Saturday 31 December 2016

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] The Inheritance #03: The Wolves

On the captured longship, Einar Sigurdsson explained the options to the rest of the company.
We will soon reach the mainland, but it will be evening, when it is bad luck to sail on.
Superstitions!” Jonlar Zilv scoffed, but decided not to press the matter with the only expert sailor on board. Shortly after the densely wooded coast appeared, Einar and two men lowered the skiff and rowed Princess Geranith and two of her followers to leave them to their fate with a day’s worth of food, a weapon each, and the clothes on their back. Some, particularly Sufulgor del’Akkad, grumbled, but Einar held up his hand.
I gave a promise, and what goes around may yet come around.
She has bewitched him” Harmand the Reckless suggested, but without much conviction.

On the sea

The next day, they decided to sail to the southwest, where they had heard of a small sea fortress on an island – a good, out of the way place to sell their spoils and resupply. Much of the day was spent slowly navigating the treacherous straits between the local islets, and it was already evening when the longship laid anchor to the south of a large, mountainous island covered with trees. Einar (whose player was absent this session) and the men remained on the ship, while, on a sudden whim, Gadur Yir, Jonlar Zilv, Harmand the Reckless and Sufulgor del’Akkad decided to go ashore and explore the place.

They rowed the skiff close to the shore, then up a stream choked with large, leafy plants. They were enveloped by the darkness and sounds of the surrounding forests, and heard the howl of wolves from the distance, up in the mountains. Quietly, they rowed on, their progress illuminated by the light of the full moon, until they reached a series of cascades below a small lake. Abandoning the skiff, they investigated the reflecting pool, whose surface was disturbed by the odd ripples of large fish. There was an old pier on the shore, and a trail lead into the darkness of the woods. High above, beyond the tree line, a lonely source of warm light beckoned. After a short discussion, and estimating the climb would take three or four hours, they decided this was worth exploring more carefully. Carefully avoiding the pier, Sufulgor made for the trail, with the others a stone’s throw behind him.

The trail climbed up through the undergrowth, with scarcely any light to guide them. The wolves were closer now, their sounds echoing through the mountains. There were frequent footsteps in the mud; of canines and a few of a man (or men). The company emerged in a mountain meadow, bisected by a rushing stream. The trail split; one side disappearing in the treacherous crevices cut by the waters, the other crossing a rickety wooden bridge above the stream, then meandering up the mountainside until reaching the forests again. This trail was marked by several short stones, carved with the runes of the Northman alphabet, white in the moonlight.

Following the path to the right, they passed the runestones, and were back in the forest. The trail split again; a less travelled section descending towards what seemed to be a steep precipice, and the main route climbing towards where the light had been. In this direction, the forest was ancient and choked with fallen tree giants and enormous trunks. The howling of the wolves now came from all around, and in an instant, the group was surrounded. The pack of snarling wolves, perhaps half a dozen, parted and a man stepped forward. He had wild eyes and an unkempt beard, dressed in dishevelled rags. He addressed them in a guttural speech:
I am Gwydion, son of Gwydion, and it must have been pre-ordained that you should come this night for the feasting.
Jonlar Zilv tried to appeal to reason: “Indeed, and a good feast is sweetened by a song! Let me show you how well my musical troupe can serve you.
We shall see yet how you sing, that is right!” snapped the man, and the circle of wolves closed in for the attack.

With a terrible roar, Gwydion, son of Gwydion jumped, transforming into a hairy lupine monstrosity, and felling Jonlar Zilv with his claws (1 Hp left).
We will snack on wolves-meat tonight”, laughed Harmand the Reckless, joined by the other half-orc. “The livers are mine! Finally a worthy delicacy!
The blood must flow generously” concurred Gwydion.
The wolves attacked with bloodlust in their eyes, trying to drag their victims down with their weight.
Perish!” shrieked Sufulgor, and Gwydion fell like a tree, his body taut with rigor mortis. Gadur Yir rushed him, speeding past the wolves, but his mighty blow only made a scratch on Gwydion’s hide. Desperate for his life, Jonlar Zilv produced the only silver items in his possession: he pushed two silver coins into the eye sockets of his enemy, who shrieked in terrible pain as the silver burned out his eyes. The wolves whimpered and fled, rushing past the company to run for the mountains, towards the elusive light beyond the tree line.

