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.

Spirited Away (2001)

I told the kid Friday night that we were watching another film by Hayao Miyazaki this morning. “Oh, I hope it has scenes with lots of delicious food like some of his other movies!”

Possibly the biggest, and certainly the most unwelcome, surprise I’ve had since starting this blog came this morning. I’d been saving Spirited Away, which I think everybody loves, for a rainy day, and I didn’t enjoy it at all. So I’ll turn this over to the kid, who says “Spirited Away is a film by Studio Ghibli about a young girl, say about twelve, who is moving to a new town. Her parents get lost and turned into pigs. And then, through a series of unpredictable events, she finds herself working in a spirit sauna run by a sorceress.” He liked it enormously. It had delicious food, strange comedy, genuine peril, dragons, river spirits, and weird monsters. There was a new, wild surprise every few minutes. I wish I enjoyed it more, but he enjoyed it enough for both of us.

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.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Earlier this week, I took our son for his allergy shots, saw that one of the TVs in the waiting room was playing something that looked like Pokemon*, and asked him “Would you like to sit there and watch Pokemon?” He’s ten, and while most of the time he’s still our delightful little boy wanting hugs and cuddles and positive attention while unrolling his world of wild fan theories, he will, occasionally, remind us that the teen years are just seconds away. Suddenly he was fifteen already, embarrassed by his uncool dad, and he rolled his eyes and said “Dah-ah-ahddddd, why do you think all anime is Pokemon?!” Little twerp, I was reading that show was called Pocket Monsters and giving people seizures before I knew what Team Rocket even looked like.

So what happened the very next day? The North American distributor of lots of good things, GKids, made an astonishing announcement. They’ve licensed Future Boy Conan. I’m not kidding. Go read about it. Everybody else I know has a lot more time for Japanese cartoons than I do, but Conan is stop-the-presses huge. It’s a 26-episode TV series directed by Hayao Miyazaki for a weekly early-evening slot for NHK in 1978, based loosely on Alexander Key’s novel The Incredible Tide. Conan made it to several international markets, including Mexico and Italy, but didn’t land in the United States, not even all those years later, once Miyazaki became the de facto face of the medium for people who have even less time for Japanese cartoons than I do.

You can read a huge amount about Conan over at Let’s Anime, where Dave wrote a comprehensive article last year. And the reason I’m so hyped about the forthcoming English-language release of this series, where absolutely no other cartoon release has prompted more than a raised eyebrow, is that about three decades ago, he landed a laserdisc set of the 26 episodes, raw, without subs or dubs, copied them for me on seven VHS tapes, and I watched those bad boys from beginning to end three times in a row, two or three episodes every single day, occasionally baffled but otherwise transfixed. I gave it another spin a couple of years later. They were lost in the VHS purge of 2001, and I am so looking forward to revisiting its weird world, oddball humor, and wild melodrama.

There are so many people in this country whose love of Japanese cartoons and comics have been a springboard for a deeper interest in Japanese language or culture or careers. Maybe our son’s turning into one. This morning, we watched Miyazaki’s 1997 film Princess Mononoke, which some people consider his best. The lead character, Ashitaka, carries around a bowl, as I believe you did back in the 1400s or whenever, to enjoy some rice on the road. That got the kid wanting ramen for lunch. Unfortunately, we live in Chattanooga, where options for a really good bowl of soup are more than a bit limited. We ended up watching him enjoy the heck out of a giant bucket of tonkatsu ramen while we ate expensively and far worse than he did. (I don’t actually like ramen. I don’t like pho either. Soup for me is what you dip a grilled cheese sandwich in.)

As for the movie, he said that he mostly liked it, but he had trouble with what seemed to him like Ashitaka’s shifting alliances. “Like, whose side is he on,” he protested. He was unprepared for the level of violence – it was very surprising when I first saw this in the early 2000s and remains so today – but mostly fascinated by the story. I think I like Lady Eboshi the best. She’s an interestingly sympathetic villain, who’s done so much good that it mostly mitigates the evil. And I like the score: it might be Joe Hisaishi’s finest after Nausicaa.

But mentioning Nausicaa just brings up the problem: this movie just feels like Nausicaa redux, with a male lead. As Miyazaki explores the wheel turning and civilizations rising and falling and nature taking over and man beating it back, this was perhaps inevitable, but there isn’t anything here that Nausicaa didn’t do better, especially the climax. The great anecdote everybody loves to share about this one is that Miyazaki and/or his PR team sent the North American distributors a firm and slightly hilarious warning against making any cuts, but this climax goes on for freaking ever and could seriously stand to have a good fifteen minutes pruned from it. There’s a lot to like in the end, especially how all the people who live in Lady Eboshi’s town are ready and willing to rebuild and keep her in charge, despite everything, but it takes an agonizing time to get there.

Agonizing. Once we can preorder Conan, that’s precisely what it’s going to feel like. Mononoke is a pretty good movie, but it’s not Future Boy Conan.

*It was Beyblade.

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.

