How James Bond Became Japan’s Most Stoic Hitman

Golgo 13 was (is) a long-running Japanese comic book aimed primarily at bitter guys in dead-end salaryman jobs who harbored daydreams of being tough-as-nails murderous sex machines but, in reality, were just nerdy guys reading a comic book on the train. So, much like me, except we don’t have a company cheer that I know of. The series was created by an enterprising writer named Takao Saito, who got his big break in the business doing manga adaptations of the James Bond stories. Saito’s Bond comics were fully-licensed components of the James Bond world, but they played fast and loose with the original books, often having very little to do with them other than the title and some character names (basically the same as what would happen to the movies).

Under Saito, James Bond became a radically different character in some respects, including being a master of disguise when the Ian Fleming books go to great lengths to point out that Bond refuses to use disguises (which was, to be fair, an aspect of his character that was dropped by the time Saito was writing the manga). Regardless of the lack of faithfulness to the Fleming novels, the comics were wildly popular and generally well-received by the average fan. However, the series eventually got canned in 1967 after covering Thunderball, Man with the Golden Gun, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Live and Let Die.

It has been postulated that the fact that the comics were so radically different from the original stories from which they took their name was one of the main reasons for the cancellation — this would have been shortly before or right around the same time as You Only Live Twice was released as a movie, which was the first Bond film to really differ dramatically from the original novel. More than likely, however, the comics were considered to be original James Bond stories, and after the death of Ian Fleming, his caretakers was keen to see that no one else continued writing new, original James Bond adventures outside the strict control of the Fleming estate.

Saito’s reaction to the cancellation of his Bond series was to keep on writing it anyway, but change the character’s name to Duke Togo, aka Golgo 13, a stone cold killer who will off anyone for the right price. Guilty or innocent, male or female, young or old, it didn’t matter at all to Golgo 13. Saito’s James Bond was drawn to look like Sean Connery (more or less), and anyone who has seen Saito’s James Bond will instantly recognize it as being pretty much the same as his design for the mysterious assassin Golgo 13. Over the years, the Golgo 13 stories would get much more explicit than they ever could have under the banner of James Bond, but it’s obvious that Golgo 13 is a direct outgrowth of the James Bond stories (with a dash of Lupin III thrown in from time to time), albeit one that’s filtered through a gleeful willingness to embrace the increasingly permissive environment of the 1970s.

Free of the shackles of conforming to the Bond character, Saito was able to indulge his every whim and extreme and finally show the people that he, as a writer, was completely insane. Not quite as insane as Kazuo Koike (creator of Crying Freeman and Lone Wolf and Cub, among others), but still plenty nuts. The world of Golgo 13 quickly plumbed the twisted depths of pulp storytelling, serving up a steady stream of wildly popular action stories dripping with gratuitous sex and violence, which as I’ve said before and will no doubt say again, are the best types of sex and violence. Golgo 13 worked as a throwback to the hardboiled detective fiction of writers like Mickey Spillane married with the gritty sex and violence of 1970s pop culture. It was trash through and through, but deliriously cracked in the head and unique in its approach, as opposed to being a simple regurgitation of pulp conventions. It was obvious that Saito had become some sort of sick, mad genius, the comic book creating equivalent of one of his James Bond villains.

Golgo 13, who even after decades of comic book stories, has never revealed anything about his past. He is eternally thirty-something, with no home, no family, and no name. “Duke Togo” is just another pseudonym, since you can’t sign into hotels under the name Golgo 13 — don’t think I haven’t tried. What we do know about Golgo 13 (whose name is derived from Judas and the hill upon which Christ was crucified, as the Japanese love Biblical reference nonsequiturs) is that his life consists of killing and sex. He is an expert marksman who prefers a modified M-16 but is at home with just about any weapon. He’s an expert at karate, speaks just about every language known to man (even the clicking language of the Kalahari bushmen, I bet), is a trained medic, and can instantly become a master of any other discipline the plot requires of him.

And frankly, that’s all you need to know about him. Golgo 13 operates within the arena of pulp fiction, which means it relies on audiences recognizing a series of archetypal stock characters who are what they are because that’s what the story says they are. Golgo 13 is a master assassin, and that’s all we need to know about him. Whatever expectations that character type has associated with it are expected to already be known by the reader or viewer. There is no call for complicated back story, or any back story at all, because pulp fiction doesn’t dwell on such things. Whatever history you think of when you hear a brief description of Golgo 13 is probably right.

