TMS Entertainment’s feature length Lupin III: The First is finally making its way outside of Japan (a full year after its initial premiere) hitting theatres in the US on 18 (dubbed) and 21 October (subbed). There are also further screenings planned on 23 October, and a Blu-ray scheduled for release in January. Those of us who have already had the privilege of seeing it are pretty excited, because it’s really good.
Even so, Lupin III: The First means so much more than that. Obviously, the passing of Monkey Punch last year hangs heavily over any and all future Lupin projects (without the creator around to supervise, it was always possible for the franchise to lose its way) but 2019’s Goodbye Partner and Fujiko Mine’s Lie thoroughly disproved that fact, bringing us pitch perfect Lupin goodness in very different ways.
To a certain extent, Lupin III: The First is just a continuation of that trend. Yet, by virtue of its format and narrative, it has the potential to become something more: a new Lupin classic for a new generation, ensuring the franchise’s longevity for years and decades to come.
Lupin III in 3D: An Updated Visual Style
How I, and many others, got into Lupin in the first place was through Hayao Miyazaki’s 1979 film, The Castle of Cagliostro. We have already dealt with the importance of that film in many articles published here on OTAQUEST, so I won’t retread old ground. Instead, it is useful to keep Cagliostro in mind as we explore Takashi Yamazaki’s movie: its animation, its characters, and overall themes.
Contains spoilers for the end of Lupin III: The First.
You have been warned.
Films, by their very nature, are able to capture a much wider audience. While most anime is broadcast late at night or is only available via expensive Blu-ray sets, going to the cinema is something often done by both Japanese and western families alike. As a result, the audience for Lupin III: The First was, and still is, decisively mainstream: the type of audience that might have a problem with older animation.
Studio Ghibli films are still, many decades later, regarded as masterpieces and consumed as such by families and children the world over. Yet, Cagliostro came at a different time: Miyazaki was operating within the confines of Tokyo Movie Shinsha (now TMS Entertainment) and not in his own studio, where he has a greater degree of control.
That is not to say that Cagliostro has aged poorly (it hasn’t – it still has some of the most mind-blowing and frenetic pieces of animation I’ve ever seen), but that it is a little more rough around the edges compared to Miyazaki’s later works. Furthermore, next to the likes of modern animated blockbusters as Your Name. and Weathering With You, it looks downright simplistic.
In comes Takashi Yamazaki. As one of the founders and key members of the visual effects studio Shirogumi, Yamazaki already had a hand in creating some of the most important animated films of the decade. Such titles as Stand By Me Doraemon and Dragon Quest: Your Story did more to legitimize Japanese 3D animation in a matter of years than decades of work by Polygon Pictures.
Yet, it must be said that his work on Lupin III: The First is a cut above the rest, bringing both the story and characters to outstanding life.
Seeing the iconic character of Arsène Lupin III walk and talk in 3D is, in many ways, like a dream come true. While 2D animation has its own advantages (particularly when it comes to evoking the type of ‘Saturday morning cartoon’ feeling that many appreciate about Monkey Punch’s work) there is something about the unparalleled fidelity of 3D animation that makes it truly feel like Lupin, Jigen, Goemon, and Fujiko are there, really and truly, on the big screen.
Furthermore, the fluid nature of 3D animation means that there is never a dull moment, as the animators always have the time and resources to do something with the characters or their surroundings. I’m willing to bet that many of my subsequent rewatches of the film will be spent concentrating on the background, on the characters’ interactions, and the easter eggs inserted therein. It just looks that good.
Story and Characters: Similar, but Different
Good animation is not the only thing that makes a good film. The story behind it is also imperative, along with the characters and their relationships: in this sense, Lupin III: The First is a fantastic new chapter.
To compare Lupin III: The First to Takashi Yamazaki’s previous work, it doesn’t suffer from the same sort of pacing or story issues that plagued Dragon Quest: Your Story. Rather, it stands next to the likes of Stand By Me Doraemon as a perfect encapsulation of everything that makes the series’ stories so great, only in an entirely new format.
At the same time, Lupin III: The First goes one step further. One of the biggest problems I have always had with Castle of Cagliostro is the character of Clarissa. While her relationship with Lupin was incredibly charming, she played quite a passive role, acting as the classic ‘damsel in distress.’
