... the rest of a special feature...

Duke Togo in America - A Retrospective of the Localized Golgo 13, Part 2 (of 2)

(You can access Part 1 from right here, although if you got here from Part 1 itself you probably don't need to click it, or maybe you do, I don't know)


V. A ‘Hit’ Video Game Get It That’s A Pun

It would be several years before Duke Togo would return to US shores, and this time his adventures would be more accommodatingly packaged; Lead Publishing remained in charge, but their presentational focus had shifted, perhaps considering the American unfamiliarity of the tankoubon format to be a blow against the salability of Golgo 13 in the area (keep in mind the still-hesitant status of many US-based comics companies in committing to the trade paperback form in those days). A new approach would be in order.

Thus, in 1989, Duke reemerged in the vastly more familiar format of the typical comics pamphlet, though the Direct Market still wasn’t the focus of Saito Productions’ attention. Rather, a second layer of marketing would be added, a classic multimedia piggyback – the first 48-page issue of this new series, containing the 1971 short The Impossible Hit, would be packaged with a new packaging of Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode, Duke’s 8-bit Nintendo debut. And at least one half of the equation would prove to be quite a widespread success, in a certain quiet way.

It’s not much of an understatement to note that whatever popularity Golgo 13 might currently possess in the US can, in most cases, be traced directly back to Top Secret Episode, a genuine cult classic of console gaming. My hazy memories suggest that this isn’t even a case of nostalgia taking hold over the tenderized brains of former or lifetime NES addicts now approaching the age of 30; I distinctly recall Top Secret Episode being nominated for a handful of awards in the year of its release (1987) by Nintendo Power, noted in-house Nintendo of America propaganda arm cum tips ‘n tricks rag. Obviously such accolades cannot be accepted as a genuine symbol of quality (no more than one can embrace the omnipresent and thoroughly fee-based Nintendo Seal of Quality as a hallmark of the same), but we can at least perceive a certain buzz surrounding the project, especially considering that it was a “3rd party” (not in-house Nintendo-produced) game, produced by the now-defunct Vic Tokai.

But let’s not underplay the influence of nostalgia either. Much of the recognition surrounding Top Secret Episode does not stem from its gameplay but its style, its attitude, even the cadence of its atrocious dialogue. Sure, Duke often throws out a contemplative non-verbal “…..” in the manga as well, but it’s the game in which such verbal inscrutability is taken to almost comical extremes, the constant beats of silence working classically against what was obviously intended in its native tongue to be a demanding, complex plot, approximately 4.7% of which is comprehensible in the finished product, so dire is the translation (don't just take it from me, read what looks like the full script at the first link on this page). From what can be discerned, the story of the game finds Duke hired by the conveniently fictional FIXER organization to play James Bond across the globe, hunting down a biological weapon that he's been framed for involvement in the theft of. Absent is any sense of moral ambiguity, with no trace of the real-world political backdrops that so often inform the comics. Simplification is the key, with black-and-white villains scheming to dominate the globe. It’s probably incorrect to say that Duke’s character is particularly different or has gone through 'softening' (like I say here); a more accurate analysis would suggest that he’s simply never put in a situation where he’d need to make a troubling moral choice. It’s tough to seem amoral when you’re fighting malevolent talking brains and your own clone, as we all know from experience.

And even here I expect I might be delving too deep – what about the sex? Yes, there’s 'romantic interludes' in the game as well! It’s nothing ‘AO’ worthy, just some bedroom soft talk with a quick cut to the exterior of the hotel, silhouettes embracing in a window, then lights out. We all know what’s happening, of course, as your health level immediately skyrockets back to its maximum level, pre-dating the gameplay-incentive frisky antics of Grand Theft Auto by many years. After being exposed to this, particularly in the edit-happy universe of the contemporaneous Nintendo of America, what kid would ever remember silly things like the actual interactive portions of the game, a goulash of touchy side-scrolling, target-based 1st person combat, barely-interactive sniper sequences, and 3D item-collection dungeon crawling (and pity the poor kids who threw away the instruction manual with the box, since that’s where all the maps are included).

