Author: Takao Saito
Genre: Crime, Action, Thriller.
Golgo 13 is actually the longest running manga still being published today, with a run that began in 1968. It's a story of a hitman that never misses and has not only been extremely popular, but has spawned anime, films and countless imitators. Of course, I haven't read through the entire run as luckily Viz media have cherry picked the best 26 stories (across 13 volumes of course!) and re-released them in the west.
Golgo: the ultimate badass - Golgo is an assassin for hire. A hitman with a reputation so good that if someone is required to die, and someone else has enough money to pay, they go to Golgo. Whether it's thugs, gangs, ordinary citizens or world governments, if they have heard whispers of the man who never misses, this is who they go to.
Golgo is a man who is stoic in the face of adversary. A man who doesn't flinch at danger or even torture. Any woman he is around for long is overcome with lust. He goes by many aliases, has secret methods to contact him, never sees the same client twice and kills anyone who betrays him. He can speak several languages, has a secret Swiss bank account, he's a true enigma, he has sex before every hit... and the list could go on. Golgo's traits read like a list of every cool quality a man could desire. Normally I'd hate this, but somehow it makes the character of Golgo brilliant.
You might be thinking that he sounds two dimensional. You'd actually be right, but it doesn't matter. The stories don't pretend to be sweeping character arcs that explore the human condition. They touch on human matters (racism, family, politics...) but mostly they ask one question: "How is Golgo going to do it?".
He needs to make impossible trick shots, solve countless problems and deal with betrayals. The latter is always the most fun. I was always wondering how Golgo was going to deal with people that have wronged him because you know that whoever does will end up dead. Each story is either dragged along by Golgo's actions (and very few words) or, in the stories in which Golgo hides behind the scenes, it hinges on the question of how Golgo is going to act.
Golgo is clearly influenced by James Bond, albeit with less wisecracks and a more stony expression. Golgo has influenced countless followers. Think of any character you can who is rock solid and always gets the job done, especially those from Japan. Solid Snake? Agent 47? There will be far more.
The Plot - The stories picked in these Viz editions are told to be 26 of the best Golgo stories. Honestly, except for the odd diamond, I wasn't overwhelmed.
The stories vary in both location and scope. Some follow Golgo as he readies himself for a hit, one story (possibly the best one of the set) didn't actually contain Golgo at all - just his reputation.
Some of these stories are 99% exposition, perhaps talking you through the conflicts of the Italian mob for example. These straight hits are the dullest of the stories, as we know the set-up from the first few pages. Someone wants someone else dead, usually for quite obvious reasons, and Golgo is going to be brought in to shoot them. We know this. We know how it ends up. It seems like a lot of set-up for little pay-off as we know what it will be. He will shoot it, he will hit. It says that on the back of each book. Often it's a trick-shot, which is cool, but it still doesn't excuse the fact that we've had 2 and half chapters of characters we know are either going to die, or at least never appear again, set this up in a usually convoluted manner.
However, when this formula is turned on its head it is truly brilliant. Stories where Golgo's reputation is used to beautiful effect or stories where people try to trick him are usually clever and surprising. The thing is, without the regular assassination stories, these wouldn't work. At least two of these stories had me grinning like an idiot because they were so unexpected, one of them contained in the last volume was something I would never expect as it was a beautiful bit of fan service to those that read to the end.
It's also worth noting these stories take place across pretty much every continent in the world, can take place from the 70's up to the modern day and often talk about current events at the time (e.g. Golgo once worked with Nelson Mandela). This variation often adds a layer of at least a little interest to those duller stories.
Art - This may just be personal thing, but I feel the art of Golgo has aged terribly. While the backgrounds are often skilfully drawn picturesque landscapes and city views, the character art that sits on top ruins it. By the end of the run I was used to Golgo's face, and honestly I can't tell if I like it or not now, but the side characters are awful. They often have the strangest faces with features that seem badly placed. It feels archaic and lacks the charm of some of Saito's contemporaries like Tezuka.
Side Characters -Besides Golgo, the other characters have little depth. Usually they are just instruments to move the story along or make Golgo look more badass. It's also worth noting that racial stereotypes are used and nearly every woman is basically there to have sex with Golgo at some point or another.
It's odd, but even though this is supposedly one of the great legends of manga, I cannot say I would recommend Golgo 13. A lot of the stories were quite the slog to go through, brought down by obvious set-ups and transparent characters, archaic art and out of date values. Sure, Golgo is a thrilling character, but he's the only character worth reading about. It's a shame because when this manga was at its best it was very good, but it had to subvert its entire premise to do this and it couldn't do this very often. If you're a big fan of assassins, complete badasses or thrillers/action stories that take place across the world, then you'll love Golgo 13, but I think for most people this Manga might not have the same impact it used to do.