Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Raou Den: Junai no Shou Review

No clever titles for you today. Maybe when I finish up that massive write-up on GANTZ.

So I watched something beautiful today. And it wasn't pornographic for once (though it was violent). For those of you who have never met me before, hey, how 'ya doin'. I like Hokuto no Ken: Fist of the North Star. A LOT.

Most people who are seriously in to anything have a favorite something: a favorite writer, a favorite singer, a favorite commedian or favorite silk thong, whatever. Me, I like movies. I like retarded Italian action films, freaked out symbolic Westerns, gory as all hell psychadellic Horror, Sci-Fi movies that were only a good idea on paper... all sorts of movies, for all sorts of reasons. Don't like those goddamn Rom-com's though. A man's got to have standards. But more than anything, I think, I like animation. I like CG, I like cels, I like the free spirrited gag cartoons of Tex Avery and John K and the pretentious esoteric experiments of OSHII Mamoru and Sylvain Choment and the indescribably bizarre use of humans as stop-motion puppets by SHINYA Tsukamoto and David Lynch. If cinema is in and of itself art, and I believe that it is unquestionably, then animation is the purest, most free expression of cinematic art available to a film maker...

...unfortunately, most of them don't know what to do with it.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm a firm believer that just because I don't like something doesn't mean it's "Bad" by default. I like some bad films, and dislike some good films. Kinda' guy I am. But in the wake of modern day animation, cel's have been replaced with computers, American 2D animation has literally dissapeared from theatres, and while Korea and Hong Kong find their own original productions won't sell internationally (despite their actual animators doing most of the grunt work the world over), Japan has - as of late - been dominating the industry. It's not that Japanese animation is inherently better than American animation... it's merely different. While plenty of people still consider the stereotypes of anime to be fact - that it's all big eyes, giant robots, bad dubs, demon-raped schoolgirls and battling mini monsters - and in many cases, they aren't so off the mark - anime as a whole is often very underappreciated. There's intelligent, artistic anime. There's dramatic, slice of life anime. There's anime that makes grown men stand at the sea shore with a manly tear in their eye, and anime about hamsters who play with dildo's. There's anime set in the future and the past, there's anime with long pointy artwork and short stubby designs, there's anime for children and adults. None of it is any more or less anime, since the word in Japan simply means "animation". More specifically, in America it means "Japanese animation" - or, at least in my eyes, Animation produced directly FOR Japanese consumption. So, by my watch neither The Animatrix or Kill Bill - despite being produced by Japanese film makers for America - is really "anime" in any sort of traditional sense. But that's just me.

Now, remember how I was saying everyone has a favorite? Well, I have a favorite anime. I definately have a favorite, and have since I first saw the 1986 theatrical movie when I was about 14 years old. That favorite anime is Hokuto no Ken: Fist of the North Star, which despite a decidedly cult status in America, was every bit as mainstream in Japan, France and Italy as Transformers or GI Joe was at the same time in Yanksville. Having single-fistedly kick started the era of "Violence Entertainment" in Japan, Fist of the North Star was a combination of action cinema from around the world - The Aussie originated Mad Max films, Chinese films starring Bruce Lee and Japanese efforts from Sonny Chiba, Italian westerns lensed by Sergio Leone and retarded macho fare from the west starring Stallone and Ah-nuld... it's all in there. Most people pick out one of them and write the rest off, and god help you if you try to explain to people who think Dragonball Z is a masterpiece of modern cinema that Hokuto no Ken has a story. The original film - and to a lesser degree, the painfully cheap and goofy live action film directed by Tony Randal in 1994 - have convinced America at large that Fist of the North Star was a plotless excuse to watch people's heads blow up.

They couldn't be more wrong.

