The hero lacks refined skill, but is brimming with potential.
The hero answers the call to head forth into the world.
The hero learns, saves, loses, and ultimately triumphs.
The hero has grown into something more than they once were.
This narrative structure is widely recognized and utilized throughout our myth cycles, both modern and ancient, and it is a well-worn path down which many stories have tread. Many of the greatest tales ever told have mirrored this tempo, and they have enthralled us with their telling again and again.
Fist of the North Star does more than merely bend this narrative structure – the show strikes its pressure points and blasts it into a pulpy mess.
Fist of the North Star – Hokuto No Ken for the remainder of our discourse – is a seminal work in the shounen fighting genre. Written by mastermind Buronson and drawn by the peerless Tetsuo Hara, the manga is a sprawling post-apocalyptic epic with few equals. The long-running anime series – animated by Toei and directed by Toyoo Ashida (of Vampire Hunter D fame) – exists in something of a strange duality. In one sense, it has shaped the pacing structure of nearly every shounen action series which has followed it. While in another sense, the unique approach in how the narrative is organized remains unmatched even after all these years.
The basic rhythm of a shounen action series is well known to many anime fans:
– The hero encounters a villain with a new style, technique, power level, or other factor that is superior to the hero’s abilities.
– The hero must use guile, passion, new techniques, or some combination thereof to best these foes. While sometimes this is a lateral movement for the character – merely exploring some heretofore unknown aspect of their power set, psyche, or will to succeed – most often this involves an increase in the hero’s raw fighting power.
– Whether hitting a new chi plateau or unlocking a new secret move that allows for incredible feats, this is colloquially referred to as “power creep.”
– As the show continues the hero encounters ever-more powerful enemies with each bout.
– As they defeat this succession of foes they too become slightly more powerful with every victory, incrementally increasing their might with every defeated foe.
– Once a given series has reached its conclusion, the protagonist is often vastly more competent than when they first appeared, and the kinds of threats they are facing are consistently being up-scaled to keep pace.
This is an effective narrative structure because the stakes are always obvious. If the prior villain could threaten the hero’s safety, then another more powerful villain is that much more able to inflict harm. It also allows the writer some breathing room when developing new threats or new angles to challenge the protagonists. Coming up with new and interesting power-sets is a difficult process, and as a show’s continuity becomes ever more complex it can be a real challenge for an author to develop new enemies that challenge the protagonist while still fitting the show’s milieu. By simply dropping in a new villain who challenges the hero in a similar manner but is say, twice as strong, or six times as fast, then they save themselves a lot of painstaking effort. All of this hinges on a very simple power dynamic – the villain is stronger than the hero.
Hokuto No Ken completely shatters this expectation. Kenshiro is essentially at full power from the moment we meet him, the deadly warrior wandering the wastes in search of bloody revenge. As episode after episode rolls on, Kenshiro learns no new special moves, achieves no sudden power ups, and never unlocks hidden forms of legendary potential. Kenshiro is an unstoppable juggernaut, whose victory over all but a handful of his foes is never in question. This seems like a rather boring premise, one that might end up becoming repetitive in the long run – but in fact, the opposite occurs.
Shounen fighting shows generally involve filler episodes with throwaway antagonists, for better or worse. One of the most detrimental aspects of any filler episode or arc is that inevitably the hero is shown to be in a “dire” situation that is anything but. The viewer is given a sub-par villain, one whose power-set and/or context is often poorly thought out relative to a headliner opponent, and the viewer is expected to view this as a credible threat to the protagonist.
The problem is that often times these villains only serve to sap the series of drama. In the creators’ attempt to sell the situations surrounding these dime-store villains as having real weight, they merely end up robbing energy from the rest of the series. It is a case of the boy crying “Wolf!” – the audience can only buy it so many times before it becomes grating rather than exhilarating. When every antagonist is a “world-ending threat the likes of which you have never seen before,” the tension surrounding each successive villain is lessened. Hokuto No Ken is full of filler episodes, but alters the standard dynamic by clearly showing that these villains stand no chance of besting Kenshiro. The joy of these episodes is not derived from pondering Kenshiro’s chances of victory, because his odds (as with many heroes) hover comfortably near 99.9% in all scenarios. This allows the viewer to stop feigning interest in the fight’s outcome, and focus on actual mysteries for which they lack the answer – how ironic and painful is the villain’s death going to be?
The series is littered with examples of the effective use of this repetition. For example, take episode 86 – The Burning Brigade! Shuren is Drenched in Tears of Flame!! Other than being a masterclass for how to title episodes for maximum effect, this is a rather run of the mill outing for Fist of the North Star. A number of factors are stacked against this being a fascinating episode:
-Kenshiro is simply traveling from point A to B, and this is no more than a stop along the way, meaning that little of importance is at stake.
-Raoh (aka Ken-Oh) also spends the episode traveling to his next opponent, and is in no real danger.
-Kenshiro, recently coming off an arc where he battled Thouzer (one of the series’ stand out villains), is merely facing off against yet another random miniboss.
