Animation and Anime

AICN Anime - Adventuring into Fist of the North Star, Needless and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

Published at: Feb. 27, 2011, 9:37 p.m. CST by scottgreen


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Column by Scott Green



Anime Spotlight: Fist of the North Star: The TV Series
Volume 2
Released by Discotek Media



Fist of the North Star opens with Kenshiro, lone master of the superlatively deadly art of Hokuto Shinken, marching out of the apocalyptic wastes to hunt down the man who stole the love of his life and left him to die. This is a practitioner of an assassination art, historically the last line in defending the emperor. And, he's the classic, unadulterated version of the master. This isn't someone fighting with a reversed blade or a pretext of pacifistity. He is in no way conflicted about ridding the world of trouble makers. As such, his adversaries don't live long. Set two of Fist of the North Star features episodes 37-72, ones not previously released in English, and, with the hero's rivals left in the dirt, this new to us material is all about finding work for this brutally heroic figure.

This stretch of the series is ostensibly free of filler. Which is to say, it's driven by the events of the original manga, without long stretches of episodes invented for the anime. It's in contrast to the first set , which had plenty of those fill episodes, featuring one-off martial arts ridiculous, even by Fist of the North Star standards, such as the guys who specialized in being shot out of cannons or the practitioner enable to act like Dracula and control minds with the aid of a ringing bell. There are still some gobsmacking episodes, such as the lesson in the gender politics of Fist of the North Star, in which a phallic headed old guy dooms his family to tragedy when he names his daughter successor to the rose throwing Crimson Orchid Mountain Fist. Then again Dekai Babaa, the giant disguised as a little old lady originate in the manga.

The new standard of Fist of the North Star is not so much marked by an absence of piddling foes so much as an absence of long, aimless strings of them. This set launches with the heroes storming Cassandra, the Fist King's prison for competing martial artists, putting an end to its brutal warden, the horn helmed giant Uighur, then marching on from one clash of significant martial art titans to the next.

While escalating battles would seem to be the natural state for shonen adventure stories, the prospect presents a particular challenge for Fist of the North Star. Sudden revelations used to propel the story from one chapter to the next don't quite contradict what was previously establish, yet still make it evident that Fist of the North Star invents its plot as it goes along. However, that writing itself out of corners is part of the fun. The greatest spectacle to behold might be watching the bulked up two fisted yarn run the obstacle course of the tricky parameters it has laid out.

One of the most popular titles of its day, Fist of the North Star has had a key influence on the shonen action manga that have followed it. However, this was not a linear evolution.

Koji Aihara and Kentaro Takekuma's Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga makes the point that ninja manga were once ubiquitous. Then, in the 80's, ninja manga was split by popular 70's sensations Uri Geller and Bruce Lee into the realms of the mental and physical with psychic manga and kung fu manga respectively.
Fist of the North Star is not the kind of shonen adventure where a just hero strives to be the best. Nor did that standard evolve after it. It's kung fu manga set post global-devastations. Fist informs the Dragon Balls and Narutos, but it’s more a Neanderthal/Homo sapien relationship than a Homo erectus/Homo sapien one.


Fist of the North Star opens with Kenshiro already the best there is. Any loss he might suffer must be qualified; more a delay of his inevitable victory - a case of a cheat he hasn't figured out how to thwart or the stars not being right. Tigers lay down and get ready to die when faced with Kenshiro's supreme, lethal dominance. Armies of toughs are smashed by his fists. At some point, he's going to flex his muscles, burst out of his shirt, and put a Bruce Lee screech exclamation point on his adversary's violent death. No training or time skips required.

Parallel to Kenshiro's martial dominance is his entrench position on moral high ground. The full title of the anime is Seikimatsu Kyuseishu Densetsu: Hokuto no Ken - Legend of the Century's End Messiah: Fist of the North Star. This flawless paragon is explicitly identified as the messiah of his blasted age.

