Director: Junya Sato
Starring: Ken Takakura, Pouri Baneai, Mohsen Sohrabi
One of Japan's greatest and most popular mangas, Golgo 13 (the name meaning Golgatha plus the thirteen diciples depicted in Jesus' last supper - but you already knew that, right?) also would be one of the more difficult to translate to the screen, what with it's complex characters and twisty storylines, to say nothing of it's always exotic locales which in many cases would prove cost prohibitive for any proposed live action interpretation. Regardless, Japan gave it a try in 1977 with 'Golgo 13: Kowloon Assignment'. Starring a game Sonny Chiba, it was a middling affair at best (though one I've grown to appreciate slightly more after having seen a widescreen, subtitled version). For decades, I had assumed that this was the only live action treatment of the manga. I found out how wrong I was just last year when I started to hear murmurings of an earlier version starring non other than Ken Takakura. Now thanks to a fan subbed edition of the Japanese dvd, I finally had a chance to watch it.
This version of the film posits our sharp shooter assassin in Tehran, Iran (the location being made possible due to the recent oil agreement between Japan and Iran). Golgo's (real name: Duke Togo) mission; to hunt down and terminate international do badder, Max Boa, an untouchable weapons/ drug smuggler and flesh peddler (you know the type).
Considering it was made in 1973 which was the peak of Japan's wild anything goes period, 'Golgo 13' is a notably restrained production. This is probably due to Iran's restrictions. There is no nudity on display and little in the way of bloodshed. The whole production has a very straightforward, almost episodic feel as if everyone just wanted to be on their best behavior. The first half tends to suffer a little because of this as it seems director Sato was too content to merely introduce it's many characters and basic storyline. It could have used some spruicing up, to be honest. Yet despite that bit of negativity, there is much to like about the film. The Iranian locales are pleasingly exotic and well shot (though it was a minor distraction for me that all of the locals were dubbed in Japanese). The action (when it does arrive) is lively and suspensful with a truly nail biting climax. At the film's center is the towering presence of one Ken Takakura. His natural screen persona (he is afterall known as the man who never smiles) makes him a perfect Golgo. The it ain't over 'till it's over finale was one of the more satisfying I have experienced, displaying a welcome sense of humor as no one and no thing is safe from our protagonist's wrath.
While certainly not on the level of other live action manga adaptations such as the 'Lone Wolf and Cub' and 'Female Prisoner Scorpion' series, 'Golgo 13' did at least prove that an effective live action version of the popular character could be done. For those who were disappointed with the Chiba vehicle, give this one a try.