Fist of the North Star ran in Weekly Shonen Jump from 1983-8, considered by many a golden age for the magazine. Fist of the Blue Sky debuted some 13 years later, in a seinen anthology aimed at adults. Its existence is tied to a nostalgic fondness for the original series whether you actually grew up on it or not, and on the lifelong business relationship between artist Tetsuo Hara and manga editor Nobuhiko Horie, whose unceremonious break with Shueisha Publishing led to many great projects, only the teensiest sampling of which is available in English.
These are the first four volumes of Fist of the Blue Sky, out of print yet readily available used, which I’m going to talk about now with George J. Horvath, who’s been running the Land of Obscusion blog for almost two years now, where he profiles obscure anime and manga.
Milo: When I first began reading Fist of the Blue Sky I expected to flip it open and become awash in all manner of head-exploding madness. But that didn’t happen. These first few chapters seem to throw people off, as they toss a lot of geopolitical history at you, as well as characters that already possess loaded backstories. Not what you’d necessarily expect given the utter lawlessness of Fist of the North Star.
So in this sequel/prequel we trade in the post-apocalyptic nightmare of Fist of the North Star for Asia circa 1933, at the cusp of WWII, with its own grim parallels by way of the eventual atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nevertheless Blue Sky swings back and forth from swashbuckling action to the morose tone of its predecessor, which probably makes this a good time to note North Star author Sho Fimura (alias Buronson) had limited involvement in Blue Sky. He’s vaguely credited on the English volumes as the “plot supervisor.” So when I talk about the disarming tone of these early chapters, we may have something of a reason in Buronson’s absence.
George: Yeah, the change in year & location is such a throwoff when you first start reading Blue Sky, and it doesn’t help much when you realize that Kenshiro Kasumi, the “uncle” to North Star’s Kenshiro, is also a gigantic change from the man that would be known for blowing people’s heads up. Sure, this Kenshiro can also blow up body parts when the need arises, though it’s pretty rare, but when comparing the two leads this new/old Kenshiro is just as varied in execution as the plot, especially in the beginning. When you first see Kenshiro he’s essentially an Asian Indiana Jones, right down to being a glasses-wearing professor who has a student who’s in love with him. It’s kind of funny, actually.
But when Kenshiro heads to Shanghai he essentially becomes more like his future “nephew”, except that this Kenshiro is sarcastic & more fun-loving… And I must admit that I kind of prefer this Kenshiro to the original because of that extra personality. Tetsuo Hara admitted that in creating this Kenshiro he mixed together the original one with a bit of Keiji Maeda from Hana no Keiji (the Jump manga Hara did after North Star) as well as the main character from a manga called Nakabo Rintaro, which I admittedly know nothing about as I am more interested in reading Tetsu no Don Quixote (the motocross manga Hara did before drawing North Star) when it comes to Hara’s lesser-known works. I do wonder if Buronson agreed to this style of Kenshiro, though, or if he would have preferred a more “hard-boiled” Kenshiro (hey, the term didn’t become associated with crime fiction until the early-to-mid 30s, so it fits from a historical perspective).
Milo: All the non-Fist of the North Star manga I’ve read by Tetsuo Hara leads me to believe he gravitates towards prototypical shonen protagonists–you know, the kind that have good-natured cheerfulness in the face of insurmountable odds. This Kenshiro definitely embodies that whereas the original did not. I guess it’s one of the benefits of not living in an apocalyptic wasteland!
Regardless, Tetsuo Hara knows when to crank up the badass, and in these early volumes you still get the fleshbomb melodrama that made Fist of the North Star so memorable. There’s just less of a build up. If I had to critique it, I’d say the characters are kind of thrown at you, but it isn’t long until they’re punching each other and crying like they should be. I can’t help thinking Bronson might have handled it more gracefully. When you compare these opening chapters to manga like Strain and Sanctuary, there’s a narrative finesse I think is missing.
