What’s it about? In 1930s Shanghai, the Green Gang is at war with the Red Flower Gang and being targeted by the Chinese government. Their protector is Kasumi Kenshiro, inheritor of the deadly martial art technique the Divine Fist of the North Star. The appearance of a mysterious martial artist and a young girl, as well as the assassination of Green Gang mediator Guise, brings already boiling tensions to an explosion.
Here are the things I knew about the Fist of the North Star franchise prior to watching this prequel(?): it’s an important legacy series in which dudes with unbelievably enormous muscles have VERY MANLY FEELINGS, including singular tears; at some point the phrase “you are already dead” will be said, intensifying the already intensely thick facial and brow lines; memes.
What I know about Fist of the North Star after watching this premiere is that I feel the intense solidarity of knowing an old franchise you love has gotten an incredibly garbage update. So abjectly terrible, in fact, that this may be the karmic balance of DEVILMAN crybaby.
It comes a little bit out of nowhere, because the first two minutes of the show—detailing the origin of the North Star technique during the War of the Three Kingdoms—is downright lovely, rendered in an abstracted ink-paint form. Then the opening credits start with a sharp shift into CGI, and you realize you’ve been had.
Now, CGI anime gets a bad rap. Shows like Land of the Lustrous and KADO: The Right Answer have proven that, in the right hands, CG can do truly impressive things. This is quite specifically bad CG, the full extent of which can only be truly understood by seeing the show in motion. Background characters swing their arms in a perma-bent rictus, while major players move like a constantly lagging Playstation 2 cutscene. Generic mooks have barely sketched in facial detail. This is Berserk 2016 bad.
The plot isn’t much better. The political machinations in the summary are only my best guess, because there’s a lot of conversations in back rooms with people of unclear importance. Which isn’t necessarily terrible in a show where FEELINGS are the order of the day, but the big emotional death scene and ensuing (start of a) fight is the most poorly executed part of the episode. Characters with dark hair and dark outfits pontificate at one another in a dark alley at night, meaning that although what meager budget they could spare is put toward the fighting, it’s almost too dark to make any of it out.
This episode also bears the coveted “this series is a work of fiction” disclaimer, which is generally code for “this anime is about to muck about with history in an alarming way and we want to make sure our butts are thoroughly covered.” Given anime’s track record when it comes to both portraying China and not portraying Japan’s shadier historical activities, let’s say I’m less than confident that this series will have a full and nuanced depiction of Japan’s actions toward China in World War I.
It doesn’t look too promising as far as female characters go, either. The only two introduced in this premiere are a small child in need of protection and Pan Yu-Ling, who is ostensibly the new leader of the Green Gang but is only given dialogue in her scenes as Kenshiro’s love interest. Given that North Star is legendarily about Manly Men Doing Manly Things, I wouldn’t expect improvement on that front.
I can see glimpses here of why previous North Star anime appealed to people: the grand speeches, the ridiculous moves that do suitably ridiculous things to the human body, the screaming, the frankly terrifying amount of neck muscles. But if you’re a curious new fan, this isn’t going to be the entry point that hooks you unless trainwrecks are your thing.