Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Hokuto no Reinvisioning: Raou Gaiden Ten no Haou ep. 1

Like a charred fly returning to the glowing beacon of the bug zapper which didn't quite kill him, I'm here to tell you all about 北斗の拳 ラオウ外伝 天の覇王, which ends up being "Fist of the North Star Raou's Story: Tyrant King of Heaven". It's worth pointing out that, had the kanji for 'dragon' been on the end of 覇王/Haou, they'd literally be calling Raou a Tyranosaurus Rex. While I can't say that the experience was awful, I can say that it was certainly a disappointment, and that you really should spend your time and bandwidth on Casshern Sins instead.

Go! Go! Raou Rangers!

Don't take this opening to mean that all Hokuto no Ken anime after 1989 has sucked... it just consistently hasn't been as good as what came before it, and yes, that includes both Hokuto no Ken/Hokuto no Ken 2 TV and the legendary feature film. The 新・北斗の拳/New Fist of the North Star OVA from 2003 started and ended strong enough, combining modern animation techniques and classic Hokuto no Ken styled ass whuppin' to great effect, but the less flattering aspects of the show-namely stunt casting J-Rock star Gackt as the villain, plus a horrible misuse of Takehito KOYASU*, not to mention a second episode that does absolutely nothing for 90% of its' run time-makes me think that some sterner planning would have been in the series' favor. The revival wasn't ever bad, but it wastes so much time and is so horrifically miscast that I hesitate to call much of it good, either. There's even some amazing gore in the third episode, but it's not even Hokuto Shinken/Nanto Seiken based! Wha~t?!

*Seriously, you don't cast Vin Diesel as Superman and then get mad if the movie falls apart in your lap. You knew better...

Next up was Fist of the Blue Sky/蒼天の拳 TV series, based on the Tetsuo HARA/Nobuhiko HORIE original manga. While the first TV episode didn't do anything at all for me, the extended and uncensored DVD release has changed my opinion of the show pretty dramatically. The first 4 or so episodes aren't the easiest thing to get down, but once Yan-Wang** shows up in Shanghai, the show hits its' stride and becomes a captivating period action/psychodrama. No, it's not as good as Fist of the North Star, but it's a completely different sort of series, so it's difficult to compare it directly anyway. While FOTNS was mired heavily in 80s macho culture, Mel Gibson and Ahnuld movies and the like, FOTBS takes a page from period Hong Kong triad/kung fu films of the 70s, both literally and thematically. There's more Fist of Fury than there is Cobra to be found here, but that means the rampant gore and over the top Sci-Fi aspect that makes FOTNS so appealing to begin with are minimized (though not done away with completely). I've only watched about the first 10 episodes of the show, but I think once the show gets out of Japan, the only thing that lets it down is a low budget.

John Woo should be pissed.

Seriously, there's no other word for this but "cheap". You have to see the non-moving doves for the full effect, too... it's just one of many awful, awful looking moments in the show.

On the other hand, we also get to see this in the very same episode.

Cheapness forgiven.

**It does drive me up the wall to hear someone say "En-Ou" and then see "Yan-Wang" onscreen. I won't fault the good folks at Hokuto no Gun for accurately writing the pinyin readings of the Shanghaiese character names, but I won't say it isn't mind-boggling to see one and hear the other. Of course, even in Japan you'd have "Aniki" written out in kanji with furigana telling the reader it was pronounced "Peng-You", so this language disassosiation is just part of the experience. It just blows that, my Japanese being not so great, I have to add a third layer into this only somewhat tasty language cake.

There's also the 真救世主伝説 北斗の拳/Fist of the North Star: New Savior Legend material (3 movies/2 OVAs), which has been getting progressively less, well... sane, the longer it goes. Don't get me wrong, even a mediocre Shin Kyuuseishuu OVA is watchable on a strictly visual fanboy level, but if the producers expect me to believe than an ugly Budweiser dog is a Nanto Master and that Raou talks to Ryuuken ghosts the way Luke Skywalker chatted it up with Obi-Wan, they must be on crank. They've also played down the graphic violence while playing up the manly passion, which shifts Hokuto no Ken from an innocently testosterone fueled violence fest into a show about men hugging each other and crying... people could crack gay jokes about the TV handling of the Toki vs Raou fight, I guess, but even a friend of mine who considers these good enough to buy the LE R2 DVDs at $70 a pop, ended up screaming "Oh, just fuck him already!" before the disc was through.

Still, even Toki Den (the least exciting of the four... thus far) dusted off an old favorite battle and pitted Raou against Toki with greater than average modern animation, and if any Hokuto fanboy isn't moved to manly tears by that sight, they can leave their scars at the door.

So, what's the word on this Raou Gaiden show, anyway?

Based on one of many Hokuto no Ken themed "**** Gaiden" manga titles kicking around these days, this particular tale was penned by Youkow OSADA, which ran for a total of 5 tankou volumes from 2006 to 2007. It covers Raou's rise to power after the nuclear war, and will likely end sometime before he... well, you know. Dies. I'd say that's a spoiler, but if you didn't already know that Raou dies you really should go watch Hokuto no Ken first, and then come back here and finish this blog, since it won't mean a thing to you anyhow.

The first episode covers Raou and his two lieutenants - the lovely Reina and her gruff brother Souga - infiltrating the castle of a self-proclaimed oni who holds enough land and able bodied soldiers that Raou's decided to take them as his own. His ambition is to own heaven itself, and if anything gets in his way, he's simply crush it and push on. At it's core, the show is trying to cast a new light on Raou (or as he would later be known, Ken-Ou: Fist King), detailing both his rise to power and a more human side of him that we were never allowed to see when he was known as Kenshirou's nemesis in the original Hokuto no Ken continuity.