Part of the pleasure of watching Fist of the North Star is the unselfconscious straight face with which it chronicles the questing of a sort of Bruce Lee/Mad Max/Galahad figure. And part is the marvel of the convolutions that Fist twists inventing doomed to die rivals for this hero while adhering to how capable and virtuous the character is.

Fist of the North Star manages to find many of its Kenshiro comparable fighters among Hokuto Shinken's antithetical martial art Nanto Seiken. Unlike the single lineage of Hokuto Shinken, Nanto Seiken has 108 school. Most of these are the wackos who wack-a-mole up for Kenshiro to smack down. For example, Nanto Sozan Ken - South Dipper Twin Slashing Fist - which involves two guys juggling their knives around Kenshiro. Above those losers is the Six Nanto Generals - one of which was Kenshiro's original rival, Shin, the final of which is one of Fist of the North Star's fantastic effort to extricate itself from being painted into a corner (doubtless, pinning the number of Generals at six was regretted), and, four of which are instrumental to this set of episodes: South Star Waterfowl Fist's "Star of Justice" Rei, South Star Crimson Crane Fist's "Star of Betrayal" Juda, South Star White Heron Fist "Star of Benevolence" Shu, and, ultimately, closest to a challenge to Kenshiro, the Holy Emperor, South Star Phoenix Fist, "Star of Leadership" Souther.

Though characterization is set in stone, other elements are more flexible, better for knotting. Fundimental to Hokuto Shinken, there is one practitioner of the art. However, Fist of the North Star's post apocalyptic age is apparently sufficiently exceptional to allow that rule to be bent. The previous set of episodes introduced and dealt with Kenshiro's adopted brother Jagi - another Hokuto Shinken, but one who is an aggravating, cackling hyena and not a real rival.

This time around, Fist of the North Star introduces the more significant Hokuto brothers. Rei, a hero who cuts people apart with laser like finger tips comes close, but these two are the ones that stake a memorable place along with Kenshiro in the aristocracy of anime classics. They're the master of a soft style of a Hokuto Shinken, a healer who can also kill with attacks along the lines of Merciful Face Smasher, kind of a Karate Jesus, Toki. And the master of hard style, literal, domineer Ken-oh 'Fist King,' Raoh.

As with super hero Kenshiro, Toki is such as self sacrificing good guy, Raoh is such a belligerent, self serious iconoclast, watching Fist try heft the burden of these three unbeatable fighters is enthralling. Raoh in particular is a gift to pop culture. This is a hulking jerk looking to fight heaven and earth, who refuses to dismount his horse and put himself on the same level as his foes, who is not sadistic per se, but inclined to hurt people to make sure that fear is instilled. He's an archetypical bully, but one done with thundering zeal.

While some might have nostalgic affection for Fist of the North Star, I only sampled it before Discotek's release. Well, maybe more than sampled. I read the first couple volumes of the Viz release of the manga, and some of Gustoon/Raijin's release of the 1930s Shangai set prequel Fist of the Blue Sky, I saw the ADV released New Fist, some of Manga's release of this anime and the recent Dark King prequel. Still, even it wasn't a long standing connection; I had enough fun with Fist's mindless, inconsequential entertainment that, as die-hards would say, I'm inclined to shed a few Kenshiro-style manly tears when I exhaust a collection of the anime.


 

Anime Spotlight: Needless
Collection 1
Released by Section23




Needless has a Fozzy Bear quality to it. It's so insistently, uncompromisingly tacky, that it's almost endearing. That said, it wasn't that I ultimately found myself liking Needless, so much as I didn't hate it and, was able to finish it.

Needless is the kind of anime I'm willing to give a shot, but which more often than not leaves me shaking my head, with even my low expectations disappointed.

On one hand, it evidently had plenty of screaming accompanied attacks, with flaming kanji searing the screen. If that sort of action is well animated and well choreographed, there's a lot that I'm willing to forgive.