The Godfather Goes Golgo

During the 1960s, Ken Takakura was the king of Japanese genre film. With a pile of yakuza films to his name, among them the long-running Abashiri Prison series, Takakura became the face of the Japanese gangster film. But when upstart Nikkatsu Studio started messing with the tried and true “honorable yakuza” formula, they ushered in a new era and a new type of film: borderless action. With it came younger, hipper, weirder stars in younger, hipper, weirder movies, and guys like Ken Takakura and the “gangster with a code of honor” movies were suddenly old-fashioned. By 1973, when Japan got around to making the first cinematic version of Golgo 13, Takakura was a man on the way out — too old to fit in with the young stars, but too young to be sold as “an elder statesman” reclaiming old glory. That said, he was still a bankable name able to get work, and so he found himself cast in Golgo 13, a somewhat bizarre production partially funded by an Iranian film studio, shot almost entirely in Iran, and with — apart from Takakura Ken — an entirely Iranian cast.

If you only know Iran as a problematic theocracy who keeps threatening to figure out how to make nuclear weapons, then you are missing out on the vast majority of the country’s history. It wasn’t always under the thumb of mullahs and fundamentalists. In 1941, control of the country of Iran was assumed by Mohammad Reza Sah Pahlavi, supported by both the United States and United Kingdom. Commonly referred to simple as the Shah of Iran, he began a program of reform meant to turn Iran — a super-power in the ancient world — into an influential modern state. Many of the reforms were aimed at lessening the power held by rural landlords and the clergy — ostensibly to free the Iranian people, but also to further solidify The Shah’s own power by eliminating the competition. In the end, the “White Revolution” proved to have the opposite effect. Charges of corruption, of being nothing more than a puppet regime for the United states, of poking at deep-seated religious beliefs, precipitated the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which deposed the Shah, established a theocracy, and set up, more or less, what we know as Iran today.

Among the efforts of the White Revolution was the creation of a film industry. There had been Iranian films before — the first one was made in 1930 by a professor named Ovanes Ohanian. However, it was difficult to get a fledgling film culture off the ground when World War II reared its ugly head shortly after you started making movies, so it wasn’t until after the war, with the establishment of the National Iranian Film Society in 1949, that the Iranian film industry really took off. Although responsible for many films that gained substantial critical acclaim, Iranian cinema never gained the global following enjoyed by many other national cinemas, and even their pulpier fare — and they made plenty of it — remains obscure even among fans of the obscure. Landing a deal with a Japanese production must have been a big deal. The Japanese film industry was in a sorry state during the 1970s, but many Japanese films still enjoyed a level of international exposure even the best Iranian films could only dream of.

So Takakura Ken, director Junya Sato (Bullet Train), and a small Japanese crew packed up and headed to Iran for what ended up being equal parts a Golgo 13 film and an advertisement for the Iranian tourism board. For the film, Golgo 13 is recruited to kill an Iranian gangster and human trafficker whose primary attribute is his love for his pet parrot. The vast majority of the film consists of an expressionless, emotionless Takakura Ken driving around Iran, pausing for a series of shoot-outs and chases that are certain to take in the most famous tourist sites of the country. Dogging Golgo every step of the way is a noble Iranian inspector. And of course there are some dames, because it wouldn’t be a Golgo 13 story if there weren’t some women to die either because of him or by his hand. If that sounds like a James Bond movie, well, remember the pedigree of Golgo 13.

Sato’s direction makes good use of the many Iranian locations at the film’s disposal, and he shoots wide-open deserts and distinctive ancient ruins to great effect. The end result is a film that feels a lot like a Eurospy film from the previous decade. Takakura Ken is suitably one-note, but he’s an able performer who manages to get the most out of a very difficult character to make interesting. The story is a lot less perverse and twisted than your average Golgo 13 manga, but it’s still a solid action adventure, and the final shot (so to speak) is pure Golgo 13. All in all, it’s a successful, entertaining film — in execution, anyway.

At the box office, it tanked. Japanese cinema was already in dire straights, and the combination of domestic disinterest, a fading star, and a problematic and expensive cross-cultural production doomed this film in particular and the entire idea of a Golgo 13 franchise. Despite being based on what could be extremely graphic and shocking source material, and despite coming out at a time when Japanese film was pushing the envelope in terms of on-screen sex and violence, Golgo 13 the live-action film is curiously old-fashioned and tame. Measured against the frenetic, visceral nature of contemporaries like the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, or the Female Prisoner Scorpion films, Golgo 13 is strikingly…quaint. It’s an Elvis film, when people had moved on to the Beatles. Provided Elvis was a stone cold assassin and the Beatles were, I don’t know, Meiko Kaji or something. This metaphor really doesn’t hold up, does it?

