Director: Osamu Dezaki
Screenplay: Hideyoshi Nagasaka and Shūkei Nagasaka
Based on the manga by Takao Saito
Voice Cast: Tetsuro Sagawa as Duke Togo/Golgo 13; Gorō Naya as Leonard Dawson; Kousei Tomita as Bob Bragan; Kumiko Takizawa as Rita; Reiko Mutoh as Laura Dawson; Toshiko Fujita as Cindy
Viewed in Japanese with Dub-titles
Synopsis: Golgo 13, codename for Duke Togo, is a mysterious hit man with his own moral code and an inhuman ability to complete every assassination mission he is paid for. When someone manages to acquire an ungodly number of resources to hunt him down and starts to pick off his contacts however, the legendary figure is backed into a corner.
The story of Golgo 13 is fascinating even from a surface knowledge of his origins. His creator Takao Saito worked on James Bond manga for the three years before he created the character in 1968, and thus it's impossible to imagine that he didn't take the concept of a figure who is a perfect killer and womaniser and adapt Duke Togo from this. However in contrast to the debonair British character capable of being exceptionally absurd in certain films as he is serious, Golgo 13 is a far more nihilistic and grimy figure befitting Japan's strong history of dark, mean crime thrillers. Even in this film, which has more outlandish aspects, this is an alien film in tone from the James Bond films made this year when the official one Octopussy fought with the unofficial one Never Say Never Again, both of which make the material in The Professional that feels like a stereotypical manga for men seem more serious in comparison.
The character at this point, with stories still being published five decades on in comic book form, is a metaphysical entity rather than a human being. Practically an emotionless automaton who kills, sleeps with women, kills and so forth in repeat. In the first of only three animated adaptations - this in the eighties, a forty minute OVA also by Osamu Dezaki in the 90s and a TV series in 2008-9 - this is not necessarily a problem is you imagine not a character in the same state of pulp heroism as James Bond but a representative figure for bleak morality plays. Even if it was to still be pulp as its more exploitative end, knowing that Golgo 13 as a character has been thrown even into stories with real life politics and existing figures of the real world emphasises this, and the Angel of Death persona he effectively is in this theatrical film does allow for interesting potential. A figure to surround by characters in their own specific stories who Golgo 13, perfect and capable of impossible feats like shooting through bullet proof glass in one scene of this theatrical feature, merely intervenes with when he's got a paid contract he'll execute exactly.
The Professional compared to modern anime is absurd. There's still a lot in modern anime in depictions of sexuality and violence which still raises an eyebrow, but certainly you don't get a film like Golgo 13 a lot at all now. Beautifully animated but set in dank urban environments or idyllic environments where violence, gun battles or explosions destroy their serenity. The portrait of women is no way near as bad as other example of this macho Japanese pulp in any medium, but female characters are naked a lot and take a back seat for this story. Blood is shed and the storytelling is in the context of the kind originally for salary men to escape from their ordinary lives, still so in the modern day only now with the emphasis in a lot of anime on cute schoolgirls for male otaku to imagine as their little step sisters. Frankly though, even whilst this isn't PC in the modern day, you can make an argument there's so much worse than The Professional just in anime. Even if I have to warn of certain content, like a rape scene which will be immediate trigger warnings for some readers, such moments are no way near as explicit and frequent as some infamous and problematic examples in other anime. It can be argued James Bond has always been worse in gender politics and its chevalier attitude to violence. Golgo 13 here, even if streaked in absurd cartoonish moments, follows the bluntness that its inherited from Japanese crime and noir stories, from those made by Nikkatsu studios in the sixties to later, more grounded yakuza stories and thrillers. Actually for all its absurdity, compared to the Roger Moore era of Bond taking place as this film was released, even the snake-like mercenary named Snake, who can writhe on walls on his back and belly, is less ridiculous. Even the unfortunate English dub dialogue about a female tech wanting Togo to pull her trigger lovingly doesn't undermine Golgo 13's edge.
Helping is that, for its simplicity, The Professional actually has a plot in the end that's surprisingly moral. How, after his son is assassinated by Golgo 13, a powerful American oil baron gladly uses his power to try to take out the assassin. It's absurd as he gets the FBI, US military and CIA to help him, an evil version so corrupt its revealed he got them to assassinate JFK, but ironically the story does become about his downfall over bloody-minded revenge. Whilst lurid, he traumatises his surviving daughter-in-law, using her as sexual currency for the Snake assassin in scenes which are played as horrifying, brainwashes his granddaughter as an assassin and will gladly kill many on his side and others to get Golgo 13, which is revealed to be more complicated than it appears in his intent. As much as this is still a film which wades in with violence and sex, a machismo looked down on for some, it's interesting how those films that are still remembered like this actually have more complex moralities even if they're within exaggerated form. This is not like some of the more dubious examples in Japanese pulp storytelling in anime or manga, like the live action adaptations of Hanzo the Razor which is sumptuous to look at but disturbing in premise. This adaptation of Golgo 13 even if of its era is still actually defendable in how it emphasises a moral plot even in all its over-the-top bombast and excess. Even considering its very simplistic plot structure - a string of separate missions for Duke Togo before he deals with the actual villain of the film - it's interesting after so many viewings how actually more well put together the story is, even for something meant as pulp first and isn't trying intentionally to be profound.
