Fist of the North Star is an action movie with two much action, too much story, too little character development and inconsistent art. The result is a movie with enormous pacing issues that breaks what little fun could be enjoyed from the cartoonish violence.
This anime is based on the Streamline English Dub, which has mostly bad voice acting, in tradition with many bad dubs of the early 1990s.
Fist is an example of why story is so important to action stories. From having thought about the story after watching the movie, I think that this could have been a great story. A hero with great killing powers defending the weak against the murderous scum of the post apocalypse is a story that I can appreciate. The problem is that there is so much story crammed into a movie under two hours that the whole movie feels like a highlight reel of a much longer, more involved story. Most of the movie feels like someone took a story, cut out most of the dramatic parts that developed the characters, and kept all the scenes with people exploding. We only get to see the most superficial impressions of the main characters, as most of the movie is people punching or slicing people until they explode or fall apart in gruesome ways. With so little story, the movie feels much longer than an hour and forty nine minutes. I was sure that I had watched forty minutes and my mouth dropped when I saw that only fiften minutes had passed!
With the story so poorly constructed, the movie has to rely on the action. Sadly, the action is extremely repetitive and gets boring after the first few fights. Here is the typical scene: a group of evil people menace a group of defenseless travelers, kill some people, then a fighter shows up, and kills everyone with the least bit of effort. Watching people explode into chunks is gross the first few times, but watching someone put no effort into killing so many people is like watching someone drive a car down an empty road: it gets tedious really quick. Since most of the fights are so one sided, these scenes felt hollow, with no tension at all. It was only during the final fight between Ken and Raoh that there was any tension, as these were two supermen destroying each other and crushing a city through collateral damage. That I was shocked at the tension of this fight shows how badly the rest of the movie plays with its action.
I know that a lot of older anime tend to look dated. With Toei as the main animators, there will be obvious shortcuts. It's part of their branding. What makes this movie look really dated is the style, from the characters to the landscape. The warriors of this world seem to have been taking steroids constantly, as most of the men are freakishly muscular and at least taller than eight feet. Ken himself is the perfect example of this excessive design style. Ken's neck is thicker than his head, his legs are extremely long and his torso and arms are so muscular that it becomes ridiculous rather than impressive. Some of the men shown here change size from frame to frame, as a few men change from eight to twelve feet tall or more in a blink of an eye! The landscape art itself is undetailed, with a few spots so bare of detail that it looked unfinished. I was not surprised to learn that the same team that made the Fist TV anime made this movie, as it feels like a TV show but with a higher budget.
Fist is famous for one reason, and it is the excessive gore. It truly is staggering how gory this movie can be after a while, as if the creators wanted to try every way of exploding or slicing people apart that they could imagine. When Ken punches anyone, they give a pained cry, their body twitches, then they explode with their blood spraying everywhere along with internal organs. A medical school class could show this movie to new students and probably have many of them uncomfortable within the first thirty minutes with the sheer gallons of blood flying and spilling everywhere. What makes this gore so strange is that much of the gore looks really cheap and sometimes see through! The main draw of the anime can look really bad, especially with a modern TV. After a while, I felt tired of watching people explode and started dreading another fight, as watching men explode became boring! That seems like a crime that my disgust turned to 'oh no, not more of this again.'
For anyone watching this dub, there are several points in the movie when an undetailed blue filter is placed over a few gory frames. This is immediately obtuse and makes the movie look worse than it already does. I don't understand what makes these scenes special enough to be censored in this way, as the whole movie is so gory and bloody that picking a few scenes seems pointless. If the distributor is uncomfortable with gore, why would they distribute a movie that makes most slasher movies look cute and friendly to children?
For anyone used to modern dubs, this dub will probably hurt. Older dubs, especially from the early 1990s, tend to be very uneven. Ken sounds bored, as if he has nothing to worry about. Most of the cast sounds uninvolved. The only actor who tries to inject their characters with life is Shin, voiced by anime veteran Gregory Snegoff. For a role that demands maniacal laughter and madness, Shin is the only fun character. A melodrama demands emotion, and the dub doesn't have the direction to have the cast match the extreme story.
The only part of the movie that I liked was the ending, which surprised me in its earnest attempts to be hopeful. A movie this devoid of morals should have ended as bloodily as it started, but the ending, though abrupt, had a strange hopefulness that was charming instead of irritating. If the movie could have had more of this tone, I could have forgiven more of the movie's weaknesses. As it stands, I feel compelled to read the manga or watch the TV series that has more time to develop the characters and story.
Fist of the North Star is not something that I can recommend to most people. As a relentlessly gory experience, it will probably gross out most otaku. Fans of action will probably be bored with the repetitive action after the first thirty minutes. For fans of crazy anime like Garzey's Wing, there are probably better ways to spend a brainless afternoon. Only watch this if you want to see guts flying through the air and Ken curing people's blindness (yes, that happens).