They butchered the captive werewolf in panic, cutting the living body into pieces as they could, and built a pyre to burn the remains, Sufulgor chanting a sacrificial ritual as he dedicated the corpse to Kurlakum of the Seven Misfortunes. Everyone was exhausted and Jonlar Zilv was close to death – although, fortunately, he suffered no werewolf bite. The body of Gwyddion revealed a few personal belongings: three fist-sized pieces of amber with preserved insects, five small bundles of twigs Jonlar Zilv identified as a druidic artefact customarily buried along with the defeated, and an old knotwork talisman made of bronze.
I am familiar with the legends”, mused Jonlar. “The druids of Erillion are a strange and unfriendly lot, who had ruled this land before the arrival of civilisation, and who were driven out and massacred in the days of the Wraith Queen Arxenia.
We should check out the source of the light tomorrow morning. Perhaps we can catch whoever is there while they are asleep.

The next morning, everything was shrouded in fog. They followed the path through the forest, then on a barren mountainside strewn with enormous boulders. The way lead to a large log house and kennel, built of sturdy timbers and covered with a roof fashioned out of crude pieces of mossy slate. The remaining wolves were resting next to the entrance, and growled as the company approached.
Let me try something.” Jonlar Zilv produced the knotwork amulet, and held it up in the faint hope it would let him control the wolves, but the beasts only became more agitated, and started to howl and bay. Someone cursed inside the log house, and the door opened to reveal an old man, ragged of clothing and white of hair, flanked two snarling young warriors.
The slayers of my son approach! My name is Gwydion, and I bid you welcome.
Indeed, of your son… and you!

The wolves sprang forward and Sufulgor and Jonlar Zilv climbed up on a large boulder in panic. Gadur Yir broke through the wolves to smite the old man, but missed. Gwydion spoke the words of a spell at Gadur Yir, but also failed to affect him. A furious mêlée developed, and while Gwydion’s two sons were caught by Sufulgor’s hold person spell, he was only affected by a temporary command to drop to the ground. The wolves cornered Harmand the Reckless, who was fighting for his life by the boulder, and he saw that Sufulgor was badly mauled (2 Hp), and the beasts dragged Jonlar Zilv off of the rock to finish him off (-1 Hp) – the efficiency of Gamescience™ dice! Barely into the battle, things were becoming desperate.

With a cry, Harmand leapt among the wolves to protect Jonlar, as Gadur Yir, who could barely keep away his share of wolves, shoved a handful of silvers down the helpless Gwydion’s mouth, burning his throat, and gouging out his eyes with two more coins. With his mighty arms, he held up the mangled and disfigured body of the elder werewolf before the eyes of his paralysed sons and the bloodthirsty wolves.
This was your master!
Alas, the wolves only became more furious, redoubling their efforts to rip the company apart. Now Harmand was also near death, and Sufulgor could barely escape the wolves trying to pull him down from his boulder perch. He winced, and produced his dagger.
Hear me! As I cut off my own nose,” he shrieked with a bloodcurdling cry, “I offer you my wretched hideousness! I promise that by the time the moon is consumed, I will disgrace a princeling, or so I will be disgraced by that which you send to me!” He held up his severed nose, blood flowing from his disfigured visage.

There was a portentous moment of silence as things hung in the balance, then the wolves turned, looked at Sufulgor, and abandoning their previous quarry, rushed him on top of the rock en masse and tore Sufulgor into bloody pieces. Sufulgor’s player wasn’t using Gamescience™ dice.

In the flash of moment while the wolves had their attention on Sufulgor, the two half-orcs made their decision. Harmand the Reckless cast his sanctuary spell, grabbed Jonlar Zilv’s body, and ran as he could, finding refuge among the mountain peaks where the winds wouldn’t carry his smell.