Adieu Galaxy Express (1981)

A couple of days ago, the delightful @PulpLibrarian made an insightful little observation on Twitter while celebrating Space: 1999. “Harshing on Space:1999 for not being hard sci-fi misses the point: the show is about space being weird and frightening, not about physics and engineering.” And I thought that was particularly interesting because we were coming up on watching another Galaxy Express movie, and this isn’t a world of science fiction, despite the spaceships and laser guns and robot men, it’s a world of allegory and poetry and hero’s journeys and maturity. It’s a strange and occasionally really weird world because it’s so on the nose, but that’s the point of the way this narrative is told: all the ray guns are distractions and fantasies, this is specifically about a boy growing up.

So Adieu Galaxy Express is an arguably unnecessary sequel, told at emphatically unnecessary length. Marie, who really has better things to do than watch boys grow into men in cartoon movies, shook her head from exhaustion and said they could have told this story in half the time. She’s right. There are some things I like and admire about this one, but considering how much more entertaining the original one was, they could have sped this along. There’s a lot to look at in its 130 minutes, and some of the animation is extremely good, but it’s very, very slow.

So how on the nose is this one? It’s so on the nose that Testuro has to kill his father, who is also the devil and is named Faust, before he can grow up. The movie starts with four unimportant side characters sacrificing themselves so that Tetsuro can have his journey, because they know that they are the supporting cast and we’re watching to see the kid. Maetel is back, answering as many questions as a cloud might, refusing to address the rumors that she is now the ruler of a galactic empire of machine people who use humans as soylent green energy capsules. Maetel and Emeraldas share a moment on the platform at the end acknowledging that they’ll never see Tetsuro again but their own journeys never end, even as Tetsuro’s does. After all, somebody else’s story is going to need a mother figure and a mysterious femme fatale.

I like the way the story completely subverts expectations with Harlock and Emeraldas. They each get a very quick little “save the day” moment cameo to remind viewers that this series can use them, and then they’re gone again, completely cut off from the story until they’re needed in the end to help blow stuff up. Unfortunately, our son also has better things to do than watch boys grow into men in cartoon movies, and only really paid attention when Harlock and Emeraldas were blowing stuff up.

His only real spoken complaint about the film was an odd one: there’s a trippy and psychedelic bit where the animators smoked all the grass they could find as they visualized the arrival on the planet Great Andromeda, and the kid grumbled “This is making my eyes hurt.” Otherwise, he was very restless and squirmed quite a lot. There are fights and shootouts, but there’s also no sense of danger or fear, and nothing to really engage him. So this was a big disappointment for two-thirds of this morning’s audience, but even though it’s not as good as the first one, I still like it a little.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

This was not the first time that my meticulous, and perhaps faintly ridiculous, preplanning for this silly blog has been thrown off by our son getting bedtime reading with his mom. On one hand, we are thrilled that, at age nine, he still wants bedtime stories, and hasn’t dismissed it as kiddie stuff. On the other hand, Marie unpacked Diana Wynne Jones’ novel Howl’s Moving Castle in January, when the movie wasn’t on the calendar until May. This took whole minutes to fix, but I’m very glad I did.

Castle is not among my favorite Miyazaki movies, despite its gorgeous animation and wonderful design, and what I might think is Joe Hisaishi’s finest score since Nausica√§. There’s a whole lot to love here, but there are other movies that I love much more. I also think the climax is very nebulous and ultimately disappointing. The problem of the war is apparently resolved, but offscreen, and the antagonism between the wizard Howl and the witch Madam Suliman barely gets started, much less finished.

But it worked out very well that they finished reading the novel a few weeks ago. It was very fresh in our son’s mind, and he told us that the book was “real different, but I loved both.” I haven’t read the book myself, so I relied on him to give me a very lengthy rundown of the changes and differences. Among many that he mentioned, Jones apparently had a much more satisfying resolution to the story in mind; her book had two climaxes, according to the kid, and while the character of Suliman is radically different in the original, there’s a lot more meat to Howl and Suliman’s rivalry. Also, the book apparently detours to Wales, while the movie is set emphatically in one of Miyazaki’s signature middle-European never-neverlands.

While the novel gave him lots to chew on as he tried to relax enough to sleep, the movie gave us a very funny fire demon, a hopping scarecrow, a ramshackle castle that walks on bird legs, and basically two mostly satisfying hours. Our son had been looking forward to it all week, and it didn’t disappoint at all.

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.

Porco Rosso (1992)

Shout! Factory and GKids have been releasing director Hayao Miyazaki’s films for Studio Ghibli in these beautiful steelbooks with minimal design and bright, solid colors. I told myself years ago that I would not, would not, would not let myself be tempted down the steelbook path, but all of my Ghibli films were badly in need of upgrades, and I prefer uniform design, and they’re all so gosh-darned pretty.

I was a little concerned and discouraged, because Miyazaki is not the only director with that studio, and their other output deserves the same treatment. Happily, they have announced that the next two in the series were directed by other people: Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns, coming in March. I’m very glad to see them shift the focus to the rest of the really talented directors at that studio, and while it does mean that Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso, as well as The Wind Rises, will have to come later on, I don’t mind waiting. After all, I’d waited 29 years to watch this one already.

