When it comes to modern shonen manga, the influence of the 80s classic Fist of the North Star is something that cannot be understated. This series, written by Buronson and drawn by Tetsuo Hara, took battle shonen manga to a whole new level from its’ first chapter back to 1983 and it allowed the genre to grow in terms of battle scenes, characters, and a lot of concepts that have been ever present in the medium ever since.
However, when it comes to Fist of the North Star, or Hokuto No Ken as it is known in Japanese, there is often little insight into the history and making of the manga, how the men responsible for this work came out with many of the definitive concepts that the series has and makes the series so lasting. As of this writing, this is the 24th highest-grossing franchise of all time with $14.8 billion, and the manga alone has sold over 100 million copies.
So, in this article, we are going to talk about the history and making of Fist of the North Star manga and many other details you might find interesting.
Summary of Fist of the North Star
The story of Fist of the North Star is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland of Earth where nuclear war and corruption have taken a monumental toll on mankind. Most of the survivors are struggling to get by, often just living to get decent food and water. However, the strongest survivors seize this new status quo to abuse and rule as tyrants, often stealing and killing without mercy.
In this concept, we have our protagonist, Kenshiro. He is the heir of the Hokuto Shinken fighting style, which is an extremely deadly martial arts style that can kill anybody by just touching their vital points with powerful precision.
Kenshiro wanders through this chaos punishing evildoers, saving innocent people, and his stoic and kind-hearted ways being the only beacon of hope for a civilization swallowed by darkness. But he would find a lot of different challenges and powerful enemies along the way.
The authors of Fist of the North Star
An interesting fact about the history and making of Fist of the North Star as a manga series is the fact that it was created by two men, writer Yoshiyuki Okamura (who used the pen name Buronson for this series) and artist Tetsuo Hara. I mention that this is interesting because the vast majority of manga series is written and drawn by one person, so the story of Kenshiro is the result of two minds.
When it comes to Buronson, who took that pen name after actor Charles Bronson, who was known for taking those roles of hard-hitting and powerful antiheroes, which was an obvious influence on the concept of Kenshiro (even if Ken is not an antihero), he had been writing manga long before the publication of Fist of the North Star in 1983. However, it is interesting how his previous career paved the way for his success with his most popular property.
He graduated from high school and in the mid-60s graduated from the Japan Air Self-Defense Force, serving as a mechanic, due to the financial shortcomings that his family had during his youth. However, all Buronson wanted to do was write manga and he started to do just that in the early 70s, working with a wide variety of artists during that decade because he couldn’t draw like most mangakas.
Buronson’s most successful work at the time was Doberman Deka, which ran in Weekly Shonen Jump from 1975 to 1979. You can see the influence of films made by Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, and Sergio Leone in this story: protagonist Joji Kano is a hardened detective that deals with very heinous crimes and has no qualms about killing criminals if it comes to that while showing a lot of respect and appreciation for the week. Buronson has gone on record saying that Joji was inspired by Clint Eastwood’s character in the Dirty Harry films.
The following years would see the man trying some different things in his career, such as seinen manga (1980’s Oh! Takarazuka with artist Shinji Ono) and even shojo manga (1981’s Hold Up with Hikaru Yuzuki). So, in almost a decade of trying in the manga industry, Buronson had a minor hit and not much luck with anything else, so he decided to combine his love for movies such as Mad Max and Dirty Harry with the martial arts approach of the Bruce Lee films, but he needed the right artist to bring his vision to life.
Enter Tetsuo Hara
Unlike Buronson, who had been cutting his teeth in the manga industry for more than a decade, Hara was in his early 20s by the time they started publishing Fist of the North Star. This is obviously surprising when you notice the quality of his art even in the early volumes, but he always showed promise, going as far as winning the first prize of the 33rd Fresh Jump for a short manga he made, Super Challenger.
