Golgo 13

Many know the 1983 Golgo 13 film—when they know it at all—only for its brief, early and ill-boding experiments in the use of 3DCG animation. This is a shame, for it stands as a bit of a landmark.

Osamu Dezaki had a knack for deliciously jarring direction, but he also spent a lot of his career wringing beauty out of the constrained circumstances of television anime, making a virtue of necessity. This film offers a chance to see him guiding something lavish, no longer making do and mending.

The film’s made its way out via official channels in a bunch of countries beyond Japan, so more people have probably seen it than have seen some other highly-regarded titles run by Dezaki. Yet it perhaps falls into the cracks between different interests in discussion.

I think in present-day anime talk the Dezakian crowd tend to be sensitive souls drawn to his more delicate pieces. The blood’n’guts 80s OVA watchers, meanwhile, sometimes have less of an interest in anime’s construction, and in their lesser moments tend towards watching things in a spirit of so-bad-it’s-good. But the 1983 Golgo film is not so bad that it’s good; it’s simply good, except for the 3DCG work, which is bad.

The manga Golgo 13 chronicles the work life of a laconic, infallible assassin. It’s the oldest manga still running, and discussing it would really go beyond my brief here.

The film adapts just few stories from the manga as a layered bundle. Duke Togo—Golgo 13—kills people and has sex, betraying no emotion during either act. The film’s opening murder makes many other people try to kill him. They do not succeed, for he kills them too.

The plot, though, has no real importance. Golgo 13 is, to my knowledge, anime’s densest concentration of strange, beautiful violence.

While the film has many well-animated parts, it feels to me—impressionistic, I know—like it’s not an animator’s animation. Violence and action are not the same things and, while some remarkable fight scenes do occur, it’s not action that the film loves, but violence.

Sometimes the film’s beauty stems from not animating at all.

I imagine this shot had live-action inspirations, but, unlike in live-action film-making, to create parts of this shot this someone studiously did not draw an object, while still imagining its motion. If this even counts as one shot: that’s the way I received it, but someone treating each interstitial fully-black screen here as a shot division wouldn’t err, exactly.

I once saw Dave Merrill suggest, thinking of the film’s probable first audience, that the it makes Duke Togo all salaryman competence, or perhaps takes up and expands that idea from the manga. This seems quite right to me. At points Golgo 13 obsesses over process almost as one would expect from Takahata.

The film’s acquired the subtitle The Professional in several of its international releases: Il professionista, El professional, and so forth. Apparently in Russia it sometimes has the subtitle Профи: ‘The Pro’. This is an imposition—perhaps an attempt to ride the coattails of the well-known 1994 Besson film?—but an apt one.

Golgo 13 includes some fairly grotesque sexual violence. The best that can be said about this is that the presentation’s straightforwardly gratuitous, which at least heads off defences of it as in some way satirical.

‘Twould be easier to shuffle such considerations off into a handy cupboard labelled ‘it was the past’ if Golgo 13 wasn’t finding fresh audiences who might have similar mores. ‘Golgo 13 snipes a guy and then goes straight to his girl’s house | Golgo 13: The Professional (1984)’ runs the video description on a YouTube clip posted by a current licensee, RetroCrush, at the time of writing, seemingly both misstating the plot and misdating the film.

Nevertheless, for those who can bear it, Golgo 13 holds value as a beautiful object, and as an undeniably engrossing film sans character development or novelistic narrative. It reminds us that these things are, at the end of the day, not necessary. The downright anti-novelistic twist at the end grows on me each time I watch the film again. Maybe it grows like lichen, but it does grow.

This podcast offers probably my favourite response to Golgo 13 by bravely pairing it with Alan Clarke’s 1989 film Elephant. Elephant portrays eighteen murders during the Troubles, and its structure therefore has a strange closeness to that of Golgo 13. In all other respects the two films are most unalike. The podcast joins them responsibly and fruitfully.

This post emerged from my recent re-watch of the film, which you can find, with many more screencaps, here.

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