A mysterious man known as "the King of Death" roams the streets of pre-war Shanghai in this action-packed prequel to Fist of the North Star.
Shanghai in the 1930s is a dangerous place. Foreign governments and Chinese factions have carved the city into different quarters, each with its own laws and government, and all rife with corruption. As the major powers vie for political control, the streets are left to local gangs. Life is cheap, and death is always near.
In days past, one man walked these mean streets battling the forces of evil. He was known only as Yan Wang, "the King of Death." Few knew who he really was, but many knew that he was a master of Hokuto Shinken - Fist of the North Star - a lethal martial art. He disappeared years ago after dispatching the city's worst gangsters, and is now rumored to be in Japan. Various people have come to Japan in search of him, but who will find him first?
Souten no Ken was first published in English as Fist of the Blue Sky in the manga anthology Raijin Comics, published by Gutsoon! Entertainment, from December 2002 (issue #0) to July 2004 (final issue #46).
Four collected volumes, also published by Gutsoon! Entertainment under the Raijin Graphic Novels imprint, from June 18, 2003 to March 1, 2004, were released before the publisher became defunct.
Souten no Ken hasn't got the depth and grand scale that Fist of the North Star/Hokuto no Ken achieved, largely as a result of its comparatively shorter length. Don't be fooled by the huge amount of chapters, there's plenty of filler especially in the last third of the manga, there is far less to SnK than HnK. That isn't to say what is there that's good is not worth checking out, I feel that SnK at its best can easily stand up to the best of HnK, but HnK does have it beat in regards to character and story.
Where SnK soars is its fantastic
artwork. The artist/creator of Hokuto no Ken, Tetsuo Hara, is one of the most artistically talented manga artists. He does not disappoint in his vivid, imaginative layouts and provides great detail in how he draws every character or setting from panel to panel. His two strongest elements are his composition and, as you'd expect, drawing big muscular men as well as petite sexy women, as is the style of Hokuto no Ken. It's a massive improvement over Hokuto no Ken from the 80s and it never falters, maintaining its excellent quality from beginning to end.
The composition is particularly great when you see certain characters, such as the typical one-shot villains towering over Kenshiro, the protagonist, or other characters. This is taken to absurd extremes with the character of Zhang Lieshan, an actual giant who takes the series' constant size-warping and turns it into a hilarious in-joke as he refuses to acknowledge his giantism and will punish any of his minions who do. This character epitomizes the best of this prequel of Hokuto no Ken: self-aware, funny and brutal. Other great characters I enjoyed are Wu and Du. Yes, the names in this manga are as Chinese as pandas and fried rice.
The main character deserves great credit too, if you felt that the original Kenshiro was too bland, Kasumi Kenshiro is a nice change of pace as he gets plenty of comedic segues that made me laugh almost as hard as Zhang's antics. You wouldn't expect this series to be so funny, but it's one of its greatest positives for entertainment value. This series also has its fair share of side characters, but they are fairly hit-or-miss. The mafia characters at the start are good, but when the series gets into the later parts it goes downhill.
Plot wise SnK has a promising start. Kasumi Kenshiro moves back to Shanghai after hearing about the death of his friends and lover. He finds himself embroiled in a bitter mafia feud and has to rebuild his clan up from scratch, fighting off all the evil criminals who have taken over in his absence. This is very good stuff, and the best of the series is when it focuses on this part of the story, but it gets sidetracked many times. Early on this isn't as much of a problem, it moves at a good pace, but by the end it slows to a crawl and I found myself skipping through entire volumes to finally see the end.
It's speculated that due to publishing issues, the ending was rushed and it certainly does not provide a satisfying conclusion. I personally feel that the story mostly comes to a halt before that as all the villains have been exploded and all the non-dead villains already became protagonists. There's little else to achieve without throwing more family members of protagonists into the flames for Kenshiro to get motivated.
My problem when it comes to Hokuto no Ken and Souten no Ken is this obsession with a very specific idea of "manliness" that ironically makes some of the manliest villains into outright cowards but then glorifies irredeemable villains because they know martial arts. These handpicked villains are all murderers, rapists and horribly violent before they meet Kenshiro but get a second chance because, in some cases, the heavens demanded it. This may sound like a nitpick, but really this is the whole essence of the story once you reach the ending, and it is a fairly bad one. The lore is only teased up until this point but takes centre stage and... I can't say I like it very much. I almost would advise to just skip to the last volume once the Du Tianfeng arc ends, it is that poor.
