What Japan thinks about James Bond – Golgo 13: The Professional

Golgo13

What do stop-motion skeletons, terrible CGI helicopters and coffin-shaped swimming pools have in common?  If you answered Ray Harryhausen’s jazz woodbines, you’d be wrong.  For this week’s journey into darkest anime land, we’re going to be looking at Golgo 13: The Professional, best known screen outing for the unstoppable hitman, Duke Togo.

Taking his alias from the hill on which Christ was crucified (hence the ‘Skeleton Jesus’ logo), Golgo is a world-renowned assassin of unknown origins, commanding a million dollar fee for every job.  After completing a contract to eliminate the son of wealthy American oil magnate Leonard Dawson, however, Golgo suddenly finds the tables have turned.  Ambushed at every step, Golgo fights for his life, as Dawson abuses his influence with the US government to get revenge at any cost.

Originally released in 1983, The Professional met with mixed responses from UK critics when it appeared over here about ten years later.  Unlike anything else that was being released at the time, it was dismissed as just another wannabe video nasty; a grim pastiche of James Bond’s misogynistic globetrotting adventures that Japan thought would sell to the west.  It even appeared on a few ‘worst ever’ lists.  Still, what do they know? I firmly believe The Professional is a stylish dark thriller with plenty to recommend it.

The anti-hero to end them all, Duke is a monosyllabic force of nature whose only interests are women, whisky and killing for cash.  He is rarely, if ever, given any character development, but to look for that is to miss the point.  Golgo’s escapades live or die on the strength of the action around him, and this misadventure is up there with the best of them.

Stripping out the gallows humour of the source manga, director Osamu Dezaki builds an unrelentingly grim world for the film, combining stark, realistic artwork with a tense and oppressive storyline.  Anyone remotely likeable invariably ends up dead, so we root for the reprehensible Golgo, as only he can deliver any sort of justice against the even greater evils around him.  The plot is quite episodic (Duke finds time to sort out an escaped war criminal and an elusive mafia boss along the way) but there’s a tragic strength to it, as Dawson’s desperate thirst for blood blinds him to the pain he inflicts on both himself and his family.

Crucially, the doom-laden atmosphere is enlivened by some remarkable action set-pieces.  His work didn’t always hit the mark, but on form here, Dezaki’s tricksy, experimental style delivers some of the most memorable fight scenes I’ve yet come across in anime.  A man who clearly loved having a go at whatever he could get away with, Dezaki’s one-scene foray into early CGI was possibly unwise, but the brutal final showdown between Duke and Dawson’s own freakish champions remains a masterclass for anyone even remotely interested in the techniques of animation.

With blood, sex and nihilistic machismo by the bucket-load, The Professional isn’t one for the faint-hearted.  In fact, I found it so oppressive on first viewing that I honestly didn’t like it either.  It left such an impression on me though, that I never forgot about it and finally started to appreciate its underlying merits years later.  It may be brutal and unsympathetic, but it remains a unique and powerful film to this day.  This fan-made trailer is a little rough in terms of image quality, but the others are too graphic to post here!

The film was released twice on DVD in the UK, and the earlier, bare-bones version can be had for peanuts on amazon, but it’s allegedly a bad cut of the film.  Instead, I would recommend picking up the new Discotek/Eastern Star US R1 disc (has ‘He shoots! He scores!’ on the front in yellow writing).  It’s not dear, it has two commentary tracks and it may even be a remastered print to boot.

(Originally posted to the BGCP Facebook page on 19/12/13)

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