Published in Shounen Jump, the same publication that's housed other famous manga turned anime like Dragonball, Saint Seiya, Yu Yu Hakushou and One Piece, released Hokuto no Ken from 1983 to 1989, the creation of HARA Tetsuo from a pair of earlier shorts, including Tetsu Don Quihote and "Mad Ken". Sadly, Hara's storytelling skills - while amusing - were considered a bit too simplistic for his publisher, who agreed to do a monthly chapter of his new story if he agreed to work with a story writer in the form of SON Buron (aka Buronson). The combination began as a clearly derivitave work who's story of a martial arts master after the end of World War III took him on a journey through the wasteland that was once Japan, and after killing a pack of punks who liked tormenting villagers, he came face to face with the rival who scarred him and stole his wife to be. The first several chapters of Hokuto no Ken were almost laughable... to a mature audience who was used to watching R-rated movies of the mid 1980's. What many people to this day don't understand is that the majority of animation featuring a mild to suprisingly severe level of violence in Japan is actually meant... wait for it... for children. Akira, another Shounen Jump title, was given an R-rating in the US for violence, language and brief nudity. Grown men and women who'd never heard the word "anime" before were, in the early 90's, shocked to see such well animated and mature storytelling. Meanwhile, in Japan, it was merely the next step in bringing mature comics to life in the days before CGI. Fist of the North Star, along with titles like Devilman, Jojo's Bizzare Adventure and Naruto, despite having highschool plus fans internationally, were all created and marketed towards middle school kids in Japan. While it's arguable that a great many R-rated fantasy and action films in America of the same time were equally created for 12-15 year olds who wanted juvenile storytelling with boobies and gore, the R-rating (in theory) negates any "youth" viewing by default... so, I guess what I'm driving at is at least Japan is HONEST about handing its' children violence and nudity, rather than being shocked in retrospect.

With this in mind, Hokuto no Ken is a moralistic tale targeted towards children, and while the morals may seem heavy handed to people who enjoy Oshii and Otoumou, that doesn't make the point it had to say any less valid. Hokuto no Ken was a story that killed women and children as a means to make heroic men like Kenshirou, Shuu and Rei stand up for what was right when no one else would. Kenshirou himself, a man who fights and speaks only when there was something worth speaking or fighting for (as the greatest samurai of Japanese history were prone to do), was a man who never wanted to bring destruction and sadness. In almost every instance he never instigates violence: only happens upon it and stops it when he can. Even when defeating his opponents, he wishes for them to acknowledge their wrong doing and make peace with their friends and foes, for their own sake. Kenshirou is judge, jury and executioner, but only when there is no other option left. He is a force of change, of hope and of the preservation of life. It's this very irony that justifies the use of his style, Hokuto Shinken: North Dipper God Fist*. A 3,000 year old Chinese martial art, it uses the life energy of it's successor and drives them in to tsubo (pressure points) with such force that the body can - and will - explode. Some of the tsubo are also used for healing the sick, and in instances where Son and Hara would get bored, were used as truth serum's or even as a way to make a character walk backwards to their death. Hokuto Shinken, however, was no more or less over the top than the style it was put up against, namely the practitioners of Nanto Seiken: the South Dipper Protector's Fist.

Another irony in the storyline is the simple fact that, despite Kenshirou literally embodying the ideal Japanese hero (a stoic, fair and strong figure who brought hope for the nation with him), his roots - both in the story and in his inspirations - are very much from the world over, and aside from the mannerisms and battle cries inspired by Japan's own martial arts star SHINICHI "Sonny" Chiba, the style of using accupuncture points in battle, and indeed the use of one's fist, is very much rooted in Chinese martial arts. Souten no Ken, the turn-of-the-century prequel, would explain how the style would migrate from China to Japan. Meanwhile, Nanto Seiken was a decidedly karate inspired form of fighting, with hands being used as blades to - in the world of Hokuto no Ken - literally cut the opponent to pieces. Regardless, saying that Hokuto Shinken was born in China would be technically true no matter where the defined style originated, since the very concept of martial arts all dates back to the Xiaolin (Shaolin) monks of China. Perhaps this is felt by Son and Hara, since World War II Japan is literally an embodiment of cultural curiosity and melding. While I'd hate for anyone to think Japan simply patterns itself after other cultures, the influence is, in most cases, adapted and modified to suit the pre-existing culture of Japan, which in turn was based loosely on aincent Chinese imperalist respect added with a natural sense of whimsy and simplicity that came from living in seclusion for centuries. Japan as a whole takes a cue from the world around it, but views it with an eye that doesn't see the world the way the rest of the world sees itself. It's this very concept that turns Hokuto no Ken from a collection of rip-off's in to its' own unique and fascinating world that stands on its' own two legs, and makes no compromises. Even -if- the idea of Japan turning in to a desert after a nuclear war is nothing short of hilarious.

