Kenshiro can't go undercover, even in his feature film. The eyebrows always give him away.
Coming to America
By 1986, Kenshiro was well on his way to conquering Japan - the weekly manga was so popular that the editors of Shonen Jump had extended the run for a couple more years, and the Toei anime series was in full swing. On this side of the Pacific, not so much. I was working in a comic shop at the time, and had access to the (few) copies of Japanese anime mags ordered through Books Nippan in California (at the time, pretty much the only wholesale outlet available for retailers not located in the larger cities) and so I kept my eyes peeled for any merchandise that my happen to pop up there. Unfortunately, aside from the monthly anime magazines, there wasn't a whole lot left over after the regular Books Nippan customers got finished with the arrivals. My boss was nice enough to let me call Kevin Seymour(sp) in California every so often to see what overstock they had, but the well was usually pretty dry.
And the anime mags themselves were pretty expensive, so we could only order enough to cover the two or three customers who would buy them no matter what they were featuring that month. Since no one could read Japanese, the few who bought it did so mainly for the pictures. No kidding. Ten bucks or sometimes more for a bunch of pictures, most of which were basically advertisements for whatever Nippon Sunrise was selling that particular month, with the added bonus of Animage covering the most recent Miyazaki film. It really was slim pickings back then, though the beggers and choosers rule applied. Plus, the Miyazaki stuff was actually pretty cool. And you'd get small folded posters and occasional other goodies as inserts, provided they hadn't fallen out somewhere between Japan and Texas.
Anyway, I had a standing arrangement with the folks who bought the things that I could look through them when they came in and I took full advantage, generally looking out for Hokuto no Ken news, which was really hard to come by. But in the early parts of '86, I started seeing ads or promos for some kind of HnK project that was different from the anime series. The only reason I knew it was different was because the artwork was different. I got on the phone with Tomoaki and he mentioned he knew a feature film was in some stage of development, but wasn't exactly sure of the details. He was more a manga kinda guy and wasn't really into the anime part of it. So I wrote Mitsuyoshi and asked him to keep an eye out for what news he could give me, and by the middle of the year, he wrote back and told me that the film had already opened and closed and he had no idea when it would be released on video.
Kennnnnnn!!!! Make them release your movie!
Well, needless to say, I was stoked. Unfortunately, it'd be over a year before I'd get any more news about an impending video release. Talk about hell. In the meantime, he sent me a few copies of what he called a "movie program" book, which I was left to assume was sold at the box offices and later in stores. I would post a pic of it here, but I gave them all away. Even mine. Sigh. So you'll have to settle for a link to the page of that Italian collector who has pretty much everything.
When I finally got word that the film was finally going to be released on video, it was almost 1988. But that wasn't the worst part of it. That would be the purchase price. 13,800 yen. Now, when I first got into the anime thing, the exchange rate was almost 200 yen to the dollar. Unfortunately, sometime during the mid-80s, our government caught onto us anime and manga fans and decided we were getting too sweet a deal. Or something. By 1988, the rate had dropped by a quarter, and would go down even further before the decade was out. With postage and such, we we were almost paying straight up 100 yen to $1.00 by the time 1990 came around - at least when the middleman's cut was taken out. Luckily for us, Mitsuyoshi wasn't interested in turning a profit, on this kind of thing, anyway. But, still, 14,000 yen was a LOT of money for a bunch of geeks with minimum wage jobs.
So, I got on the phone with Jeff Blend and a few others (including Randy Stukey, who threw in twenty bucks just 'cause that's the kind of guy he was) and we decided to go co-op on a VHS copy. We'd throw in together and pass the copy around to each other so we'd all get 1st gen copies and enough time with the tape to make all sorts of extras for tape trading buddies. Of course, since this WAS HnK, we figured there wouldn't be a whole lot of copies we'd have to make. As I mentioned last post, the series really wasn't much of a hit with the American fans back then.
A relic from the ancient past - a VHS commercial copy.
As I look at this thing now, I honestly cannot tell you a whole lot about it. Or nothing that you can't get from a web site synopsis and watching it on youtube or wherever. Yes, the violence is blurred But, then, so is my memory. Part of me wants to pop it in the nearest tape player and watch it, since I've not seen it in twenty years. Another part of me worries it'll get ripped to shreds 'cause I haven't been near a VCR that's been properly maintained in a decade. Not that it would matter, since VHS really isn't collectable as such. I've watched the "Raoh wins" ending a few times elsewhere and honestly still think that looks strange. Ken just doesn't belong face down on the ground while Lin talks to Raoh. It's just...unreal. There was so much about this movie that I remember liking the first time around - and much of it that I just didn't care for at all. The soundtrack is cool enough. "Heart of Madness" still rocks around inside my head from time to time. I really remember being pissed 'cause Toki and Mamiya were left out, but Jagi got a nice chunk of screentime.
