Lupin III: The First (2019)

An eternity passes in popular culture if you aren’t paying attention. 2019’s The First wasn’t just the first 3D-animated Lupin III adventure, it was the first theatrical outing for our hilarious heroes in over a quarter-century. Most of those prior stories that we have watched were annual TV specials. Well, annual-ish, anyway.

The First was written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, who made that live-action Space Battleship Yamato movie in 2010. I should probably see that. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a back-to-basics story set early in the gang’s careers, in a sort of nebulous mid-1960s. The time doesn’t honestly matter very much; other than some manual typewriters, the only plot element that requires it to be set then is the possible appearance of somebody who died in 1945 maybe still hanging on twenty years later.

What happens in the movie isn’t too surprising or strange. It’s a globetrotting adventure for the mcguffin of the day, racing against another powerful criminal organization, with a naive teenage girl to help out (and for Lupin to treat remarkably respectfully). There’s a lot of Castle of Cagliostro in this one, right down to a car chase with a familiar yellow Fiat, but also a lot of Blood Seal of the Eternal Mermaid, which I probably enjoyed more than many people did. It even shares that film’s element of the mcguffin being something that the original Arsene Lupin chased.

Basically, this one’s just a straightforward crowd-pleaser that ticks all the appropriate boxes very well, without doing anything even remotely new. If you’ve never seen any Lupin III before, then this is certain to completely thrill you and keep you laughing. Our son had a ball, but even he had to concede that he’s seen this stuff a time or two before. But it had him laughing at all the appropriate moments – Jigen making impossible shots, Goemon cutting worthless objects, Zenigata arriving with an ever-loving army of astonishingly steadfast and loyal cops in riot gear – and since I really get the feeling (not backed by anything) that even in Japan, the Lupin III franchise is something that most people just enjoy casually instead of watching obsessively every week, going back to basics every once in a while for something new and big is not a bad idea.

I’ll tell you what, though. Between the references to Lupin’s granddad in this and Eternal Mermaid and Dragon of Doom, along with the recent French TV series Lupin starring Omar Sy, I think we are long overdue for some production company, somewhere, finally making a new Arsene Lupin series set in the 1900s. I don’t think that there has been one, anywhere, in fifty years. I can assure you that as soon as some multi-billionaire signs over all their assets to me, I will definitely bankroll that.

Blood Seal of the Eternal Mermaid (2011)

Oh, thank heaven. Our brief investigation into the long series of Lupin III annual-ish television specials concludes with what is easily the best of the four I selected. Napoleon’s Dictionary and Dragon of Doom were pretty good, while Twilight Gemini was godawful. This one stumbles through a climax that’s a little bloated and weird, but getting there was an absolute joy and sliding our heroes against a world of strange magic and supernatural powers worked surprisingly well.

To be sure, there’s a lot in this movie that I bet bigger fans of Lupin than me have seen before. There’s an underworld kingpin of enormous power and influence never mentioned in any previous adventure, great big super-jewel treasures, and a new arch-enemy for Goemon who gets the upper hand by getting into Goemon’s head for a minute. But it’s all done exceedingly well in this movie, which is apparently the only one that’s been given to Teiichi Takiguchi to direct, although he did move on to work on one of the television series a few years later.

The big key that makes this one such a standout is that a 14 year-old girl figures out who Lupin is and decides she will become his apprentice. Lupin tries very hard to discourage her – hilariously badly at one point, as he thinks she is a lot younger than fourteen and he can scare her off with monster stories – but of course he ends up stuck with her for most of the running time. Frankly, I’m amazed that it took forty years for anybody to come up with such a wonderfully simple idea. Unless a bigger fan of Lupin than me would like to tell me that actually they did it in a two-parter in 1979.

What else? There are clever deathtraps, a bit where Lupin gets uncharacteristically pensive and introspective about why he’s a criminal, and his famous grandfather actually shows up in a flashback, which I’d never seen them do before. The climax is a little wonky, but all the supernatural revelations come fairly and honestly within the rules that the movie establishes. Overall, a fine couple of hours of entertainment. We’ll check out one more Lupin III adventure before we wrap up the blog, and if it’s at least as good as this, I’ll be satisfied.