His passion for drawing is what drove him to pursue his dream to do manga from an early age, even though he has stated over the years that he prefers drawing someone else’s story. Speaking with Forbes in 2021, he had this to say about what he loved about drawing:
“I loved to draw, read manga, and watch anime. When I was in first and second grade, I would watch Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy and Jungle Emperor Leo, as well as Ikki Kajiwara’s Tiger Mask, and draw the characters on the back of flyers. Back then, you couldn’t record TV shows, so I had to memorize them and draw them from memory. I was particularly enthralled by the realistic action and detailed physiques of the characters in Tiger Mask.”Tetsuo Hara- Forbes 2021
After having a single manga to his name in the early 80s, Iron Don Quixote, which happened to be a motocross manga, he joined forces with Buronson and started working on what would be both men’s magnum opus. And speaking in a 2019 interview about the project, Hara was very candid about how Kenshiro’s story was what he always wanted to draw:
“It’s cool stuff. Much of my motivation for drawing was about making real things I wanted to see myself. It was the aftershock of admiring Bruce Lee and Yusaku Matsuda’s traits, their manner of speaking, and the atmosphere their acting conjured. That aftershock stuck around in my head, fueling big ideas that I would temper into our actual characters. I’ve always been about drawing men that are striking to look at. That’s always been my goal. To be honest, I was ready to hang up my pen once Fist of the North Star was completed. That was the only thing I wanted to draw, after all.”Tetsuo Hara- 2019
Both men struck gold with Fist of the North Star and went on to become Weekly Shonen Jump’s definitive and highest-selling manga series for the vast majority of the 80s, redefining the industry and with an anime series that propelled the franchise’s popularity to the stratosphere. Speaking for VIZ in their first volume of the English version of the manga that was released back in 2021, Hara explained his working relationship with Buronson and what made their partnership work:
“I think his writing fits perfectly with manga as a medium, and his stories help the mangaka he works with grow even more as artists. He has an incredible ability to come up with lines that bring the characters to life.”Tetsuo Hara- VIZ 2021
General view of the manga
Fist of the North Star, much like the vast majority of manga at the time, was very episodic in its nature. There was a certain structure of a villain of the week, with Kenshiro usually destroying him to pieces and moving forward to the next desolated wasteland. There were some overarching plots, such as his desire to rescue his fiancé Yuria from Shin, the main antagonist of the first part of the manga, and Kenshiro’s connection with one of the main antagonists, Raoh, but by and large, the structure was episodic.
However, and this is something that the anime sometimes struggled with due to extending certain parts, the story rarely overstays its welcome for the vast majority of the run they had. Buronson, a seasoned writer by now, manages to write the badass and hardened protagonist he always dreamed of and Hara, with some of the best and most influential artwork in manga history, was able to depict the kind of histrionics and over-the-top he always wanted to draw.
That’s the main appeal of Fist of the North Star: it is definitely a male power fantasy, boosted by the growing success of action and martial arts films in the 1980s, but it also has a very compelling message about hope, kindness, and love. Most powerful individuals in the series are cruel, sadistic, and selfish, prompted and enable by an age of decadence and chaos while Kenshiro often is the only powerful person that cares for others, protects the weak, and often goes ballistic when he sees injustice happening before his eyes.
I think that is the main misconception that a lot of people have when they haven’t read the manga (or watched any of the adaptations): Kenshiro is a badass that kills bad guys in some of the most remarkable ways possible, but he is also extremely kind with others and fights to protect, not for revenge, fame or recognition. That’s why his journey, with the many friends he makes and loses throughout, is one that has value even to this very day.
Art is also a very important element to consider. When compared to a lot of other manga series at the time, Tetsuo Hara’s work is phenomenal–even when you look at some of the stuff coming out today in both manga and Western comics, he doesn’t have anything to envy with his modern peers. The combination of detail with storytelling and larger-than-life characters is something that gives this series a grandiose scope while the violence is direct and gratuitous, making every punch feel really deadly. In that same interview with Forbes, Hara had some interesting insights about how Buronson’s writing impacted his way of drawing certain scenes:
“Buronson and I didn’t see each other much during the serialization, and we never had any meetings to discuss work directly. Horie, my editor, worked as a go-between and brought out the best in both of us. However, it was not a relationship where we were holding anything back, but a mutual exchange of thoughts and ideas that we wanted to deliver to readers via our art and dialogue, and I believe it was a better work because of it. In particular, there are so many instances where I came away incredibly impressed by Buronson’s one-liners, and it inspired me to direct those scenes in a way where the readers would leave even more impressed than I was initially.”
In narrative structure, yes, the story is fairly simple and will not provide a lot of deep analysis like modern Shonen series such as Hunter X Hunter, but it is very important to understand storytelling. The episodic nature of Fist of the North Star needs a clear beginning, middle, and end for most of the chapters, which is something that a lot of modern writers struggle with–that capacity to write simple, effective storylines in a clear and well-defined world is an art.
