Lupin III is the world's greatest thief, helped by his associates Jigen, Goemon and Fujiko and pursued by his nemesis Inspector Zenigata. Lupin is a clowning lecher, Jigen is a gunslinger, Goemon is a thirteenth-generation samurai and Fujiko is the ultimate femme fatale. Huge-breasted and not afraid to exploit her feminine charms, Fujiko regularly cheats, betrays and swindles Lupin... but she also has a sneaking affection for him. Together Lupin and his gang travel the world, meet famous people and rob them!
Lupin III is huge in Japan, as famous as is James Bond in England. The original manga was created in 1967 by Kato Kazuhiko, aka. Monkey Punch, in homage to the fictional French thief Arsene Lupin. Lupin III is supposedly the original's grandson. This would cause copyright problems since Monkey Punch didn't bother to seek permission from the Maurice Leblanc estate, although the Lupin name eventually entered the public domain in the 1990s. For this reason various names have been used for Lupin III in the West, including "Wolf", "Rupan" and "Edgard de la Cambriole". The first TV series started with an adult tone and only lasted 23 episodes, after which the franchise became more family-friendly. Lupin and co. remained thieves, though. Over 200 TV episodes were produced, after which the Lupin industry switched over to movies and TV specials. There's been at least one a year since 1989.
Famous names have worked on this franchise, most notably Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata in their pre-Studio Ghibli days. Miyazaki worked on the TV series and even directed a movie, The Castle of Cagliostro (1979). Another movie was directed by Monkey Punch himself, Dead or Alive (1996), and starred the darker, more violent Lupin III of the manga and the early days of the anime. There's even a live-action film, Strange Psycho-Kinetic Strategy (1974).
Confession time: I've never seen any of the TV episodes and only four of the specials and movies. I'm thus grossly unqualified to write this review, but obviously I didn't let that stop me. You see, I don't plan to watch any more. I don't really like Lupin III. The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) is allegedly an early masterpiece from Miyazaki and a classic of action-adventure... nope, it's okay. (It's also unrepresentative of the franchise as a whole, since it stars a nicer, more sentimental Lupin in the twilight of his career.) Episode 0: First Contact (2002) left no impression upon me whatsoever. I'm racking my brains trying to think up a comment or two, but I can't remember even the first thing about it.
The Secret of Twilight Gemini (1996) similarly left me cold. The art's not great. I've seen better in loathsome straight-to-video Disney sequels. Even the fanservice suffers. Meanwhile the story's an uninteresting hodge-podge of undercooked cliches, with at best a scene or two rising above the rest. Lupin and the gang are okay, I suppose, but nothing here made me want to learn more about them. Fundamentally it's a goofy adventure with action that isn't exciting and humour that isn't funny. No, I tell a lie... I laughed once, at Goemon's embarrassment at rescuing an unclad Fujiko. However even that's apparently wrong, since in the TV series Goemon was happy to leer when the opportunity arose. On one occasion Fujiko's trying to climb into a barrel in a miniskirt. She tears Lupin off a strip for peeking and then gets in, looking smug, only to realise that she's just given Goemon an eyeful instead. The "noble samurai" just smirks, sniggers and drops down into his own barrel as she fumes.
It took me three watchings to get through that special. Even the subtitles annoyed me, translating so loosely that they're basically making shit up. I liked its Morocco, its silent movie pastiches and Lupin's lady friend, but I couldn't help noticing plot problems. Why was the local police chief so dead-set against catching Lupin? Didn't Lupin realise that he was discarding the diamond when he stripped to help the girl in the quicksand? How did they then get rescued? (They sank!) And what's the point of creating a lovely Moroccan setting if you're then going to give the locals Japanese body language? The Secret of Twilight Gemini isn't horrible, but it's nothing I'd recommend.
