Volumes 8 and 9 of Fist of the North Star are, in my opinion, the pinnacle of the manga and must-reads for any fan of shnen combat series. The combat between Kenshiro and Souther takes place in volume 8. To use modern terminology, it is the pinnacle. They’re battling on top of a gigantic pyramid, so it’s the peak, but that’s not essential right now. What matters is that everything fits together flawlessly at one condensed instant. At this particular juncture, all of the aspects that constitute this series and the broader genre of shnen fighting merge, culminating in one of the most spectacular battles imaginable. This is the essence of page-turning comics depicting bloody battles between super-powered warriors.
All of the stars have aligned, both metaphorically and practically. Kenshiro is fighting for Shu’s memory, someone who played an important role in his history (as revealed by the tried and proven style of unexpected and dramatic flashback), and whose blood still stains the very steps he takes. Souther, on the other hand, is fighting for more than just life; his entire worldview contradicts Kenshiro’s. He is so committed to this opposing position that he has entombed his master within the pyramid they are battling on, which he neatly displays to Kenshiro via a well-placed opening panel. The blood of children, friends, and mentors has been spilled for this apocalyptic conflict beneath the scorching stars, with Raoh and Toki’s visions watching from the sidelines.
There is also a physical danger in this conflict. Souther is a type of apex predator in the Nanto Seiken style that Kenshiro has yet to completely confront. While there have been difficult opponents in the past, many of them possessed formidable martial arts talents and gave Kenshiro a run for his money, Souther is a very different beast. Until this bout, Kenshiro’s opponents often felt powerful because of their sheer personality strength, will, or ruthlessness, which made them dangerous in ways that transcended their martial art. The only time Kenshiro felt he was up against someone with equal talent to him was during his duel with Raoh, another Hokuto Shin Ken user.
Souther poses a threat due to his personality and martial talent, a unique combination for a Nanto Seiken user. He has an advantage over Kenshiro since he understands how Hokuto Shin Ken functions and can adapt his style/body accordingly. This alone makes him a lot more compelling antagonist than many of the other Southern-style users he’s encountered. It’s one of the few times Kenshiro’s actual life is in danger, and there’s a lot riding on whether or not he can win the fight – which is saying a lot given how recent the fight with Raoh was.
The rest of this book is no slacker either. The four Hokuto brothers constitute the major drama of this story, and any time they clash is significant. Of course, the Toki vs. Raoh battle is one for the ages. There’s also a nice use of flashback here to get a sense of who these people are on a fundamental level, with Raoh dragging Toki up the cliffside one-handed and wailing in the present-tense at having to destroy Toki in single combat. The scene in which Raoh spares Ryugen’s two boys is also one of the most interesting parts in the novel, as it contrasts with his eventual slaughter of the pacifist leader and provides a fascinating peek into his personality and what he values in others. Those who never give up no matter what the circumstances are to be praised; those who give up no matter how practical are to be chastised. However, if conditions can be changed, they should be, especially if brothers are involved.
Volume 9 is similarly jam-packed with memorable moments. Though it is less dramatic than volume 8, that is the nature of a beginning rather than a culmination. Many strands are coming to a satisfying (if gruesome) conclusion in volume 8. Volume 9 is setting the tone for the upcoming arc, therefore it will take some time to reach the same heights. The first two Goshasei, Huey the wind warrior and Shuren the fire wielder, are prime examples of this. While they are absolutely adequate as an enemy of the week combatant, there is nothing particularly notable about them (apart from Raoh filling Kenshiro’s usual duty as wandering Nanto slayer). It’s difficult not to think of them as placeholder villains thrown in by Buronson under the strain of weekly deadlines to give himself time to come up with greater tales and characters.
And what wonderful personalities Fudo and Juza are. Both are artistically distinct and have a lot of personality texture, yet they are fundamentally Fist of the North Star characters: they are great warriors tormented by tragedy and bound to violent endings. Fudo’s struggle is intriguing as a point of contrast to Kenshiro’s, because both respect life, but Fudo appears to be bent on protecting the future even at the risk of his own life – Kenshiro is a bit more hard-edged, but his success is more definite. Juza exemplifies the sad nihilism produced by a love lost due to circumstance. It’s also… fascinating to note that the finding that causes Juza to lose faith is something that serves as the main hook for many programs these days. What a difference a generation can make.
In both volumes, the art continues to astound and astound. The sheer heinousness of the violence never ceases to astound me, no matter how many times I witness it. There’s no shortage of gory and funny gore, with bodies speared, bits of face scooped out with casual abandon, and heads lopped off as effortlessly as a tee-ball from its perch.
If laughing at a man having his block knocked off by a massive block of stone is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. As is to be anticipated, the fighting posing and tempo are flawless. Every page feels like a Renaissance picture of hell, and each two-page splash looks like Tetsuo Hara’s life’s labor. But it never stops surprising, with every violent panel and every thrilling combat.
These chapters exemplify Tetsuo Hara’s art at the period, with tall, gigantic frames striking iconic stances against landscapes so stylized that the barren wasteland becomes a dreamlike wonderland. I can only image what it must have taken to bring these panels to life week after week, and I am continually grateful that these releases are still being released. The one limitation is that I wish the commentary we received in volume 1 had continued till now.