In fact, Hara, in the aforementioned 2019 interview, mentioned the challenges of drawing and writing this episodic nature of the series:
“Most characters were like that: we went through the trouble of thinking each one up, only to kill them off again. Generally speaking, we would have a new enemy pop up every ten chapters, which means that someone dies off at the same time. To top it off, readers would expect a lot from new characters, so I had to make them more incredible with every iteration. The first enemy we had was Shin, and that was the hit that set Fist of the North Star off, but Shin would eventually die and be replaced by the next enemy, Rei. The bar was raised, and we had to meet it. So we drew Rei, and that was another hit, which took us to the next story. Personally, the part I had the most fun drawing was with Shew and Thouzer. That was the time I was most motivated. Our popularity was strong, so some of the pressure was off of us, and I was able to enjoy drawing.”
Fist of the North Star Inspirations
As it tends to happen with the vast majority of creative people, Fist of the North didn’t come out of nowhere and I have already hinted at it in this article. However, it is important to point out the many different influences and inspirations that led to the creation of this series.
In that interview for the first VIZ volume of the English version of the manga, Hara was asked about the Hokuto Shinken, the fighting style that Kenshiro executes during the story, and he lays it all out in terms of inspirations:
“It’s a combination of Chinese martial arts, Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, and assassination techniques. Originally, we were going to just call it “Hokuto-ken,” but there was a Jackie Chan movie titled Magnificent Bodyguards (the Japanese title of which was Hiryu Shinken), so because of how cool “Shinken” (God Fist) sounded, we landed on “Hokuto Shinken.”
Another obvious influence on the character design of Kenshiro and the setting of the story is the Mad Max films of the early 80s, starring Mel Gibson. Both stories share the concept of a post-apocalyptic wasteland and both of our main characters apply their own ruthless justice, although it is safe to say that Kenshiro has a much kinder personality to those around him.
We also have to point out that the action boom in cinema during the 80s was a major influence on this series. This was the time period when action movie stars such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were very muscular and imposing, which is something that you can definitely in Kenshiro’s design and in many other characters’ in Fist of the North Star. In fact, Kenshiro was originally made to look similar to Bruce Lee, but as the years went by, he looked more and more like Stallone.
In fact, there are a couple of pages where Ken looks exactly like Sly’s character in one of his most popular films, Cobra.
In terms of the actual story, the concept of the North Star was inspired by a Chinese about two gods, one of the North Star and one of the South Star. Buronson goes into great detail about it in Vol. 18 of the Ultimate Edition of the manga series, explaining the story of a young boy that was going to have an early death but was spared by an act of kindness–something that is very fitting with the themes of Fist of the North Star.
Hara has also been very vocal about his influences over the years, citing several mangakas and Western comic book artists, such as the legendary Neal Adams, mostly of DC’s Green Arrow and Batman fame in the 1960s and 1970s. Doing some for the Magic: The Gathering project, Hara did an interview in 2022 where he mentioned how much Frank Frazetta influenced his work, which is something that was shown in a page of the character of Raoh, which is heavily inspired by the former’s Death Dealer painting.
The similarities are more than notorious and Hara has always been very vocal about his influences over the years, which is something that you can definitely see in the vast majority of his work.
Fist of the North Star has certainly lost popularity in recent decades due to never having a proper hold of Western culture as the anime series was never taken there during its heyday and the manga struggled to get translated (it wasn’t until a few years ago that VIZ translated the entire series). And without a modern anime that can capture the newer generations, it might seem that the series has lost its impact, but the main impact of Fist of the North Star lies in how it impacted the medium as a whole.
Modern shonen manga and anime are where the industry is thriving these days, and you can’t understand some of the classic tropes of the medium without the impact of Buronson and Hara’s masterpiece. Fist of the North Star established the overpowered characters, the notorious action scenes, and the bleak nature of the world they are in and added a level of histrionics and dynamism in gratuitous violence that you couldn’t find in equally violent but more nihilistic series such as Devilman and Violence Jack.
A lot of the elements that you see in early Dragon Ball, arguably the most important manga and anime franchise of all time, such as combining martial arts with powers of a grander scale, were already done in Fist of the North Star. In fact, such was the commercial success of the series that a lot of mangas at the time-shifted their style, their stories and even character designs to be more similar to Kenshiro and cia to have wider appeal in the mid-80s.
