Saturday 10 December 2016

[BEYONDE] Golgo 13, Japanese Superspy

The Comic Books

" . . .  . . . " - Golgo 13
Some of the most fun I have had this year has been digging into Takao Saito’s Golgo 13 comic series and its various offshoots – two live action adaptations, two animated films and an animated TV series. It was brought to my attention by pure chance; for various reasons, it doesn’t seem to enjoy particularly wide recognition outside Japan, at least not for a broadly circulated series that has been running continuously since 1968. Still, it stuck, and it has become one of my favourite non-gaming 

Basically, Golgo 13 is a particularly vicious James Bond ripoff, whose titular hero (usually going under the alias “Duke Togo”), a stone cold assassin without an ounce of remorse, kills and fucks his way through anything that gets thrown at him without changing his expression. If he accepts a job, he always sees it through to the end no matter what, and he always gets in the kill even if it is four degrees of impossible. If people get in his way or try to double-cross him, they also get killed. Graphic violence and explicit sex are both heavily featured. This is the distilled essence of Connery-era Bond (whose appearance Duke shares), before the sillier gadgetry, and without the comfortable moral justification of government employment. Bond does it for Queen and Country; Duke does it for suitcases full of money which he dutifully deposits in his anonymous Swiss bank account.

Golgo 13 comes from long before manga/anime became an established style with fully codified visual conventions, so – apart from its distinctly odd-looking women – the comics are more inspired by western golden age comic books, with a distinct Dick Tracy / Batman influence. It is not a particularly fancy or experimental look, but it does its job as a vehicle for the stories it tells. The earlier issues are less detailed but more dynamic; later, the backgrounds gradually become more elaborate while they turn increasingly generic – 1990s Golgo 13 art has an impersonal quality that’s almost curiously flat. (Apparently, these comics are drawn by an artistic team, while the faces are always drawn by Saito – which is hilarious because they are the simplest, yet most interesting element.)

In the early strips, Duke allows himself a characteristic smirk now and then; later, he has one facial expression whether he is strolling through an airport (the series is full of a disorienting variety of interchangeable, anonymous and lonely places like cheap hotels, bars, modern office complexes and airports), negotiating a contract, or having sex. He tends to communicate in two rows of ellipses, preferring to say nothing. Since Golgo 13 doesn't have much of a personality beyond the cool, taciturn loner with superhuman accuracy, the interesting stuff in the comics comes from either the people who act as his foils, or watching the really contrived ways Golgo sets up his kills. As an incredibly long-running series, the plotting has its ups and downs, but at worst, it is enjoyable, while the great episodes are little masterpieces of paranoia, interconnecting storylines, and complex schemes ranging from elaborate crime operations to personal tragedies where someone really has to bring in a sniper. In the comic’s earlier run – which I personally found more engaging – it is more up close and personal, while later, Golgo becomes more of an implied presence, barely seen except for a distant glimpse, a photograph, or through the evidence of having been there (maybe).

Border crossing
Then there is the political element, which is an entirely fascinating part of the series. As James Bond retreated from its Cold War roots into stories about extravagant evil masterminds and impractical world domination plots, Golgo 13 revelled in the basic stuff of the espionage genre. It is full of spy-vs-spy action, intercepted messages, plants, doubles and hostage exchanges. Duke Togo, amoral bastard that he is, works for everyone who can pony up the cash, the Americans, the Brits and the Soviets, as well as numerous actors involved in the confusing Middle Eastern and African conflicts of the 1970s. These stories have just the right balance of gritty realism and fanciful espionage, and while they are invariably “remixes” of well-known basic plots, they conjure an ideal world of shadowy paranoia.

Takao Saito and his collaborators had a further tendency of shamelessly ripping inspiration straight from the headlines and reworking it into superspy stories, a technique previously perfected by Fritz Lang (whose Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is another personal favourite). Through his long career, Duke Togo, sniper and travelling salesman, has been involved in tipping the balance during the Yom Kippur War, covert ops in the Falklands War, intervening at Tienanmen Square, participating in the assassination of Lady Diana, and shooting a stack of ballots in Florida to decide the outcome of the 2000 US elections (vote early, vote often, vote with a bullet!), and much more. Freely blending fact and fiction is an exhilarating (if dangerous) exercise, turning reality into its own monstrous mirror image, and Golgo 13 into a very small, very efficient one-man conspiracy. He is “the man who was there” everywhere except the grassy knoll, but even that was only because it took place years before the series kickoff (unsurprisingly, it still gets brought up in an off-handed manner in one of the adaptations).

