star Gary Daniels. Gary is the real deal starting out as a competitive kick-boxer and picking up small walk-on appearances on TV shows before getting roles in martial arts movies. FOTNS was only his fourth leading man role and while definitely a little rough around the edges in the acting department, he makes for a formidable physical presence and a great fit for the Kenshiro role. Daniels says he was given a special diet and workout regimen to bulk up a little for the role but that additional muscle doesn’t get in the way of him looking mightily impressive while beating the shit out of everything that moves. His kicking techniques are especially impressive, sadly these skills are often not caught especially well. In the following sequence, still the best fight scene in the movie mind you, parts had to be edited out because the whole thing was only shot from one angle making some of the battle unviewable.
Costas Mandylor, future Jigsaw devotee, lends decent acting chops that make up for his lack of martial arts training. He learned on-set with Daniels and his sifu and the fight choreography was well-constructed to give Shin a fighting style that would cover for much of Mandylor’s deficiencies. The supporting cast is surprisingly deep, Chris Penn is in a suitably sleazy role as lead henchman Jackel, Malcolm McDowell lends gravitas as Ken’s dead father Ryuken. Dante Basco, probably best known as Rufio in the movie Hook, is fine as the cocky young Bat, and former Vee-Jay Downtown Julie Brown and blaxploitation legend Melvin Van Peebles (father of Mario) have their fair share of supporting scenes. Isako Washio has an ethereal beauty to her that is perfect for the role of Julia, she communicates much with very little dialog which works wonderfully with Mandylor’s increasingly desperate Shin. Also of note is the score by Christopher L. Stone which lends the film an extra dose of cinematic flare which in a lower-budget production certainly adds atmosphere and production value.
All in all, Fist of the North Star makes a good account of itself and is a high point in a straight to video movie industry that we really started to see cheapen and go lower and lower budget as it headed towards the 00’s. The fun action more than outweighs the corners cut for budgetary reasons and some iffy cinematography and ably showcases a much underappreciated action performer in Gary Daniels. It is also interesting that even today, Hollywood has not really been able to tap into manga or anime and create feature films from them despite the numerous attempts to get Akira off the ground. Those able to see past the b-movie trappings will get that fix right here. Two exploding thumbs up.