The Secret of Twilight Gemini (1996)

For posterity’s sake, we watched this, it was terrible, and I wish I hadn’t bought it. By leagues and leagues the worst Lupin III adventure I’ve ever seen, this one even subverts the potentially hilarious subplot of Zenigata being assigned just one police officer in Morocco – an old, forgotten, feeble man with a giant mustache – by sending Zenigata’s new boss onto the scene to take charge. Anybody who can’t figure out from there that Zenigata’s boss is really the villain is new to this kind of plot.

Without that, there’s nothing left but a surprising number of nude scenes, the writers forgetting that Goemon’s sword is meant to be indestructible, and a totally awful whip-wielding male enemy, who Lupin immediately identifies as gay because of his effeminate voice, and then taunts with nasty, sexist slurs. I wish I hadn’t showed this to the kid. TV Tropes claims this has the most nudity of any Lupin feature, but I’m going to double-check the next two in the queue first. I’ve got no beef with nudity, and a little titillation should be a given in Lupin III, but this one just got downright annoying.

Dragon of Doom (1994)

A couple of weeks ago, somebody on Twitter made the observation that the Lupin the Third franchise has a whole lot in common with the Scooby Doo franchise. I’d tell you who, but it turns out this is not a particularly original observation, and whatever I saw and enjoyed was lost in search results dating back many years. But it was new to me, and I laughed, and then we watched this morning’s Lupin film, and I laughed a lot more. So it’s nice that there was a Scooby comparison for me to roll around in my head, because it kept me going while this story failed to excite.

It really should’ve been a little better than this. Dragon of Doom was the sixth TV movie for the gang, and even with my limited knowledge of Lupin III, it struck me as really by-the-numbers. There’s a hilarious moment of cartoon physics when Lupin is about 4000 meters down at the bottom of the ocean, and the bad guy is so over-the-top with his Bond villain headquarters that I had to chuckle at the chutzpah, but on the other hand, I think this series had given us Bond villain wannabes prior to ’94. The animation is about on the same TV-cheap level as the previous movie we watched, but it’s laid out much more competently than that, and none of the action sequences left me confused as to what was supposed to be happening.

You can see the seed of a good plot in it, which makes it more frustrating. Lupin and Goemon end up wanting the same ancient treasure for themselves: Goemon because it belonged to his ancestral clan and Lupin because his granddad failed to pilfer it eighty years ago. But their antagonism is too shallow and unconvincing in the first place, and this becomes incredibly frustrating when Goemon doesn’t point out the real problem later on: Lupin’s selfishness in holding onto the dragon seems to have got an ally killed. It’s like the producers wanted to bend the rules, but were afraid to bend them anywhere far enough to give the story some bite.

Our son adored about 99% of it, and absolutely lost his mind laughing when Zenigata shows up with five boats packed from stem to stern with gun-crazed cops, only for our heroes to escape in something so unlikely that even the ICPO’s finest can’t help but close his eyes and giggle. On the other hand, Fujiko strips down for a shower scene, which had our kid closing his own eyes and hiding. Okay, so the Scooby Doo comparison isn’t flawless. Fairly sure Hanna-Barbera / Warner never let us see Daphne do that.

Here’s a thought: since the Lupin gang are ageless and always set in “the present day,” shouldn’t Lupin be referring to the 1910s-era Arsene Lupin as a much older ancestor than his grandfather by now? Our hero’s got to be a great-great grandson by 2021. Maybe he’s really Lupin the Fifth.

Napoleon’s Dictionary (1991)

I enjoyed revisiting Lupin III by way of a couple of his feature films so much that I decided to pick up a few more of his cases. About every year, there’s a made-for-TV special. 1991’s Napoleon’s Dictonary was the third of 28 and counting in this series. It’s entertaining, but also very, very flawed. Even understanding that something made for television is naturally going to have a smaller budget than a big-screen film, this was still a big surprise to me. Slapdash animation, poor modelling, and downright indifferent direction all conspire to almost ruin this story. There’s a bit where two trains are about to collide in a tunnel, crushing a police car between them, which should have been the funniest thing in the whole movie, but it falls so flat that I wondered whether they even storyboarded the thing or if it just happened by accident.