I sincerely have no idea why it took me so long to get around to watching this movie. It’s been on my get-around-to-it list for decades, but when I decided to introduce our son to old and beloved films together around the structure of this blog, I just picked up a copy seven years ago (DVD, from the Book Nook in Marietta GA, the receipt tells me) and let it collect a little dust until it came up in the rotation. It was worth the wait; we all enjoyed this tremendously.

“Porco Rosso” is the unflattering nickname given to a man originally named Marco. He was a seaplane pilot in the 1910s with many friends, but somehow – and I love how this is not detailed at all – he was cursed by a witch and now has a pig’s head. So he keeps to himself and works as a bounty hunter in the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas, which are beset by dangerous, albeit lovably stupid, air pirates. One of his old friends runs a hotel and restaurant nearby and he goes to see her occasionally, and another old pal is a mechanic in Milan who occasionally gives him a small line of credit to repair all the massive damage his plane takes.

So one day, a hotshot American contracts with the pirates and shoots Porco out of the sky while he was on his way to Milan for repairs. Milan isn’t safe anymore, and all the young men have joined the army and the air force, but the mechanic insists that his seventeen year-old granddaughter is a great engineer and his all-female crew is perfectly capable of rebuilding his plane. But can he get out of Italy before the secret police find him, and do something about that American flyboy?

So no, I shouldn’t have waited so long to watch this. I really enjoyed it, probably even more than our son, who chuckled and laughed all the way through over the pirates’ dumb shenanigans and people refusing to back down from escalating situations. Miyazaki pulls out several tricks he’d used in earlier movies about flying, including the lever-pulling tech within cockpits, and planes moving in and out of clouds, so it’s familiar in many ways but it’s such an interesting story. It’s set in someplace broadly like our history, but at kind of an odd angle.

I like the characters of Porco and Theo quite a lot, and just love the way the story is told, especially the ending. Perfectly, it sets up a possibility or two after the climax and lets the audience wonder about them. It’s a very, very good film. When Shout! announces the steelbook, I’ll have a preorder in at RightStuf immediately.

Dr. Slump: The Great Race Around the World (1983)

More for the sake of completeness and posterity than analysis, this morning, we watched the ridiculous third Dr. Slump feature, a 50-minute story released in 1983 called The Great Race Around the World. Honestly, I didn’t think that it was a patch on the sublime and hysterical Space Adventure, but our son ate it up and laughed like a hyena all the way through it, so what do I know?

I like how it takes just enough elements from media you’ve seen before and gives them all an irreverent and immature Slump spin. In this one, the princess of the nearby Radial Kingdom doesn’t want to be forced to marry the winner of an around-the-world Great Race, so she tries to enter it herself. The king shoots her down, but since she’s the spitting image of Penguin Village’s school teacher, she can do a switcheroo. Meanwhile, the space villain Dr. Mashirito is in town to compete, and since Senbei and Arale’s car has been feeling suicidally depressed lately, they figure winning a big race would give him some needed confidence. There are certainly a few good gags, but the kid loved it more than I did, which is how it should be. He still hasn’t embraced the original Slump comic series, but we’re going out this afternoon; I’ll try dropping a collection in the back seat and see whether the darn child won’t finally take the bait.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017)

I suspect that the question “will there always be a Ghibli” keeps some people up at night. After all, Isao Takahata has passed away, and Miyazaki is working on what must surely be his final movie, unless of course he un-retires again after it so that some other people can make more documentaries about him. Hiromasa Yonebayashi must have once been seen as the hope of a new generation. 2010’s Secret World of Arrietty had been successful and promising, but then he went and co-founded another studio, called Ponoc, after his second Ghibli feature.

And what he took with him, I was disappointed to see, was basically a great big box of Ghibli tricks. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is basically what happens when you throw Totoro, Kiki, and Laputa in a blender and make the inside of Hogwarts from the Harry Potter movies look like Howl’s Moving Castle. When Mary tries mastering her broomstick, our son quietly said “This looks a lot like Kiki.” Visually, there’s not a single surprise in this movie, and the same goes for the script.

Ehhh, the kid was pleased. This is just a simple family adventure movie by the numbers, so just right for elementary and middle school-aged audiences. Strong teen girl protagonist, relative with a secret, magical world just on the other side of reality, danger that threatens our world, villains who talk too much, annoying boy who needs rescuing, merchandise-friendly animal familiar, you’ve seen it all before, although possibly not animated quite as well as this. It certainly looks like they spent millions on it to make it move and breathe with clarity, but the story’s so slight that I don’t imagine that our son will be in a big hurry to revisit it, or remember it very much down the line, when all the movies that are in this one’s DNA are crying out to be rewatched again instead.

On the other hand, I’ve got Howl’s Moving Castle on the calendar for the spring. Who knows, when we watch it, he may just quietly say “This looks a lot like Mary.”