The failing of this manga and why it isn't great nor remembered as fondly as HnK is the pacing is awkward at times and the fights are fairly hard to follow. It has plenty of emotional scenes and tearjerkers, but it becomes very predictable the further on you get, as at no point can you truly believe the protagonist can lose. This is okay to see the villains' fun antics, but then it becomes more protagonist versus other protagonists and that is just dull. The villains at least get whole volumes of glory before they predictably bite it in a few chapters, but these good vs good battles really kill any momentum the story had built up.
Overall I enjoyed this manga plenty despite its flaws, as it has some of the best arcs in the franchise. The reason it gets some flack is for the various "manly" fights between Kenshiro and at first intimidating, but eventually fairly watered down villains who aren't in the least bit fun, and the story goes completely off-the-rails. Still, it has great art, and besides the ending there's no bad stretch that's too long that it's intolerable. A strong recommendation for big fans of Hokuto no Ken, and if you haven't read or watched HnK, what are you doing here?
If you just finished Hokuto no Ken and crave more then Souten no Ken is a great supplier. The action, martial arts, and manliness is still there but in a modern gangster Chinese setting.
Story wise, its similar to HnK with Kenshiro having to fight the other branches of Hokuto Shinken (who are mafia leaders) to help his friends (who just so happened to be in the mafia) or because of destiny. There's also a connecting sort of arc that introduces the Nazis and Nanto Seiken, but its just there to introduce characters for the next half. The second half focuses more on the origins
of Hokuto Shinken and it's traditions which is a double edged sword. It adds interesting concepts and ideas, but sometimes it feels like Tetsuo Hara forgot his own lore. The end suffers due to Hara rushing and the magazine it was publishing in going under, so it just ends. There were a lot of character relationships and events that were implied, like how Shura is implied to be China or Kasumi might be Kenshiro's real father and Zong Wu is Raoh's, but were never actually clarified due to that end. There's also a noticeable increase in the comedy, as with most of Hara's independent works and with Kasumi's different personality, but it's handled naturally that it doesn't seem jarring and break the mood.
The characters are often compared to the original Hnk cast which can't be avoided with prequels/sequels. Yu-Ling is like Yuria but actually takes action and is a leader, Fei Yan like a combination of Rei and Ein becoming a foster parent and so on and so forth. The antagonists are like in North Star with a one dimensional introduction and slowly revealing a side Ken cries manly tears for. Characters such as Yasaka, Zong-Wu, and Kasumi stand out because they are obvious call backs to North Star characters yet are their own individuals. Kasumi himself may look like Kenshiro but he's far from the silent stoic. He's the heroic delinquent, having a good heart but helping the mafia, joking around with his "humble lit. professor" act but when you got a problem with Hokuto Shinken or Pan Wang tell it to him so he could beat your ass.
The art is what you'd expect from an already detailed art style North Star brought, but Hara has improved himself a lot since the eighties and it shows here. The setting itself in a World War II China brings interesting backgrounds of a Western Influenced Shanghai, Buddhist temples, and the mix of army uniforms and traditional Western and Chinese garbs makes for a unique look. The action scenes are superb as usual with the ATATATAs done beautifully.
At times the pacing could be irregular with some parts feeling a bit rushed while others seemed drawn out. It also didn't have that strong an impact or grand feeling as North Star, but I still had fun with it and if your looking for action or to quench the Hokuto thirst, Souten is always here. All that really matters is that good old Fist of the North Star feels and, despite the different setting, it's still the same to the core. Violence, action, death, and manly tears (now in Chinese).
The prequel to Hokuto no Ken is a lot more toned down and a bit less exaggerated in the whole giant evil bad guy proportions. As usual the protagonist has a very muscular build and knows Hokuto Shinken. The thing about Souten no Ken is that they gave it more of a storyline and less of the fighting. Whatever fighting there is isn\'t as extreme as in Hokuto no Ken. Whereas in Hokuto no Ken the fighting was just brute strength and hammering into the opponent\'s Keiraku Hikou in Souten no Ken Tetsuo Hara made it look a lot more like Chinese martial arts. Gone
are the days of Hokuto Hyakuretsu Ken but they still kept in the "ATATATATATATA" and the "You\'re already dead". They made Kenshiro say it in Chinese though because it\'s set in Shanghai where they all speak Chinese. I think this is an improvement on Hokuto no Ken but I don\'t think it\'ll ever be as popular as Hokuto no Ken because back then mindless gore and killing the bad guys was a hot topic.