Another weird flaw: it’s a given that Goemon is the greatest swordsman who ever lived and his sword can cut through anything. This is the sort of thing you need to deploy very sparingly, so it has maximum effect. For example, the actual funniest thing in the whole movie is this: Lupin and Jigen are locked in an RV by some CIA agents and they’re grumbling that the only thing American vehicles are any good for is their sturdiness, at which point Goemon cuts the RV in half. But by the end of the movie, Goemon has cut everything in half without challenge. He stops being a comic time bomb and turns into Superman. Goemon should never, ever be boring, but that’s what this movie makes him.

Despite this, the story does have a few very funny gags, and I liked the very real-world setting. It’s 1991, the Gulf War has just finished, and now the G7 nations are in a recession because they’ve all been nearly bankrupted by their Middle East misadventures and unemployment is high. The member nations start leaning on Japan – again – to buy their way out of this, until somebody points out that Lupin’s grandfather somehow buried a fortune worth about $200 billion, and so they should probably finally arrest the pest and impound the loot for themselves.

Meanwhile, Lupin’s also aware of this story, but he doesn’t know where the treasure is. He knows where there’s a clue: Napoleon Bonaparte once had a dictionary that passed into the family hands, and somebody wrote some details on a page, but the dictionary vanished years ago. Now it has resurfaced: it’s the prize in a Great Race, using antique cars to motor from Madrid to Paris. And Lupin just happened to snatch a 1908 Packard in New York City. Lupin’s stated reason why he wants the dictionary has nothing to do with a fortune, is a great big lie, and is the second funniest thing in the whole movie.

It’s a good setup and there are some fine gags, but overall I was still underwhelmed. As I mentioned in these pages previously, as much as I like the characters, I haven’t seen a whole lot of their outings – looks like I’ve seen three features, five or six TV episodes, and two of the TV specials before this – but this is the weakest installment that I’ve seen so far. When it worked, it worked very well, and our son absolutely loves Lupin and Zenigata’s eternal game of cat-and-mouse. When it didn’t, it was crying for a new animation studio to take over, and a different director to make this script sparkle. Still, they can’t all be winners, and we’ll look at another TV special soon.

The Mystery of Mamo (1978)

It has been an extremely long time since I’d watched the first Lupin III feature film. It’s been such a long time that it’s been dubbed three more times since the one I remember. And I remembered the immortal lines “Only a laser beam can cut through my vest” and “Once again, I cut a worthless object,” but I completely forgot all the cartoon nudity. “Oh, yeah, so there’s some nude scenes in this,” I said, sheepishly, as our favorite nine year-old critic raised an eyebrow.

But there’s also the usual chaos and chase scenes. It’s a very weird movie in that regard. Some of the shenanigans look like they’re being played for high comedy but have a serious and deadly edge. It’s most evident in a scene where the villains send a helicopter to attack our heroes in a Parisian cafe. It’s the sort of overkill that’s funny because it’s so ridiculous, and indeed our son was roaring with laughter, while innocent bystanders are clearly not avoiding the bullets. It wouldn’t have been funny at all if they’d pulled up in a van. Bringing a helicopter is silly, which prompts laughing, and the subsequent murders are serious. Our heroes are up against one of the most cold-blooded villains they’ve ever faced.

The Mystery of Mamo was released in Japan as simply Lupin III, but American fans started calling it The Mystery of Mamo to match the alliteration of the second film, The Castle of Cagliostro, which we watched in the spring. The name stuck, even though it’s not accurate and “Mameaux” is misspelled. It is one of a small handful of movies directed by Sōji Yoshikawa and it’s a lot more faithful to the lecherous spirit and gangly style of the original comics by Monkey Punch than all the movies that followed.