What helps as well as this isn't a rudimentary animated production either. Its theatrical anime from the eighties, so a lot of hard work and budget is behind it, and its helmed by one of the best working anime directors of his era. Osamu Dezaki, who at his best before his death in 2011, was not only incredible as a craftsman but brazenly experimental. The postcard memory, a trick of stopping scenes for highly detailed still images, is one of his popular trademarks, but between Golgo 13 and his adaptation of Space Adventure Cobra in 1982 is probably some of his most out there and openly surreal productions I've seen of his work so far. His work here is dynamic, a flair with how scenes are presented and even going as far as bringing the kind of techniques more associated with live action cinema such as splitting the screen into smaller images. When he's staying within the more traditionally realistic aesthetic of this film, he alongside the production team uses colour and absences of it to a striking advantage, as can be seen within the sequence where even bullet proof glass is not a problem for the anti-hero, the vast neon and elaborate environment of the city sequence incredibly elaborate in detailed before you get to the style putting the sequence together.
The film is also willing to become overtly abstract too. The mourning of a watchmaker who worked with Togo is presented, with Golgo 13 and the man's body in a chair, not with the background or floor of the latter's work area shown but with all background between the character models being replaced with clock faces. Space can become distorted and even x-ray of a bullet entering a skull can suddenly happen for effect. It helps connect the gritty realism with its more overtly cartoonish aspects, the kind of story where Golgo 13 fights anyone from hook handed military goons to Gold and Silver, two former military mercenaries and sociopaths who dress in suits of the respected colours. It also however, taken even further with the pure aesthetic bliss of Space Adventure Cobra's depiction of outer space, emphasis a certain magic to be found in this type of anime, a creative streak in Dezaki's work that embraced the inherently flights of fantasy animation allows. This even goes as far as one of the more infamous aspects of The Professional in which, to depict a series of helicopters firing on Golgo 13 in a sequence, the production used what was state of the art computer animation at the time. Being early 1980s, this animation is so obsolete to current day work it's unfair to laugh at the green shapes floating pass representations of buildings. But, alongside my love for the weird energy of obsolete animation, it emphasised the desire to play and create within the film, beyond just telling a pulp tale to also using it as a way to stretch and manipulate animation for innovation. The opening credit sequence, also using computer animation but also live action with prop skeletons and a handgun, emphasises this creativity a lot better but also how The Professional is also tinged with the bizarre, the opening credits scene (once removed from releases) pretty unconventional and strange for what should be a conventional, lurid action anime.
And it's that which helps Golgo 13: The Professional stand up against charges of just being distasteful, dated anime from the ye old days. Compared to what would be made in the late eighties and early to mid nineties, it's actually less violence and sexually explicit. (Dezaki would sadly drop the ball in production quality with the admittedly humorous epic known as Sword for Truth (1990)). Compared to other anime the likes of Manga Entertainment also released from that later era like Violence Jack (1986-1990) or Mad Bull 34 (1990-2), the latter by all accounts directed by his brother Satoshi Dezaki, Osamu Dezaki's work is a cut above even if it's still tinged in an attitude you rarely get now, not just gross or dumb as those later works are whether your opinion on them. The best way, actually, to think of The Professional is to compare it to the live action film Dirty Harry (1971), Don Siegel's best known film with Clint Eastwood which is un-PC in the modern day but, for a macho crime thriller, has a bit more complexity in its morals even if also black-and-white and nihilistic on the surface, both works a testament to exceptional production and technical value contributing a greater sense of class and nuance to the material. It's still saddled with a silly English dub, but considering the on-going popularity of the manga, I have to look at Golgo 13 here as being a lot more interesting than its offspring, the more bleaker and edgier work when others later (at least in anime) waded in misogyny, gore and sex without its inherently "off" and more rewarding idea, that its central pulp figure is a blank anti-hero to cheer on but one who stands by as the grim and filth is around him. One who isn't meant to be sympathetic, and is far less a problematic figure than others created in ultra-violent anime inspired by him, one they can still create so much material around as the world around him is shown as chaos he can simply overcome with the preciseness of a sniper's bullet.