"Yeah. I'm looking at you."
My Twenty-Five Year Love Affair with Kenshiro (or does this headline make me look gay?)
It all started in Ben Dunn's living room, sometime during the winter of 1985. A bunch of us would gather there a few times a month to play Champions or just hang out and watch third or fourth generation anime vids Ben had managed to gather from here there and everywhere. In between the giant robots slugging it out and Dr. Slump potty jokes, the first episode of a peculiar anime came on. Something the likes of which I'd certainly never seen before among the anime shows Ben had introduced us to. It was slowly paced, with the requisite too cute by half little girl (complete with puppy), a boy who yakked way too much and a bunch of escapees from the latest Mad Max movie riding around on motorcycles. About halfway through this mishmash of B-movie tropes, something even more peculiar happened: one of the brutish thugs' head blew clean off. Being a Cronenberg fanatic, my first thought was, of course, that in addition to The Road Warrior and Bruce Lee flicks, the folks who were responsible for this one must've been huge fans of "Scanners." But the whole thing was about to get even more bizarre. By the time Kenshiro let out that first "Atatatat...etc." and unloaded his thousand fists at Zeed, we were all laughing too hard to listen to the village elder explain the finer points of Hokuto Shinken to the audience. Not that we'd have understood anyway, since none of us spoke a word of Japanese. The general consensus of the show was that it was curious and good for a couple of laughs, but that lasted a whole minute or two and we fast-forwarded the tape to the next episode of Aura Battler Dunbine or whatever.
Still, there was something about it that stuck with me after I'd left to go home later that night. That animation was no great shakes and I wasn't at all interested in martial arts films, and after all the goofy fists were unleashed on the thugs with the Zs on their heads, all thoughts of this guy being a scanner who spent all his time at the post-apocalyptic gym went right out the window. Still, the show was...different. Yeah, it was a mash-up of the familiar, plot-wise, but...then it hit me. It was the character designs and the artwork. I would be told over and over and over again during my early days in anime fandom that the artwork on Hokuto no Ken is "ugly" and that prevented a lot of people from getting into it, as if it didn't really fit into the "anime" style, whatever the hell that was. As someone who grew up with Neal Adams, Steranko, and Jack Kirby, it seemed an odd objection, but since much of the appeal of anime and manga on this side of the Pacific is in the artistic differences between American and Japanese sensibilities, I guess it might be explained that way. In any case, there was enough there to pique my curiousity as to exactly what would get such a "different" show made in the first place. And that thought stayed in the back of my brain.
"Who are you calling 'ugly'?"
Anyway, we were so clueless that we didn't even have an idea what the bloody thing was called. Something with "Fist" in the title. It wasn't until a few weeks later when I was going through a C/FO publication of one kind or another where I noticed the LA chapter was showing something called "Fist of the North Star" in their meetings, that I figured my mystery show had a name, so I wouldn't embarrass myself when asking around for more episodes. Assuming, of course, that there were more episodes. I seriously had no way of knowing, even the most basic of information being extremely difficult to come by back in those days. Enter Mary Kennard.
Mary is one of those under-the radar angels for whom American anime fandom owes a great debt - the rare early anime/manga fan with contacts, enthusiasm, a bit of understanding of the Japanese language and, most importantly, the willingness to use them all to help others without asking for an arm and a leg in return. Plus, she had a killer tape collection. And, amazingly enough, she LOVED Hokuto no Ken. I can't remember where I originally got her phone number from, but she helped the C/FO-San Antonio tape collection get started and, more importantly for myself, personally, shaped the way I deal with others in the fandom. She'd answer my questions to the best of her abilities and knowledge and absolutely loved doing so. If it weren't for Mary Kennard, you wouldn't be reading this.
Anyway, it turned out she had most of the HnK episodes up to that point and patiently explained to me about Shin, Toki, Mamiya, and especially Rei. Turns out she was a huge Kaneto Shiozawa fan. It was...interesting to hear her go on about Japanese voice actors while talking to a guy who didn't know shit about much of anything. I guess that's part of the definition of a true fan. Anyway, she sent me the later Rei episodes, right up to that fatal showdown with Raoh, which was just a month or so behind the anime episodes airing in Japan. Between her explanations and actually seeing those episodes, I was hooked.
"My, that's a big...horse you have."
About that time, C/FO-San Antonio got in the thick of things in North American fandom and I was trading tapes like crazy. I had contacted Mitsuyoshi in Japan and he'd agreed to tape TV anime for us, which meant we sometimes got episodes of stuff before any of my other contacts, which meant even MORE tape trading. The first batch of tapes I got from him included the great Rei death episode and the beginning of the Shuu/Souther arc, which just totally blew me away. I mean, I was REALLY heavy into this thing now. Unfortunately, even armed with my sparkling personality and first generation episodes of what I had come to believe was a real phenom here, I just could not get anyone else interested in this show. It just wasn't happening. "Real" anime fans were into mecha and Dirty Pair and Urusei Yatsura, not mystical martial artist who made heads explode. With "ugly" artwork. Saint Seiya was all the rage.
