The Mike Toole Show Saito's Impossible Hit
by Michael Toole, Jul 4th 2010
In 1989, I was 13 years old. Like a lot of kids my age, I had a Nintendo Entertainment System. I had several games for this immensely popular console. One of them was called Top Secret Episode. Man, I loved this game! It allowed you to step into the shoes of a fearsome assassin for hire called Duke Togo, a.k.a. Golgo 13. At various points during the game the player gets to take out guys with a sniper rifle, walk through oppressive Soviet-era East Berlin karate-kicking adversaries, and even navigate a labyrinth. (There was also a bit where you get to take a lady to bed, but this was lost on dumb old me, who just wanted to shoot bad guys in the head. I think Nintendo was banking on that kind of ignorance when they approved the game.) I really dug the look and feel of Top Secret Episode, particularly Golgo's chiseled features and intimidatingly silent demeanor (he famously responds to most conversation with a glower and his trademark "..." non-utterance).
Months after playing the game, I was at the comic store (like a good little nerd, I loved comic books!) and spied something awesome. GOLGO 13, screamed the cover of the issue, with smaller text identifying the author (some guy named Takao Saito) and the title of the story, The Impossible Hit. The artwork was unmistakable, this was the stuff that spawned that cool video game! And it was only a dollar! Eagerly, I made my purchase and took the comic book home to read. The paper was cheap and black and white, but I was hooked; the pages served up a gritty tale of an assassination, a carelessly dropped rifle shell, and a detective's confusion and horror at a shot that should have been impossible to make. There was something about the artwork and the cinematic storytelling style that was addictive. I just had to find more comics like it!
To inappropriately quote a famous tale, "And here my troubles began..."
Obviously, that episode in 1989 wasn't my last run-in with Golgo 13, aka Duke Togo, aka the baddest motherfucker to ever use an M-16 to shoot people in the head from 500+ yards away. I would happily grab the next issue in the ongoing Golgo 13 comic series, which lasted exactly two issues. Heartbroken, I screwed up my resolve and got the NES sequel to Top Secret Episode, entitled The Mafat Conspiracy. That was also pretty good, but not as good as the first one. Viz would take a stab at releasing some episodes of the manga in full-color comic book format in 1991, which, again, I eagerly bought. It was also at about this time that I discovered a series of trade paperbacks from Lead Publishing - the same Lead Publishing listed on the single-issue comics that got me interested! In fact, there were no less than FOUR generously thick books of translated Golgo 13 comics from this mysterious company! Maddeningly, I was only able to find the first one, Into The Wolves' Lair, at my local New England Comics; it would be several years before I would get to read the rest. These books actually came out in 1986, which makes them a pretty early entrant into the field of translated manga. They are each actually quite handsome, with dust jackets, color sections, and more than 150 pages each-- even though $6.95 was quite a bit more money in 1986 than it is now, they were a solid bargain. More important than that, though, is the fact that to a page, the books are an excellent, engrossing, and occasionally hilarious testament to just how odd and exciting Saito's manga is. The grim, seedy feel of the stories, which are invariably outlandish (one of them begins with a plot to chemically induce Golgo's target to rape a family member while underneath a heavy chandelier, which Golgo then shoots, and climaxes with his double-crossing client trying to stab Golgo, only missing and accidentally murdering his own 8-year-old grandson instead), is only augmented by Lead's weird typesetting.
It wasn't until a couple more years down the road that I'd notice an advertisement in the newspaper for a movie called The Professional. You're all nodding, thinking of Jean Reno shooting people in an awesome movie from 1994. But this was in 1992. The movie's full title was The Professional: Golgo 13. Naturally, the second bit caught my eye.
In spite of some pretty grumpy, dismissive reviews (the New York Times' Janet Maslin described it as a "lurid melange of violence and soft-core sex... embarrassing even by comic-book standards", which made up my mind to see it) I lined up at the Brattle Theatre to view the film, and I wasn't disappointed. The audience was, like myself, largely new to anime, and we roared with laughter and applause at the movie's stilted, energetic dub and its moments of outrageous violence; the clear favorite moment had to be the part where one of Golgo's many paramours, whilst tumbling into bed, informed him that she'd "waited so long for you to pull my trigger, lovingly and softly."
Genius. But the centerpiece of the movie had to be its cutting-edge computer graphics, which weren't that bad for 1983, when the movie was produced, but didn't age all that well. Those computer graphics consist of some fairly nifty gun and skeleton renders in the opening credits, as well as a sequence involving a few helicopters flying past a building and firing at the windows before getting shot down by Golgo-- a bit which is so painfully stripped and awkward that the mobile phone you're carrying could probably do a better job rendering it. "You can laugh at it now," comments executive producer Mata Yamamoto in an interview on the DVD, "but it was the first time we'd used computer graphics in a Japanese film. It took more than a million dollars to make it happen!"