Part of Golgo 13‘s problem probably had to do with Iranian financing. While the Iran of the early 1970s was not the ultra-conservative religious state we know now, it’s unlikely that the levels of sex and violence required for a proper Golgo 13 film (or a proper Japanese exploitation film in general) would have been a bit much. They might have been a bit much for Takakura Ken as well. Try as he might, it’s hard for Takakura Ken’s old “killer with a code of honor” to stay away from this material, where it doesn’t belong. And saying that it’s there might not even be fair. After all, the Golgo 13 of this movie makes some mean-as-sin decisions to leave certain characters to die, or leave others to a cruel fate simply because it makes his mission a little easier. But it’s Takakura Ken, man, and I think anyone with a history with the actor can’t help but inject some of that into this film, even if it’s not really there.

And so, despite being a quality production, Golgo 13 was quickly shuffled into the dustbin of history, forgotten by almost everyone. It would be several years before Toei would dust off the franchise, once again as a live-action production, and once again as a co-production with another country — although this time, one much closer to Japan and with a much more promising willingness to indulge sex and violence.

Sonny Goes Shooting

The second movie adaptation of Golgo 13 came to us in 1977, starring the legendary Sonny Chiba wearing some legendaryly 1970s clothing, and directed by Yukio Noda, who brought the world the 1974 pinky violence exploitation “classic” Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs (which later begat that horribly boring series of DTV Zero Woman movies in the 1990s). That is a much more promising pedigree when it comes to the sort of stories usually associated with Golgo 13. The plot is pretty basic, as all good Golgo 13 stories should be: Golgo 13 is hired to kill someone, and the Hong Kong police department tries to stop him even though the guy he’s killing is sort of a dick.

Sonny Chiba does look a lot like Golgo 13 in many shots, though sometimes it looks like the humidity is turning his coif into a frizzy fro, and he’s certainly an actor who has shown a willingness to play ruthless and evil. As with the first film, this one was also a co-production, this time between Japan and Hong Kong. One would hope that means a lot of primo Hong Kong kungfu talent would be showing up. Unfortunately, it looks like the production skimped on hiring locals for the Hong Kong sequences, so instead of potentially cool team-ups like Sonny Chiba versus Ti Lung, we get Sonny Chiba casually evading a string of ham ‘n’ eggers like Callan Leung. Who the hell is Callan Leung?

Surely Sonny Chiba had Lo Lieh’s telephone number and could ring him up for a cameo and grimace-off. Sonny does bring Chiba movie staple Etsuko Shiomi with him, and she always looks fabulous in action, even if she’s only in the movie long enough for one fight scene before she gets offed. Sadly, a single Sue Shiomi fight scene and a lot of Sonny Chiba walking down the street don’t make for edge-of-your-seat cinema. I guess there wouldn’t have been much point to hiring top-notch Hong Kong talent for the action scenes since there are hardly any action scenes anyway. Japanese live action cinema was pretty zany in 1977. Lots of weirdness all over the place, and yet somehow Kowloon Assignment, based on such crazed material, is still relatively tame. Less so than Takakura Ken’s outing, but it’s still old-fashioned. The bloodshed is minimal, there’s a naked breast or two (if you count Sonny’s), the fights are few and far between, and Golgo 13 isn’t nearly as cool as he should be, possibly because that sort of stone-faced killer is more dynamic as a drawn piece of art than as an actual guy.

Plus, Sonny Chiba is always at his best when he’s allowed to go bug-eyed and over the top, which is not Duke Togo’s style. All in all, a major disappointment on all fronts. However, it’d seem unlikely that the Golgo 13 comic wasn’t an influence on better, more successful Sonny Chiba films, and that more successful Chiba films would likewise prove to be influences on Saito’s writing (or his stable of writers, as he was one of the few popular manga writers who doled responsibilities out to a team rather than doing all the work himself). In particular, there are some pretty significant parallels to be drawn between Golgo 13 and Sonny Chiba’s Street Fighter anti-hero, Terry Tsuruga, a merciless killing machine who will take anyone out if the price is right, and kidnap your sister and sell her into sex slavery if you can’t pay his fee.