But I like Top Secret Episode, as a game. It’s one of those hardcore early(ish) NES titles that didn’t take any guff, a lengthy, demanding adventure in the tradition of Rygar, designed to be plowed through in one long sitting with no passwords and no saves, but fortunately a boatload of continues (yet not unlimited continues – no hand-holding here). A notoriously complicated stage-select code was hidden away, for those desperate to jump to a certain area, but the emphasis was on patience and work and time, a certain inflexibility of challenge that I find missing from a number of mass-targeted contemporary games, especially plot-heavy games of this sort.

Having scored a copy of the game fairly early on, I never completed it until many months later (then again, it also took me literally years to beat the original Final Fantasy). But that gave me time to pour over The Impossible Hit, the first Japanese comic I ever read, and probably one of the longest continuously-held comics possessions I’ve ever had; how Duke survived the years of my youth when so many others fell is a mystery for the ages. Perhaps his legendary stamina extends so broadly that he has transcended the bounds of fiction itself.

Or maybe I just appreciated the book too much to harm it; after all, there were four big pages of helpful hints for solving the game included in the back! I still like the book a lot, though, and not for the strategy guide. I’ve written earlier that each Golgo 13 story can act as a sufficient introduction to the character, so ample is their self-containment. But some introductions are more sufficient than others, and The Impossible Hit is damn near flawless. Remember when I mentioned the inevitability of the ‘Duke is Awesome’ scene in each of these stories, where some character takes time out of their busy role in the plot to express their admiration of Duke’s inarguable awesomeness? This story is essentially a ‘Duke is Awesome’ scene extended to feature-length.

It’s not a long feature; the switch to pamphlet format essentially guaranteed that only the shorter Golgo 13 outings could be presented without resorting to multi-issue storylines (which were plainly not an option for a pack-in item as far as Saito Productions was concerned). But it’s an effective tale, a splendid hook. The plot involves Duke assassinating a businessman from a Manhattan hotel room balcony, then accidentally knocking a spent shell off the ledge, down to the street below, attracting police attention (needless to say, Duke is awesome but not infallible). A pair of detectives soon arrives to grill poor Duke, but as the mechanics of the assassination are scrutinized, it becomes obvious that only a brilliant man could have pulled it off. A distance of over 500 yards! A significant wind factor! Performed at sunset! Exclamation upon befuddled exclamation pours out from the detectives’ mouths, the praises of Golgo 13 implicitly sung again and again and again, sweat pouring down their mortal brows as Duke smokes and relaxes. They finally release him on a lack of cause; the natural final implication is that the man is simply too awesome for American justice to hold.

It’s a great little flag-bearer of what makes the concept behind the character work, and seems perfectly tuned to attract a reader to further adventures. Unfortunately, only one additional issue of the Lead Publishing pamphlet series was released, containing another 1971 piece, Hopper the Border. I have no idea if this second issue was released to comics stores or if there was an additional gaming tie-in.

There was an additional game, 1990’s Golgo 13: The Mafat Conspiracy. It was a much shorter thing, this time mixing Rad Racer type driving sequences in with the side-scrolling and maze crawling, plus adding the possibility of failure to the inevitable sniping scenes. The (better translated) plot presented another spy scenario for Duke, this time following the trail of a missing scientist into the heart of the evil organization of Mafat. There’s a bit more of the manga feel to this one, courtesy of the somber, blood-soaked ending, which naturally stood out from the usual NES crowd. Still, it’s not as individual a game, not nearly as eccentric and energetic as Top Secret Episode, though probably still worth plunking down five bucks for.

VI. In Which Duke Togo Makes History, Sort Of

Video games weren’t the only place you could find Duke on your television screen in the US around that time; while the gaming business had been huge business for years prior (and would be for years following), there was another media movement that was just then gaining steam in the US.