I liked The Fuma Conspiracy (1987), though. It has a nice touch with its characters, Goemon's fiancee is sweet and the action scenes are awesome. The wedding scene with the game of "pass the vase" has an almost magician-like slickness. The theme song is funky too. The main downside is that the show's format undermines the romance. Nothing will ever happen to these characters. They're the same today as they were decades ago, and still won't have changed in decades to come. We know they won't really marry off one of the regulars! That poor girl deserved better, though at least the film doesn't end on a downer.
Fundamentally though I don't care about the characters. They're thieves. I'd be happy to see them riddled with bullets and thrown to the crocodiles. This may sound odd since I love evil bastard stories, but that's different. Such stories are aware of their protagonists' scuzziness. I can accept almost anything if the writers are in on the joke. Lupin III on the other hand simply seems to be saying "stealing is cool" and setting up four thieves as straightforward heroes, with which I have a big problem. Even with the harder-edged manga version, I've flipped through Lupin III in hairdressers and shops and never seen anything that made me want to read further.
In fairness I'm fully prepared to believe that the movies and specials are a sad shadow of the greatness of the TV series. Lupin's adventures are perfect for the 25-minute format. Anything beyond that is just padding. I also believe the characterisation was better in the TV series. One-off specials are a more restrictive format than an ongoing weekly show, so apparently the modern stuff tends to caricature or just make gross and crude what was previously only implied or performed subtly. It's okay, but it lacks a lightness of touch. It also doesn't help that they changed the team dynamic, possibly to cover for Makio Inoue's voice going in the case of Goemon. It became less of an ensemble. I'll hand the stage to my Lupin-loving friend:
"The first series started off much darker and harder, but still with a comic touch. Series two is much lighter, but everyone plays off each other so well that you just can't resist the characters. Some great animation helps, but it's the interplay between the five leads that makes this show. Zenigata and Lupin play cat and mouse (or sometimes more like Tom and Jerry!), but neither really wants to see the other hurt and Zenigata would have little reason to go on without Lupin to chase. Lupin and Fujiko constantly dance around their feelings for each other, both driven by their natures to act in totally counter-productive ways, to the constant despair of the straight men of the team, Jigen and Goemon, who have pretty much ended up as my favourites. They're underused in the films, but here they shine in support. Jigen's more cynical, but a bit of a romantic underneath. Goemon's more stoic, but possessed of an impish sense of humour at times that Inoue captures perfectly."
"I laughed my arse off throughout the first episode. Total fun - and I just can't stop giggling at the Voice Of Harlock goofing off as the sweet but holier than thou Goemon! He cracks me up every time, more so than in the OVAs since at this point he's still got his voice. It's nice to have something that's totally stand-alone to watch. No pressure to finish it, just a nice little diversion every now and then. No real thought needed. However I can't follow a word the guy playing Lupin is saying, he talks so damn fast!"
Okay, Finn's back. Fanservice fans will want to erect a shrine to Fujiko. The first ever TV episode has her losing her clothes and flashing nipples. What's more, the opening credits of series 2's second season have what sounds like one of anime's greatest gratuitous fanservice moments. Fujiko. With a big gun. On her back, firing it. Totally naked. Sadly I haven't seen any of these fine moments myself, but I can vouch for the fact that The Secret of Twilight Gemini has Fujiko, again with nipples, stripping to get Lupin to say what he's up to and then later being tied up and having her clothes whipped off by a cackling bullwhip-wielding transvestite.
My friend informs me that the second TV series goes down the toilet around the hundred-episode mark, but that that's just a six-episode "burp" and that after their well-earned vacation the writers and artists thanked the cleaning staff for covering for their two month bender and got back to work. However that's a tiny hiccup in a juggernaut of anime, a TV show that's sustained its chemistry over 228 episodes under various production teams across 15 years. That's without mentioning the specials. To have endured so long in the Japanese public consciousness there must be something special in Lupin III. It's inspired other anime and manga series, perhaps most notably Cowboy Bebop. I have no love for it, but that's clearly my loss.