Chasing Lupin The Third

While print manga and its animated counterpart, anime are quintessentially Japanese in aesthetics and design, the medium has long held a fascination with cossetting European settings and characters. This odd sub-genre often presents as dark dystopian tales such as the wildly popular Attack on Titan set in a fictional medieval village, or as whimsical fantasy adventures such as Howl’s Moving Castle and The Sky Crawlers from industry heavy weights Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Oshii respectively. But arguably one the best known, and beloved European set Japanese properties would have to be the infamous and iconic Lupin the Third.

Embracing a mix of roughish charm, high adventure and comedic antics, the manga first appeared in 1965, penned by Kazuhiko Katō, better known under the pseudonym Monkey Punch, who imagined his main protagonist as the grandson of Arsène Lupin, the fictional character of French author Maurice LeBlanc, who, as a gentleman thief and master criminal, was often referenced as the antithesis of England’s law-abiding Sherlock Holmes. And while Katō, aka Monkey Punch, borrowed heavily from LeBlanc’s template, his affable Lupin III undeniably carved his own unique personae thanks to some seriously risqué illustrated depictions of sex and violence that would have had the most refined French scoundrel blushing. 

However, with a series of adventures spanning what is todays European Union, combined with intricate heists, double-crosses, witty dialogues and anti-establishment undertones the series has inevitably gentrified into a more PC property, allowing it to become a hit not only in its native Japan, but also abroad as Lupin III jumped from the page to the small screen to the silver screen and back again numerous times over the past fifty years. 

In fact, when you break down the success Lupin III has enjoyed, it’s a staggering amount of content the franchise has generated since its humble serialization in Weekly Manga Action magazine in August of 1967. The list includes two animated pilots, six animated television series; eleven theatrically released animated films (including the Castle of Cagliostro by Oscar winner Hayao Miyazaki), two live-action films, five AVO or direct-to-video works, twenty-seven animated specials, two musicals, a Detective Conan cross-over manga and TV Special, as well as numerous video game adaptations and CD releases. And now, in a departure from Japans more traditional 2D animated fare, the first CG animated film, delivering a refreshing new take on the veteran franchise, and which has drawn comparisons to Spielberg’s 2011 blockbuster The Adventures of Tintin.

But its no real surprise that the property has found universal appeal, as the titular title character isn’t the only cast member to borrow from pre-existing literary and cultural inspirations. As an interesting side note, during the sixties Japan rarely bothered itself with compliance of copyright laws, hence the flagrant use of Arsène Lupin’s namesake. And while some of Lupin III’s oddly familiar associates haven’t appropriated their influencer’s moniker in such an obvious manner, Katō has often gone on record as acknowledging James Bond as a strong influence for Lupin’s amorous prowess and the Bond Girl phenomenon as the origin for co-conspirator and love interest Fujiko Mine. Similarly, Lupin III’s right-hand man Daisuke Jigen has been referenced to James Coburn’s gritty performance as Brit from 1960’s The Magnificent Seven

And taking the pop-culture high-jacking even further, Monkey Punch has compared the relationship between Lupin and his archnemesis Inspector Zenigata as a “Human” Tom & Jerry while Lupin and Fujiko are his ode to D’Artagnan & Milady de Winter of The Three Musketeers

But besides the casually noticeable traits imbued in his characters, perhaps Monkey Punch’s wisest choice was embracing Lupin III’s heritage, taking readers and viewers alike on rambunctious adventures across the romantic vistas of Europe, from The Italian Adventure TV series, to 2018’s Lupin III: Part V series which pays homage to Maurice LeBlanc, his native France and his original leading man; depicting rich historical locales and bustling city-scapes that embrace the intrigue and romance, danger and mystery on a scale usually reserved for splashy 70’s cinema.

And now, with the upcoming Australian release of Lupin III: The First, the newly minted computer animated feature, is set to welcome a new audience, while maintaining a respectful authenticity for long-standing fans. Directed by Takashi Yamazaki, whose previous works include the beautifully rendered Sunset on Third Street trilogyand the recent Parasyte adaptations, and featuring an English language dub headlined by acclaimed voice actors Tony Oliver (Bleach: Hell Verse) and Michelle Ruff (Sword Art Online), Lupin III’s latest escapade once again attempts to jump the shark, landing a riotous globetrotting adventure filled with meticulous heists, superb action sequences, and a compelling MacGuffin inspiring enough high-stakes adventure to put the likes of Indiana Jones, Archer or Ethan Hunt to shame.  

Yet perhaps the film’s most surprising attribute is its heart, with Yamazaki not only exploring the relationships between his various cohorts and nemesis, but doing so in a very personal, introspective way that connects audiences not just to the onscreen action but allows them to invest in the film’s roguish ensemble. No small feat for a franchise with 80 years of content behind it.

    J. Fletcher

    Based in Sydney, Australia. Entertainment Journalist. Critic. Photographer. Coffee Snob. Not necessarily in that order.

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