Technically, it's Fist of the North Star 2. The first series was episodes 1-109, then the second series was episodes 110-152, but they ran back-to-back, without even a week's break in between. What interests me is that I'd heard this was bad. Everyone I spoke to said that the second series (i.e. everything post-Raoh) was on the slide. People who'd been reading the original manga said the same, so obviously I came to this with curiosity, but with modest expectations.
It's fine. It's good. I liked it.
Firstly, it shakes up the status quo. For over a hundred episodes, Kenshiro's been travelling in the wilderness with two small children, Rin and Batto. Not any more. 10-15 years have passed and Kenshiro's seemingly passed from this world. He's thought to be dead. Rin and Batto have grown up and are now fighting the good fight themselves, as the leaders of the North Star Army.
We also have fresh villains. The Army of the Celestial Emperor is expanding their territory, committing atrocities like burning prisoners to death rather than let Batto and Rin rescue them. What's interesting about them, for me, is how many of them are actually good men, despite appearances. Time after time, Kenshiro finds himself facing someone he admires. Shoki, Falco and Ain are all honourable men, each in their own ways. Obviously the Celestial Empire itself is evil and its leader, Jako, is scum who frequently sends out other scum to kill or enslave innocents. Nonetheless there's still enough noble sentiment floating around the complicated Celestial Empire hierarchy to turn this into a theme.
1. Ain's a blond bounty hunter who's trying to take Kenshiro's head, but he's dressed like Captain America and he'll eventually become an ally. (Spot the possible metaphor! To continue this idea, the Celestial Empire's troops look like a cross between monks and medieval Crusaders, with crosses on their chests and helmets.) Ain's an idiot (especially in episode 117) with an inflated estimation of his own strength, but his heart's in the right place and you'll change your view of him entirely when you meet Asuka. He's also a fun guy to be around. He's chirpy, easy-going and seems to think he can handle anything.
I was also amused by his vehicle. It seems to have an enslaved human driver hard-wired into it, whose head Ain uses as an accelerator pedal.
2. Shoki's a bad guy, sort of, but he's also a down-to-earth chap who, long ago, did Kenshiro a huge favour. You could imagine going out for a drink with him. You might even be able to persuade him to switch sides.
3. Falco believes utterly in honour and destiny. He's inherited 2,000-year-old obligations and he's determined to do his duty, even if it means taking orders from Jako. He's also a Kenshiro-level fighter, with glowing electric superpowers. That could have been better set up, to be honest. I hadn't realised he was that badass, but then suddenly we're near the end of the story arc and Falco's single-handedly fighting Kenshiro to a bloody standstill.
4. Oh, and also the sadist heads in the cement block in episode 115. They're fun too.
All this is good stuff. What's more, the pace has improved, galloping through the original manga whereas the Raoh episodes had been crawling along. This is the fastest-paced season of this show, as I'll try to demonstrate.
Part 1 (1-22) = 1.14 manga chapters per episode (1-25)
Part 2 (23-57) = 1.66 manga chapters per episode (26-83)
Part 3 (58-82) = 1.04 manga chapters per episode (84-109)
Part 4 (83-109) = 1.00 manga chapters per episode (110-136)
Part 5 (110-122) = 1.85 manga chapters per episode (137-160)
Part 6 (123-152) = 1.66 manga chapters per episode (161-210)
The plot moves forwards! Stuff happens! At times, it even feels complicated! This is unfamiliar for Fist of the North Star, which had become a show about the long burn and stretching its audience's patience. Towards the end, in fact, I was wondering if this season perhaps had too much plot and was having slight concerns about how it was all going to be resolved. (Answer: with a cliffhanger.)
It's an interesting story, with themes and metaphor. It's got a relatively involved plot and complicated characters... well, within a series framework of "men the size of rhinos roar a lot and beat the hell out of each other". It's got Kenshiro's spear-throwing in episode 118, which will probably make you fall out of your chair laughing. It even has a great and amusing new theme tune, not quite as bombastically brilliant as "Ai wo Torimodose" (seasons 1-3) but comfortably better than "Silent Survivor" (season 4).
Given all that, why don't people seem to like it? I can think of a few reasons.
Firstly, Rin. I love Rin, but here she's hard to like. She was such a good-natured, sunny little girl, yet as a grown-up she's miserable. She's got a mouth like a pinched arse, she gets almost nothing to do and she's no fun to be around.
Secondly, there's a revelation about someone's past that might perhaps have been a misjudgement. This show loves to be driven by backstory. Every season so far has been rooted in the past, either with Kenshiro's former love or his brothers. There's another such here, but unfortunately it's a silly one involving someone having a long-lost twin sibling who just happens to be very, very important. Tomoko hates it. Personally I don't object to it, since at least it gives an under-used character some story presence and, perhaps surprisingly, it doesn't really make much difference to anything. However that's why I also think the story would have been stronger without it. Instead of being driven by the past, I think it might have been more dramatic to have the characters motivated by what's in front of them.
Thirdly (and trivially), there are two Ain-Asuka moments that fail so badly that they'll get laughs. The first is in episode 117 (the eyes, the eyes!) and the other is in episode 121 (Saori Suzuki's chirpily inappropriate delivery of "papa, doushita no?").
Plus, of course, there's the fundamental problem that the macho, insanely violent Fist of the North Star formula is getting ever more familiar with every passing episode. There's inevitable, though, while furthermore this season is indeed shaking up its formula in a big way. It starts by having written Kenshiro out! We know he's going to return, of course, but it's still interesting seeing him do so.
It's no longer a brilliant show. That was long ago, when the formula was still fresh and new. If you're watching it alongside other anime, it'll probably look neanderthal. However it's still a primal exploration of extreme but often complicated morality. Kenshiro's riding Raoh's evil horse, for instance, is an interesting touch. The show lost some of its charm when Rin and Batto grew up, which is something it never had in abundance. However I can accept that as a result of the story pushing forward into new territory and developing its characters, while there's also some nice use of the show's history (Mamiya and Airi).
In short, underrated. It's perfectly solid, still has unexpected complexities and is still as outrageous as ever. Is a nasty surprise waiting for me in season six, then?