On this side of the Pacific, anyway. Basically, near as I could tell, Hokuto no Ken fandom consisted of Mary, Jeff Blend, Tim Eldred, Laurine White, Steven Barnes. And me.
The C/FO had a listing for "favorite anime" in the membership directory and out of the total membership, fewer than 10 people listed Hokuto no Ken among their favorites. It was a really tough time to be a manly man among men.
Then, in 1986, three things happened, creating the perfect storm for this particular fanboy. The feature film was released in Japan. I got in touch with Tomoaki Okuzumi, a Japanese native (and Hokuto no Ken fan) living in California. And the Shonen Jump "All About the Man" book was released by Shueisha.
The Rosetta Stone
I'm going to get into the HnK movie in another blog post. In a strange turn of events, Tomoaki got in touch with me, instead of the other way around. I guess he found my name in one of the C/FO publications, I don't know if I ever asked him where or how he found me. But he did. I guess the stars were all lined up just right. Without him, none of those early Hokuto no Ken translations would have gotten done. He'd call me up on the phone and we'd sometimes talk for more than an hour at a time about either what had come before or what was currently happening in the weekly Shonen Jump, which he got from relatives in Japan. I guess he either had a really good job or just really loved talking Kenshiro. For whatever his reasons, his efforts were greatly appreciated. When I had questions about this or that, he'd occasionally send me actual Jump pages from the weeklies when a new character was introducted along with written translations of song lyrics and such.
And then one day, out of the blue, an extremely large package came in the mail, and it wasn't from Mitsuyoshi, but from Tomoaki. Inside was, quite simply, the most important part of the puzzle that was Hokuto no Ken yet released, aside from the actual running manga. And quite a bargain at 390 yen, I might add.
Everything you ever wanted to know about kumo no Juuza, except maybe the size of his package.
Now, I've sure there have been more colorfull and more detailed Hokuto no Ken books released over the subsequent 20+ years, but not many would prove more useful. It had inverviews with Tetsuo Hara and Buronson, color-pullouts of paintings which would later become the covers of HnK books both in Japan and elsewhere around the globe, detailed character pics and discriptions of martial arts styles, a nifty reprinting of the original Ken story from Fresh Jump, facts and figures about the man himself and so much other Hokuto heavenliness that when I first opened it, I'm sure they felt the fanboy orgasm all the way to Kansas.
Want to know how long he can hold his breath? There's an app for that!
Now I understand that the All About the Man Special has been reprinted a few times in Japan since the original release in '86 and I'm sure more detailed books have come out since then (this one only covers up to Raoh's death), but a recent scan of ebay shows this puppy is still getting bids of forty bucks or so, which isn't bad for a cover price of 390 yen! "What a bargain!" Anyway, I still think it's fairly required to have this puppy in your collection if you're a completist, but the rarity and price thing can certainly be a hindrance, especially to those who came into the series because of the new animation a few years back. For whatever reason, Shueisha and Toei didn't release a whole lot of supplemental material for the manga and anime during their first runs, compared to the products of other companies, but I'm certainly glad if there had to be an exception, it was an important one.
Dunno why Raoh has a weapon here, seems just a tad redundant.
A welcome side-effect of the All About the Man book, at least for us would-be HnK evangelists, was it collected a lot of the needed reference material from the manga in one place. No longer would you have to scan back over the manga volumes or anime episodes to find the name of, say, Rei's Nanto art (nanto sui cho ken), because it was right there on his page, along with his governing star (gi sei). In addition, it cleared up the whole Shin thing, since neither the name of his actual art nor his governing star were given in his original manga arc - just one of the many things they added as they went along. But, thanks to the good folk at Shueisha, all of that was now cleared up, assuming you had someone who could translate it all, of course.
Which is where Tomoaki came in. Being a fan of HnK as well as fluent in Japanese, he was genuinely interested in helping me impart hokuto knowledge to the unwashed masses over here, whether they wanted it or not. Back in the wild west of anime fandom (1986 or so) the rule wasn't "If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself." It was more like "If you want something done AT ALL, you have to do it yourself." Basically, the only translations being done were personal pet projects for APAs, the occasional translation guides for conventions like Baycon, small movie or episode synopses for anime club newsletters, and Toren Smith's Urusei Yatsura manga projects with Miyako Graham. People with the skills to translate (and materials to translate from) were working on stuff they liked personally, and not much else. Of course, since there wasn't really any money in it, that was to be expected. Anime and manga fandom was still a very small market, even after Robotech issued in a new wave of fans. Personal computers were still incredibly expensive, word processors weren't a whole lot cheaper, and most work was still being done either by hand or by typewriter. Al Gore had yet to invent the internet as we now know it and even Usenet was still in its infancy. Even communication by telephone could be incredibly expensive, depending on what time of the day or night you were talking. "Snail mail" was the rule, rather than the exception.