I must confess to having an affinity for 1980’s Japanese animation, the violent stuff, the wild and untroubled original video animation (OVA) that strode the Earth like so many mastodons in the days of home videocassette dominance. The advent of home video provided freedom for anime producers; more money and time could be expended on a project than would be possible under the constraints of a television series. The project could last longer and provide greater profit than a theatrical film; even put into series form, movies could only come out so often. The content guidelines of theaters or television obviously didn't apply. Plus, the consumer could be made to pay for each tape, even with only a half-hour of footage on each – what a deal! Projects built for the OVA form thus proliferated rapidly throughout the ‘80s, but the effects of videocassette would not only be felt in Japan.

Anime fandom built in earnest in the US through the exchange of bootleg tapes, the ease of copying becoming an enabling force for non-Japanese fandoms to grow. Slowly, anime (though many relied on the delightfully outmoded term ‘Japanimation’ at the time) built up its following, creeping from university gatherings to conventions; it had always had something of a presence on US television, but often in heavily altered form, dialogue constantly omitted or added or improvised in dubbing, violence cut, and complex material toned down. But here – here was the real thing, the thrill of uncut animation striving to be better. It was a happy accident that a wash of gory programs and films happened to pop up in Japan at the building of this nascent US movement (see my earlier note on content restrictions evaporating); the hunger for more ‘authentic’ anime was fed all the more easily through the very existence of such temptations, I think, a happy inadvertence indeed. One must wonder if the now-fortified attitude of many US otaku, united in vehement opposition to any and all editing and censorship in manga and anime (taken to occasionally absurd degrees) stems from this near-formative shock of the new, a faux-genetic fandom strain of conditioned resistance to all of those old edited television shows, a bootleg-powered revolution of the mind (insert your favorite scanlations-as-bootlegs-of-today rhetoric here).

Eventually, people started getting the idea that properly licensing anime and releasing it directly to videocassette would be a profitable thing. One of the most familiar of these early licensing companies was Streamline Pictures (founded in 1988 by controversial television anime localization vet Carl Macek), notable for its ambition (even getting anime aired on TBS in the wee hours), its mainstream-oriented advertising, its in-house troupe of dubbing performers, and its cherry licenses. Early sleeve copies trumpeted that the viewer would forget they’re watching a cartoon (a blatant appeal to the curious 'cartoons = kiddy stuff' non-fan); no enthusiast of the time could forget those signature ‘Not For Kids’ stickers affixed to so many of those packages. But fans of other marginalized forms were pursued with equal vigor; many of their early releases bore the brand of ‘Video Comics,’ cannily hitching the anime wagon to the contemporaneous 'ZAM! CRASH! Comics R So-Fist-Eee-Kated' scene (not actual name). It made sense; most of these releases were adaptations of manga anyway. And oh, what releases they were! The blood-drenched Fist of the North Star movie (hilariously trying to cram years and years of comics story into two hours of punching), the cheeseball classic Vampire Hunter D (actually based on prose novels), the still-MIA anthology feature Robot Carnival, the endless ‘80s OVA revivals of ‘60s and '70s classics like Casshan: Robot Hunter (most recently remade again as the live-action Casshern), 8Man After, and the hysterically dire Babel III.

And there, presiding over everything, was Golgo 13.

The feature anime adaptation of Golgo 13 was older than most of these releases, having played Japanese theaters in 1983; it was directed by Osamu Tezuka cohort Osamu Dezaki, in his signature style of heavy, detailed character designs occasionally freezing mid-action into burnished ‘manga’ panels for special punctuation. Dezaki’s work was (at least in my mind) strong among the myriad influences behind the anime sequence in Kill Bill, with Golgo 13 itself getting a specific visual citation in the sniper scene.

