[Yeah, I do theme weeks here. This week (or as many days as I remember to or until I get bored) we look at those guys who aren't quite villains, but damn sure aren't heroes. Yes, this week is all about the good bad guys, or as we call them, the anti-heroes]
OK, I'm going to get this out of the way first. Jog, another member in good standing of The Savage Critics has covered Golgo 13's history and major themes in far more detail and far better than I ever will here, here, and here. In consequence, the following article will be more in the spirit of my personal reading on the character. But I totally urge you to read those two articles.
Golgo 13 is one of the least best-known Japanese properties out there.
Let me explain that.
My first exposure to Golgo 13 was Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode on the NES, which was a real "cult" game, even around the time it came out. Slightly mangled in translation, it was a fairly standard plot involving uber-assassin Golgo 13 sniping, kicking, punching, and generally being awesome as he fights his way through assassins, frogmen, annoying 3D mazes and brains in jars who are also Nazis, pretty much.
It was a demon bastard of a game to finish, let me tell you. But a lot of people who played it have really fond memories of it. Partly because it was a very different style of game than we were used to in those halcyon days of the NES. It's commonplace today, but trust me, restoring your health via packs of cigarettes and casual 8-but sex in between times when you graphically blow someone's brains out . . .yes, all this got left in the game. But they edited out the Nazis. You tell me what it all means.
It had a different tone, if that makes any sense--the plot was complex (convoluted) and the general mood of the game was harsh and brutal. It didn't take long to fail and there was nothing to really blunt the sting of failure. It was juvenile and grown-up in a way that appeals to the pre-teen mind--convinced he's older than he actually is. See also: comics nowadays.
Anyways, that faded into the background and a few years later, just as the whole anime thing was starting to get off the ground in America and I got a hold of The Professional: Golgo 13, which, even for the "anime is like cartoons but EXTREEM" bent of the time . . .again, was a little different.
For one thing, us Americans got an unexpurgated look at Golgo 13 in action and this too, was a revelation. For one thing--it's probably one of the most amoral (if not immoral--man, this movie is downright nasty in ways I didn't know it was possible to be) movies I've seen, and for another, the hero is almost defiantly aloof.
Golgo 13, for the uninitiated, is a character wholly without character. There are certain tics the character has (being near-superhuman in many many ways, chiefly in terms of marksmanship), but read a couple chapters of his manga and you'll notice he's barely there, really. He hardly speaks, we never get a sense of his interior monologue, and in some stories he doesn't show up at all. None of the expected mechanisms by which a writer makes a connection with the character are present.
That absence of character makes him a hard character to know or identify with, and, in fact, I'm not sure that you're supposed to. Most of the Golgo 13 stories I've read focus more on the motives of the people who hire him and the mechanics of the job (Golgo 13 is almost unheard of in that it is both gun porn and physics nut porn at times--few comics will ever explain what's involved in shooting something in the vacuum of space, but this one will) than anything Golgo 13 thinks about it.
I'm fascinated by this storytelling engine--it's at once complex and utterly simplistic. Somehow, a continuing series about a character who is utterly static has lasted 30+ years and doesn't really feel stale Admittedly, reading all 13 volumes released in the past few years in one sitting could be a bit numbing, but then you aren't supposed to--Golgo 13 prides itself on each story being a self-contained unit, there's little continuity between stories.
On the surface, this should be the kind of thing I hate--after all, a character's been around for 30 years with absolutely no change? But the concept succeeds--for me, anyway--with how it plays against my expectations. In how it works around Western expectations of this kind of story (it's worth mentioning here that Golgo 13 began life as something very close to the 60's-era James Bond, but has become something very different) and develops such a unique voice that the voice and the style of the stories are so unique that it's what I, as a reader, respond to.
It shouldn't work, and yet it does.
Next time: DANGER: DIABOLIK