On the other hand , it seemed likely to be an Ikki Tousen-like situation, where the matters to forgive are rather egregious and the action is still unimpressive. What I'd seen of the sketchiness of the show made it evident that it was pushing the wrong sort of buttons. Needless makes an impression with a style that looks like the scrawls of an arrested development case. Colorfully dressed, outrageously muscled guys were paired with very young looking, busty yet waifish girls. It could have been a parody of the excesses of super hero comics and moe manga it were critical rather than indulgent. From Needless scenes picked up in various compilations of animation regarded as noteworthy, the anime seemed to possess a troubling preponderance of the massive guys beating up on the micro-girls.

The original Needless manga ran in Ultra Jump, an anthology that often trades in older audience variants of the Shonen Jump fight/action formula, with the likes of Bastard!!, Battle Angel Alita: Last Order (left the anthology), Steel Ball Run (ending) and Tenjou Tenge (recently ended).

Needless' post World War III, barren, bombed landscape looks back to patriarch of fight manga, Shonen Jump's Fist of the North Star. In similarly conventional fashion, the series follows feared factions of individuals known as "Needless: with "Fragment" super powers. And, like many works of its type, the specific configuration of characters is a lot more complex to spell out than it is in practice... non-super powered but virtuous Cruz Schild loses his sister to an attack robot known as a Testament after the pair narrowly escape the slaughter of a resistance group at the hands of the Four Strongest agents of the Simeon organization.
Cruz is rescued by a priest with lots of muscles, sunglasses, and no shirt under his cross adorned overcoat. The priest, Adam Blade, soon proves to have the ability to learn the super powers of other Needless. Cruz then meets Adam's partners, sprightly shape changing girl, Eve Neuschwanstein and elderly scientist Gido. There's a cyborg girl too, a pair of girls who worked with Adam Blade in the past, teams of Simeon agents with their own intra-organizational struggles, and in fact, a whole Simeon super powered girl's school.

As less than half clever fan tributes to shonen action go, Needless is on its own level. Especially since it's entirely dialed to up to 11.

Part of the joke is that the characters are pretty dumb. Eve can never remember anyone's name, so invents new ones. Momiji Teruyama, a bancho tough with a flaming punch attack he calls "Little Boy!" shows up and assaults Adam Blade, thinking that he's Simeon's Adam Arclight. Adam Blade takes up the fight without ever bothering to figure out why the belligerent stranger is calling him out.

Eve finds some unconventional uses for her shape changing, like sprouting arms from her stomach, but, Needless' cast is by in large more loud and brash than high achievers with their super abilities. Cruz is supposed to be the sharp, sensible mind that guides the cadre of super powered nuts. The problem is that Needless isn't too smart either. Rather than exciting or funny, it's dumb. It doesn't pull off the joke that much of its cast is near non-functional or Tick-ish. And, waiting for Cruz to solve the situations elicits more "get there already!" sentiments than anticipation of some clever utilization of super powers.

Cleverness goes a long way in shonen/shonen inspired super power action manga. If characters are actually thinking about how to apply their abilities, dynamic choreography emerges from more dynamic, significant engagements between adversaries. Otherwise, a thrown fireball is just a mess of speedlines or a flash of light. And, at issue, some manga/anime pull this off remarkably well. Along this continuum, Needless falls towards the antithesis of Hirohiko Araki's JoJo's Bizarre Adventure - a manga series following the dynasty of adventurers from the Joestar family, that's been managing the trick for what's been in excess of 100 volumes, ending up in Ultra Jump's transcontinental horse race Steel Bell Run. Jojo's evolves from super martial arts along the lines of Street Fighter (which has repeated paid homage to Jojo's) to more explicit super powers. Rather than mustering sufficient virtue to summon a large enough kamehameha to off an adversary, Jojo's battles are settled by the heroes figuring out how to wittily apply their abilities in such a way as to neutralize, then best a foe: using telekinesis to bluff in a lethal game of power or a good 16 volumes of the manga finding uses for the ability to unwind a body into a thin strip. Since Needless can't managed smartly communicated dumbness, it end up looking like it's banding rocks together in contrast to the drum solos of a work like Jojo's.