In fact, the original Street Fighter was the first to use a little gimmick where someone gets punched and the movie cuts to an X-Ray showing crushing bones and whatnot — a technique that is repeated during the finale of the Golgo 13 animated film. It’s too bad that the venomous mean spirit, nasty violence, and all-around sickness of The Street Fighter isn’t evident in Kowloon Asignment. It would have been a better and more authentic Golgo 13 movie if that had been the case. Instead, what we are left with is a film that is only mildly more exploitive than the first, with more outrageous fashion but a lack of the international scope Takakura Ken enjoyed by shooting in Iran. It would seem, then, that the only way to really bring Golgo 13 to life was to avoid bringing him to life — which meant eschewing live-action film and going animated.

Pull My Trigger Again…Softly and Gently

In 1983, Golgo 13 was brought to the big screen for the third time, but for the first time in the medium best suited for realizing the depth of the property’s depravity. Chances are, if it had been an animated feature in the 1970s, Golgo 13 still would have failed to capture the twisted nature of the manga. Anime had to become “80s anime” before Golgo 13: The Professional could exist. The task of making an animated Golgo 13 fell upon the shoulders of directors Osamu Dezaki, Shichiro Kobayashi, and Hirokata Takahashi. It was a bizarre trio of men to direct a movie packed to the gills with blood, gore, and sex. Shichiro and Hirokata both worked on Miyazaki’s Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, the friendliest of all Lupin III incarnations. Shichiro is best known for his work on the Urusei Yatsura series, while Hirokata dabbled in Rainbow Brite.

Osamu Dezaki was, at the time, best known for The Rose of Versailles, a flowery shojo anime that is every bit as emotional and melodramatic as Golgo 13 is mean and violent. Dezaki’s trademark is a unique style of playing with the artwork, using split screens and freeze frames (all fairly common nowadays) that would become richly detailed still drawings that helped tie anime to its manga roots. All three men worked on Space Adventure Cobra in 1982, however, which must have prepared them for their work on the over-the-top macho Golgo 13 a year later.

Needless to say, anyone following Dezaki into Golgo 13 thinking the babe-bangin’ assassin was suddenly going to have big eyelashes and find himself walking through spontaneous clouds of flowers while writing poetry as Vivaldi played in the background was going to find themselves somewhat out of their element. Working on original stories from Saito, Golgo 13 the movie is a shamelessly over-the-top work of grindhouse theater exploitation; an endless and welcome parade of cold-blooded murder, grim-faced psychopaths, statuesque naked women, and wanton acts of depravity, all of which revolve tornado-style around the central character.

The movie wastes no time jumping immediately into the action. We meet Golgo 13 (voiced by relative newcomer Tetsuro Sagawa in the original Japanese, Greg Snegoff in the dub) as he is wrapping up one assignment and taking on another — the assassination of a billionaire industrialist’s only son, who is being primed to take over his father’s empire. Enraged by the murder, industrialist Leonard Dawson (Goro Naya — who has a lengthy list of voice acting and regular acting credits to his name, including Lupin, Peacock King, Vampire Princess Miyu, various incarnations of Kamen Rider, and both the live action and anime versions of Casshern) swears bloody revenge upon the wily assassin, even if it destroys everything he’s built, and even if it means sacrificing his daughter-in-law to the perverse whims of disgusting hitmen.

And that’s the plot. From there on out, Golgo 13 kills people, and people try to kill him. When he’s not killing people, it’s because he’s having sex. Golgo 13 is a heady showcase of all the excesses that made the 1980s one of Japan’s most infamously decadent decades. There’s a lot of nudity and a lot of blood. People die in slow motion, with blood spurting brightly from gory knife and bullet wounds as their faces contort into that bug-eyed, twisted-jaw mask of death that is familiar to so many fans of ’80s anime. No one gets shot once when they can get shot a dozen times, and no woman goes very long before coming out of her clothes, either by choice or by force. Golgo 13 even shoves a grenade in a guy’s mouth and we get to watch the flaming body run around directionless while the surprised, fire-engulfed head tumbles to the ground in slow motion. Everyone, Golgo 13 included, is present merely to be abused in the most merciless fashion imaginable.