After a pair of TV shows from 1984 to 1988, and a big budgeted theatrical adaptation in 1986 (which skimps on the storytelling and plays more like a super gory "greatest hits" collection of the TV series), Hokuto no Ken wouldn't be animated again until 2003, when the "Shin Hokuto no Ken" OVA series would adapt SON Buron's series of novels from the early 1990's in which Kenshirou has to save a city from the tyrany of a man who's learned a bastardized and dangerous form of Hokuto Shinken. The 2D digital animation was attractive, but the over-reliance on CGI backgrounds and special effects (such as bikers) wears pretty thin on these eyes raised in the day when animation was, you know, shot on film. The violence, however, was in full swing, and between the enegetic orgy of brains hitting the dirt in the first episode and the intestines flying through the air in the third, it delivered on bringing the violence and cruelty that Hokuto no Ken was so infamous for to the modern age. That the soundtrack had a full 1980's heavy metal edge was also a nice touch, and ironically, seems even more fitting than the ACTUAL metal sprinkled through the opening theme songs (where as the show itself had a soundtrack more befitting of a 1970's western or kung fu epic - which along with samurai films share a suprisingly similar taste in music). But, with the good also came the notable bad: in particular, the irresponsible casting, who threw KAMIYA Akira and the rest of the cast aside for newer, trendier actors who would bring a brand new audience to the series. While KOYASU Takehito is a less than ideal Kenshirou, it's really the presence of rock star GACKT that sums up the biggest problem the show has to contend with. His performance isn't wretched, exactly, but he simply has the wrong voice to pull off the massive villainous character he's supposed to portray. It's like having Mickey Rooney play a professional wrestler. It doesn't matter HOW hard he tries, we're not going to buy it. And that's exactly what happens here. No matter how hard Gackt tries to play the heavy, we know his effeminate ass belongs in a sequel to ZETSUAI, not Hokuto no Ken.

So it was with no small bit of curiosity that I fired up my pirated copy of the 2006 theatrical movie (the first of 3 - along with 2 new OVA's) SHIN SEIKIMATSU DENSETSU HOKUTO NO KEN: RAOU DEN JUNAI NO SHOU. This comes out to be something like "The True Legend of the Century's End Savior, Fist of the North Star: Raou's Tale, The Chapter of Martyred Love". The version I saw, the 95 minute director's cut, has apparently extended what was shown in theatres. Sadly, I don't live in Japan, so I have NO clue what the difference between the PG-12 theatrical version and this is. With that in mind, let me try and describe what I saw.

Being roughly 50% material from the original 80's manga and 50% brand new material focusing on Raou, the film begins with a lengthy introduction telling us all about Hokuto Shinken, and showing us a tournament that a young Kenshirou competed in. Going up against the Nanto Hakuroku Ken master, Shuu, he fails... and Souther (in audience) orders the elder to fulfill his duty and kill the child. Choosing instead to cut out his own eyes, he lets the boy live, so that his inner light may in time drown out his own darkness. This sequence sets the tone for the entire film, with an electronic score that's at once epic and heavy, with finely animated fisticuffs that don't succumb to the original movie's gleeful overuse of ultra-violence. There is blood... but it's a dramatic device, and all head explosions or body halvings will be done in the shadows or in hyper-stylized moments of artistic discression. I can't say it's any LESS violent than the TV adaptation, and it's certainly meaner with imagery of children dying, but this all too marketable and fun aspect is definately downplayed. That the opening scene shows us footage of the apocalypse looking suspiciously like CNN footage of Iraq being bombed shows that this new incarnation is more mature, and in a sense, more relevant to the escapist fantasy of the source material. The violence is done away with to a point where it's fantastic, but not charming, which I can live with in the context of the story.