Gadur Yir, still menaced by three wolves, used the moaning and shrieking Gwydion’s wrecked body as a personal shield, retreating into the log house and barricading the door behind him just as Gwydion’s younger sons were starting to move again. He finished off the old man as fast as he could, and desperately looked around for a way out. He was trapped. The house interior, decorated with rough furs and hunting trophies, was spare, and there were no other exits, with only tiny windows neither he nor the wolves could squeeze through.
Now what? They will eventually batter down the door and I will be caught like the proverbial piglet…
As he thought, he grinned. He gathered firewood under the large stew-filled cauldron on the fireplace, and lit up a nice fire. Why not serve the wolves some hot soup? He whistled as the two young men outside were cursing and demanding him to open the door and release their father, and searched the premises. His efforts were rewarded with a sack full of gold coins, along with four more twig bundles, a sickle with a blade hammered out of pure gold, a bunch of mistletoe, and a small but heavy idol in the crude form of a wolf.

The soup now hot, Gadur Yir decided to make his exit, but as he removed the piping hot cauldron from the fire, he found something even more promising: checking the chimney, he realised he could climb out, perhaps without being spotted. He doused the fire, clambered up the chimney, and pulled up Gwydion’s body with a looped rope. Propping the corpse against the chimney, he barely slipped away as the old man’s sons and the wolves still circled around the house, waiting for someone to come out. Up in the mountains, the half-orc faced an unpleasant decision. Descending through the mountains would be hard enough in the mist, but carrying both the gold and the heavy statuette would be even more hazardous. Ruefully, he stuffed his pockets with gold, and emptied the rest among the rocks. Stumbling and cursing, he descended through ravines and slopes, getting caught in the undergrowth and barely avoiding falling into one of the deep crevices dotting the mountainside. At last, he emerged at the lake, and slightly later, met Jonlar Zilv and Harmand the Reckless on the way down the stream.


The longship set sail again, navigating the rocky waters of the archipelago. The island of the wolves receded, although Barzig the Nomad spotted something that looked like ruined white walls in the forests. Could it be Lord Feranolt’s abandoned family nest? They were not sure, and didn’t risk venturing closer. Instead, they sailed southwest two days, circumnavigating a small isle under high wind and constant rain to sail into the harbour of Knifetooth, a small sea outpost and townlet under the protection of Skarlog thane. The harbour was already occupied by two more ships: one, a slightly larger longship than theirs; and the other, the Pearl Shine, a mighty sailing vessel with high decks and sailors clad in silk vests and baggy pants, obviously meaning business. As they learned, they were the men of Saydir the Kassadian, a local warlord with an interest in military expeditions – a polite term for pirate.

After being warned by the guards to respect the authority of Lord Isellon, as well as his lieutenants, Ragak Longaxe and Captain Fellagon, they were allowed to enter the small, one-street and one-plaza settlement. The two half-orcs and Jonlar Zilv found a weaponsmith to their liking. Gadur Yir bought himself a shiny new breastplate to match his green cloak, and picked up a new bastard sword in place of the one he had lost when the company was captured. Harmand the Reckless was disappointed to learn this was the only piece of plate armour available, but eventually agreed with the smith to order a full to his specifications.

Meanwhile, Barzig the Nomad – now naming himself Barzig the Back as he was taken over by Sufulgor’s player – sauntered up to the trading depot of Murgen the Benevolent, a tasteless little villa. He entered the downstairs shop where two Kassadians were already haggling over some cloth bales they were trying to pass off to a disinterested servant. Barzig, without a single coin in his pocket, called the man.
I wish to speak to your master. Is he available? My name is Barzig the Healer, a famous expert of herbs and balms.
The servant bowed and rang a bell, and Barzig was at once conveyed to a spacious living room where he was received by Murgen himself. After trading pleasantries, Barzig outlined his plan: he would like to establish a trade relationship with Murgen, where they would not only divide the immense profits made by selling healing concoctions at several locations across Erillion, Barzig would make sure to carry Murgen’s good reputation to everyone in the known world.
This is a fascinating proposition, and interests me very much. In fact, as far as I am concerned, I like the deal” Murgen smiled. “I even have a small, how do you call it, apothecarium, a box full of small drawers containing rare herbs and spices. It would be excellent for a start. As my part of the venture, I will only ask 350 gold as collateral for the box, as well as the use of my good name.
Unfortunately, I do not have that kind of money on me right now. It would be much better if you would raise the necessary capital.
I am sure getting that collateral will be a snap.
I will have to discuss the matter with my business partners.
Very well! Until then, I wish you good luck. Jacopo, could you please escort the gentleman to the exit?
Barzig was unceremoniously deposited in Knifetooth’s sole street, and he made a sour face as he weighed his opportunities in the rain.
Have good cheer and do not worry!” came the advice of a jovial-looking fat man managing a roasted dog stand. “Have a snack and you will feel better – only two coppers!
Barzig growled. “I do not even have that much.
Well, my friend, then you have been well and truly fucked by the gods” came the response.

