I wanted to know what happened at the end of Fist of the North Star, so I read the manga. I wasn't doing so with high expectations, though. This is the concluding arc that the anime didn't bother adapting, even though the episodes they did make for the second series don't have a great reputation.
Surely this manga arc couldn't be good? Well, it is. Its villains are comparatively low-key, with no Big Bad on the level of a Raoh or a Kaioh, but I think I almost prefer that. Ordinary people are better than superheroes. This final run contains three or four story arcs.
Firstly, Kenshiro meets up with his late brother Raoh's tiny son, Ryuu, and goes around with him for a while, until eventually deciding that he's shown him a True Man's Death and thus has no more to teach him. Kenshiro, you're weird. The villain of this story arc is Kouketsu, a fat, smug little dictator with a knack for coercing other people into obeying him, even former generals in Raoh's army who could snap him in two in their sleep.
Ryuu is a kind-hearted, brave boy, incidentally, and I'm mildly curious to know whether Buronson had further plans for him. Raoh's son. That's a big deal. He also helps organise resistance by other kiddiwinks against the bad guys, which gets a bit Children's Film Foundation for a few pages until their luck runs out and they're about to get mashed to a pulp.
Secondly, a Ryuu-less Kenshiro gets involved in the affairs of kings. There's an old dude called Asam, who's been told that it will tear apart his kingdom to have more than one heir to the throne. This gives us anguished flashback scenes in which he can't bear the thought of having two of his three sons murdered, even though they've since grown up to be testosterone-poisoned dicks on the point of plunging the kingdom into civil war. (You'd think he'd have considered birth control rather than infanticide, but the guy's clearly not the sharpest tool in the box.) The moral of this story probably isn't what the writer intended, but what came across to me with blazing clarity was "if you're a massive cock, don't be surprised if your sons also grow up to be massive cocks".
Asam asks Kenshiro to kill his sons. Kenshiro puts an interesting spin on this, although personally I'd been hoping he'd kill all these men and put Asam's daughter on the throne instead. (Doesn't happen. Fist of the North Star respects women, but in a patronising way that basically gives them nothing to do except be brave, noble, inspiring and useless. Its only female fighter was Mamiya, although in fairness the franchise has spawned other female martial artists in spin-off anime and games.)
Anyway, what comes next could either be seen as a new story arc or as continuing the last one. A neighbouring kingdom has been meddling in the affairs of this one (e.g. sending assassins), so Kenshiro decides to pay a visit. What he finds is the most extreme religious metaphor to date in Fist of the North Star, which is saying a lot. The country's dictator is Balan and he's basically the Antichrist from the Book of Revelations. He calls himself God. He orders people to worship him and is liable to murder believers in any other God, especially if they're silly enough to be public about it. He holds rallies where he performs miracles to whip the faithful into a state of hysteria. He heals the sick. (We'll also discover that he learned his magic from one of the franchise's metaphorical Satan figures.) He'll also end up being crucified in front of his followers.
Admittedly there's a religious statue that's Hindu rather than Christian. Nonetheless, this is pushing the metaphor a loooong way, especially when Balan starts calling the religious "sheep" and ranting about the stupidity of faith. We see his backstory and, based on that, he actually has a point.
Oh, and there's a girl he loves because he sees her as his sister. Um.
We're nearly at the end by now. Kenshiro hasn't really been challenged by any of these opponents, but that's a good thing. It keeps things more human and normal. Kenshiro-level fighters exert a gravitional pull on a storyline, sucking ordinary people out of the narrative until eventually we're past the Raoh Event Horizon.
There's just one more story arc, but it's a doozy. It's extraordinary, in fact. Instead of treating Kenshiro as a walking Act of God, it's doing fundamental character things with him and the oft-neglected Rin and Batto. It's the end of the series, you see. This has always been a franchise where anyone could (and probably would) die, but until now we'd always assumed that didn't apply to the three regulars. It's tragic, of course. It wouldn't be Fist of the North Star if it wasn't tragic. It's not the kind of tragedy you'll be expecting, though, and there's one development in particular that made Tomoko (I think unfairly) hate a certain character. Batto does some weird and stupid things, then makes up for them. Yow ow ow ow ow. You will cringe. The franchise's ground rules get torn up, at least temporarily.
This is a story arc to divide people. Some hate it. Me, I'm full of admiration. It doesn't end happily, no, but did anyone seriously expect a happy ending in Fist of the North Star?
I should discuss the art, since Tetsuo Hara strikes me as both excellent and slightly amateurish. His work has none of the stereotypical manga stylisations, instead being full of people so realistically drawn that you'd sometimes think he must have been working from life. (His women all look like the same kind of buxom supermodel, mind you, and there's something scary about Kenshiro's cheekbones.) This must have taken him ages to draw. He also draws fantastic buildings and cities. It's the kind of art that's always going to suffer when being adapted to anime, because it's being done in a style that's not amenable to the conveyor belt of TV animation. (GTO is the same, I think.)
However he doesn't have the firmest grip on how to turn this into finished comics pages. Busy panels can look like a mess of detail, none of which is differentiated from anything else. The eye slides off. He struggles with human hair. His inking style is bitty.
Would I recommend this? Yes. I like it. I should give the usual warning that I seem to be in a minority in liking the later chapters of Fist of the North Star, but I think it's impossible to deny that that final Rin-Batto arc is a massive, startling change of direction. (And horrifying. Don't forget horrifying.) These are quieter stories, for this franchise, but they're still titanic.