So it should be fairly obvious that I embrace the seedy excesses of Golgo 13 with unabashed enthusiasm. It plays the source material perfectly in that it never once goes for the ironic wink, nudge, or comedic interlude. Everyone is dead serious about even the most outlandish scenarios (like Golgo 13 killing a Nazi war criminal in the middle of an orgy by climbing a building and shooting all the way through another building to hit the Nazi in the third building right in the middle of the head), which really puts Golgo 13 among the ranks of the poliziotteschi from the 1970s, like Violent Rome and Violent Naples, which handled similarly outrageous sequences with the same sense of gravity (and also indulged in gratuitous perversity that would have been totally at home in Golgo 13). In fact, Golgo 13 the movie is equal parts poliziotteschi and Eurospy film, drawing on the aesthetic and amoral thematic climate of both genres (right down to Golgo’s wardrobe, which wavers between the turtleneck and slim suit look of sixties spies and the safari jacket and ascot look of the 70s). Although released in 1983 and rightly considered “80s anime,” Golgo 13 definitely maintains a blend of that and the previous decade.

Dezaki’s approach to the artwork makes wonderful use of his trademark split screens and other bizarre framing devices. The quality of the art is superb, achieving a raw and heavy gritty feeling that succeeds remarkably well at mimicking the shadowy noir look of old films, grafted onto the glam and neon of the 1980s — sort of like an animated Michael Mann film, in a way. Golgo 13 isn’t nearly as sleek-looking as something like Odin (it’s also not as boring), relying less on intricate backdrops and more on shading and mood, but the rougher approach suits the material perfectly. You’ll find a similar though slightly more polished approach in Wicked City, albeit with the added bonus of a woman whose vagina is a giant, drooling, fanged spider.

Unfortunately, you can’t really talk about the artwork in Golgo 13 without mentioning the ill-conceived and thoroughly abysmal CGI helicopter sequence. Dezaki and Shichiro worked together on something called 3-D Animated Homeless Child Remi, which sounds like something you really want to rush out and look for. I’m guessing this 1977 collaboration sparked their interest in the early days of CGI animation, and against all better judgment, they were hell-bent on cramming some into Golgo 13 at some point. And so we get the infamous helicopter attack sequence, in which the movie abruptly shifts from the richly realized cel animation to crudely rendered, jerky CGI completely devoid of detail. It looks like something you’d see in a real estate company demo at a county fair’s expo hall. It’s just so insanely bad that I can’t even express how truly bad it is. The entire sequence only lasts a minute or so, but it seems like an eternity, because everything that has been so good up to this point grinds to a whiplash stop so Dezaki and Shichiro can fart around with their Amiga or whatever they used to cough up this sequence.

OK, you can’t fault them for trying, but surely someone somewhere looked at it and said, “Fellas, this looks pathetic. I mean, this looks astoundingly awful. I’m not putting this in the movie.” But somehow, the CGI animation made it into the finished project, along with some crude CGI during the opening credits, which is a lot less offensive because it’s just during the credits and not integrated into the rest of the animation. Plus, that animation is of a skeleton with a Smith & Wesson, so that’s all right.

Golgo 13 has roots firmly planted in the sensationalist action-adventure fiction of the sixties and seventies, as well as in the gritty sleaze of 1970s grindhouse cinema which now falls under the banner of pulp fiction to many people. And that said, Golgo 13 is hardcore grindhouse insanity. It’s brash, offensive, mean, and so completely absurd that there’s no real way for me to find it truly offensive. It’s cheerfully perverse and delightfully violent. It didn’t make all that big an impact upon its release in America, and despite the enduring popularity of the comics, Golgo 13 only found his way to the screen once more, in Golgo 13: Queen Bee,released some years later. Since then, the Golgo 13 anime has sort of fallen through the cracks, which is a shame because it’s a spectacular and totally irredeemable piece of gloriously squalid movie making.

Obviously, the anime is the way to go, but if you find yourself with a chance to watch the Takakura Ken live action film, it’s a solid action movie. Sadly, the one I thought would have the most promise, starring Sonny Chiba, is the least of the three, though it’s still possessed of enough sleaze, violence, and incredibly garish blazers. Plus, so much sideburn on Sonny. But yeah, nothing pulls the trigger quite as lovingly or softly as the anime version, a stunningly tasteless yet gorgeously animated example of everything that was base, indulgent, and wonderful about anime in the 1980s. As for the future of Golgo 13 himself, one assumes he lies even now in some posh hotel room, expressionlessly making love to a woman while he contemplates the day his services will once again be called upon.

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