Anime of the Past: Golgo 13: The Professional

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

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Golgo 13

Golgo 13: The Professional is a 1983 feature film adapted from Takao Saito’s long-running manga Golgo 13, which began publication in 1969 and still running today. The film, directed by Osamu Dezaki, was the first animated Golgo 13 production and followed a pair of live action film adaptations produced in the 1970s. In the west, audiences not exposed to his animated adventures may have been introduced to the franchise through two Golgo 13 NES titles that saw domestic release in North America, Top Secret Episode and The Mafat Conspiracy, or through the relatively few manga chapters that have been released in English, such as the thirteen-volume anthology published by Viz Media in the late 2000s.

Golgo 13

From one angle or another, you may have seen this man somewhere.

Golgo 13 is the codename of the protagonist, whose real name, nationality, and age are all unknown. The pseudonym is a reference to Golgotha, the site where it is believed Jesus Christ was crucified; a reference also depicted in the film’s opening title sequence and logo, which depicts a skeleton wearing a crown of thorns. But these biblical references are not a reflection of the actual man himself. Golgo 13 (also known by the alias Duke Togo) is a professional assassin, and a highly skilled one at that, capable of hitting targets that few others would believe possible. A man of few words, his stone-faced expression rarely displays strong hints of emotion, yet women find him irresistibly attractive. In bed, he’s a sexual powerhouse, capable of driving women to the heights of passion while remaining outwardly detached, with an almost passive level of apparent effort.

Golgo 13

She’s losing her mind in sexual bliss. He’s…not really doing anything.

In essence, Golgo 13 is the embodiment of male power fantasy. Dark, mysterious, and ever on the move, his adventures alternate between putting bullets in the heads of his targets and beautiful women in the throes of orgasm. And all it takes to hire him is the right amount of money and a willingness to explain to him, in person, why the client wants the desired target killed.

Golgo 13

Golgo 13 meets with a client.

If all this makes Golgo 13 sound like less than a likable man, it is true that he’s not really a good guy. He’s a hired gun, after all. But his profession also leads him to routinely cross paths with the dark underbellies of social, political, and professional society. And those he kills are in general horrible people that deserve what they get, which is usually a bullet between the eyes.

In the film, the stakes are upped quite considerably. Golgo 13 is hired to assassinate Richard Dawson, the adult son of oil baron Leonard Dawson. It is during a party celebrating Leonard’s sixty-second birthday that he formally introduces Richard as the next CEO of his vast business empire when Golgo 13 pulls the trigger, killing Richard before his father’s eyes.

Golgo 13

Richard Dawson. Status: Bulls-eyed.

Though Leonard is initially a sympathetic figure, a man whose pride and joy were taken from him in an instant, it is not his justifiable need for vengeance that ultimately paints him as the villain as much as the lengths he goes to pursue it. Using his vast wealth and connections, he buys the services of top figures in the CIA, FBI, and the Pentagon in order to use their resources to relentlessly pursue Golgo 13 to the ends of the earth. It is at his behest that these men locate ruthless, truly psychopathic killers to do his bidding; first the demented, freakish Big Snake, and later the death row inmates known only as Gold and Silver.

Golgo 13

The toothless, freakishly flexible Big Snake is an utterly amoral character that makes it easy to root for the morally gray Golgo 13.

But Leonard’s efforts don’t end there. In order to satisfy Big Snake and ensure that the assassin is under his control, he consents to allowing the killer to rape his daughter-in-law and Richard’s widow Laura. He even forces his young granddaughter Emily to undergo firearm training in seclusion, programming her into his darling little assassin. With his son dead, Leonard becomes a monster willing to destroy what’s left of his family for the sake of revenge. Or rather, the monster he always was just comes to the surface; it’s implied that he already had blood on his hands, having previously masterminded some heinous crimes earlier in life.

Golgo 13

Including a certain noteworthy event that took place in Dallas. (Wait, Leonard was sympathetic at some point in this movie?)

There’s a salient question you might be thinking right now as you read this. Why is Leonard going through all of this effort to kill Golgo 13, when he was merely the gunman? Why doesn’t he put any of his efforts into finding the person that hired him? It’s a more than reasonable question; one brought up directly to him by an anguished Laura. And though he dodges the inquiry, it’s one that’s answered in a satisfying manner as the film reaches its conclusion.

In this game of cat and mouse, where the traditional hunter becomes the hunted and Golgo 13 is forced to avoid death and capture at every turn, incredible action set-pieces abound. Even as he evades the authorities monitoring his every move, the assassin continues his work. While on an assignment to kill a Nazi war criminal, Golgo 13 bamboozles all of his foes by electing to take his shot from the one vantage point no one thought he would choose; a billboard from which the only way to hit his target is to shoot through an entire building standing in the way.

