“You are already dead,” said Kenshiro.
Hokuto no Ken is a title that is immediately recognizable to most anime and manga fans, and even to those outside of the anime community. It established a bevy of tropes and memes to be built upon by future series, has more taglines than you can count and an opening theme that is widely considered to be the most burning song in all of anime. Heck, it even got some love from Arc System Works with a niche (but acclaimed) fighting game chock-full of references to the anime. But despite all the publicity and respect it gets, there really aren’t many people that have seen a single episode of the series, which is mind-boggling to me.
In a world ravaged by nuclear war, human civilization has crumbled to ash. Cities are in ruins, barren wastelands stretch across the known world, water and food are scarce, and society has regressed to a dog-eat-dog mentality. Gangs of thugs and murderers ravage the countryside and there is little hope for the weak and innocent. In this wasteland, a man named Kenshiro struggles to find water; his fiance was taken from him by a former friend, Shin, and Kenshiro was left for dead with a peculiar scar across his chest in the shape of the Big Dipper. As he nears a small village, he is imprisoned by the apprehensive locals. A young girl, Lin, cares for Kenshiro until he recovers. When the town is suddenly attacked by bandits, Kenshiro displays tremendous power, breaks free of his prison cell and destroys the bandits and their leader with the deadly assassination art, Hokuto Shinken. Not wanting to trouble the villagers further, and seeking to reclaim Yuria from Shin, who now calls himself King of the wasteland, he sets off on his journey with Lin in tow, and accompanied by the headstrong but kind-hearted thief, Bat.
It’s hard to praise Hokuto no Ken without coming off as some kind of male chauvinist. I mean, the series is bursting with ‘manliness’ and often belittles the efforts of the female characters, at least on the battlefield. That in mind, the series does make the primary female protagonists driving forces of the narrative. After all, the story begins with Kenshiro on a quest to go save his girlfriend — though it slowly and surely elevates to something greater. The women offer a necessary respite in the ruthless setting of Century’s End, and the typical purity that they represent keeps the series from being a nonstop killfest.
That doesn’t mean that the men are exempt from showing any tenderness. In fact, there’s a very strong familial subtext that runs parallel to the more violent narrative. With a series name like Hokuto no Ken, stars and destiny play a large part in the conflicts, and several villains could easily be considered anti-heroes with their own troubled pasts. These characters, though violent, still are able to hang onto their humanity and ideology that their astrological counterparts represent in the lore. What this amounts to is what is commonly called “manly tears” being shed by the large, hulking masses of muscle as their battles come to an end. It’s touching, if a bit cliche, but helps elevate Kenshiro‘s status as the successor of the Hokuto Shinken. The friendships that Kenshiro forges and rekindles throughout his journey are iconic; to this day the Kenshiro / Rei duo is considered one of the best anime pairs by many fans.
Being an old series, the art is a bit dated but still fluidly animated. The series recycles several animation sequences throughout the run (Kenshiro loses his shirt in practically every episode but still manages to have a new one in the next) and the cannon-fodder enemies are extremely generic, but any named character has an interesting design and contributes to the narrative in a meaningful way. The Hokuto Shinken, being a lost assassination art, is almost magical; Kenshiro can use it both to heal and destroy. Much like other battle series, you’ll constantly be waiting for “the next awesome technique” to show up in mid-battle. The only problem here is that Kenshiro is already the designated successor and already has knowledge of the techniques, so there’s less of a drive for the character to improve his skills (Kenshin learning the Amakakeru Ryu no Hirameki comes to mind here). Still, the Hokuto Shinken doesn’t feel absurd within the story, which is kind of strange since it’s uses seem to be limitless. There’s even a technique where Kenshiro can control his opponent’s movements. Weird. Naturally, any named character is mostly immune to such skills for some reason.
The series is divided into two distinct series, with Hokuto no Ken II taking place after a considerable time skip. The story is still interesting and the cast of characters are powerful as ever, but it feels like Kenshiro loses a bit of spunk from the first series. I’d liken it to Rurouni Kenshin again, where the series tops out after Kenshin’s climactic battle with Shishio. After the main series conflict resolves … what else is there, really? The time skip doesn’t help the fracture in fiction; few characters from the first series are included, only the mains. There’s a definite divide between the two, and while it might make Hokuto No Ken II more watchable as a standalone, fans would really miss out on a lot of what makes the series so appealing if they neglected the first series.
At well over 100 episodes, it’s a title that will take some time to commit to. It’s definitely a classic, however, and those who appreciate a good adventure with awesome battle sequences will feel right at home burning through Hokuto no Ken.
Character Ranking – Hokuto no Ken