You mention the Kenshiro/Indiana Jones likeness early in the story, which is spot on. It also reminds me of another character trait that separates Blue Sky Kenshiro from North Star Kenshiro: this Kenshiro loves disguises! It seems to be his number one tactic for getting around his enemies. I find that interesting because so much of the conflict in the original Fist of the North Star manga revolves around identity: who’s going to be the single successor of Hokuto Shinken? who’s this guy with fake scars pretending to be Kenshiro? who’s this evil doctor calling himself Toki? who’s the last Nanto General?
This Kenshiro playfully sidesteps such dramatic conceits. He’s already the established successor of Hokuto Shinken, a trained assassin frequently hiding in plain view. It’s a total reversal, he’s in complete control of his identity and changes it as he sees fit.
There’s one even more noticeable reversal: whereas the original Kenshiro would make friends only to have them eventually die, we see this manga’s Kenshiro returning to Shanghai to find his old friends are still alive, to his utter surprise!
George: And, boy, do Kenshiro’s Qing Bang friends leave an impression! For example, there’s Ye, who was an expert shooter until he was horrifically burned by rival gang the Hong Hua Hui and now looks like Darkman; considering that Darkman was already a 11 year-old movie by the time Blue Sky debuted it was awesome to see Hara make that reference. When Kenshiro first meets up with Ye the man is broken and seemingly useless, but Kenshiro gives Ye the courage to become the memorable man he always could be. And, of course, there’s Pan Guang-Lin, leader of the Qing Bang, who ended up getting captured by the Hong Hua Hui and tortured to the point that his feet became useless. But after Kenshiro rescues Pan and gives him spiffy prosthetic feet Pan returns to being an utter badass. But that’s only part of the story Raijin covered, since the other main story is Kenshiro’s fights against not only the Hong Hua Hui, whose leader Kenshiro thought he killed before leaving Shanghai for Japan, but also against other variants of Hokuto, like Hokuto Sonkaken, represented by Mang Kuang-Yun (nicknamed “Ling Wang”, the counterpart to Kenshiro’s nickname “Yang Wang”) & Charles de Guise, a colonet in the French army that is control of Shanghai & works with the Qing Bang.
In fact, de Guise was another reason why I really got into Blue Sky, simply because of the fact that a non-Asian had actually learned a Hokuto style. True, de Guise never really uses Hokuto Sonkaken in the volumes Raijin released, but the fact that he already felt dangerous without using Sonkaken just gave the anticipation of wanting to see him go all out. But, really, the stuff with Ling Wang was easily the best part of these four volumes, with Kenshiro beating up a Mike Tyson look-a-like in an underground arena while smoking “incense” comes in second; yeah, I doubt it was incense he was smoking, but let me believe Kenshiro is that awesome!
Milo: Are we losing people at this point? The more I mine these early volumes for interesting details, the more I imagine it all sounds like a confusing mess of unharmonized plot points.
To clarify for people who may not have read a single page of Fist of the Blue Sky, the manga is about the uncle and namesake of the original Fist of the North Star Kenshiro in 1933, long before the apocalypse. “Uncle Ken” is living a tranquil life as a teacher in an all-girl’s school in Japan until an old friend from Shanghai comes to visit him with the news that the Qing Bang, a virtuous crime syndicate Kenshiro had many friends in, was violently purged by a treacherous Triad conglomerate. Kenshiro, trained in the assassin martial art of Hokuto Shinken, returns to the city to find it a hotbed of criminal and political corruption, and sets out to make things right.
So while I said the good news is Ken’s friends are still alive, the bad news is they’ve been vigorously tortured by the Triads. You mentioned two of them: Ye, whose body has been so extensively burned that he’s covered with bandages, and Pan Guang-Lin, imprisoned and barely clinging to life, with legs that are rotting off. This aspect of the story is quite grim, and while I’m not sure if the Ye character is a Darkman sendoff, there’s certainly some borderline body horror stuff going on.
Deformity is a recurring theme in this part of the story, as the evil Triad bosses Ken contends with were themselves victims of his pressure-point attacks in the distant past when Kenshiro was still a streetwise teen associated with the Qing Bang. One of the bosses is wheelchair bound and uses a lever in order to move his neck, one has a metal jaw, one has a headplate holding his brains in… this stuff sounds dreadful to describe literally, but the bosses also serve as comic relief. They’re utter scumbags that clumsily shuffle along and live in terror of meeting Kenshiro a second time.