As for the plot, it’s in a class by itself. The original dub – more on that in a second – isn’t very clear on this point, but Lupin gets word that he’s been executed and DNA testing has proved that the body was his. Zenigata, the Interpol inspector obsessed with Lupin’s capture, doesn’t believe it either. This puts the adversaries at odds again while Lupin starts targeting treasures believed to grant immortality. The trail of clones and eternal life leads them to a stunted, absurdly resourceful, and rich villain called Mamo, who claims to be 10,000 years old. Lupin III’s adventures are usually a little bit more down to earth than this.

Mamo has been released in North America several times by different companies, resulting in four separate English-language dubs. Discotek Media compiled all four, along with the original Japanese language track with subtitles, on a DVD released in 2013. Honestly, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I remembered. I think I was wrong to choose the original dub that I was familiar with once upon a time. It is said, by people who know these things, to be a good and accurate translation, but it feels incredibly clunky and confusing, and the voice actress for Fujiko sounds too much like a helpless damsel in distress. But the kid still prefers dubs to subs, and I’d like him to be happy when we’re watching stuff together.

To be sure, there’s a lot for a kid to like here, even if his parents may have wished for a little less of Lupin dropping his pants. He absolutely loves Zenigata’s furious, single-minded obsession to arrest Lupin and just cackles at the sight of him. The slapstick violence and action is always amazing in these movies. At one point, they’re being chased up a twisty mountain road by the biggest eighteen-wheeler ever built, and at another, Goemon gives a henchman the sort of wound that even Daffy Duck would have trouble recovering from, so he was in heaven.

So you wouldn’t expect Dr. Anti-Fun, who we met last month complaining about the physics in an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, would start grumbling, but at the end, the villain reveals a rocket with a dome instead of a cone top and he just had to interject “that wouldn’t fly!” Well, it wouldn’t hold a brain the size of a ranch house, either, Dr. Anti-Fun, so just hush and go with it. Kids!

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

So for those of you who don’t know, Lupin III is the world’s greatest thief, and in The Castle of Cagliostro, he and his gun-totin’ buddy Jigen decide it’s time to do something about an international counterfeit operation that’s been going on for decades. They get involved with a runaway bride in a tiny European country and are in for the fight of their lives. I told our son that there would be hijinx and he said “Good. I love hijinx.” He found the experience completely satisfying.

Because it was directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Cagliostro is probably most Americans’ first introduction to Lupin III. Some people have a tendency to want a starting point when they’re looking at a big media franchise, and Lupin, with a couple of hundred TV episodes and close to thirty films, is a pretty big one. Nobody ever asks where they should start with James Bond or Law & Order, though, do they? I wonder why that is.

Anyway, I’m far from an expert on the subject. I’ve probably only watched a combined ten hours of Lupin myself, and I don’t like the original comics by Monkey Punch at all. I like the heroic Lupin of Cagliostro; I think that the previous movie, Mystery of Mamo, which we’ll watch later this summer, might be the better of the two, but I like seeing Lupin not being a thief and a creep for long enough to play Robin Hood and save the first decent member of a centuries-old crime family.

I gave our son a quick potted history of the gentleman thief trope, and how the original character of Arsène Lupin was created by Maurice Leblanc in the 1900s, amid a wave of similar characters created by Simon Boothby and EW Hornung. In the 1960s, the trope resurfaced in film and TV (The Pink Panther, Topkapi, It Takes a Thief), and Monkey Punch seemed to create his comics as a reaction to those. Punch’s thief was well-dressed, but certainly no gentleman. His Lupin III, allegedly the grandson of Leblanc’s original, was a protagonist but not a hero. He got toned down massively for television, and tamed further still for some of the features.

So while Cagliostro might be the tamest version of them all – it certainly has that reputation, anyway – it’s still a hugely fun ride, full of car chases and underwater brawls, slapstick violence and real bullets, intricate schemes and hilarious improvisations. Everybody enjoyed the movie hugely and I’m looking forward to the next couple of films that we’ll see later in the year.