First, the good news: unlike Fist of the Blue Sky, Raou Gaiden doesn't have to deal with broadcast TV censorship, so expect plenty of familiar Hokuto Shinken gore. Plenty of other old school halmarks - including sun baked post apocalypse settings, technique names being screamed and written out across the screen in kanji, and a dry sense of humor with Raou playing the straight man - all put it theoretically closer in tone and spirit to Ashida TOYOO's original TV series. Actually, the post-OP sequence is a much darker version of Kenshirou vs Zeed and his thugs (via the '86 movie), which was as comforting as it was bizarre.

Unfortunately, this is where the bad news sets in: Raou is not Kenshirou. I know that Raou's popularity in Japan has probably eclipsed that of Kenshirou, and not without logical reason. 25 years ago when Hokuto no Ken premiered in Shounen Jump, Japanese kids wanted to be stoic and good and fight for what they knew was right. Kenshirou single handedly is the surmation of Japanese righeousness, the experienced karate master, the deadly one-hit kill samurai, the eternal lover, and the light of justice in a world gone bleak. Fast forward a quarter century and these kids have grown up to be salarymen, bitter with the world they can't change and longing for the power to crush their everyday opression without feeling like they have to focus it only on what's right. Raou is the all powerful everyman, seeking respect and adoration, via any means he can get it. Kenshirou is selfless, and would die for his loved ones... Raou would sacrifice his loved ones if he knew it would assure victory. But he's not above agreeing to a fair fight when he feels his opponent has deserved it, either. Raou isn't any kind of traditional hero, but he is a man with principles and honor who has to put his own self image - and his very life - on the line every time he does pretty much anything. Particularly the way that the New Savior Legend pentalogy has shown him, Raou is a fascinating anti-hero.

Unfortunately, it's all bullshit.

Raou killed his own father to keep his Hokuto Shinken knowledge and not lose his fists. He was willing to kill Yuria until he saw her in physical pain and realized he'd only be forcing the inevitable. He not only killed Rei, but he tortured him emotionally by forcing him to live for several days after he was mortally wounded, so as to spread fear in the name of Ken-Ou. He's ordered whole villages razed to quell potential rebellions against his might, allowing both women and children to be killed should they refuse to follow him.

Raou, in short, is an asshole. For anyone to think of him as a hero, this fundamental aspect of his personality must be ignored, and I for one can't. They even try to play Raou as having a sense of humor via him toting a Shamisen (old fashioned 3 string guitar) with him the whole episode, in the hopes that he could sneak in as "entertainment" for his intended rival. Despite making a big show of keeping it in one piece, he kills the guards, enters, is asked by the villainous oni if he's the entertainment, replies "Not really", and smashes it into a thousand pieces. I have a hard enough time even picturing Kenshirou doing this (without at least using it to decapitate someone first!), but the totally humorless bastard that is Raou doing it was so alien and bizarre to me that I laughed out loud, and then sighed, shaking my head...

Boobs?! Not in MY Hokuto no Ken!
...actually, scratch that. The boobs can stay.

A friend of mine argued that there's a blatant lack of martial arts in the first episode of Raou Gaiden. While I won't argue with him - sending a shock wave with your fist and besting your opponent does not a fight make - we must remember that Raou usually did fight this way, until an opponent worthy of him going all out would start the actual feet and fists a flying. In effect, I'd have been disappointed if Raou had to whip out an advanced Houkto Shinken combo on this oni-yutz, but am fully expecting a complex and brutal ass-beating once the Holy Emperor (and y'all know who THAT is) shows up.

The other issue I have with the show is that it's kind of ugly. Don't get me wrong, Hokuto no Ken was always about massive men with oily pecs flexing and then slugging at one another, so I never expected sinewy bishounen. But look at the above caps; not only is every single image a series of needless sloping points, but half of the shots are shrounded in shadows despite taking place in the middle of a sunny day! What the crap? Is this Bruce Timm and Todd McFarlane presents Hokuto no Ken: The Animated Series? I know that budgetary limitations are a bitch and all, but the art design is so simplified and blocky that it literally starts to look ever so uncomfortably close to a flash cartoon between the (notably more) complex fight sequences. Souten no Ken may look awful from time to time, but at least it looks... cheap. Not hideous.

The animation staff have taken the concept of back lighting TOO FAR!

The show has been directed by Masashi ABE, probably best known in America for having directed BLUE GENDER and the 1993 CASSHAN: ROBOT HUNTER OVA series. Lesser known is SHADOW: HYPER SHINOBI ANIMATION, which is a damned shame as it's easily the greatest ultra-violence porn anime since the first episode of Genocyber. Frustratingly he's also directed the not-so-great looking TOKKO series, so it's possible that - like so many great OVA directors of yore - he simply isn't capable of producing impressive and affecting titles without the freedom and resources that the OVA era were alloted to him.

Honestly, I'm enough of an Okoto no Roman (that's "Manly Romance"... yeah, even in Japanese it sounds kinsa' homosexual) fanboy that I'll continue watching the show. Hokuto no Ken episodes 9-20 were basically all shit, after all, and if I'd given up on the show too early I never would have found the manly love of my life. But I won't say that I'm looking forward to it. The TV series isn't a never before seen chapter in the life of a misunderstood tragic hero, it's a bastardization of perhaps my favorite all time villain with ham-fisted results. The show isn't awful on its' own, and I'd imagine people who aren't so used to seeing Utsumi KENJI turn Raou into a heartless sneering demon might be more accepting of this version of the character. The fact that every other aspect of the production is just passable, however, doesn't mean I can recommend it to anyone but Hokuto no Ken die-hards to begin with, so if they're trying to appeal to people who are already fans, they're doin' it wrong.


Watch CASSHERN SINS already. It did everything to rock my world that Raou Gaiden did not.

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