As Barzig left Murgen’s upstairs room, his place was taken by other guests – Jonlar Zilv and the two half-orcs, who had come to sell precious treasures at the store, and were immediately admitted.
…and make sure to check the locks. I did not like the looks of that scoundrel” they heard Murgen’s instructions to Jacopo, before the merchant turned to introduce himself. When they produced the wares – Geranith’s marriage gifts and the objects captured on the island – he became even more jovial, inviting the company to a bottle of fine Kassadian wine.
You know, it is a rare treat up north. This can be a boring little place, but it has its pleasures. I gift you this bottle as a memory of our deal – the first of many, I expect.
While we are at it, we might want to offer another”, Jonlar smiled. “Do you deal in livestock of the two-legged variety?
Murgen’s eyes narrowed to slits.
I am not that kind of man” he paused, surveying the guests. “…but I guess Skarlog thane is none too picky. Understand me, I am not a slaver, and will merely act as an, ah, intermediary in this affair – spare you the transportation costs and the time you’d lose while doing business, et cetera et cetera.
We understand each other perfectly. Our wares are a little unruly, but we got them in a battle fair and square, according to tried Northman custom. I am sure Skarlog thane will be understanding.
That I am sure of. Jacopo, do run and ask Captain Fellagon if he could offer some, ah, temporary storage for me.”

Richer by 300 gp and lessened by the burden of the captive Northmen, the company put their minds to future plans. It was time to purchase food and supplies for the ship – this alone would come at a cost of 15 gp per diem for a crew of 40. Then came the question of wages. Most of the men would work for food and keep and the occasional bonus, but they needed to outfit the ten readiest as armed fighters, which would soon require a commission, an extra 30 gp per week. Another ten men looked ready to prove their worth, but could not be outfitted yet. This whole ship business looked like an expensive venture. At last, they agreed on advancing two weeks’ worth of costs, and spending the rest in Knifetooth. After his miserable experience and insistent begging, they gifted Barzig with bow, arrows and sword, seemingly making him even more sour and ungrateful.
Don’t you want to give me ten more fucking gold pieces? This is humiliation!” he snarled.

As the evening approached, Gadur Yir took a small excursion outside Knifetooth. Among the bare hills whose trees were cut down long ago, he built a small stone stand, and made an offering of 200 gp worth of incense and the golden sickle from Gwydion’s treasures. As he stood below the grey skies, and the sacrifice was gone in a flash of flames, he heard a distant voice, all around him yet silent, only within him yet thunderous: “YOU SHALL BE MY CHAMPION IF YOU TRIUMPH IN MY NAME.
Pleased that Haldor, the God of Heroism had finally answered his prayers for the first time in his life, Gadur Yir grinned and headed back to the small outpost.

In the evening, there was light and celebration in the Coughing Cur, Knifetooth’s best (and only) tavern, and all of the heavily painted whores did great business. Harmand the Reckless threw a lavish party for 200 gp, inviting all the longship’s crew to tie them together as a company. The tempers were high and some men picked a few fights with Saydir the Kassadian’s men, but it turned out the latter were not only tougher fish, they were extremely well disciplined: they didn’t fraternise, didn’t respond to provocation, and their officers eventually ordered them all to return to the ship.

