A review of Hokuto no Ken
Action flicks are essentially a form of idolatry; at the core, they’re cults of personality. Bloodsport isn’t a movie about an American ninja and a female journalist investigating an underworld tournament; it’s a movie about Van Damme beating people up. Does anyone even remember the name of Schwarzenegger’s character in Commando? There is, strictly speaking, no character stricto sensu; Arnold always plays himself, Van Damme always plays himself, the action-hero is always the same character in the same specific kind of power fantasy (granted, this “himself” is a construct, but isn’t everyone’s?). This is why actor input (by the lead/idol) is so common in the writing of action movies.
Everyone I know who has ever been involved with martial arts, when asked, has confessed to have had the same shamefully immature escapist ideation. I call it the Action Hero Fantasy. One day, before you know it, you realize you’ve just spent a lot of time building an entire scenario of fantasy violence—moreover, that you have been indulging in it. Its dynamics are that of center/periphery; you’re at the center, and the bad guys are peripheric, thin, out of focus. You’re a Hero/protagonist/plot-changer. They’re mooks, bidimensional models made of cardboard; perhaps dehumanized bullies from school turned into empty menacing faces. You fantasize of beating them with the moves you’ve trained so hard, of hurting them, of their screams and snapping bones—the fantasy is openly sadistic; some can reach Mortal Kombat
heights lows. In my informal research, I found it’s often gender-coded: you, a man, hurts other men in front of a woman you like, so as to impress her; in some kind of twisted chimp logic, beating people somehow would make you romantically irresistible. The woman may be the target of your unrequited desire; the men might be indistinct, generic blurry figures, or they might be her boyfriend; perhaps you’re rescuing her from rapists and muggers, or chance just had it so that she was around to watch your fighting prowess. One gay friend had daydreamed of trashing (imaginary) homophobic neonazis who taunted his boyfriend. One woman from kendo fantasized of slashing through a group of howlering brutes. (If you ever had Action Hero Fantasies and want to tell them, please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org! Anonymous email is totally fine.)
I called this the Action Hero Fantasy because at first I thought its formal features came from action movies. Now I reversed my opinion; it’s too fundamental to have arised from something so recent and culturally-specific. It’s the main appeal of, say, the Illiad or the myth of Samson. One stumbles into it all the time in the folklore of traditional Japanese martial arts (koryū bujutsu), in their creation-myths and anecdotal tales; e.g. the three founder-heroes of the Kukishin-ryū who alone defeated an entire army, employing powerful fighting techniques involving the kuji-kiri spell, or Musashi against the Yoshioka forces, etc. The pleasure of watching powerful individuals hurting weaker people (with a moral framework justifying it) is of course one of the major reasons superheroes are popular. The entire genre of “street cleaning” videogames—Double Dragon, Streets of Rage, Final Fight—is built on this premise, with an unhealthy dose of classism added on top. I could go on.
Hokuto no Ken is the perfect, quintessential Action Hero Fantasy.
A couple days ago, my wife (not an anime or martial arts fan) said she saw a mother abusing her son, and she felt that Hokuto Hyakuretsu Ken was the perfect expression of what she felt like doing to her.
The Hokuto no Ken manga is a bit deeper and more mature than the anime. Therefore, the anime’s better. Like most great traditional anime, Hokuto no Ken virtue lies precisely in its formulaicness; it’s so formal that it approaches folklore. There are no people in it. Shin broods in the dark; he sits atop a large stone throne in a tall, impossibly shadowy room, reposing diagonally in an imposing yet relaxed posture, sipping red-wine, his long flowing golden hair a match to the long flowing King’s cloak tastefully thrown over a single shoulder; “Kenshiro”, his face scowls with a hint of anger. Can you imagine you, a human being, living like this? You wake up to another post-apocalyptic day, lazily dragging yourself from bed; you rinse your mouth and eat some sweet confiscated fruit; you choose a cloak from the cloak-closet (“let’s try the silver sable today”), demand a winecup from your slaves, sit diagonally in an imposing yet relaxed posture, and broods speaking out loud to no one: “I’ve kidnapped her after torturing her dear boyfriend and leaving him to death right before her eyes, how could she possibly not love me?”—or: “Being a captive of this rapist bloodthirsty tyrant is so boring, I guess I’ll wear long flowing silky dresses and play the harp all day”—or: “In a world where there’s scarcely any food left, the best way to raise a strong army clearly is to kill two or three soldiers every training session just to prove I’m such a tough colonel”: True Anime Characters. Yuria (in her first incarnation) is a damsel-in-distress and nothing else; she doesn’t need to be anything else, for that’s all the plot demands. Shin has no pretension of verisimilitude; his sole reason for being is being eventually punched by Kenshiro. Shin is just a portrait of arrogance.