That wasn’t the film’s only contribution to ongoing animation history; Golgo 13 also featured one of the first-ever onscreen integrations of 2D and 3D animation in a feature-length animated film, as a blocky CGI helicopter circles outside a skyscraper window, the traditionally-animated Duke running around inside. Hardly a project exists these days without some use of such tricks; sure, it looks garish and clumsy today, but history is rarely made in a photogenic manner.

The film was a natural pick-up for Streamline, fitting in nicely with their feature and OVA centered release patterns (mustn’t test the spending of the non-hardcore audience with too long a series at this point), and boasting copious blood and sex to up the vital transgression factor. A few changes had to be made; the original CGI title sequence was chopped in favor of a simpler English-language sequence, and the title itself was expanded to The Professional: Golgo 13, the character’s name alone apparently deemed not enough to entice the buyer (it's unclear as to the role Saito Productions might have played in the name change, though I'll get to that in the next section). The initial tape was released in 1992, if my records are correct.

As I’ve said before, I’ve got a soft spot for blood-and-thunder ‘80s OVA and anime movies, even patent garbage like M.D. Geist (its lack of worth I could gladly provide a theorem for, if Paul O’Brien would kindly draw me a graph). But The Professional: Golgo 13 is maybe my favorite of them all. More so than any similarly animated video nasty, the film thrives in a profound state of moral decay, with Duke acting as hero only because he’s somewhat less of a bastard than the other characters. And that’s only at first.

The plot is initially strung together from assorted manga adventures that Duke has had in the past, now brought to life for us all to enjoy, but an overarching story soon emerges: Duke has killed the son of influential tycoon Leonard Dawson, and Dawson will stop at nothing to have Golgo exterminated. Money is spent. Authorities are purchased. A female relative is sold off for rape at the hands of a crazed killer to secure his services. Rival assassins are summoned. And through it all, Duke remains coolly oblivious to anyone’s pain, blowing away weeping informant traitors (their families having been threatened) and tearing through legitimate and illegitimate authority alike. Eventually the sorry truth behind the Dawson hit comes out, but the real revelation is that Dezaki and company understand Golgo to be an essentially horrible entity, exactly as inhuman as everyone claims he is in those ‘Duke is awesome’ moments, but to his detriment rather than for his pomp. Maybe a number of installments of the manga get into this sort of feeling too; I haven’t read nearly enough to be sure. But it seems to me that Dezaki and company accomplish with Saito’s character what Garth Ennis brought to one Mr. Frank Castle: an embracing of the madman within, a certain age’s idea of a fantasy antihero transmuted into another age’s villain though sheer force of honesty. The exclamation point is duly added to the sentence in a sad, sensationalistic, but ultimately ambiguous closing scene, giving us a possible Golgo 13: The End, much in the way Ennis did with that other long-lived comics icon, decades later.

The end would eventually come for Streamline too, which never lived to usher the US anime scene into the more profitable dvd era and its eventual breakthrough into the mainstream; it was bought out in the early '90s by the ailing Orion Pictures - as history has shown, the diagnosis soon turned out to be terminal. Several of its titles dropped into licensing hell, that null zone of uncertain release rights, and some of them have not yet returned to the land of purchase. Golgo 13 was eventually picked up by a newer company, Urban Vision, and was re-released on videocassette; the long-coming Region 1 dvd debut of this now 22-year old film is currently anticipated for August 30th, with fans pulling for the restoration of that original title sequence, the hunger for purity still strong.

In the meantime, a grand total of one additional animated Golgo 13 project was produced, 1998’s Golgo 13: Queen Bee, a one-hour OVA pilot for a revival series that never got cleared for takeoff. Dezaki returned to direct, the project likely having been initiated due to his work on a successful, similarly structured Black Jack OVA series and theatrical feature (based Osamu Tezuka’s benevolent medical mercenary hero, essentially Duke’s polar opposite), and it was a treat to see his style in action again. But in a sad reversal of how the rot at Duke’s core in the original movie provided a strong contrast with the careful moral positioning of his first video game, Queen Bee largely resembles The Mafat Conspiracy in that it takes everything from its equivalent prior outing and shortens it and generally brings it all down a notch. The story involves Duke getting hired to kill a free-spirited (and oft-unclothed) Earth Mother commander of a guerilla army far away in the South American jungle, a situation that implicates the closest associates of a drug-addicted candidate for President of the United States. Granted, it was only intended as the first episode of a series, but its orphan status can’t help but make it look like a single unit, inviting comparison to its vastly superior predecessor. It’s readily available on dvd though, if you want to check it out.

