Whether you see Ian Fleming’s James Bond as the quintessential masculine spy or as a throwback to a backward era, Agent 007’s enduring place in literature and cinema is well established. Over the course of his storied career, the character has influenced not only countless works in English—as varied as the Jason Bourne series and the Austin Powers movies—but also many works beyond the Anglophone world. Among the most notable of these is Golgo 13, created in 1968 by Takao Saito, who died this past September at the age of 84.
The Guinness Book of World Records lists Golgo 13 as the longest-running manga of its kind. Its 202nd volume was published a few weeks before Saito died. Golgo 13 has become an icon in Japanese culture, both for long-time fans and for younger otaku. While much of it has not been officially translated into English, there’s plenty of material available to enable foreign audiences to appreciate it, in all its beauty and brutality. Despite the cultural differences, many have found it a solid resource for anyone who wants the classic 007 experience: it might be described as the James Bond saga that you never knew, a symbol of the globalization of fiction—and that might never have left the drawing board if it had been made in the west.
A Hitman Without Equal
Golgo 13 focuses on the exploits of its eponymous character, a mysterious assassin for hire who often uses the alias “Duke Togo.” He’s a vaguely Japanese-looking man in his prime: intelligent, fit and a real lady-killer. Even the world’s best intelligence agencies know little more about him, except that (though few will acknowledge this openly) if you pay him three million dollars, he will get the job done—whether with his favoured weapon (a custom-made M-16 assault rifle) or his bare hands. Just don’t try to double-cross him or operate behind his back, if you value your life.
Unlike most popular manga—or most western comics for that matter—Golgo 13 has no grand, overarching plotline and no rogue’s gallery of villains—or even anything like, for example, SPECTRE—since each of Golgo’s targets winds up either dead at the end of a chapter or living on borrowed time. As a result, each of the series’ myriad stories is largely self-contained—one could begin with any episode and not feel lost. The series avoids seeming formulaic or repetitive by offering a lot of on-screen action and escapades that are more sexually explicit than any offered in the Bond films. And its producers make a concerted effort to avoid making it too predictable: while there are some recurring elements (each episode tends to showcase particular parts of the globe and to offer glimpses of high society amid a general atmosphere of grittiness) the adventures themselves are remarkably varied, both in setup and scope.
For instance, one story concerns a bitter musician’s plan to employ Golgo to ruin a rival violinist’s career (though no one is actually killed). Another story, which became the basis for Golgo 13: The Professional (1983)—an anime movie that also features the first use of CGI in film—involves a corporate magnate’s attempts to avenge his son’s assassination, which eventually drags in elements of the CIA. There are also episodes in which Golgo doesn’t show up—except, for example, in a photograph, or a mob boss’s paranoid imagination. The series’ other characters and their struggles are also portrayed in varied and unpredictable ways.
The series’ plots are rife with petty grievances and shady power plays, and are often inspired by current events, such as Cold-War-era rumours of Nazis hiding out in Latin America, or the vote recounts in Florida during the 2000 US presidential election. And in the world of the series—as in the world of Fleming’s books and the Bond movies starring Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig, the line between good and evil isn’t always clear. For example, otherwise decent people sometimes resort to dubious means to achieve their goals. And, though most of Golgo’s enemies and targets are reprehensible, some behave with a shred of humanity that makes them relatable, or even sympathetic. Thus, uncomplicated happy endings are rarely on the table. The series blatantly sexualizes women (in both fanservice and un-titillating ways), which has led to concerns about misogyny. But the women are portrayed as complex characters with agency, and—in classic Bond-girl fashion—often give Golgo a run for his money.
In some ways, Golgo can seem more like a force of nature than a realistic human character. For example, he doesn’t age—or change much in any other way—over the course of the series, nor does his personality develop significantly over time. There’s a hint of the superhuman in his name (Golgo is short for Golgotha) and in his emblem (a skeleton with a crown of thorns). He’s willing to kill anyone, even a child, if the assignment calls for it. Yet he’s more than the ice-cold, unfeeling stoic that has been suggested by many a parody of him: he doesn’t take lives needlessly, he doesn’t appear to enjoy killing, and he is willing to suffer and to risk his own life in order to get the job done. (Although it’s predictable that he’ll make it out alive at the end of each episode, he does receive shots and blows that bring him within an inch of death.) He’s also magnanimous to those who help him, and caring towards his lovers, revealing that he has a moral code befitting a samurai. And there are times when the veneer slips a little—for example, when he hesitates to shoot a witness he’s fallen in love with, or when he takes time out to visit one of his many out-of-wedlock children.
The Author behind the Legend
Born in 1936, Takao Saito was a member of the first generation of mangaka to come of age in Japan after World War II, at a time when Anglophone pop culture had become more accessible. In his 66-year career, he garnered myriad accolades, and in 2017 he established a new award to promote the best products of the manga industry. While he became a close friend of Shotaro Ishinomori, author of the classic series Cyborg 009, he followed a markedly different path from that of his contemporary Osamu Tezuka, the man behind Astro Boy.
