Monday, 20 January 2020

Fist of the North Star

A sweeping, post-apocalyptic Neo-Testament, set in the ruins of the twentieth century and centred around martial arts monsters able to burst, or cleave, the human body with the lightest of touch. Toyoo Ashida's Fist of the North Star adapts Buronson and Tetsuo Hara's sprawling, circuitous manga, boiling down dozens of serialised chapters into a episodic feature about the kind of messiahs that might rise in a radioactive wasteland. Following a nuclear war, what remains of humanity has devolved to the kind of future-schocked feudalism seen in Escape from New York or the Mad Max series. Rather than gather round the last remaining combustion engines, the conflict's improbably muscled survivors have embraced might, specifically the people descended from warring combat schools who are able to tap into luminous, cosmic energies.

Our hero is Kenshiro, the anointed successor of the Hokuto Shinken style, a position that makes him a target for all manner of jealousies. We meet Ken shorty after we've learnt that civilisation perished in flames. He's attacked by a former friend, Shin, who brutally disfigures Ken then leaves him for dead. This is Ken's scourging, the brutal act that allows him to transform from a person into something inhuman and mythic. We are given very little sense of what Ken's life used to be beyond an arranged, but apparently successful, relationship with Yuria, the woman Shin covets. Ken is so easily defeated by his rival that we're not even sure if he was taking the fight seriously. In one fell swoop Ken has lost an ally and his reason for living. Cast into a pit by another, vengeful, party, we don't see Ken again until he is summoned back to life by a terrified child. For all intents and purposes this is the point where Kenshiro, a person with human wants and desires, dies.

The English script used by Streamline Pictures for their dub organises Ken's reappearance in terms of justice or perhaps mercy. He hears the cries of two imperilled children then makes the journey to assist them. The original Japanese script posits something deeper and altogether stranger - Ken is dragged out of his death state by Lin, an uncanny, mute child able to communicate with Kenshiro psychically. Lin is introduced earlier in a disconnected sequence depicted with a dreamy sense of religious awe. We watch as the plump, cherubic souls of the irradiated dead escape their charcoal skeletons to drift away into space. The shot that immediately follows is Lin, encased in a rainbow coloured womb, slowly walking at the camera. She approaches, her eyes closed, a divine apparition. She represents life and light physically returning to this damned world.

Ken's entrance then is an anastasis. Following Lin's mind zap, Ken's mummified remains pound through the wreckage of a high-rise city, hacking away at sagging skyscrapers until they finally collapse on top of him. Ken doesn't even slow down as the concrete buildings collide with his body - in fact, it is the superstructures that buckle and break on contact. Ken passes through them as if they were smoke, not just unfazed but immune to their incredible weight. It's an outrageous display of power and perhaps even an over-correction designed to distract the viewer in a scene that tethers our hero so explicitly to another saviour figure. Ken is made into an answer, the martial artist organised into a semi-subordinate role, that of a disciple. This sequence, crucial to the film's conclusion, casts Kenshiro as the monstrous protector of a tiny, vulnerable person who might bring salvation to this world. Clad head to toe in clay, he resembles the unthinking might of a Golem.

Shorn of Tom Wyner's overly literal, dubbed-up adaptation, North Star reveals itself to be a film about characters who actually do understand their world-changing power in abstract, mythological terms. Villains, in particular, react and behave in ways that demonstrate both a desire and a willingness to dominate humanity psychologically as well as physically. Kenshiro's older brother Raoh is off on his own sub-adventure throughout the film. He deals with the subversion of his birthright by destroying his family's temple then taking his father's life. Untethered from dynastic expectation, Roah climbs a mountain to literally challenge the heavens themselves. The regime he then goes on to engineer is pure totalitarianism - faceless, expendable, chattel organised around Raoh's absurd, indomitable strength. Despite the number of opponents that come his way, The Conqueror of Century's End doesn't even bother to climb down from his pachyderm sized horse until faced with one of equal strength.

Raoh's withering self-interest extends to issues of basic practicality too - when Lin is captured with her fragile, flowering plant pot, Raoh treats the offending shoot not as the first signs of sustainability returning to this nightmare world but as a dangerous challenge to his authority. Raoh is not simply content to rule through strength, he wants his starving, dwindling subjects to be hopeless too. Of course Fist of the North Star eventually brings Ken, the avatar for hope, and Raoh back together. Their battle is brief but cataclysmic. The Babelian city of Cassandra is shaken to dust by a streaking, psychedelic light show; its populace lifted up and carried away by the tornadoes stirred up by this momentous clash. Surprisingly, at least in terms of your standard heroic journey, the battle does not go Ken's way. Although evenly matched - the two warriors pierce and pound each other until they are both collapsed in a bloody heap - it is Raoh who rises first. Poised to deliver a decisive stamp to Ken's head, his foot is stayed by Lin, the imploring child once again surrounded by a radiant light.

Raoh asks Lin if it was her that called him to this place. The question, and the unexpected mercy that follows, suggests that the conqueror understands these events to be ordained by a higher, unknowable power. These devils, defined by their monstrous self-sufficiency, have fulfilled their function, clearing the decks so Lin and her generation can reclaim the world and bring back the oppositional, synergetic forces of nature. The end credits bear out this despondent, cyclical fate for our high-kicking hero. A revived Ken travels vast, swirling deserts, unable to find his phantom love Yuria. He seems to pass through a revived, resplendent forest, a space where he feels a connection to his absent fiancee. Quickly though, the untouched green dissolves away and we are back in the wasteland. Ken presses on, striding up a sand dune to gaze out on a familiar, unchanged vista - the shattered city we saw at the beginning of the film. Although Ken has travelled far, he is explicitly back exactly where we started. Ashida's film, much like George Miller's Mad Max cycle, views brawn as ultimately expendable. A terrifying, Old Testament asset briefly deployed to vanquish evil but, ultimately, useless in a world struggling to mend itself after having suffered so completely.

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