Sunday, April 7, 2013

Lupin the Third: Series 1 (Review)

Masaaki Osumi (episodes: 1-7, 9, 12)
Hayao Miyazaki & Isao Takahada (episodes: 8, 10, 11, 13-23)

Company: TMS

Year: 1971-1972

Country: Japan

How does one of Japan's most revolutionary anime series hold up?

Lupin the Third is one of Japan's longest living franchises, still generating numerous spinoffs and specials to this day. Based off of the manga by Monkey Punch, the series is about Lupin III, the grandson of French thief Arsene Lupin, who never fails to steal a target that he sets his eyes upon. Lupin is aided by Diasake Jigen, an excellent marksman who is heavily implied to be a former mafia member, and, later, by the stoic swordsman Goemon on occasion. Fujiko Mime betrays Lupin just as frequently as she helps him. She often exploits Lupin's weakness for women to her own advantage. Lupin must also beware of Kocihi Zenigata, a bumbling inspector who has dedicated his life to capturing the thief. Although a pilot film was released in 1969, the Lupin franchise did not really take off until 1971 with its first television series, initially somewhat controversial due to its level of violence and suggestive themes.

Our protagonists: a thief, a former mobster, a samurai, and a femme fatale.  

The early episodes, directed by Masaaki Osumi, are rather rough around the edges in certain places and remain fairly loyal in overall tone to the original manga. Lupin III truly was the first anime series aimed at a more adult audience. It was a product of changing standards brought on by the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s. Some of the content in the first half of the series can be a bit surprising even by today's standards. The body counts can be quite high as Lupin is not below shooting his enemies and the protagonists frequently get tangled up with criminal organizations. The drama remains tense throughout, and Lupin and his friends encounter many hardships uncommon (or rather unheard of) in American cartoons of the same time period.

Black comedy and bizarre Mad Magazine like humor is also common early on. Sex is never depicted on screen, but never the less is suggested and certain episodes are quite racy at times. In one particular scene, Fujiko thanks Lupin for saving her and says, "I just wish you would have come sooner." Lupin, upon seeing Fujiko's ripped clothes, replies, "No, I should have come later!" 

Or in other words, Lupin, you're being manipulated again.

Pointing the gun at the screen. Not your typical Saturday morning fare. 

Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahada were later brought in to tone down the violence and innuendoes. The series then went under a major makeover. Slapstick humor and inspired sight gags become fairly common. Some of the violence remains, but is less mysterious and sinister in nature. Lupin becomes a more carefree and kinder character. He is far less of a playboy and is even quite chivalrous at times, when he saves young girls from harm or steals money from the rich in a Robin Hood-esque manner. Jigen becomes less temperamental and Goemon's rivalry with Lupin cools down considerably. All of Lupin's allies are more willing to work with one another as well.

Fujiko perhaps changes the most. The sexuality goes completely out the window with Miyazaki and Takahada at helm. Fujiko becomes far less seductive and begins to become more playful with Lupin. She is shown to be kidnapped less often and to be very capable. Also, Fujiko starts to be depicted in Miyazaki's trademark style. She begins to sport a short hair cut, pilot airplanes, and frequently wear the color blue.

The contrasting parts of the show make it very interesting to watch indeed. The first few episodes are almost too cruel or over sexualized in places, while the later Miyazaki / Takahada episodes can be overly goofy at times. Perhaps, the best episodes are the middle ones which balance the drama and grit of Osumi's direction with the boyish energy and more confident direction of the later Miyazaki / Takahada ones. The sudden change in the show is not a bad thing, in fact, it makes Lupin III more enjoyable.

Miyazaki and Takahada working behind the scenes in 1971.

Miyazaki's Fujiko relies less on her sexuality and more on her wits.    

The greatest thing about this series is its great use of characterization and zany humor. Each Lupin episode can be viewed as a self contained story (save for the one where Goemon is introduced), but have enough references back to past episodes to keep fans watching. Much of the show's humor and tension comes from its cast's contrasting personalities. Lupin is smart, but also very goofy at times and weak willed around women. On the other hand, his partner, Jigen, is a no-nonsense guy who can't stand Fujiko. Goemon is even more stern. He is quite conservative and his ego frequently clashes with Lupin's. Zenigata is so stubborn and so driven to catch Lupin, that he constantly makes errors. The audience gets a lot of laughs out of his mistakes, but can sympathize with him as well. And Fujiko, despite how manipulative she can be at times, truly does care for Lupin. She never puts Lupin into situations that he can not escape from and mourns when she is lead to believe that he has died. (Once, Fujiko even shoots her former partner, whom she was very close to, in order to save Lupin's life.)

Lupin drives a Mercedes SSK which happens to be one of the world's rarest cars. The running gag? It blows up or gets cut in half a lot

Oh no, Zenigata caught Lupin...Too bad he will escape in about two seconds.

Another interesting aspect is the series's soundtrack by Takeo Yamashita with vocals provided by Charlie Kosei and, occasionally, Kayoko Ishu. The music is very distinctive, firmly fitting in the era Lupin III was created. It has sort of a post-Woodstock vibe to it. Charlie Kosei sounds a bit like Bob Dylan at times, and the soundtrack also makes heavy use of jazz, whistling, and scat lyrics. There are even English vocals throughout the score. This can be somewhat hilarious as the English can be rather nonsensical. ("Lupin, he's a nice man...and he gets angry....sometimes...But he's a groovy guy. Yeah, Lupin the Third".) It should also be noted that the music of Lupin III and the overall darker mood of the series's first half had a great influence on Shinichiro Watanabe, creator of Cowboy Bebop (1998) and Samurai Chamloo (2004). 

The animation of Lupin the Third is dated, yes, but that is practically unavoidable for a TV series that is over forty years old. Even though the characters are rather static in certain scenes, the animation for this show is very fluid in comparison to other anime and American cartoons released at the same time. The character designs have aged fairly well, as they have not changed too much over the years. Great attention is given to drawing realistic looking guns, cars, motorcycles, airplanes, and other such machines. This detailed style of inanimate objects would carry on to Miyazaki's later work, due to his love of flight and appreciation of mechanics. (Miyazaki's father was an aeronautical engineer who created plane parts during WWII.)

The attention to detail on the motorcycle is impressive, especially given this show's age.

The original Lupin III series is not perfect, but that's part of its charm. The grittier, more adult half of Lupin really helped push anime into unfamiliar territory and further distance its self from American cartoons. The later half of the show was a stepping stone for Miyazaki and Takahada who would later become two of the most respected anime directors to ever live. Lupin is not only historically important, but it has great wacky humor and well developed characters. So despite Lupin having a rather rough start and its age, the series remains a favorite among many hardcore anime fans and perhaps one of mine as well. 

Rating: 4/5

* About the Dub: No English dub of Lupin III was ever produced, despite the later series receiving one. For those curious about the Lupin III, it is available for purchase on Amazon in its entirety, with restored picture quality and special features including the pilot film. For broke college students and any one else starved on cash, the original series can be watched for free on Hulu.

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