Listen to this article
On Saturday October 10, Japan heaved a collective sigh of relief. The yen remained stable, the stock market did not crash and the country’s finance minister did not fall to a perfectly aimed headshot from the world’s deadliest assassin.
That happy outcome, revealed in the pages of Japan’s best-selling comic after a swirl of speculation, concluded the latest episode of Golgo 13 — the nation’s longest-running manga and a strain of realist fiction that, by endlessly celebrating the art of cool, calculated death, tells Japan rather more about itself than many like to admit. Even Taro Aso, Japan’s real-life finance minister, seemed to relish the idea that the final frame of episode 556 would see his lookalike slain by Japan’s cruellest anti-hero.
Rarely has a single fictional figure held such powerful sway over a medium. “I originally thought Golgo was only going to have enough plot-lines to last for 10 episodes,” his creator Takao Saito tells me when we meet in his Tokyo studio, “but the readers kept pushing me for more and so here we are at story number 556. I suppose that is quite long. If Golgo were a real person, he’d be 80 now.”
For the past 47 years, Golgo 13 — an assassin for hire — has murdered and womanised his way across the globe, a trailblazer for Japanese graphic novels. He has inspired bestselling business books, advertised countless products and, in his quietly homicidal way, been an everyman eyewitness to five decades of Japanese postwar engagement with the wider world.
The albums of stories, whose themes range from human trafficking and west African mineral rights negotiations to currency manipulation by the George W Bush administration and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, have sold a market-eclipsing 200m copies. It is a unique level of dominance in a country that has hundreds of competing titles.
Tellingly, says Saito, the character of Golgo 13 has managed to capture the Japanese imagination without being even slightly easy to like. Unsmiling, misogynist and inexorable, he is a literary cousin of James Bond without the scene-softeners of Moneypenny, M, Q or exploding fountain pens.
His signature non-comment is famously depicted as two parallel rows of dots. As a hit-man, Golgo has worked tirelessly through economic boom, bubble and bust. Duke Togo, to give him his proper false name, is a methodical outwitter of everyone, a meticulous fulfiller of contracts, an arch solver of problems.
“He’s a lot like a Japanese salaryman,” says Saito, a man who turns out to be only somewhat more talkative than his taciturn creation.
“One of the main virtues that Golgo and salarymen share is that both are capable of great endurance. Even the nature of their endurance is the same. They are both patient. Golgo is purely Japanese,” says Saito.
There may be, he goes on to suggest, something subconsciously attractive to Japanese in Golgo’s work ethic — both deliberate echoes of samurai in Japanese literature. “It is hard to explain, but the code itself is impressive. The following of the contract. If Golgo sees an ant by his foot, he would make every effort not to step on it. Normally, you might crush it, but for him there is no reason to kill the ant. For him, all life — ant or human — is equal. It’s that thought process I’m trying to convey,” says Saito.
Saito pauses to light one of many cigarettes smoked during our talk — a legacy of his days as a young, brutally ambitious artist when he would work 60-hour sessions to meet Golgo’s unbending publication deadlines. The regime has taken its toll on any feelings of paternalism between Saito and his star.
“People over the years have asked me whether Golgo has become me, or whether I feel like he’s my child. He’s not. The Golgo character and I have the kind of very good relationship that exists between an actor and a director when the actor does everything the director says. I draw and I work. I think of him as a greengrocer thinks about vegetables. He’s not a person.”
Saito bears other scars from a life spent pitching art into Japan’s Darwinian, saturated comic market. Even now, with a large staff of artists and scriptwriters in the studio, millions of devotees and Hollywood hammering at his door, Saito retains the neuroses of the struggling cartoonist. He repeatedly vows not to retire but refers, on several occasions, to a fear that readers will simply lose interest.
If Saito is bemused at the longevity of Golgo 13 and its astonishing grip on the Japanese public, he is flatly baffled at its popularity overseas — a common reaction by Japanese manga and animation producers, who are mistakenly convinced that the Japaneseness of their work is somehow too opaque for foreigners to appreciate.
Accordingly Saito was truly surprised when translations of Golgo first started selling abroad in the 1980s and 1990s: it seemed implausible, he says, that a character so rooted in samurai tradition would resonate with those not culturally steeped in that.
“That is why I was against the idea of introducing Golgo to foreign countries. Just take as an example the timing of when he actually takes his shot. It evokes iaido [the martial art of drawing one’s sword and mimicking a deadly blow]. It is the same movement and the same shape. I love Japanese samurai stories and that is why, unconsciously, Golgo moves like a samurai. That is why I thought foreigners wouldn’t understand the story.”
There are other elements Saito believes might elude non-Japanese. Golgo’s notoriously laconic approach to his work is often presented as a model of Japanese efficiency: to speak is to give too much away, to waste effort. Despite distancing himself from the Golgo character, Saito agrees that he shares with his creation an emphasis on harage — the art of working out what people are thinking from a minimal amount of talk.
More cigarettes are smoked, and with them comes an admission. While Saito, at 79, appears in rude health, his inability to go any time without a cigarette prevents him from taking commercial flights. Crucially, that has shorn the series of one of its strongest selling points — the sense, established when the series began, that Saito himself had personally visited the locations where Golgo does his killing. Realism, he says, and the use of Golgo as a means to explain world affairs to the home audience, has always been key to its success. While Saito is talking, a colleague passes through to the studio’s “weapons room” — a chilling collection of replica guns assembled so that neither Golgo nor his enemies ever massacre with erroneously drawn armaments.
Saito is modest about Golgo’s transformation of Japanese comics, and the effort of will it required in the early days. Golgo’s first appearance in 1968 — gazing from a brothel window in his underpants — was the product of concerted, revolutionary campaigning by artists who wanted to use the medium to tell harder stories. Manga historians have equated the cultural disruption of Golgo’s appearance with the emergence of punk rock in the 1970s. Resistance came from the older generation of cartoonists. Asked about his relationship with the late Osamu Tezuka — sometimes known as the Walt Disney of Japan — Saito is cautious. Even now, a quarter century after his death, there is no mileage in unravelling Tezuka’s legend.
Tezuka, says Saito, was a proponent of “old-fashioned manga” — simpler, cartoony images, either pitched directly to children or to adults expecting little more than blunt satire. Saito, obsessed with movies and consumed with the idea that the same gripping visuals could be committed to paper, saw the medium as something more.
When Saito and a small group of rebels began producing far more realistic-looking pictures, the manga world attempted to separate these upstarts, describing their work as “story manga”, he recalls. “My people hated that name, so we decided to call our work geki-ga [literally ‘theatre-images’] to show that it was about drama. So, no, from the very beginning I have never been a manga artist. What I produce is drama,” he says.
The perfection of the dramatic form remains an obsession of Saito’s. As the years have passed, he has made an artistic point of becoming ever more sparing with his hero’s appearances. The ultimate projection of Golgo’s power, he says, is carried in what you do not see. In one famous episode, Golgo’s face only appears once, as a photograph held by another character.
“In the future, it may not even be that,” says Saito, reverting from a 79-year-old artist still at the top of his game to the mode of nervous debutant in constant fear of failure. “I try to make it interesting because otherwise, the reader might get bored with seeing Golgo all the time.”
Photographs: Toshiki Senoue; Takao Saito/Shogakukan; Takao Saito/LEED Publishing Co.
Get alerts on Visual Arts when a new story is published