Anyway, The Professional was a reliable arthouse/late-nite draw in spite of its poor critical reception; Jerry Beck, who co-produced Streamline Pictures' adaptation with Carl Macek (peace be upon him) and handled the theatrical release, comments, "I was present for the dubbing, but my main concern was creating the trailer and poster ("He shoots... he scores!"). We [Streamline] were cherry-picking the best anime feature films, as we had little competition back in the early 1990s. Golgo 13 was the kind of film we especially wanted to distribute."
Golgo 13: The Professional would go on to fare well on home video, ensuring at least a measure of long-term exposure. But the franchise at I knew it in English went into hibernation for a few years. In 1996, upstart anime publisher Urban Vision (whatever happened to them?) surfaced; amongst their prizes for the North American market was an OVA follow-up to the movie, featuring the same creative duo of director Osamu Dezaki and character artist/animator Akio Sugino! This OVA, Golgo 13: Queen Bee, was a worthy successor to the film, featuring an engrossing and only somewhat absurd tale about a US presidential candidate's desire to assassinate a dangerous South American guerilla. Golgo finds the job far too obviously easy, and his suspicious uncover a much greater conspiracy. There's plenty of sex, guns, and a great climactic scene featuring a major politician having a huge cocaine freakout at a public event. I think my favorite piece of Queen Bee trivia, however, is the fact that the English-language voice of our man Togo is provided by John DiMaggio, who just a few short years later would make his mark as the voice of Bender in Futurama. Try to avoid picturing Golgo 13 saying "Bite my shiny metal ass" now, I dare you!
Not long after Queen Bee's initial home video release, a Golgo 13 live-action film started surfacing on North American DVD shelves. This film is actually 1977's Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon, and it features no less than Sonny Goddamn Chiba as the title character. That's right, it's the Sonny Chiba, star of The Street Fighter! The same Sonny Chiba who starred alongside the famous Louis Gosset Jr. in Iron Eagle III! Anyway, Chiba looks spot-on in the suit and M-16 getup, but the movie isn't that great. Also, I'm not at all convinced that any of the film's subsequent releases and re-releases on home video in North America are entirely legitimate, as they all seem to come from the same terrible print with the same awkward, muddy dub. Interestingly, there was an even earlier Golgo 13 film starring Yakuza movie veteran Ken Takakura in the title role, but I haven't seen that one, except for an Anime Hell favorite scene where he snipes both a man and his pet parrot, so I'm not gonna open my big fat mouth about it.
After that point, Golgo 13 releases in English stalled for several years. Renowned manga editor Carl Horn, then at Viz, commented in the wake of the manga boom of 2002 that the company had secured the license to release Golgo 13 in English, but since a huge portion of the most popular manga was shonen and shoujo titles, Viz couldn't come up with a release strategy for the harsh, manly gekiga series. I spoke with Carl about this recently, and he revealed to me that, in fact, Viz actually had plans for Golgo 13 prior to the boom-- the manga was originally slated to see release as single issues, with new color cover artwork provided by Punisher artist Tim Bradstreet. But then the manga game changed with Tokyopop's hugely successful unflipped paperbacks, and the strategy had to be scrapped.
Fortunately good sense and good taste eventually prevailed, and Viz hit fans with a quality 13-volume release of the best Golgo 13 stories starting in 2006. Horn, who curated the release, has a lot to say about the iconic character and his impact. "There's only one main cast member in Golgo 13, and that's Golgo 13," comments Carl. "And almost every one of the over 500 Golgo 13 stories drawn since 1968 are self-contained... A Golgo 13 story never asks what's going to happen, because he never fails. The story is always in the how it will be done, and most particularly, in the why." Viz's expanse of stories, which in spite of the voluminous length of their release only account for about 5% of the total amount of Golgo 13 manga, are a nicely broad selection of these hows and whys. While some stories focus on the more unorthodox jobs Golgo has taken (always a favorite subject of mine), many of them tie in quite keenly with current events. How did Nelson Mandela bring about the end of apartheid? Golgo 13. Why wasn't a single WMD found in Iraq? Golgo 13. Saito's famous assassin may split his time between bedding thousands of women (he never sleeps with the same one twice, because he fears he may become bored!) and killing thousands of people, but the stories themselves betray a surprisingly fierce political intelligence; the series as a whole swirls with towering figures like Mandela, the Pope, and numerous worldwide heads of state. In "A Fierce Southern Current", one of its finest chapters, the comic challenges the reader with the question of whether or not the most powerful governments and militaries in the world really want to use the most efficient ways to wage war against their enemies. After all, heavy artillery and missile shields and Bradley Fighting Vehicles cost untold billions and do not guarantee success, but a careful assassin like Golgo 13 has a much lower cost and is always successful.