But not every US-released title in the anime world got orphaned by a collapsing licensing company. Indeed, some of the companies that were around in the Streamline days remain active today, sometimes in powerhouse roles given the current prevalence of Japanese comics and animation.

I presume you’ve heard of Viz?

VII. The End of the Past

Viz is probably best known today as the mighty publisher behind ultra-mainstream manga anthologies Shonen Jump and Shojo Beat, as well as a whole slew of varied digests. But they’ve been at the manga game for a long time. They’ve put out their fair share of anime too. And while they never scored the US license to Duke’s animated adventures, they did have their role to play in the (thus far) final Golgo 13 comics to see a US release, in 1991.

Indeed, Viz even also titled their series The Professional: Golgo 13; note how they did this a year before Streamline's similar re-titling. It strikes me as an attempt to create a new North American ‘brand’ for old Duke, across media. I know none of the behind-the-scenes details of the US release, but I have to wonder if Saito Productions suggested the new title to offer their headline character a better shot at US recognition. It was to little avail; the Viz series folded after three issues, which only served to serialize a single, lengthy story: The Argentine Tiger, from 1982.

It’s maybe most fascinating to contrast Viz’s approach of nearly 15 years ago to the current manga-in-America status quo. The marginalized status of manga releases in the US at the time required many more concessions to the Direct Market-favored formats; the books were all ‘flipped’ (reading left-to-right) for one thing, not something you often see in a Viz book of today. Instead of digests, we have pamphlet-sized books, about as thin as what you’d expect to see alongside X-Men and Batman (each issue was 48 pages, like the Lead pamphlets), albeit with a flat binding. In a step beyond what even Lead was willing to do with the localization effort, the story has been colorized, though the job is credited to Saito Productions itself, suggesting either some pre-existing color special in the material’s past or an adamant desire to ‘play ball’ with US format. The price was also quite tall: $4.95 per issue, only two dollars less than the cover prices of the gorgeous partial-color 168 page Lead tankoubon. Surely such a fee didn't aid in the book's popularity among US readers.

But all anime and video games considered, it’s comics where Duke fits best, and this series reaffirms it. I utterly adore the cover of issue #1, with a strapping, shirtless Duke toting a huge gun and grinning, perhaps because he has the deadliest flatulence in all of Buenos Aires, the folks behind him duly distressed. The story follows the expected fact-inspired hi-jinx formula, with Duke hired to take down hidden ex-president of Argentina, Juan Peron (who only faked his death, don't you know), eventually going undercover as a patient at a well-guarded hospital to pull off the job. He also meets a sweet young girl who’s connected to the target, and the story doesn’t blanch at presenting Duke with a moral choice, nor does it blink at his instantaneous response. She never did anything to him but give a little kindness and figure out the mission, and that’s enough as his dispassionate finger curls around the trigger. He also snipes an oncoming Sidewinder missile clean out of the air from the cockpit of a jet. Because, while cruel, he must remain awesome, and that’s the balance Saito and his crew know how to strike in their chosen medium, that of the character’s birth.

VIII. “..…”

And then, nothing. As far as comics are concerned.

Supposedly, Viz has made plans to bring Duke back on certain occasions; in 2002 they went so far as to pursue Hellblazer and Punisher MAX mainstay Tim Bradstreet for new cover art on a prospective series of US editions, maybe looking to flirt with North American comics fans interested in a character a little closer to what they’re familiar with (and ooooh, shades of Streamline’s own comics-courting hype from back in the day!), but things didn’t pan out. Thus, we are left to look over what we have.