And what is the story, exactly? As I've said before, it's a combination of the Souther storyline and the original characters of Souga and Leina. I'll deal with them both separately, just to clear up how and why this works:

Shuu, though blind, remains a dedicaded and deadly warrior who fights against the heartless tyrant Souther, the appointed Saint Emperor of his kingdom. A seemingly unbeatable foe in combat, Souther kidnaps children and forces them to slave in the construction of a massive pyramid in his honor, knowing that children lack the gall to stand up to adults and en masse are just as strong as adults. Shuu keeps a strong resistance against Souther, and after clashing with Kenshirou (unsure if he's a friend or foe of Souther), Kenshirou joins the struggle against the evil dictator. After Souther's men allow poisoned food to be apprehended, Kenshirou makes a stand against him... and for reasons unknown, even Hokuto Shinken has no effect on Souther. Kenshirou falls and is near death, and is smuggled out by Shiba, Shuu's only son. Shiba gets Kenshirou's freedom, and pays for it with his life. Kenshirou is laid to rest, but as he recovers from his last battle Souther makes a direct attack on Shuu's stronghold. Shuu fights with everything he's got, and comes up short... but Souther makes him an offer: complete my pyramid, and I'll let these children you hold so dear live. With his powerful legs destroyed, Shuu calls out to the heavens to pass his soul's strength on, Kenshirou awakens, revived and ready to finish what Souther began.

Meanwhile, Raou continues his steady conquest of the lands held largely by thugs and rouges, using his massive army and Hokuto Shinken skills to crush all opposition before him. One of his generals, Souga, has lost his leg in battle, but his lovely and battle-hardened sister Leila continues to skirmish on the front line in her brother's stead. Raou believes that Souga may know the secret to killing Souther, a roadblock in his conquest of the brave new world, and keeps him at his right hand to learn as much about their common enemy as he can before planning to ride off to clash head-on with the even more dastardly tyrant. Leina, on the verge of death after an assault on Raou's enemies, is healed in the Village of Miracles by Toki, Raou's kind hearted brother who's turned Hokuto Shinken in to an art of healing and relieving all pain. Souga continues this charade of fellowship with the brutal conqueror until he puts on a show to celebrate their partnership, one with a dancer from Shura, the country that the three Hokuto brothers would be born in (and a country that Kenshirou would, in time, retutn to). This dancer, who puts on an elegant dance on Hokuto-arranged platorms in a pool of fresh water, is clearly more than an entertainer, and with the force of the water behind her launches an assasination attack on Raou... she's met with the blade of Leina's sword, protecting her lord, and Raou kills Souga for the infraction immediately thereafter. Raou leaves after the tragedy, and Leina must decide if she should continue fighting against Souther with the Fist King, or if she should turn her back on the man who killed her brother... and the man that Toki believes may love her.

The new storyline is a suprisingly compelling one that ties the three brothers (minus Jyagi - who likes his punk ass anyway?) closer than ever before, and also plays a lot of interesting love/hate imagery that seems awfully familiar... ever read the BERSERK manga? The scene where Caska stabs Guts in the shoulder and curses his name/wants to ride him like a wild stallion is basically lifted between Leina and Raou, and it's no less beautiful here than it was in MIURA Kentaro's masterpiece of violent soft-porn. It also creates a lot of distinctly crusade-like imagery in the arms and palace that Leina and Souga come from, which fits right alongside Raou's decidedly Conan the Barbarian meets the Templar Knights motif. There's also a lot of side-plotting involving Bat's return to the village in which he was raised, who are also being harassed by Souther's men, which in turn prompts Ken to get involved in the first place. This doesn't appear to be Auntie Touyo, and the child Ken saves isn't Taki... but to call this familiar territory (considering the EXACT SAME EVENTS happened back in the Jackal story arc of the original manga) is a bit of an understatement. Still, the build up to these scenes, with Ken doing what he does best to a bunch of freelance punks, establishes a lot about how the world of Hokuto no Ken has changed over the past 2 decades. Ken fights the gang off in the rain, and most stunningly, the aniki of the group is toting a shotgun, a weapon that was used by Jyagi almost solely to support the innate samurai concept of guns being an evil and cowardly means to victory. (OODA didn't think so... but I digress.) This scene alone could piss the hell out of long time Hokuto no Ken fans that are used to the arid, scorched deserts and mano e mano gun-free stand offs that were equal parts Spaghetti Western and Chop Sockey, but I can only assume the includion is as much an attempt to show WHY guns aren't the weapon of choice in 199X. Huh. Maybe we should call this 201X, now? The scene worried me... but once it's out of the way, everything is more or less as it should be, so the sequence is forgiven.