The Needless anime looks that much worse because its makers have managed smart stupidity before. Its director Masahiko Murata and script writer Satoru Nishizono previously worked together on MazinKaiser, a columniation of Go Nagai's seminal piloted giant robot Mazinger Z. In that case, the thick skulled fearlessness of its heroes and dementedness of its villains worked in a clever, exciting anime about people who were often less than clever.

While MazinKaiser opened with a climactic situation and succeeded in escalating into higher orbits, Needless' hyperbole oscillates between unwieldy and actively annoying. Without even endearing self-deprecation, it shruggingly acknowledges that what it is dumping on screen is a mess - with multiple characters standing around in the background, being accurately rather than humorously called useless by other characters.

MazinKaiser teased accentuated conventions, riding the inflated rambunctiousness of a simple hero’s over inflated ego as the teen boy grinningly fights evil with his own giant robot. That anime found a meeting of the minds with the viewer, taking Go Nagai's original, absurd ideas in absurd directions, up to, and including bilaterally hermaphrodite Baron Ashura disguised as the series' father figure.

In this case, Murata and Nishizono seem in over their heads as they fail to thread the needle of joking about something while possessing the derided quality. Adam Blade loses his cool-ish composure with his affection for young girls. From swim suit screen wipes to through crotch camera angles, the anime just follows suit and invites the viewer to do likewise; hitting the not uncommon to anime trap of mistaking reference to, or copious amount of something for parody.

The flip side on that coin, in Needless' favorite, what it does is never half done. At least Needless seems sincerely warped and not just pandering. In its hectic shamelessness, it feels almost earnest.
While Needless is easier to take than it might have been, it is still having more fun than it is. Without a like mind, even if I wasn't repelled, I wasn't drawn in either. Rather than anticipating what wackiness it would present next, ultimately, I felt like going off and letting it have its own fun on its with the girls and explosions without my further attention.




Anime Spotlight: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Part 3
Released by FUNimation




Along the lines of Fist of the North Star, the third set of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is well into the material not seen in anime form before; in this case, far along from the spot where the earlier anime adaptation branched from the path laid out by Hiromu Arakawa's original manga. Initially, Brotherhood failed to establish a strong alternative to the escalation of consequence focus of the first adaptation. Nor did its attempt to dash through the duplicated material do it any favors. Even after it slowed down to a sensible pace, its characters' constant travels felt subject to inefficiently applied energies. Fortunately, it grew out of that awkward phase. Having established its own identity during the course of the last set of episodes, Brotherhood has managed to offer the colorful character populated involving story you'd want from a long adventure anime.

In an attempt to apply alchemy towards the forbidden aims of resurrecting their mother, Ed and Al Elric respectively lost two limbs - replaced by metal prosthetic ones and an entire body - dealt with by having their consciousness imprinted on a suit of armor. To right that, Ed enlists in the military as a State Alchemist, but to the brother's dismay, the learn that righting their mistake trades in even darker consequences.

The previous set of Brotherhood found its way when it began to capture how its intelligent, capable heroes recognized the existence of a threat, if not its identities and aims. Even if the notion of learning that the powers that be are in league with something dark, in fact, they're founded on an evil secret, isn't a novel one, it plays out well in Brotherhood. The effectiveness of the story is fueled by characters with wits and backbone contending with or surpassing limitations, against institutions and against potent infernal forces. Rather than have the characters buoyed along in the currents of plot, the series various factions were discernibly thinking and taking action. Smart heroes and smart villains intelligently, and often violently, attempted to out maneuver each other.

The nature of the conflict shifts in this set, with the key elements locked in conflict. Hostages are taken. Battle lines are drawn. Ed and Al make their way to Olivier Mira Armstrong at her frozen Briggs' Fortress on the boundary with large neighboring nation Drachma. While chess gambits are still being played, Brotherhood also spells out that the characters are against a wall. If it's not a last stand, it’s at least a crucial one.