After the party, it was time to think of new plans, but this was interrupted by an unexpected farewell. Killorn Stonefist, the sickly dwarf they had freed from slavery, was even less well than before, and came to say his goodbye.
I will find a vessel to return me to Kassadia, where I will try seek the help of Irlan the Merciful to cure my ailment. I have not had good luck on this island, but I pray to all the gods that you might.
They gifted Killorn with 30 gp, and overtaken by gratitude, the old dwarf told them why he had sought out Erillion in the first place.
I came to this godforsaken place on a mission to find a group of my fellow dwarves. All I learned was that they are now captives in a tower named Tol Grannek. This place lies to the west of Baklin, in the mountains of central Erillion, and it is ruled by an army of orcs, shrewd and merciless. There they worship their fell god, and work the mines with captured slaves. Surely, they keep some great treasures in Tol Grannek… but if you could free the dwarves, my people would be most grateful to you.
The name Tol Grannek had the ring of excitement around it.
Perhaps we are not approaching this the correct way. We act as weak individuals when we could be raising an army and earning a name that would get us places” Harmand mused. “For a start, we could capture some of the orcs who harass the trade route between Baklin and Tirwas.
Or blend in?” offered Gadur Yir. “Two half-orcs bringing a group of chained captives...
They retreated for the night as they thought about the new vistas before them.

(Session date 28 December 2016).


Notable quotes:
Jonlar Zilv: “Could this be a druid who is only disguising himself as a werewolf?

Murgen the Benevolent? I bet he is the cousin of Murad the Honest.” [from the City State of Arfel in the City of Vultures campaign, Episode 7 – G.L.]
How could someone distrust a man named Murgen the Benevolent?


Referee’s notes: An almost-TPK on an island that was effectively a detour from the main plotline. The company’s escape from the wolves and the Gwydion clan may seem miraculous, and call into question my old-school credentials. I accept the charges. Ten-years-younger me would have salughtered the party without mercy, using the wolves as efficient, brutal killing machines. But truthfully, I am no longer that merciless, and I don’t run the opposition as hyper-efficient killing machines (just like my group doesn’t play like a hyper-efficient commando unit). I am ready to offer last chances if they are believable and spectacular – and some of the desperate, last-ditch measures the party pulled were both. Yet there are always consequences, and this time, Sufulgor was the one who was unlucky enough to be left with the bill. Remember, always bring your own dice, and never settle for anything less than Gamescience™!

Like last time, this episode may appear to be an excursion with no bearing on the greater campaign. In fact, just like last time, it introduces a few concepts which may become rather relevant later on. The campaign takes shape, and a few pieces of the puzzle are put in place; connections start to emerge. It is not wasted time. Which part is the puzzle and which isn’t? And are the pieces in the exact right place? Now those are different questions.

Sunday 18 December 2016

[STUFF] In the Name of the Principle!

*** *** BE VIGILANT! *** ***
At the end of Summer in the year 3995, Solon’s calendar, the Highest Synod of the **Arx** issued the following brief proclamation, numbered #3775 and disseminated through the usual venues:
*** *** *** In the name of the Principle! The **Arx** hereby declares that Megakrates, Lord of Akrasia has transgressed fundamental philosophical values in governing his city state, and, even after repeated calls to amend his erroneous ways, he has failed to issue the necessary corrections. Consequently, the Highest Synod of the **Arx**, acting on a vote of eleven to ten, hereby sentences Megakrates and his unrepentant band of conspirators to DEATH, and, furthermore, orders the immediate seizure of all their movable and immovable possessions, including but not limited to the city state of Akrasia. The judgement is final and subject to immediate implementation. Swift and effective measures will be enacted by a special delegation of the appropriate experts, appointed on authority of the **Arx** to carry out the necessary operations in the city state of Akrasia. *** *** ***

So declared in the city state of Propyla, in the year of Solon 3995, day 237.”

Slightly later, a mounted company on picked horses left the city state of Propyla. Turning southwest from the major trade route, they rode on a less travelled road towards Akrasia...

In the Name of the Principle is a scenario for a party of 5th to 7th level characters, focusing on espionage, subversion and open-ended problem-solving in the city state of Akrasia. It was originally run as a tournament scenario on an old-school mini-convention, offering a concentrated dose of the ideas in our Fomalhaut campaign. The English version, translated in mid-2014, was intended to be published in Fight On #15, but since that never came to pass, it is offered here as a Christmas present.

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.