In sum:

- The four Lead Publishing tankoubon, Into the Wolves’ Lair: The Fall of the Fourth Reich (Vol. 1), Galinpero (Vol. 2), Ice Lake Hit (Vol. 3), and The Ivory Connection (Vol. 4), are the biggest consolidation of Golgo 13 comics out in English. Unfortunately, they’re also the hardest to locate. You can do what I did and bumble upon a bunch of them in a near-abandoned manga section at a random comics store for cover price, but the relative rarity and deluxe presentation have doubtlessly jacked up the fee at most knowing locations. Still, these are some of the nicest US editions of Japanese comics I’ve seen, even though they're flipped, which doesn’t raise much of an issue for me. Ah, but that’s another essay!

- The two Lead Publishing pamphlets, The Impossible Hit (#1) and Hopper the Border (#2) can be found for fairly cheap online. Being video game tie-ins (well, at least I know the first one was since it was packaged with the game itself and features a small strategy guide in the back), there were probably a lot of them printed, and you shouldn’t need to shell out more than two or three bucks each, if even that. They’re both older stories, early ‘70s stuff, but self-contained.

- Probably easiest of all to find is the three Viz issues of The Professional: Golgo 13, though you’ll want to buy them all together, as they serialize a single story. It’s in color, hues added by Saito Productions themselves. Issue #1 also sports an appreciation essay by James D. Hudnall, of Espers fame. I found the lot of them sitting in a dollar bin at a local store.

- The 8-bit NES games Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode and Golgo 13: The Mafat Conspiracy can be found with ease on eBay or at your favorite pawn shop, probably for five bucks each or less. Try to find copies with the instruction manuals, since there’s helpful maps in there, although I’m sure you can just download the same material from the internet somewhere if you’re stuck.

- The anime film The Professional: Golgo 13, has seen at least two US releases on videocassette, both of them missing the original titles. The first, from Streamline Pictures, might have multiple sleeves from assorted printings. The substantively identical Urban Vision release is cake to find on eBay dirt-cheap; Urban Vision will also be releasing a R1 dvd of the film on August 30th.

- Golgo 13: Queen Bee, the OVA follow-up, is easily obtainable on videocassette and a dreadfully overpriced dvd, both from Urban Vision; $29.95 for one hour, even with a director’s commentary?! Aw hell, that was the retail cost of FLCL too, and I didn’t complain there. It’ll make for a decent rental online, maybe.

And, at risk of belaboring my point, that is all.

It's strange, looking at this character, these books, these things, from a US comics reader's perspective. We're conditioned by so many Big Two offerings to know the history of our favorite characters, to recall tiny bits of trivia from long ago, to get the continuity straight. And some listen, and some complain about departures from what a character 'really' is. And even those of us that don't complain track these changes for sport. Characters are different from writer to writer, from medium to medium. We can see history in these changes, social and industry mores reflected.

And here is a character from that appreciated/feared/lionized world of manga, those crazy Japanese comics and those crazy big eyes, that seems to support the same history, the same study, even having rejected the burden of strict continuity.

And yet, we are denied that full view. We catch only glimpses of Golgo 13, Duke Togo rushing across our line of sight, ready for the next job. He remains as unfocused and enigmatic to us as he is to his targets, to his employers, to everyone but his die-hard fans. We can't know him, even though we know he's something we'd like.

Why, we wouldn't even know if his crosshair was kissing our necks right now.

He won't miss, you know.

We can be sure of that much, and the rest we need to guess about, from what little information we have.

Beyond that?



Same thanks as last time for involuntary help on years from Carl Gustav Horn, sighted on this lovely AnimeOnDVD thread. Hopefully, I didn't get my history of anime in the US too messed up; I was only there for some of it.