Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fist of the North Star 103: A Challenge From the Devil! Fudo, Be the Demon for Those You Love!!

Okay, let's get this right out of the way: no episode of Fist of the North Star is as good as its title.  The amount of bold, over-the-top heroics suggested in sentence fragments and redundant exclamation marks is enough to set anyone's blood a-boiling, especially when screamed out by the hyperactive preview narrator.  The actual episodes usually pale in comparison, often seeming like the thirty seconds of awesome-looking moments from the trailer stuffed together with twenty minutes of stalling.  With next-episode previews affixed to just about every anime release, Fist of the North Star ends with that distinct soap opera kick: "that was terrible, and I need to find out what happens next."

I was exaggerating: the show's not terrible.  It's perhaps not the classic that certain spheres of anime fandom have built it up to be, but it has a certain charm that's mainly to due with the anarchic animation and larger-than-life characters and accompanying mythology.  It was also incredibly influential, which may make it a classic depending on your particular definition of the word.  Of course, not all influences are for the better.

Many of anime's distinctive stylistic traits were developed in the 60s and 70s as shortcuts to cut animation costs.  While some of these are reviled today (speedlines, anyone?), many have become cherished parts of the anime aesthetic.  Similarly, the shortcuts and narrative duct tape used by Fist of the North Star have become distinct traits of the shounen genre that it heavily influenced.  In particular I want to look at its economical way of portioning out story -- or, to be slightly more direct, its use of filler.

Shounen today is famous for its long battles that can stretch on for several episodes.  This episode's featured battle, between Raoh and Fudo, is only two episodes, as it isn't tremendously important and the standard of fight length had yet to be really established.  But whether two episodes or twelve, in most of these episodes there's remarkably little fighting going on.  In "A Challenge From the Devil!", for instance, the Raoh/Fudo fight doesn't' get started until three quarters of the way in.  In general in these episodes significant events happen at the start and the end of the episode.  This is not simply poor writing, but a factor of the format and economics of mass-market anime.  There's only so much manga to adapt, and said manga is usually incomplete when the anime adaptation starts.  So plot must be rationed, spread out amongst the constant grind of weekly episodes.

So what do you do when there's not enough plot to go around?  Flashbacks are one staple.  In this episode we have an extended flashback to Raoh's past encounter with Fudo, the only man to ever truly frighten him, as well as Fudo's eventual conversion into the gentle giant of the present.  This conversion was, of course, at the hands of Yuria, the idealized female figure who, as an object of desire, has driven this last arc.  Simply witnessing her kindness is enough to reform Fudo.  We're also reminded again that the young Yuria looked an awful lot like Lynn, furthering the idea that all of the significant female characters in the series (all 3 or 4 of them) are basically the same person.

(The perspective here is a great example of the grandiose overstatement inherent in Fist of the North Star's style, with characters like Fudo and Raoh being not only giants but also growing and shrinking at the whim of the animator.)

There's a kind of paradoxical nature to the recent flashbacks in this series.  On the one hand, any flashback establishes the primacy of the past as a way of understanding who the characters are today.  This logic works for both mythic (e. g. Fist of the North Star) and psychological (e.g. Lost) ideas of character.  When Fudo is forced to don his old battle armour again and become "the Ogre", it's the return of the repressed writ large and violent.  Kenshiro's new ability to channel the skills of his defeated foes also plays into this dynamic.

But at the same time these late-series flashbacks are a bit of a retcon.  Characters like Raoh and Fudo are ascribed motivations that have never been mentioned before but are suddenly all important.  At the same time as the in-story past is made more important, the past that we ourselves remember -- the past of the series -- has become less important and even cast as unreal compared to these characters' newly-established backgrounds.  This is the essential paradox surrounding retcons, both the obvious dimension-bending ones seen in superhero comics and the subtler ones seen elsewhere.

It is not that flashbacks are necessarily filler -- they can often reveal crucial information.  And in Fist of the North Star they reflect one of the main ideas of the series, a lost age of peace and prosperity ruined by degeneracy and complacency.  But they stop the narrative momentum of the series in its tracks, and interrupt the flow inherent to any good fight scene.  As the fights become talkier and more flashback-dominated, it becomes less of an action series and more of a series that uses fights as an inciting dramatic event but is basically not really interested in them.

Another key time-filling technique can be seen in this episode's interstitial action sequence with Kenshiro.  This is a familiar pattern for the fourth and final "part" of the series: while Raoh and the Goshashei have plot-relevant battles at the start and end of each episode, Kenshiro takes on minions in the middle.  These guys are basically the image of your average Fist of the North Star mook, a mixture of 80s countercultures that embody youth degeneracy.

There's a bit of a change to the formula of these battles, as at this point in the plot Kenshiro has been blinded and has to take on the bad guys without use of his sight.  This allows for moments of mortality, such as when the leader of the thugs in this episodes actually hits him.  But for the most part it's the usual exhibition of invulnerability and superman strength.  This was once, of course, the meat of most episodes, but now it seems as though Raoh has become the true protagonist (if not the hero) of the narrative, whereas Kenshiro is just a relic of the older story, a supporting character in his own show.

Of course, what fans deride as filler is not always a bad thing.  If we put prejudice in favour of serialized stories aside, the journey can be just as fulfilling as the destination.  There are great shows that are entirely episodic, and thus from a certain perspective all filler.  But at this point in Fist of the North Star we're just seeing conflicts and ideas we've seen many times before re-enacted again.  Worse yet, there is genuine plot advancement in the episode, which makes the redundant majority of its runtime even more aggravating.  So I would argue that the reliance on time-filling in what is, after all, not that complex a story is a flaw of Fist of the North Star.  But it would very quickly become a flaw of the genre.

Next week: "You haven't ignored the last of me!"

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