But I think my fondest memory of this was just being able to hold it in my hand, knowing I was going to actually see it in pristine form - the same way a fan in Japan would. In 1988. Most of you reading this probably can't understand how great a feeling that was back then because you now take it as a given. But it was a huge thing to me.
I have fuzzy memories of Streamline buying and running the film during the '90s, but I never saw that version. And really have no inclination to. There was talk of one of the few groups that were doing subtitles back then borrowing our copy to use as a master, but I don't think anything ever came of that either. I don't remember any subtitled copies of the film at all. Which is probably just as well - as I mention elsewhere, HnK just was not especially popular here during the '80s and '90s.
Multiple Manga Misfires
One of the benefits of working at a comic book shop was having access to the catalogs of upcoming releases. I was still heavily into collecting American comics back in '87, so I generally had a handle on the various comic book publishers and what they were putting out. The late '80s saw what we referred to back then as the beginning of the "black and white boom," a period where everyone and their brothers were putting out badly-drawn black and white comics (color was comparably expensive to do in the days before computer coloring), usually featuring some variation of "mutant animal" in the title. The distribution movement from mom&pop outlets, grocery stores, and drug stores (with revolving racks) toward specialized stores that sold comic books almost exclusively meant that publishers didn't have to deal with anyone other than one or two major distributors, and as long as they agreed to sell your book sight unseen, you were good to go. Talk about Wild Wild West. Anything went, and some of it actually sold to customers hoping to hoard all the copies of "Goofy Giraffes With Silly Swords" in the hopes they'd magically turn into mutant turtles somehow. Basically, it was the housing bubble two decades earlier. And it worked out about as well. But, that's getting away...
In the midst of all those "mutant" whatevers, this was also the time when the Japanese manga titles started being translated and released by American companies. So imagine my surprise when one day, I open the solicitation package and see this:
Too good to be true, right?
Well, as soon as I pick my jaw up off the table, the alarm bells start going off. The solicitation itself looks legit. Pretty nice, in fact, for the time period, especially from a small independent outfit. Yellow paper. Two pages, front and back, with illos obviously taken from the manga. Buronson and Tetsuo Hara and Shueisha Publishing credited.
"Bloosh!?" Yeah, that's about what I thought.
Still, I can't shut off those alarm bells ringing around inside my head. Okay, so they're marketing "Ken Shiro" as a "superhero." No problem, one could still total up the non-superhero titles on the shelves at the time on one's fingers and toes. No, the real problem was with the publisher. As in, I'd never heard of these guys before - an outfit called "Angel Comics." Whereas almost all the manga and anime wholesalers I knew of were based in California, this company had an address in New Jersey. Okay, I'm still an optimist at heart at this point in time, though part of the nagging in the back of my head comes from the fact that I know how popular Hokuto no Ken is with the anime fanbase here in the US. As in, not at all. Who the hell are these people expecting to sell to? And even if they are legit, what kind of numbers can they possibly expect to draw that would satisfy the rights holders in Japan? Yeah, okay, I'll buy 10 copies, but who will buy the other hundred thousand?
Heh, these guys exaggerate about this more than I did.
So, first thing I did when I got home is I picked up the phone and called just about everyone I knew and asked them about this thing. Everyone knew just as much as I did. Even Fred Patten, who had a nose for this kind of thing, knew nothing about Angel Comics, but did say that Eclipse/Viz was looking to expand their output and, as far as he knew, they had the rights to all the Shueisha titles, including Hokuto no Ken.
To make a long story short, months went by and "Angel Comics" actually solicited for two months worth of material in the distributor's catalogs, then were never heard from again. I can't say it surprised me. To this day, I'm not sure exactly what it was all about and the only firm evidence I could find about the incident was in the Viz-In newsletter a year later after Viz had announced their intention to publish HnK. They described "Angel Comics" as an "obscure publisher" who had solicited a "pirated version," but were thankfully stopped for the good of all, etc. et al. And that's probably as close to the truth as we're likely to get. As someone who would be later involved in a similar situation involving the Captain Harlock license and some shady operation called "Coral Pictures" out of Florida, I can sympathize. I can't emphasize enough how chaotic it was back then, with the Japanese companies apparently not much interested in cracking the American market, and with pirates of all kinds taking full advantage of the situation.