Until very recently, the above set of comics and animation was the only representation of one of Japan's most enduringly popular comics figures in English. (Carl, whose correspondence with me on the topic of Golgo 13 could easily fill an entire column space, remarks that you can "go to a department store in Japan, and you can buy a "Sniper G" party disguise, consisting of stick-on eyebrows and cheek lines to make you look like Duke Togo. But think about that for a moment -he may look funny, but everyone at the party in Japan will know who you are.") Golgo 13's long absence in the west started to look tenuous in 2008, when Answer Studio produced a 50-episode Golgo 13 anime TV series for TV Tokyo and some other stations in Japan. Needless to say, I greeted the news of a new Golgo 13 TV series with considerable enthusiasm, but while several episodes of this series were fansubbed, like so many grimmer, grittier shows, it was eventually ignored in favor of speed-translating that latest episode of Macross Frontier. But earlier this year, something funny happened: Section 23 and Sentai Filmworks announced a home video release of the first 13 episodes, with a new English dub to boot. Golgo 13 was back!
While the budget for this TV series isn't exactly lavish, everything you need for quality Golgo 13 storytelling is there-- sex, violence, politics, and grim, desperate men chain-smoking cigarettes and explaining why they need someone dead to an almost-silent, glowering sniper for hire. I found myself satisfied as the first episode spun to its inevitable conclusion. Then, the next episode preview rolled, and suddenly
Yep, there's no mistaking it: this story is The Impossible Hit, one of the first manga stories I ever read! Of course, the studio uses the original title (Room 909), but that's fair enough - it's still a note-perfect retelling of the engrossing original story. Watching it, for me, was like witnessing a beloved children's book unexpectedly springing to life on TV, only instead of wizards and princesses and dragons and stuff, this one involves a mob boss getting shot in the face from an outrageously long distance. The other good news is that this tale, so enjoyably familiar to me, is just an appetizer for the savory set of episodes that remain in Section 23's 2-disc set.
What else is in store in this first set? Well, there are warring mafia factions. There's complicated rifle engineering. There's a part where Golgo uses a geography textbook as a silencer, and another part where, faced with the threat of a rival gunman aiming for his client, Golgo cribs a page from Robin Hood and fires at the other marksman to wreak havoc. There's even an episode that involves rigged NFL games. Perhaps the best episode in the set, however, is "An Offering to God." Not only does it take place in my home state of Massachusetts-- well, the Takao Saito America-sure-is-wacky version of Massachusetts, where you can tell you're in America because the police ask to see your gun-- but the central event happens at good old Fenway Park. My obnoxious homerism aside, the episode features a team of befuddled FBI agents trying to figure out if Golgo somehow managed to carry out a hit with a toy gun, some reality-bending legal loopholes, and one scene that features a scowling Duke Togo clutching a bunch of helium balloons, a sight that's both intriguing and hilarious.
Section 23's 2-disc DVD set, aside from the comparatively lavish inclusion of an English version, is spartan, featuring only a handful of trailers and a clean OP/ED sequence as extras. But really, what more do you need? The globe-trotting nature of Golgo 13 makes it sound just as natural in English as it does in Japanese. Both versions feature yet another voice actor in the title role-- while Tetsuro Sagawa and Greg Snegoff voiced the character in the original film, Akio Ohtsuka and John DiMaggio took the reins in the Queen Bee OVA, and now we've got a choice of Hiroshi Tachi and David Wald. Since Duke Togo is the only character who appears in every episode (his rifle mechanic appears more than once, but is hardly a major character), the only real task in making a solid dub is getting him right-- and since Togo speaks rarely and almost always with an air of rumbling, quiet menace, it's all about getting a guy with a deep, scary voice. Both Tachi and Wald have suitably deep, scary voices, so in this instance, the voice director shoots... and scores!
If your life hasn't already been touched by the magic of Golgo 13, you might still be mystified by the meandering screed I've laid out for you. To try to sum up Golgo 13's appeal, I'll bring back the image of the assassin holding a bunch of balloons. The joy of the series is about that almost goofy implausibility-- the audacity of having Bill Clinton show up in the pages of the manga as a speaking character, or how a villain might demonstrate the effectiveness of bulletproof glass by emptying a clip into a pane of it. Golgo 13 roots itself in current events, and then unleashes outrageous plot twists and spectacle. Duke Togo kills a lot of guys in the first thirteen episodes of the series, but there's even one episode where he's hired to kill the mood. He also takes time to shoot down a helicopter; I guess old habits die hard. The TV series' tagline is, "Don't stand behind him if you value your life," because Golgo is suspicious and acts quickly to neutralize any perceived threat; it's why he's so hard to get rid of. It turns out that, more than twenty years after his first appearance in English, Duke Togo is as hard to kill as ever.
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