But, hey, you do what you can, with what you have. Which is what we did. Armed with the manga, the All About the Man Special, telephones, communication via the US Postal Service, and using my trusty antique manual typewriter and illos by Mike Cogliandro (who wasn't really a HnK fan, but a good sport nontheless), Tomoaki and I managed to assemble and distribute what I'm pretty sure was the first Hokuto no Ken guide of any note in English.
"Hokuto no Ken: An Initiate's Guide," circa 1986.
The fanboy hype just oozes out of my typewriter, doesn't it? Oh, to be young and in love.
Looking at this shit now, I'm amazed anyone could do freakin' ANYTHING back then. First I had to take the illos, find a photocopy machine that could reduce them to manageable size, cut and paste them on a blank sheet of paper (and by cutting and pasting, I'm talking scissors and glue stick here), insert them into the manual typewriter, type AROUND the illos, then photocopy the pages again, which is why everything is so faint. Then you have to find a public copy machine that makes good copies, because you have to do one side at a time in order to make double-sided copies. Then you reduce the pages yet again so two pages can fit side by side on a larger sized paper and fit together as a booklet. It's all rather...complicated.
I don't even have any original copies of this thing anymore, what's pictured here are the reprints of a reprint that the C/FO distributed through its newsletter in '87. You can even see Randall Stukey's hand-written page numbers on the bottom of the pages. Or maybe you can't. Sigh. Hey, it this was 1986, okay.
Manual typewriters don't have spell checkers, obviously.
I'll put the rest of the pages at the end of this in case anyone reading this hasn't abused their eyes enough with these. If you read the whole thing, you'll see references to an Initiate's Guide, Part 2. Yes, we did that one too, covering the Nanto Go Sha Sei arc, Yuria, and the end of the first series, along with some assorted bits and pieces like martial arts stuff and more song translations. I actually liked it a bit better than the first one, mostly because we learned from our mistakes, but, sadly, I don't have any copies at all of it among the crap I've managed to dig out of boxes, so it may be forever lost to the dustbin of fandom history. Which might not actually be such a bad thing...
Among my other HnK fannish activities during that maniac period of 1984-89 was a round-robin project that worked fairly well for the first round or so before everyone just lost interest. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of a round-robin, it was kind of a poor man's APA, usefull for smaller groups of fans who don't publish tons of material. Instead of everyone making a bunch of copies of their "trib" and sending them to a specific collator for mass mailing, there's just one package that gets mailed from one participant to the next participant, who then copies whatever he or she wants from the whole, includes his or her contribution to the package, then mails the whole thing to the next person on the list, who does the same, until the package makes it back to the person who started the whole thing, who re-starts the process after replacing his or her original contribution with a new one. This way, everyone only has to make one copy of their material and everyone saves on postage and only have to spring for the copies of stuff they want to keep. Of course the downside is that if the one person who has the package gets lazy...
And, of course, I don't have much material from that either, which is kind of a shame. I remember some fun stuff from that, including a strip from Tim Eldred about Kenshiro and Rei going to McDonalds...
Of course the translation/information game hit its stride in the '90s and never looked back. Hokuto no Ken was no exception in this regard, though the fandom remained smaller than many comparable anime/manga from the time period. When the net exploded during roughly the same time period, web sites like Evan Jacobson's most excellent Hokuto Renkitoza popped up, making amateurs like me superflous (well, okay, I always wanted to be super at something).
I have to admit to feeling a slight depression when I walked by all those arcades with all those kids playing Street Fighter 4 or Mortal Kombat 21 or whatever during the past two decades and thinking to myself "Do these people even know about Hokuto no Ken?" But that pales in comparison to the joy I feel now when I surf the web and realize just how LARGE the fanbase has grown compared to the small handfull of us who eagerly waited for the manga chapters or anime episodes to come out during that original run in the '80s. It just goes to show that quality wins out, whether it takes two months or twenty-five years.
I'm just happy I lived long enough to finally see it.
How to make the bad guys blow up REAL GOOD!
Hey, at least we didn't forget Jagi existed!
I know this probably still sounds lame, but I plead not guilty on account that it was fucking 1986.
Notice the "Sauzer" spelling. We did that waaay back in '86 just to piss off Daryl Surat, who was probably all of 10 years old at the time.
Hell, we even did lame song translations!
Credit where credit is due. In this case, to Dudley Do-All, Mister Jeff Blend. The second biggest HnK fan I knew back then.
Next up: The Movie and the comics. Or, how Kenshiro found America a LOT tougher to conquer than Asura.