And Kenshiro’s just a portrait of… power. That he grows ever more melancholic and compassionate is unexpectedly sensitive from the part of the author’s, but this too arises naturally from the nature of power. Kenshiro is not Captain America or He-Man or Kratos; by which I mean, he’s totally not a jerk. He’s Atlas and Prometheus and Hercules; he bears alone the weight of the world, and he brings revolution to the peoples, and—last but not least—he kills the bad guys.
I’ve been known to watch Naruto skipping the entire filler arcs altogether (and I stand by it). With Hokuto no Ken the opposite holds. The filler chapters, with their monster-of-the-week simplicity, are the ones that fascinate me, with an hypnotic power rivaled only by Sailor Moon. Kenshiro arrives somewhere, the silent wanderer; he won’t ever speak, except to tell the enemy the precise, sadistic details of how he’s already dead (“I pressed your shikajika secret point; now you’ll won’t be able to stop walking to the volcano”, etc). Bat exists not only for comic relief, but to support Ken’s silence; he makes the expositions Ken couldn’t without ruining his stoic/macho image. We meet some hardworking, honest, innocent people. We meet bad guys, generally mooks in mohawks and heavy metal mad max wear; they tragically murder some of the people. Children are safe, in the anime (the manga kills children, the anime doesn’t); but if a kid likes some adult, he’s as good as dead. (Often children like adults in a disturbing way; notably, Lin/Kenshiro is a purebreed moé relationship). For some lame excuse or another, Kenshiro couldn’t stop the murders; he sheds a manly tear. Then he walks alone, slow and unstopabble like destiny, “serene and infallible like Bruce Lee”—literally like Bruce Lee; he wasn’t that much of a Bruceploitation character in the manga, but the anime makes him twice as similar and adds bonafide Bruce Lee Noises to boot; it all works surprisingly well. He finds the bad guys; he warns them, for God is ever merciful, but they choose to ignore reason and do something awful that proves their irredeemable evilness. They have just earned God’s own red-hot Wrath. Ken rips his shirt; no one knows where he finds a new identical one every episode (“Hokuto no Shirt Regeneration” has been proposed). Ken, dancing gracefully, EXPLODES THE HELL OUT of everyone in sheer pure exquisite fury. He then explodes or otherwise maim and murder the big boss (and source of evil) with well-deserved supernatural cruelty. Omae wa mou shinde iru is evoked religiously like a mantra; the catchphrase, much more frequent in the anime, works as another recurring structural property. We don’t see blood except whited out in sillhouette—which means it speaks directly to imagination; the anime’s censorship, again, is a restriction that works to heighten the overall effect. The area is now clean. The surviving citizens swear they’ll be forever grateful. We’ll never see them again. We’ll never even hear of the bad guys again. Start a new episode: the whole thing repeats, iterating over itself like a clock pendulum.
Hokuto no Ken, some kind of borderline-mythical popcorn entertainment, owes its power to Bruce. Kenshiro can be perfect because Bruce remains the perfect action hero. So far no one ever came close to constructing such a fascinating idol, to fine-tune so pefectly the gears of charisma and awe (probably because no one has sweated that much in pursuit of the ideal). Hokuto no Ken is Bruce Lee in the world of Mad Max with gory superpowers and a not-so-subtle streak of mono-no-aware fatalism. Unable to rise away from the social problems of its historical conditions, this anime is (like most) openly sexist, classist, homophobic, and at times pædophilic; the author is even more misogynistic than the average mangaka; these are serious issues that deserves awareness and criticism—but, but, if you can tolerate the social problems and put them aside for a moment, the power-fantasy of Hokuto no Ken is… Beautiful. It knows what it’s out to do, and does it. Watch it drinking shochu. Sing the songs. Classic anime is the best.