Unfortunately, the new storyline also serves to push the character development of Souther away almost totally. Souther's hatred of children was from his own horrific childhood, in which his sensei blindfolded him and told him to come at him with all he had... only to allow himself to die. Nanto Houou Ken (The South Star Phoenix Fist) successor must kill his master, thus passing the style down to only one user. Souther's heart closed at the loss of his beloved master, and the pyramid he was building on the shoulders of children was literally a way to bury the corpse of all his emotions in the form of his teacher. None of this is brought up in the new movie. NONE. While I can understand there's a lot of material to cover, this changes Souther from an embittered and spiteful man who's own pain turned him in to a monster in to... well, a right heartless bastard. "I never stand down, I never lie, and I never look back!" is Souther's code of battle, and lacking his inevitable redemption when, at the last, he remembers the love he felt for his kind master turns it in to his whole reason to exist. Hokuto no Ken was exceptionally good at creating decidedly flawed, honorable, and above all else human characters. Certainly they are super powered, but their hearts beat with the same emotions ours do: compassion, love, hope and fear. The villains in Hokuto no Ken more often embody jealousy (Shin), regret (Falco), selfishness (Raou) and pride (Yuda/Judas)... but only true scum like Jyagi, Jackal and Jacko (notice a pattern there?) represent blind hatred and animosity. To turn Souther in to a heartless bastard without a REASON to be a heartless bastard is almost as bad as making him just a nice guy... but what can I say, this is Raou's movie, not Souther's. Hopefully none of the other villains will be treated this way, and while his dramatic angle is lost totally, it doesn't make the final battle between Souther and Kenshirou on the steps of Souther's pyramid one bit less awe-inspiring. Part old school Kung Fu movie, part new wave anime, this sequence alone is almost enough to forgive this fairly notable oversight.

While this new entry in the Hokuto no Ken franchise may not deliver on the gory goods that were thrown at the screen like so much confetti by TOUYO Ashida 20 years ago, IMAMURA Takahito's new chapter has if anything personified the heart and soul of what made the showy tale of men goring each other up so enjoyable in the first place. It gives me hope that a new generation of fans - be they young or old - will understand why Hokuto no Ken is a masterpiece of shounen entertainment. With the expensive animation easily trouncing any visual incarnation the series has had previously, a soundtrack that's comparable with everything from HERO to ADVENT CHILDREN (and lest we forget that Crystal King came back 20+ years later, just for us), and just enough of the manly cut that made Hokuto no Ken so much escapist fun from the start tinged with ideals of impossible romance (as opposed to the unobtainable romance the story had always been concerned with), this film will not only please everyone who's waited 20 years for it to happen, but it even has the potential to touch those who didn't understand what the big deal was 20 years ago.

Whether or not you could talk that kind of person IN to watching another Fist of the North Star, however, is another battle entirely.

Either way, anyone who knows me (and therefore is reading this) should watch this movie. Like, NOW. There are raw downloads on BitTorrent, poorly subtitled bootlegs made in Hong Kong, and assuming the boss man makes good on paying me for the last DVD I finished for him I'll be grabbing the Japanese DVD, hopefully. It's available in a normal edition for a 3,800 yen, a limited edition a second DVD of extras and a slipcase plus postcards for 5,800 yen, and a super premium boxed set for 17,800 yen which includes the DVD's, a deluxe box and a set of 4 10cm tall figures of the Hokuto brothers. At over $155 before shipping for the deluxe version, it makes the $8 Chinese bootleg look pretty sweet in comparison, even if we don't get the extras. I can't imagine we'll see these for a while in the US with the massive expense a movie of this production quality would cost (and considering there's 3 of them), so we'll either have to be creative or rich to get our Hokuto no Ken fix.