George: You know, describing those Triad bosses makes them sound like crazy James Bond henchmen, like Oddjob or Jaws, but rather than taking orders from a higher authority they themselves are in charge… And, honestly, that’s the feeling you do get from these oddballs. You can easily tell that Kenshiro is way beyond their abilities & even intellect, but it’s certainly entertaining to see each of them try to get revenge. This is where Blue Sky keeps some of that North Star flavor: You can easily tell that the likes of Ling Wang &, possibly, de Guise are the real threats to Kenshiro while the Triad bosses are the silly higher-level grunts that you love seeing Kenshiro blow up sooner or later.
And I think that’s where Blue Sky succeeds best at: It puts the whole Hokuto lore & mythos into a more realistic place, historical even, yet it fits in pretty well among all of the Chinese mafioso, even if their leaders are malformed and “broken” is some ways. The Hokuto users are generally more nonchalant in what they do, generally not getting too excited by what transpires, unless something big happens. In contrast, the Triad bad guys are almost too trigger-happy to get their vengeance on Kenshiro, while Kenshiro, though angry that his victims survived, always seems calm, cool, and collected, because he knows that there’s nothing they can do to him. Blue Sky maintains North Star’s feeling that the heroes generally can keep things in control, but at the same time some little kinks get thrown into their well-greased machine of life, such as the introduction of Ling Wang & de Guise.
Milo: At the end of the day, I still wonder: do these early volumes work? Do they sufficiently communicate the appeal of Fist of the Blue Sky, a manga that went on for eighteen more volumes, and would have lasted even longer if Weekly Comic Bunch hadn’t ceased publication?
I don’t know. Even now, I suspect very few English-speaking FotNS fans have read much of the manga. And perhaps the sort of jargon-y introduction at the beginning has something to do with it. While it does eschew the post-apocalyptic simplicity of the original, I do agree that once it starts going, the core elements still work in this more historical-minded story.
For whatever it’s worth, my secret weapon for drumming up interest in Fist of the Blue Sky isn’t these early volumes, nor is it the 2006 tragically under-funded television adaptation. It’s a Pachinko machine promotional video which gets to the essence of what Blue Sky is: a dramatic martial arts story that is simultaneously a callback and without compare:
Look at me, posting YouTube videos. Probably a good sign that we’re nearing the end of this thing. Any closing comments, George?
George: Do these early volumes work? Well, I’d say that it’s both a “Yes” and a “No”. They work in that they do a nice job introducing the first real story arc, i.e. Kenshiro’s returning to Shanghai to finish what he started & help revive the gang he was once a part of, and there is a lot to like, such as the introduction of Ling Wang & de Guise as well as that awesome fight against the Mike Tyson wannabe (which is still a personal favorite scene of mine). On the other hand, it’s still only a start to a larger overall adventure… Hell, Volume 4 even ends with a gigantic reveal that changes a fair bit of what Kenshiro is fighting for! And for those who have watched the TV anime, Gutsoon’s release of the Blue Sky manga only covers up to around episode 8 or 9, which easily shows that what we got was nothing more than an introduction. The stuff that happens after these first four volumes are even better, and it’s a shame that we never got any of that.
Now maybe Gutsoon got a couple of more chapters translated & shown in Raijin Magazine that were never compiled into a book, but even then they likely only got a couple more chapters in. Still, the volumes that we got are pretty cheap to purchase online, so I still say that it’s worth buying them for collector’s sake, since we’ll likely never get this manga over here ever again. And though it is an under-funded production, I still did enjoy the anime adaptation & would still buy it if any licensor out there was brave enough to give it a try.
(watches that Pachinko PV)
Yeah, that is an awesome video that does show off why Fist of the Blue Sky is so enjoyable. It already makes me wish that, after Ken’s Rage 2, Tecmo-Koei would just make a third Hokuto Musou game that focuses on the Blue Sky story… Souten Musou, anyone?