Okay, let's try this again, shall we?
About this same time, Viz, who had co-published manga titles with Eclipse Comics, decided to go it alone, sensing the American market was slowly growing large enough to support more titles. I dunno whether or not the Angel Comics thing pushed them into choosing HnK as one of those early titles, but I'm sure it didn't hurt. In announcing the new "Fist of the North Star" comic, Viz head honcho Seiji Horibuchi would declare it "...probably the most influential manga of the eighties."
So, of course, it lasted all of eight issues.
You are already cancelled!
But, hey, I did my part. I bought 10 issues. Of course, my boss at the comic store looked at me like I was nuts.
I remember sitting down with Satoru Fujii, who did the translation work on that first run, in San Diego in the early '90s and having a discussion about why that original comic didn't catch on better. All the standard theories at the time - the time for manga wasn't quite here yet, the comic was too violent, true "mangaphiles" don't like "flipped manga," etc had a bit of truth to them so far as it went. But mostly it came back to that bugaboo that all true HnK fans know and realize deep down - the "good stuff" - the heart of what makes Hokuto no Ken appeal to us, isn't apparent until roughly a third of the way through the story. It's one thing to tell someone "hey, wait until Toki and Raoh show up," when you can just whip out an episode or comic to prove it, but it's totally another to maintain sales of a bi-weekly or (worse) monthly comic up until that point. And you can't just "skip" translating certain parts of the manga, as appealing as that may be. Up until the introduction of Rei, the manga stories are, let's be honest, pretty repetitive stuff. It's not as quite as bad as the anime, with filler (and stories adapted from later) so that it takes 20 episodes just to get to the Shin fight, but it's hardly earth-shattering material that's going to make some non-Ken fan think there's a reason the story is going to get any different a year or two on down the line. Basically, if the first five or six issues don't grab you, there's little reason to think that's going to change.
Viz dipped back into the water later in the '90s, getting as far as halfway through the Rei storyline before again finding sales hard to come by. Or maybe it was my fault. I only bought two copies of each of these.
Would've loved to have been in the editorial meeting when they picked the cover for this one.
"Who's the guy on the cover?"
"That's Kenshiro's brother.""Is he in the issue?"
"No, he doesn't show up for another year."
"So, why's he on the cover again?"
"It looks cool. Plus, we're running out of color cover material."
"You think anyone will notice he's not in the comic."
"Eh, American comics have been doing this kind of thing for decades."
"Yeah, no one's gonna care."
Guess what? Yeah, no one cared. I probably could've saved them the trouble, but at least they tried. The actual reproduction on these varied from adequate to awful, usually depending on the tonework that Hara used on the originals. The more tonework, the worse the reproduction.
I totally missed out on the Gutsoon attempt during the aughts, so I can't really speak to those, but I understand they also couldn't manage to make it terribly far into the run before collapsing. It's a shame, really (for manga fans, anyway), but I suppose it's a good thing that the companies streaming the anime didn't have to sell the thing episode by episode in order to make the whole series available, because it may never have gotten done. For newer fans of Hokuto no Ken, that's probably the only way they're ever going to see the meat of the series translated legally. And for all its faults, the anime doesn't diverge all that far from the manga during the important arcs. In fact, in some places (cough, Juuza, cough) I actually prefer it. I once did a couple columns on the major differences between the manga and anime, but damned if I can find 'em...
I didn't know where to put this bit in the last two blog posts, so I'll just throw it in here at the end. A lot of people are aware of the Gary Daniels' "Fist of the North Star" live-action film from the '90s. I've not seen it, and have no pressing need to see it. One night when I'm really, really drunk, maybe I'll check out a scene or two on youtube.
But die-hard '80s Hokuto no Ken fans know the very first Kenshiro live-action film rip-off. Made in either Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Korea (I mercifully forget which), it came out in the mid '80s and made the rounds among the fans over here who were either heavily into HnK or (more likely) Asian martial arts films in general. I used to show parts of it during my late-night version of what some of you guys might now call "Anime Hell" back in the '80s in convention video rooms. Especially popular (read: lots of laughing and hooting) were the scenes of Kenshiro vs a bunch of guys on scooters (I guess motorcycles would've put them over budget), and the climactic fight with Shin where they actually animated (badly) Ken's shirt flying off. On the good side...well, the kid they got to play Bat was spot-on. Of all my tapes I gave away, that's one of them I wish I'd kept.