But in its own way, Golgo 13 is not just historically grounded, it is also ageless and timeless. From the perspective of the modern viewer, it is a refreshingly archaic series that wears its interests on its sleeve. There is no post-modernist deconstruction or knowing wink there. Even if some of the comic comes across as plainly absurd competence porn, Golgo 13 is who he is and he means what he does. From the very first, crude comic strip (which, of all things, starts with him punching out a prostitute in a cheap hotel room), the series is earnestly violent and honest about it. Today, when such interests immediately get denounced as toxic masculinity, it is like a breath of fresh air, with the subversive appeal of the Donald J. Trump presidential campaign.

Angela makes a mistake
Almost fifty years have passed since the series debut, but Golgo 13 is steadfastly, fascinatingly behind the times, and while you see mobile phones and computers in recent installments, it is still about a guy who lives a decidedly late 1960s kind of life, has a late 1960s attitude towards women, and uses late 1960s spy movie tactics. It is also stuck in a timeless ideal of Europe/America that's obviously and utterly fake, but completely charming. Like Sergio Leone's westerns, this is about some foreign guy's romantic ideal of the Old Continent and the good old U.S. of A., something he clearly adores but doesn't fully understand. It is an occidentalist fantasy. In Golgo 13’s Europe, the world is orderly, the authorities are mostly polite and well respected, most people who aren’t hoodlums are vaguely upper-middle class, and 1968 never happened. People wear suits, ties, neat dresses or sometimes smart casual if they don't want to appear too straight-laced; there is no graffiti and the streets are meticulously clean. How much of it is due to distance and lack of information, how much to genre conventions, and how much to just thinking the rest of the world is like Japan? Hard to tell. It is fairly attractive as a vision of Europe – at least I wouldn’t mind living there.

Hände hoch!

The Adaptations

The adventures of Duke Togo have been adapted multiple times; twice as a live-action film, twice as an animated movie, and once as a TV series. These are quite varied in quality, and I would basically recommend two of them, with a third as a big “maybe”.

Golgo 13 (1973): Take a particularly vicious comic book series featuring a Japanese James Bond knockoff whose author seemed to be on the opinion that Bond was just too nice and didn’t have enough sex and violence. Adapt it into a Japanese – Iranian action movie that’s so cultishly obscure it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page, and is only available on DVD from a purveyor of such fine cult film classics as Symphony For A Massacre, Roadhouse of the Violent Dolls, or White Rose Campus: Then Everybody Gets Raped. This is a recipe for cinematic disaster. All the warning signs of super-cheap exploitation that the likes of Tarantino dredge up as lost pop culture artefacts and present through an ironic post-modern view are right there.

But Golgo 13 (no subtitle) is not that movie. It is a surprisingly high-budget, surprisingly well-acted, and surprisingly well-made production, and apart from an awkward and badly paced introduction, it holds up very well among other dark, paranoid 70s spy movies. Golgo 13 (a.k.a. Duke Togo), pro hitman played by yakuza movie veteran Ken Takakura, is sent to pre-Revolution Iran to take out Max Boa, the kingpin of a criminal syndicate involved in the drug trade and girl trafficking. However, Max Boa is a shadowy underground figure who works unseen, has multiple body doubles, and is served by some of the Middle East’s best assassins. Multiple agents on Boa’s trail have disappeared or turned up dead, and only the best international sniper can take him out.

Iran noir
That’s the base for a plot that goes from the hotels, alleyways and nightclubs of Teheran’s Old City through the scorching deserts to Isfahan, then a shootout among the ruins of Persepolis (and beyond). There are several sinister gunmen (including a guy who looks like Saddam Hussein), a tough cop who will be trouble for both the protagonist and his targets, a beautiful spy who will be even more trouble, car chases, a helicopter battle, and a parrot. It is a clean, classic, larger-than-life comic book aesthetic that’s thankfully free of post-modernism. Like all good pulp fiction, it is cheap and meant for entertainment, but it has self-respect and earnestness. There is no nervous laughter in the background, no knowing winks at the audience, and however over-the-top it gets, there is no trace of camp. Some of the scenes in the 1977 movie with Sonny Chiba (Kowloon Assignment) are played for laughs, but Ken Takakura is no laughing matter. Chiba poses and snarls as a macho tough guy, while Takakura looks very much like he could kill you with his bare hands. His performance in this movie shows a cynical, paranoid, taciturn killer who fulfils his contract no matter what it takes. In one scene, where he is trying to slip his bonds after being tortured, he looks like a demon trying to break free. The rest of the all-Iranian cast is completely unconvincing when they try to fill in for other nationalities, but they take their stock roles and play them with relish.

