Legends of the Dark Kings: A Fist of the North Star Story (of 1) (Mania.com)

By:Chris Beveridge
Review Date: Wednesday, October 07, 2009
Release Date: Tuesday, September 15, 2009

We’ve seen Kenshiro’s story. Now, let’s see Raoh’s rise to power.

What They Say
In the wastelands following the great nuclear war, a legend grew of a man. "Hokuto No Ken," the Fist of the North Star, master of a legendary fighting technique. A man of impossible strength and endurance. Yet before Ken claimed the title of the Fist, there was another master, trained in the art of Hokuto Shinken, the King of the Fist, the Divine Fist of Heaven. Raoh: the ultimate assassin, the ultimate warrior.

The Review!
Audio:
This release is a monolingual one but one that makes out good for that particular track. The Japanese language track is presented in its original 5.1 format which is encoded at 448kbps. Though it’s not a hugely immersive track by any measure, the show does make out better for it overall with a bigger impact across the forward soundstage. It has a stronger presence and feeling to it throughout the action as the hits and the thunder of the various big moments, especially the horses, come across better. Dialogue throughout is well placed when needed and the action is quite well reproduced. The track is essentially without problem as we had no issues with dropouts or distortions during regular playback, but I wish there was more bass usage throughout it.

Video:
Originally airing in late 2008, the transfer for this series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is enhanced for anamorphic playback. The release is done in a seven/six format, though the second disc has a thirty minute extra feature on it, so it has a fairly even split. Legends of the Dark King has a fairly earthy tone to it with lots of browns and quite a lot of gray throughout it. The bitrates tend to be decent for the most part, but there are a lot of low areas and a good bit of noise throughout many scenes, most noticeable in the characters cloaks. The vibrant moments tend to show up in the amount of blood in any given scene, but otherwise it’s a fairly murky show in some ways, but never badly so. It has a distinct look that paints it as a very barren world but the murkiness is intentional and it doesn’t obstruct the actual view of what’s going on.

Packaging:
Legends of the Dark King is a bit of a hard sell for anyone seeing it on the shelf and could even fly under the radar of those in the know since it doesn’t emphasize that it’s a Fist of the North Star story all that much. The front cover is a dark piece with a heavy red background, what little you can see of it, that’s dominated by a large image of Raoh in his full garb looking all ominous. In front of him near the bottom there’s a bit more variety with Reina and Souga brought in, but they’re almost pushed off a bit by the sharp edged logo. There’s a fair bit of detail to be found here, but it’s a very dark cover overall and the section under the Sentai FIlmworks logo almost looks like it was badly photoshopped to be cleaned up of any previous logos being there. The back cover is more of the same but with a lot more black background sections to it. They push the episode and disc count nicely, there’s a good tagline to set the stage and a lot of artwork, both in character shots and pieces from the episodes themselves. The summary sets the stage nicely as well, though I dislike covers that use the angled look. The production and technical grids are well laid out and convey everything cleanly and accurately. No show related inserts are included nor is there a reversible cover.

Menu:
Amusingly, almost as a tease, the menus for this release use uncompressed stereo for the sound at 1.5mbps. I had almost hoped that the show would be done this way as well, but alas. The menus are very simple in nature with each of them featuring a different piece of character artwork angled to a position somewhere on it. For the navigation, even in the submenus, it’s all done at a slight angle. Top level navigation has individual episode access which is a plus and the submenus do load quickly when you need to use them. No language menus are included though you can turn the subtitles off on the fly. The discs don’t have a need to read our player presets since the defaults are for it to show the subtitles.

Extras:
The extras for this release are a bit of a surprise to be honest. The first disc has the expected extras in a clean version of the opening and closing sequence. The second volume, which I expected to have nothing, actually has a behind the scenes feature from a Japanese broadcast special, though this is the re-edited version that appeared on DVD in Japan, not that I expect much to be lost from it. Running nearly thirty minutes, it’s an entirely goofy piece dealing in the 25th anniversary of the Fist of the North Star franchise. The cover a range of material here, from a brief tour at Coamix to having a voice over recording, displaying various character design elements and more. It’s a goofy piece at times because they have the silly girlish interviewer doing all of this tour, but it’s always neat to see the people behind the production talking about their works.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on the five volume seinen manga series done by Youkow Osada under guidance from the original creators, Legends of the Dark Kings is a thirteen episode series that tells the tale of Raoh. For better or worse, my experience with the Fist of the North Star world is pretty haphazard, but I’ve come to appreciate it quite a lot after the far too few volumes we saw of the Raijin release earlier this decade. My appreciation of the show is far different from my derision of it back in the early nineties when I was first exposed to it as it had a lot of what I wasn’t looking for in animation or anime at that time, especially without the context of the original work.