This seems strange in a series such as Lupin III, which features such a character as Fujiko Mine, a ‘femme fatale’ who has no need of, and even takes advantage of, the main male character. Clearly, Clarissa was part of Miyazaki’s intention to adapt Monkey Punch’s classic character for a more family friendly audience, which worked otherwise quite well.
In this sense, Laetitia feels like a much more fitting character for the Lupin series. Acting as the movie’s main female protagonist (and audience point-of-view character), she drives the plot forward in accordance with her own needs and desires. Sure, she needs the help of Lupin to do so (and falls in love with him at the end), but enjoys a much more equitable relationship with the male protagonist.
Furthermore, Lupin III: The First has a great (if probably accidental) political message. About halfway through the film, it turns out that the group of antagonists that Laetitia is being strong armed into working for are literal Nazis, working towards the reconstruction of the Third Reich. This probably won’t come as much surprise looking at one of the character’s haircuts, but is a bold story choice nonetheless.
Quite hilariously, Lupin III: The First doesn’t give any of these Nazis any pomp or grace, nor any real redeeming qualities. Instead, it shows them to be the sad, pathetic ideologues that they truly are. This is particularly the case at the very end where the two go to an island that supposedly houses their beloved Führer. But, instead, it’s Lupin masquerading as him, showing the myth of his escape and his overall personage to be as pathetic as it truly was.
Naturally, Takashi Yamazaki probably didn’t mean any of this. None of his prior films have been particularly political, and this was probably more a result of him cribbing off of Indiana Jones, which Lupin III: The First is clearly inspired by. (Seriously, the last arc just screams The Last Crusade.)
Still, no film is released in a vacuum, and I’ll take all the joy I can get from characters punching Nazis when their resurgence threatens the very existence of some of my closest friends.
Lupin III: The First – A New Chapter
In any case, none of this was to say that prior Lupin films have been unsatisfactory, and Castle of Cagliostro in particular. Far from it; it’s just that, in many ways, Lupin III: The First is a more up-to-date theatrical Lupin experience.
Starting with the animation, Takashi Yamazaki’s bold visual style and the tireless work of the team over at Marza Animation Planet make this is a much more palatable experience for a mainstream audience, who may have a problem with older animation. And even for hardcore fans such as myself, it’s hard to deny the benefits that the change in medium brings.
What’s more, Lupin III: The First uses a similar character type to Castle of Cagliostro but ends up doing so in a much better way. Again, this is not to say that Clarissa is bad, but that Laetitia is more suited to the series, and to our modern sensibilities.
The story, too, is quite satisfying. Not just in the way that it captures everything that we love about Monkey Punch’s series, but also because of its more original elements. To be honest, when the big Nazi reveal happened, I was initially quite shocked, but got very quickly back on board once I saw how they were treated. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
All of these things combined give Lupin III: The First the potential to become the franchise’s next big hit for a new generation, and one can only hope that its release in the US accelerates this process somewhat. Of course, COVID-19 complicates things quite a bit (I, for one, won’t be going anywhere near a theatre any time soon), but the point still stands. Just make sure you’re taking the proper precautions, whatever you do.
To finish, I’d like to take you back a bit to last July, when I wrote an article about the latest batch of Lupin projects, Goodbye Partner and Fujiko Mine’s Lie. There, I made the point that Monkey Punch’s Lupin series has always been an incubator for creatives from all walks of life, from animators to screenwriters to composers. That much is still true today, with LUPIN THE THIRD JAM bringing musicians from many different genres to work on remixes of the series’ iconic music.
Lupin lives on, irrespective of his creator being here or not.
"LUPIN THE THIRD JAM"
— ルパン三世 JAM CREW《LUPIN THE THIRD JAM》 (@lupin3rd_jam) October 7, 2020
Yet, that has not always been the case. Between the release of Lupin the Third: Part III and The Italian Adventure (Part IV), there was a nearly thirty-year period where the character did not appear on TV screens, only in OVA or movie format. That was because of the failure of Part III, which was in itself due to creative stagnation. The writers were doing the same thing over and over again, churning out mediocre storylines and adaptations. Eventually, that led to its cancellation.
Lupin III will only continue for as long as it can continue to entertain us, but that in itself can only be done by pushing the boundaries and trying out new ideas. Lupin III: The First does exactly that, and I look forward to seeing how a potential sequel might do so even more.
Lupin III: The First is being distributed in the US by GKIDS.