A very good example of this is Akira Miyashita’s manga series Sakigake!! Otokojuku, which ran in Weekly Shonen Jump from 1985 to 1991. Here you can see how the manga started and how it ended up looking:
The series went from being mostly comedic and having the approach of a gag manga in the first couple of years to fully becoming Fist of the North Star on acid by the late 80s, even having pressure points and deadly fighting scenes as a major theme. In fact, things got so blatant that the famous “You’re already dead” line by Kenshiro was paraphrased in one part of the series as “You’re late in realizing it, from the moment our fists met, you were already enchanted by the Death God.”
I’m not joking.
There were some less intense influences in the medium, with one of the most obvious being Hirohiko Araki’s JoJo Bizarre Adventure series. Now widely regarded as one of the most important, creative, and revolutionary manga in history, JoJo’s started out having a lot of influence from Fist of the North Star and you can see it in the fighting style, with Hamon taking a lot of cues from Hokuto Shinken, the art style and the fact that the first JoJo, Jonathan Joestar, looks extremely similar to Kenshiro, even though their demeanors and personalities are very different.
The first part of JoJo’s, Phantom Blood, takes a lot from that manga and some panels from that arc, along with the following two, Battle Tendency and Stardust Crusaders, seem heavily inspired by that as well. While it is true that JoJo’s always had its own identity, it is fairly obvious that Araki was taking a lot of cues from Hara and Buronson.
Another notorious author that was inspired by the series was the legendary author of Berserk, Kentaro Miura, who has stated several times that Fist of the North Star was a big influence in the early stages of his series.
The character of Guts looks very similar to Kenshiro and they are both powerful warriors traveling through wastelands to save their loved ones, although there are a lot more differences in their characters and personalities. Regardless, I wrote an entire article about Miura’s artistic influences, so you can go more in-depth about it there.
Fist of the North Star has not only been a massive-selling manga series, but it also had a very successful anime adaptation by TOEI in the 80s. The series also had a follow-up, Fist of the North Star II, which continued Kenshiro’s adventures, and between the two of them you have more than one hundred episodes. The anime didn’t adapt a final couple of arcs, but it also extended others and added some new characters while changing other things. It is violent and fun, but it definitely it feels a bit toned down compared to the manga (understandably so).
A 1986 movie was done, which serves as a bit of a summary to the first story arc of the series. It was a commercial success at the time, it is still well-liked by fans and a lot of people have mentioned that it serves as a very solid entry point for people that want to get into the franchise.
In 1995 there was a Western live-action film that starred Gary Daniels as Kenshiro and had Tony Randel as the director. The movie followed some of the plot points of the Shin arc, which is the most adapted storyline from the manga, but, as it tends to happen with most Western attempts at adapting Japanese content, it failed miserably and it is something that most fans of the franchise don’t want to remember.
There were three OVAs that were released in 2003, which were based on the novel spinoff called Jubaku no Machi. They were also well-received, but it certainly didn’t generate the desired impact that the people involved wanted.
There was also the 2007 movie, Fist of the North Star: The Legends of the True Savior, which also had a somewhat positive impact, but it has been stated time and time again by the fans that the original manga, the one that put the franchise on the map, needs a new, modern anime to really get people’s attention once again. And I personally agree, considering the success that JoJo’s and Hunter X Hunter have had because of it.
“When I was young, manga saved me. I couldn’t stand the tedium of studying, but I was poor at sports and had problems maintaining friendships. Manga became like my best friend. (…) I started thinking about how if I were to draw manga, I’d like for it to provide readers with some form of relief. That principle has never changed. Fist of the North Star was all about showing how fascinating the struggles of men can be, and I felt that it was my role to express this through a work of entertainment. I was also resolute about not drawing anything boring, and about doing my utmost while enjoying drawing. Manga are drawn for sport, so it’s only natural that they’re often absurd or nonsensical, and I feel that to make a business out of that is to put your life on the line. It’s not your average sort of job, I know that much. Misconceiving this would be rude to your readers.”Tetsuo Hara.
The legacy of Fist of the North Star cannot be understated. It is one of the seminal pieces of Eastern entertainment and one of Japan’s flagship manga and anime series if we consider all the stories they have produced over the years that are owed to this franchise. The story of Kenshiro is one that will probably live on for decades to come and we cannot deny that it is a very massive accomplishment and a very well-deserved one.