Though it should not be oversold as a story that achieves or maybe even aims towards being tremendously insightful, Fullmetal Alchemist has a smart edge. Evocations of heavy issues don't feel like unjustified grasps at gravitas. Its comments about religion are effectively charged. Many of the characters who older than Ed and Al are veterans of war, and Fullmetal Alchemist is able to work through a range of implications. Idealism is shattered, and, in the case of the anime's heroes, rebuilt into determination to ascend to political positions that would enable the characters to correct the fundamental problems that set the stage for the conflict.
On one hand, the series makes the remarkable point that a dispassionate view of these heroes past actions could be interpreted as war crime, and, for justice to be served, that they're ultimately due for punishment.

On the other hand, I'm doubtful of its follow through on developing those ideas or those consequences. And, that's indicative of where Fullmetal Alchemist's focus. The issue is not so much that the story cheats in regards to matters such as its compromised heroes so much as that, given its affection for its characters, breaking through to some illuminated fix seems more likely that a full accounting for past actions.

Still, the series does manage to be intellectually and emotionally involving. Though the habit of shifting into a more stylized mode for jokes is divisive, most of Brotherhood possesses the capacity to resonate.
In Fullmetal Alchemist, Ed burned down his family's house before leaving on the quest to restoring his brother's body and his own. He carves the date into the pocket watch signifying his position as a State Alchemist. There's a pivotal moment for the character in which he's told that he didn't burn the house to sure up his resolve. That was where the boys tried to resurrect their mother and the act was akin to a child hiding their sheets after wetting the bed. Brotherhood made sure to establish how significant the date in the watch was, and unlike the first series, it reframed what the date represented. That's what convinced me of Brotherhood's merits, and it has maintained that ability to peg its characterizations. With credible motivations and psychology, changes and revelations matter.

These are characters that become favorites, or, even if you're not inclined to become over attached to anime characters, they're still endearing. Beyond the initial stab of attention grabbing design, Fullmetal Alchemist follows through with dynamism and depth. It manages to justify caring about characters.


Brotherhood is an excellent example of anime that succeeds in delivering what might be expected from it.. Its characters, settings and structure are all along the lines of what draws fans to long anime adventures. While creative and unpredictable, Fullmetal Alchemist more often conforms to than challenges its type.
Because it's strong, but more conventional than not, it's the type of work I'd generally describe as what I wish presented a baseline for quality. However, in this case, that would be selling the series short. It's based on strong source material that provides engaging characters and enough consequential events to continually run a taut, always important narrative. It teams established, notably adept animators with young interesting ones. And, as such, Brotherhood actually is better than might be hope for from the norm.

 

 

 




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Readers Talkback

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  • Feb. 27, 2011, 9:58 p.m. CST

    FIRST of the Northstar

    by cockdiesel

    See what I did there?

  • Feb. 27, 2011, 11:23 p.m. CST

    Umm...

    by kufirst

    Just wondering. Did you ever finish the Top 10 Anime for the Decade?

  • Feb. 28, 2011, 12:09 a.m. CST

    Thanks for giving FIST props.

    by Chief Joseph

    FOTNS is often maligned in the Anglosphere for some reason and I'm glad it's finding a new life on DVD and Hulu.

  • Feb. 28, 2011, 5:11 a.m. CST

    At which episode does FMA Brotherhood fork

    by estacado1

    out of the previous version of the anime. I watched the original, start watching Brotherhood, but it seems there's a lot of the same thing. At which episode does the Brotherhood story deviate from the original? I don't wanna have to watch the same thing all over again.

  • Feb. 28, 2011, 5:56 a.m. CST

    You are

    by Travis_Crabtree

    SHOCK!!!!!!!

  • Feb. 28, 2011, 8:17 p.m. CST

    estacado1

    by maelstrom_ZERO

    It's about Ep 19-20 or so. IIRC, the old anime diverged from the manga right after Colonel Mustang went toe-to-toe in a showdown with Envy (which was spectacular, btw), and Ep 19 is when that fight occurs. If you watch Ep 20 and onwards, you should be solid.

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  • March 1, 2011, 1:12 p.m. CST

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