-This miniboss, Lord Morgan, is a Ken-Oh soldier who poses no credible threat and has little character development.
This is by definition a filler episode, meant to pad out a show’s runtime between more interesting events. At nearly four-fifths of the way through the series, one might think that a further example of Kenshiro’s prodigious ability to slaughter low-level villains would be tiresome. But one should always hesitate before judging the strength of Hokuto No Ken’s fist. The show still finds a way to make this an enjoyable experience, because it sidesteps the issue of character power dynamics entirely. At no point does the series even hint that Lord Morgan is anything near meaningful opposition to the Savior of the Century’s End. We have just enough time with him to know that 1) he has goons who he will kill without hesitation, 2) he has no qualms about kicking village elders halfway across the wasteland, and 3) he really likes cars, especially his light blue pickup truck.
The deaths of Lord Morgan and his soldiers are not only inevitable, but laughably entertaining. Kenshiro provides a double-dose of irony and pain as he ends up crushing two of Lord Morgan’s thugs with their own giant hammers, mere moments before they would have exploded anyway from Kenshiro’s deadly fists. Lord Morgan personally attempts to run Kenshiro over with his beloved truck, only to find out that our hero can handle a speeding vehicle by merely standing still and letting it hit him.
To add insult to injury, Kenshiro does not even deliver the final comeuppance in this episode. Lord Morgan’s end comes when Bat tampers with the truck moments before the villain’s attempted getaway. As he tries to escape the Divine Fist of the North Star, he instead loses control of his vehicle and careens into a demolished skyscraper where he explodes on impact. This relentless embarrassment of antagonists serves to underscore the pleasure of watching Hokuto No Ken – not all villains are world-ending conquerors, most are little more than idiotic bullies. This allows the audience to revel in the juvenile catharsis of their violent deaths. These villains delight in the brutish “might makes right” of the century’s end, and find out all too late that they too are subject to its violent laws.
In this way, Kenshiro’s power over his enemies never feels cheap, because Hokuto No Ken tells us again and again that he is a peerless warrior. Rather than the rely on surprise reversals that other shounen series might use when a hero is facing enemies that clearly outclass them, Kenshiro wins most fights because he was the stronger warrior before the conflict even began. Kenshiro does not benefit from sudden twists of fate, fortuitous coincidences, or convenient deus ex machina to win his struggles. Instead, he wins because he is the stronger martial artist, and most of his enemies had no chance at victory. Even when Kenshiro appears to “gain” new abilities, it is less along the lines of a last minute save and more of a sudden revelation that he had these powers the entire time.
While functionally a revelation of a never-before-mentioned power has the same result as the development of a new power (i.e. the villain loses due to an event unforeseen by the audience), there is a key distinction. By suddenly revealing a shocking new ability, Kenshiro communicates the core theme of the work – “I could always do this, I was always going to win, you never stood a chance, and now you will die with the knowledge that all your attempts to stop me were futile.” It keeps the power entirely in Kenshiro’s hands, and underscores his status as the deadliest warrior. This might feel like a formula for boredom over such a long narrative given that he has little room for growth, but in fact this only heightens the dramatic tension.
In many action stories the creator(s) attempt to endear the protagonist to the audience. By showing them as kind, compassionate protectors, their violence is excused because it is in service of the greater good. Meteorites are pummeled, trains are stopped, and deadly attacks are intercepted by bare chests accompanied by long shouts of “Nooooo!” Most heroes are plucky underdogs, and the dramatic tension in their story comes from the fear that they might lose any given fight. But the reality is that the audience knows victory is assured, and Hokuto No Ken dispels this illusion and instead provides its audience with raw honesty – Kenshiro is going to win, and the only ones who do not realize this are his opponents.
Furthermore, when Kenshiro actually does encounter a challenge of some scale, it feels that much more impactful because it is usually a bookend to two dozen episodes of Kenshiro steamrolling the competition. While other shows have to continually up the stakes for why the latest big bad evil guy is really a threat this time, Hokuto No Ken actually makes its major villains feel noteworthy. Because so few opponents are anywhere near Kenshiro’s capabilities, any foe that gives him pause is a genuine shock.
When most villains explode after little more than a stern glance, a villain that can actually go toe-to-toe with Kenshiro for more than one episode becomes that much more prominent in the eyes of the audience. Most shows vary the power level of the hero and increase the villains in a linear step progression, always a few levels of power beyond the hero. Hokuto No Ken locks in its hero’s strength at the top of the chart, and instead varies the abilities of the villains he faces.
The effect is profound. The show’s bold-faced honesty about Kenshiro’s odds of success never leave the viewer rolling their eyes at yet another instance of the narrative bending over backwards to assist him. Kenshiro is destined to win every fight, but the action is still tense and exciting because the audience is asking a different question as they watch. Rather than half-heartedly wondering if the hero will win, the viewer instead joyously wonders,
“Just how violent with the villain’s death be?”