For something you’d expect to have homemade or ultra-low-budget special effects, this movie delivers surprisingly good stunts and choreography, and of course, spectacular locations (when did the last action movie have a shootout around historical minarets, or again, the ruins of Persepolis?). It is not quite Bond calibre, but it is reasonably close, on par with a lot of high-budget 1970s action movies. It is not quite as violent or blatantly sexual as the 1983 animation, but the action is more brutal than you could get away with in a mainstream US title, and it is way sleazier than you would expect from an Iranian co-production.

And this is the last part of the movie’s fascination. In the background of the disreputable yet fun plotline and the amoral hero, there is a lost Iran where the women are confident and colourfully dressed, the men elegant and fashionable, the cities corrupt and sinful yet also modern and alive. The Shah’s Iran looks like any up-and-coming second world country on the verge of making it on the world stage (with better cars than the place I grew up), with no trace of the bearded imams and morality enforcers that would eventually destroy it. There are probably not too many movies where you can see this lost world anymore, and I believe it is worth remembering.

Apparently, Golgo 13 didn’t do well in theatres at the time of its release, and has no reputation even as a cult classic. Which is strange, because while no masterpiece, it an entertaining 70s action movie, Ken Takakura is a legitimate badass, and there are murders, car chases and shootouts at exotic locations. The DVD is Ł6.50 plus shipping, and it arrives super-fast. Watch the killcount video, stay for the whole ride.

The Professional (1983): full-length animation. After Golgo 13 assassinates the son and heir of super-rich American industrialist Leonard Dawson, he find himself the target of the vengeful father, who has the money to buy the services of the CIA, the FBI, the US Army, and their specially trained assassins. This is one of the jobs where Golgo 13 has to do his best to survive and succeed against the increasingly unhinged Dawson, who is willing to sacrifice everything in his life to get his son's murderer, and that’s one of the reasons this movie is so compelling. It is a full-blown revenge drama about obsession and moral corruption, pitting the cool-as-ice professional assassin against someone who is for all intents and purposes a Japanese patriarch in US clothing.

Cartoon depravity
The Euro-romanticism is in full swing, with a western world that's suspiciously how I imagined it when I was a kid in an Eastern Bloc country. Its upscale elegance and moral decay are as much a reflection on the 1980s as the earlier Golgo 13 comics are on the Cold War era, and the coolness of the decade is served up in a concentrated mix in the movie’s wild imagery. There is even a car with “Laser Turbo” decals printed on it! The violence is over-the-top and bloody; the sexual depravity is cranked up several notches – it is one of those cases where the reputation of the Japanese animation industry is fully justified, and makes the comics look tame in comparison.

The most important reason The Professional is excellent, though, is Osamu Dezaki's imaginative animation, which has high production values, and amazingly bold visuals. He uses odd perspectives and angles, abstract images, freeze-frames, cutups and even an experimental early CGI sequence (which is ridiculously dated but has an abstract retro look now) to their fullest. The style fits the comic book themes flawlessly, and has a pop-art sensibility I last found in Mario Bava’s excellent, cheeky Danger: Diabolik. It is so full of effortless cool that I suspect it has had its own influence on a bunch of more recent action films; underscored by a soundtrack ranging from J-pop to jazzy pieces.

Making Real Estate Great Again
Golgo 13 (2008 TV series): 50 episodes without any continuity between them, adapted from the original comics and slightly updated for the late 2000s. It doesn’t always work flawlessly, since in adapting original plotlines, it crams them into 25-minute episodes, losing some of the complex plotting and deeper characterisation of Saito’s stories. It also has to be said that some stories become rather less compelling when separated from their original context: Cold War drama doesn’t age well in a world of new anxieties, and you have to remind yourself about their origins to properly enjoy them. The episodes are essentially interchangeable, and if you have seen five or six of them, you have seen everything the series has to offer.

Still, it is good (if disposable) fun, ranging from reverse-CSI kind of investigative stories to personal drama to scenarios where Duke Togo pulls off those apparently impossible jobs. There is even an episode where he whacks “Ronald Crump, The Real Estate King” right in his impregnable skyscraper fortress, and another where President Obama himself tells him to knock it off with a contract “or else” (he doesn’t). As always, he is a callous motherfucker who won't hesitate about killing friends and lovers, and often comes across as a colossal asshole, which is about a good 20% of the episodes. The art is the most animeish here (and is a partial departure from Takao Saito’s original look), but it is functional and decent.


  1. Was unaware. Looks awesome. Great review. Zulgyan

  2. This is one of the main gripes I have with the series (as with all japanese anime) when they portray western characters. They all behave like they are from some japanese prefecture. If they are US gangsters, they behave like Yakuzas. Its a bit weird.

    1. I suppose it is about as accurate as when Europeans or Americans write about East Asia, just in reverse. I personally find it fascinating.

  3. Also, RIP Takao Saito, 1936-2021.