Legends of the Dark King brings us to that period before the original TV series to show us how Raoh began his rise to power and built his kingdom. The structure of the “family” that has grown under Ryuken is certainly confusing at times, but essentially several adopted brothers have undertaken various paths to become the successor, the savior that will be the true Fist of the North Star. To reach that, each has to find the right path to it that will give them what they need. For Raoh, he’s intent on bringing this violent and uncontrolled world to peace through force and fear as he believes that this age needs a demon. Years after the nuclear fallout has devastated so much, he finds himself in the position to truly begin achieving this goal along with the help of the brother/sister combination of Souga and Reina.

Across the thirteen episodes of this series, Raoh moves throughout the lands and conquers petty king after petty king, acquiring new lands and gaining new allies. Or subjects, depending on your point of view. His path takes him first to a Demon Castle where he establishes himself as the King of the Fist after dispatching the weakling that was there. With this as his base of operations, he uses Souga’s master strategies to pick off each threat in the area and expand his influence. Raoh also takes over an impregnable fortress called Cassandra which he then turns into a prison system for those he wants to keep alive but out of the way. And creatively, he takes one of the worst members within the system currently and uses him as the new Warden of Hell for it. From there, it seems like almost each episode brings us a new King or region that becomes conquered under his growing reign of fear.

As the series progresses, the cast grows as well. The initial trio is really what works the best as both Reina and Souga are completely bonded to Raoh and his goals. Reina acknowledges that she won’t capture his heart, so she works hard to be the best captain that she can be for him while Souga succeeds well as the strategist, though he feels as if he’s being replaced at one point. The worrisome addition comes in Sakuya, a fortuneteller of sorts who is also quite the strategist that seems to have ties elsewhere, though Raoh keeps her very close. Where it gets more complicated is in the various brothers of Raoh’s the filter into the show, often going against what he has planned because of the things they’ve experienced or their own belief in who will be the proper savior of mankind in the future.

There are two things worth noting about the show as it progresses. One is that it does introduce a character that I like, but hate to admit I like, and that’s the Black King. The story that introduces him is awkward and the character himself is awkward because he’s basically a horse with the mindset and abilities of those like Raoh. The two become quick partners after they face off, and I admit fully that it works in the context of this world setting, but it made me grimace a little at first. The other thing worth noting is that while Kenshiro is a big part of the motivating factors behind a lot of what goes on here, he’s not just a background presence that’s talked about. We see him more in the second half, on his long journey, walking and walking and walking. He never talks but there are more references to him as time goes on and more ties to events that are familiar from other sources. Considering they could have easily made him off limits entirely, I was glad to see that they did tie him with the series in a very forward if coy manner.

If there’s one thing a Fist of the North Star story must have, it’s violence. And Legends of the Dark King certainly has that, though it feels a touch tame at times simply because of how the times themselves have changed. Raoh brings in plenty of bloody violence, with the Black King stomping his hooves down on people, bodies ripped apart, limbs flying everywhere and even a few minor head explosions. But the problem we run into is that we have seen a good deal of this in the past – and in the somewhat recent Fist of the North Star OVA series – and violence in anime has come a long way since this first came out. There’s a lot to like here with this audience, but what at one time was striking and new now feels admittedly a little mundane and predictable. It’s well done, but because this style was the one that others imitated, it has a hard time competing by doing the same thing. Thankfully, the violence isn’t the focus but rather the accent through which Raoh ascends.

In Summary:
Legends of the Dark King really hit just about everything right when it came to the story. I wanted to see Raoh working towards becoming the demon that would try to use force and fear to bring peace. I wanted to see the early conquests, the people he worked with and those whose bodies he stepped on and over. And I got that in spades here with practically each episode moving him to some new obstacle that needed to be dealt with. No huge multi episode arcs here with a singular foe. This show was surprisingly engaging and really makes me wish that everything else would get animated (again) and brought out. If there’s a show that could use an update, some cleaning up and a closer adaptation to the original, I’d love to see it be Fist of the North Star for this generation. My views on the franchise have changed hugely in the last twenty years since I first saw some of it and now I just want more and more of it. This is almost like a tease, but a wonderful tease that’s quite well done. Fans of the franchise will be very pleased.

Features
Japanese 5.1 Language, English Subtitles, Clean Opening, Clean Closing, Behind the Scenes Featurette

Review Equipment

Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70" LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.



Mania Grade: A-
Audio Rating: B
Video Rating: B+
Packaging Rating: B-
Menus Rating: B
Extras Rating: B
Age Rating: 16 and Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: Sentai Filmworks
MSRP: 39.98
Running time: 325
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Legends of the Dark Kings: A Fist of the North Star Story