Saito described Tezuka, in a 2015 interview, as someone who “either pitched directly to children or to adults expecting little more than blunt satire.” By contrast, Saito’s love of movies inspired him with the idea “that the same gripping visuals could be committed to paper” and that manga could be something more meaningful. In 1956, with artists such as Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Masahiko Matsumoto, he co-founded a movement known as gekiga (“dramatic pictures”), which has been described as “manga that was not manga”: it emphasized cinematic flair, highly realistic art and adult motifs. These choices propelled gekiga’s creators to fame and significantly influenced both the modern alternative manga scene, and the manga industry in general.
Saito also founded a manga company, Saito Production, to help promote gekiga, and obtained a licence to adapt four of Ian Fleming’s novels: The Man with the Golden Gun, Live and Let Die, Thunderball and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The resulting gekiga adaptations, serialized from 1964 to 1967, ran collectively to almost 1,200 pages. He was able to produce this much content in part thanks to an in-house system that he established early on: he handled research and page layouts, “based on a script prepared by the editorial department, and [Saito] inked the faces of the main characters,” while delegating the rest of the tasks to other staff. This system continued to be refined as the company worked on later projects, enabling it to produce content frequently and regularly while maintaining a consistently high level of quality. Thanks to this almost clockwork arrangement, the only hitch occurred in 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In these James Bond adaptations, Saito was able to put many of his ideas into practice and to capture the era’s zeitgeist: spy fiction had become increasingly popular outside the western world, and Saito chose to make his Agent 007 resemble the actor Sean Connery. Each gekiga diverged from the source material more than the previous one, and yet they all captured the kinetic spirit of the Bond films and novels—and proved immensely popular. As the screenwriter Matthew Bradford has noted, they “provide as much in the way of new Bond story material as old.”
Saito was not able to obtain a licence to adapt additional Bond material. It’s speculated that the caretakers of Fleming’s estate became “keen to see that no one else continued writing new, original James Bond adventures.” Golgo 13 may have started out as an attempt to do precisely that, but it would be inaccurate to call it a Bond rip-off. Golgo’s exploits are his own; they are far more lurid than even the later Bond films; and, while one can appreciate that the author of the series cherishes the Bond heritage, its stories are also full of other influences, such as those of pulp fiction and the masterless ronin samurai of yesteryear. All this helped this series transcend the power-fantasy genre and spy fiction kitsch and offer something more elevated: the adventures of an icon.
One of a Kind?
Beginning in the 1970s, Golgo 13 inspired several live-action movies, as well as several video game and anime adaptations—and, in 2009, a TV series. Although Saito initially didn’t think that audiences outside Japan would take to something that was so filled with Japanese touches, over the years he did reach out to the American market. Even though much of the manga’s content has not yet been translated into English, this hasn’t prevented the emergence of an international fandom, especially since younger generations outside Japan have come to appreciate the series as much as Japanese readers did in 1968. Although the gekiga movement has now faded into history, Saito’s work left an indelible imprint on modern anime and manga, through both the mature seinen works of younger artists, and the more lighthearted parodies in TV anime. Former prime minister Tarō Asō even views having been the thinly-veiled target of one chapter as a badge of honour.
Across the Pacific, Agent 47, the protagonist of the Hitman video game franchise, somewhat resembles Golgo, and may be its second closest analogue, after Bond. Yet, if new Golgo-style stories were created today, it’s not clear that they would be a commercial success in the west. In certain circles, Bond is seen as problematic—a cardboard throwback: after the most recent Bond film, No Time to Die (2021), some have suggested that it’s long past time to retire the character. And, as Jason Thompson noted in 2012, while Golgo himself doesn’t care about racial, political or ideological issues, the Golgo 13 stories do touch on those subjects, sometimes in ways that might come across as offensive or libellous. The manga sometimes approaches topical issues with surprising nuance (for example, in its take on Tiananmen Square in 1989), and sometimes with crass irreverence (for example, when Golgo uses blackface as a disguise to enable him to get close to a corrupt cop). Neither approach would be likely to sit well with many of today’s political activists.
However, those who would be sad to see the Bond franchise end will still be able to find a similar spirit in Golgo 13. Saito himself is known to have laid out an ending for the series in 2013, for use in the event that the manga was ever cancelled (though the specifics of this remain a “trade secret”). Luckily, though, there has been no need to use it. Thanks to the production system Saito set up—described here, in Japanese, by the publisher, Sogakukan/Big Comic—Golgo’s lurid escapades will continue to be published as per Saito’s wishes, and his legacy will inspire fans for decades to come.
Ian Fleming would surely have approved.