It's the definitive post-apocalypse epic. No one has ever come close to it and I don't think it's possible to do so. It has more ultra-violence than anything else ever, with the hero Kenshiro bursting skulls, limbs and rib cages before our eyes every week. The on-screen body count is so staggering that it'll have reduced the survival chances of the human race. It's desperately serious, yet also ludicrously silly.
However despite this (or because of it) it was massive in Japan, even with children. This show's cultural penetration is unbelievable. The words "hidebu", "tawaba" or "abeshi" will still make people remember childhood games of splattering your friends' brains. It's a great show for catchphrases, usually one-word ones associated with death. "Atatatatatata" is what Kenshiro screams as he stabs at your pressure points, for instance, followed by "you're already dead" as we count down the seconds to a cranial explosion. (At this point his victim will still be alive and oblivious to his imminent fate, possibly even still trying to fight or else trash-talking Kenshiro.) The franchise includes a 245-chapter manga (1983-1988), two back-to-back anime series adding up to 152 episodes (1984-1987), films, OVAs, video games, spin-offs and a 1995 live-action movie made by Americans that surely can't not be terrible.
The anime can be roughly divided into six arcs:
- 1. Part 1 (anime 1-22, manga 1-25) - in which Kenshiro fights the King Organisation and its master, Shin, in order to try to win back his fiancee Yuria.
- 2. Part 2 (anime 23-57, manga 26-83) - Rei and the appearance of Kenshiro's brothers
- 3. Part 3 (anime 58-82, manga 84-109) - Souther to Ryuga
- 4. Part 4 (anime 83-109, manga 110-136) - concluding the first TV series, from the Five Chariots to the last battle between Kenshiro and Raoh
- 5. The Celestial Emperor arc (anime 110-122, manga 137-160)
- 6. The Land of Shura arc (anime 123-152, manga 161-210) - leaving the rest of the manga unadapted
If someone walks in while you're watching this show, they'll call it Mad Max nonsense with exploding heads. This is correct. This show redefines "over the top". The villains make Kenshiro look like an Enid Blyton character. Even the good guys could shoot you in the throat with crossbow bolts. A cute little girl might use grenades on her enemies. Episode 15 has zombie and Klu Klux Klan imagery.
However all this excess makes it uniquely epic. It's Biblical, with giants walking the Earth and atrocities like something from the Old Testament. Furthermore I want to compare Kenshiro with Jesus, despite the ludicrous martial arts and body count. He's a lone man walking the desert, bringing hope to those with none. He defends the weak. He never asks for anything for himself. He's almost more icon than man and it's worth noting that the anime's full Japanese title translates as "Legend of the Century's End Messiah: Fist of the North Star".
He even acquires a couple of children (not his), Bat and Rin, who tag along behind him and add yet more weight to the series because you know they'd be dog food the moment Kenshiro turned his back. They're great, actually. Rin might just break your heart.
The story arc's villain is Shin, who many years ago took Yuria and nearly killed Kenshiro, in the process giving him seven famous scars. Shin's eye-bleedingly vile, but you knew that. However this arc also has Yuria, which is what makes this story arc slightly unusual in the context of this show. Family and brothers are a more common theme in this series, but here Kenshiro's simply trying to get back the woman he loves. This ends in tragedy, needless to say, but this didn't make me cry as I might have expected since Kenshiro's a stone-faced golem and we only ever see fitful attempts at humanising him. You can't fault the show's determination to get as bleak as possible though, though. Terrible things are done to Kenshiro.
This show should be drivel. Every episode involves Kenshiro killing bad people in insanely gory ways. That's it. That's the format. However unbelievably it's not, despite what anyone will think if they find you watching a random episode.
a. It's not about masculinity and machismo. On the contrary, despite appearances Kenshiro is a Jesus figure who's motivated by love. The people he kills are the ones who are bursting with testosterone. Even a mega-villain like Shin seems motivated by love for Yuria, despite being an insanely loathsome war criminal.
b. Paradoxically it's not about the fighting, as opposed to, say, Dragonball. The formula isn't based on dramatic tension, but instead on the fact that the people he kills are such appalling monsters. You hate them afresh every time. It's about saving the weak and punishing the wicked. There's no doubt who'll win 99% of Kenshiro's fights, even when the person he's fighting is forty feet tall with skin that's impervious to all weapons.
c. Best theme music in anime. I'm going to say it.
d. The title sequence is cool too. It's bursting with doom and horror, right from the beginning where they explain that the Earth was all but destroyed in 199X. (Yes, this show has become a historical.) Then cue the theme song and electric guitars.
It works. The damn show works. It's absurd and repetitive, but it's portraying tragedy and evil with such force that it's almost impossible to look away. It becomes more powerful on repeat viewings, whereas you wouldn't necessarily expect it to stand up to even the first one. Yes, Mad Max got there first and episode 19 almost feels as if it's paying homage to Mad Max 2 with that encampment, but it's not up for debate as to which of the two is bigger. Awe-inspiring.