Takao Saito (1936-2021)

September 29, 2021 · 0 comments

Takao Saito, who died this week of pancreatic cancer at the age of 84, was never a fan of the word manga. He preferred to call his work gekiga, subscribing to the idea, promulgated among the creators of the 1960s, that comics could be a work of “dramatic pictures”, not mere pulp entertainment. Not that he shirked from the pulp elements, either.

Saito was a child of a broken home, raised with four siblings by a hairdresser in Sakai, Osaka. Something of a tearaway, announcing in his youth that he wanted to be a boxer or an artist, the young Saito was perpetually at odds with his mother, who had given up on her own artistic dreams in order to provide for her children. Even when he won a prefectural art competition in junior high, demonstrating a precocious talent, his mother refused to countenance the idea that anyone could make a living from art alone.

Saito displayed little interest in anything else at school, cementing his bad-boy reputation by turning in all his exam papers blank. He was, however, touched for life by his teacher Mr Togo, who confronted him after class, presented him with the empty sheet, and told him that if he was going make such reckless decisions, he should at least own them by putting his name at the top of the paper.

His early inspirations were the comics brought in by Occupation-era soldiers, as well as the manga that could be acquired from rental stores, most famously Osamu Tezuka’s cinematically-framed New Treasure Island. By his teens, Saito and his younger sister were effectively running the hair salon, although Saito sold his first manga story, Air Baron, to the rental publisher Hinomaru before his teens were out. The story of the cat-and-mouse game between the eponymous jewel thief and the boy detective on his trail was written when Saito was 16, but publication was delayed for two years on the grounds that the first-time artist had made all his speech balloons too small, and the whole thing had to be redrawn. By 1956, he was a full-time manga artist for Hinomaru, much to his mother’s eternal frustration.

“Right up until she died,” Saito wrote, “she hated the business of manga creators. Even on her death bed, she shoved my books to one side and never opened them.”

By the late 1950s, Saito was truly enmeshed in manga as a business. He had defected from Hinomaru to form an independent content mill with several other artists and writers. In 1960, he founded Saito Pro[duction], a manga content company of his own, with his brother as business manager, and later his nephew. The decision helped him through the transition out of the rental manga business and into the burgeoning world of manga magazines, the contents of which could later be published in volume form.

Much of Saito’s early output comprised adaptations. In the course of career, he wrote manga versions of, among other things, The Water Margin, The Tale of the Heike and the lives of several figures from Japanese history. His truly big break, however, came in 1963 with a series of adaptations of Ian Fleming’s 007 stories for Boys Life – Saito would ultimately produce manga versions of Live and Let Die, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Thunderball and The Man with the Golden Gun. His work on Bond would inform and inspire his most famous creation, a globe-trotting, ruthless assassin named in part for his high-school teacher: Duke Togo, codenamed Golgo 13.

Duke Togo, in fact, was itself a pseudonym. Nobody has ever worked out the true identity of Saito’s unstoppable killer, an iconic figure much beloved by salarymen manga fans, and as Saito would vainly tell his still-disapproving mother, immensely popular in barber-shop waiting rooms. Golgo 13 would go on to be played on film by Sonny Chiba, spinning off into several anime versions, and often courting controversy. Some of his more shocking missions, redacted from the later collected volumes, included a case involving Vatican money-laundering, a Hollywood actor blackmailed over his secret AIDS-diagnosis, and something that pissed off the Ayatollah of Iran. Behind the scenes, it was also the apotheosis of Saito’s production-line manga system – while he would usually draw the characters’ faces, backgrounds and filler would be dropped in by assistants, and many of the scripts were written by others, including a young Kazuo Koike.

With 300 million printed copies in circulation, Golgo 13 is the longest-running manga in Japanese history. It was also the best-seller for many years, although it has since been pipped at the post by the more recent One Piece. It was a huge success for Big Comic and for Saito, to the extent that its popularity has largely swamped his many, many other works. These include Shadow Hunters, in which three rogue samurai track down and neutralise those pesky ninja, the samurai-era policier Onihei Hankacho, based on the novels by Shotaro Ikenami, and Barom 1, in which two Japanese boys are able to transform into a superheroic monster if they join hands.

Poking around in some of Saito’s more obscure works, one gets a sense of his originality and attention to detail. Operation G, for example, takes as its inspiration the fact that through much of the post-war period, Japan was forbidden from sending military forces abroad. This led, in Saito’s manga, to the formation of a secret task force dedicated to hostage rescue and extraction for Japanese citizens caught up in foreign conflicts. Hotel Investigator Doll is the story of a corporate trouble-shooter on retainer with a massive hotel conglomerate, charged with making embarrassing problems disappear before they can adversely affect the share prices.

But all pale into insignificance compared to the unsurpassed run of Golgo 13. Aware of the limited time left to him, Saito himself commented that he had planned an ending for the series, but later recanted, claiming that “The manga has continued so long that it is no longer the property of the author; it belongs to the readers.” This, we might assume, is his polite spin on the decision taken by Saito Pro to continue publishing the series after the death of its creator.

Saito might no longer be around to swiftly delineate his characters on the page, famously eschewing pencils and jumping straight to indelible inks. But Golgo will go on without him.

Jonathan Clements

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