Golgo 13

His target is in the building beyond the building he’s currently aiming at.

All of this action is beautifully animated, with the same detailed, striking character designs seen in Takao Saito’s manga. Golgo 13’s stoicism, the beautiful women that lust for him, Leonard’s descent into true madness, and even the cold, thousand-yard stare of his brainwashed granddaughter are all given wonderful artistic detail. Yet there are moments when the film shows its age. In particular, a sequence near the end of the film that depicts attack helicopters firing on a skyscraper is rendered not in traditional hand-drawn animation like the rest of the film, but in the crude, simplistic detail of computer animation circa 1983. It’s an odd transition and one that’s feels entirely unnecessary, but the sequence is brief, well-choreographed despite the limitations, and doesn’t do harm to the core action.

Golgo 13

Not representative of the rest of the film, the brief sequence featuring a computer-animated helicopter attack is still a jarring sight.

Golgo 13: The Professional is a grim, violent film, but it’s one that adapts its source material in perhaps the best ways it can. There’s no real sense of growth in Golgo 13 as a character; he lacks complexity and really always has. But as a tale of sex and violence, Golgo 13 is a bloody, entertaining ride punctuated with a hail of bullets.

Golgo 13: The Professional was released on DVD in North America by Eastern Star, a Discotek Media label. The release features both the original Japanese with English subtitles, as well as the English dub previously produced by Streamline Pictures. It is not rated, but contains graphic violence, nudity, and explicit sexual content, including a graphic depiction of rape.

About Justin Graham

Justin joined Oprainfall through…belligerence. (Note to others: This is not a good way to get noticed. This sort of thing only works once.) When he’s not writing about games or waxing nostalgic about anime older than a large portion of the site’s audience, he can be found playing JRPGs or beating up lots of dudes in Dynasty Warriors.




  • smacd

    I remember playing the hell out of Top Secret Episode as a kid. Looking back on it, I realize there is a lot I didn’t understand at the time. Years later I remember trying to find more information on Golgo 13, but at the time other than the other NES game there wasn’t really much in the US from that franchise. I’m not particularly into anime, but I might have to start looking into what might actually be out here in the west for this franchise. The pseudo-James Bond like character has always intrigued me.

    • zeezee

      Definitely give the manga a chance as well. I’ve read 11 of the 13 localized books so far and have enjoyed it.

  • zeezee

    I’ve always been drawn to Golgo 13 ever since I played “Top Secret Episode” as a kid. I picked up the game again about 6 years ago, and found that I wasn’t nearly as good at is anymore. I used to be able to get to the end of the game. It wasn’t too hard if you were persistent. I seem to remember that the early localizations portrayed the title character as a James Bond-type CIA character rather than a contract killer.

    Soon after revisiting the NES game some ~20 years later, I watched “The Professional”. It is worth watching, but doesn’t have the depth or cool characters that the manga has.

    I can’t comment much in the live action Sonny Chiba films, as I’ve seen very little of one.

    The anime TV series from a few years ago is decent but portrays the title character more along the lines of a boring silent protagonist, and it really lacks depth. It is worth watching, but I started to get burnt out on how repetitive it gets about 3/4 of the way through. I haven’t watched the last few episodes.

    The manga, on the other hand, is awesome! It is perhaps one of my favorite series. It is a shame that Viz has invested so little into marketing the character in the west. Their parent company practically owns the Japanese rights to it. The stories in the 13 chapter Viz localization have a lot of fictitious takes on real life events, and the stories are gripping and fun to read. Think of it as a non-Edo “Lone Wolf and Cub” without the kid. Or a non-Meiji “Lady Snowblood” without a revenge story. Interesting stories of contract-kill missions and espionage, often based on real history. Not as gory or graphic as either of those, but still gritty and bold. Definitely a manly man’s manga, if there is such a thing. Babes, fast cars, guns, boos, and cigarettes. Corrupt government, KGB, corporate espionage, mafia stories, cheating spouses… The story themes are endless. In some cases, the author (Saito) seems to have almost simply opened a newspaper and wrote his take on how Duke Togo (G13) had an impact on something that happened in the world.

    In the right hands, the manga could be a hit. But the decline of manga and especially the slow sales in seinen manga in the west makes this series a sleeper for many fans. Watch the movie, and them pick up an issue or two of the manga. It is really reasonably priced at $8.99 per book. Maybe some day G13 will get a bit better treatment out of Japan, but we will have to buy what is available before Viz brings us more of it.