Original Airdate: February 20th, 1972 on Yomiuri TV
This is not only the first episode of an anime series that I’m covering here but also the first time I’m covering a program for which I have next to no points of reference, which is admittedly most if not all anime. But I’m determined to learn! Until I sat down to do research for this installment, the only reason I knew the name “Lupin III” at all was due to a rap lyric. But this franchise is a pop culture juggernaut in Japan. It got its start in a manga story created in 1967 by the artist Kazuhiko Kato, and in “Beauty Contest” he is credited by his famous pen name: Monkey Punch. Kato was struggling to gain a foothold in the world of professional manga and was diligently cranking out indie projects when he was approached by the editor of a newly-minted magazine by the name of Weekly Manga Action. The editor hired Kato, and the journeyman artist’s first project was to create a manga with adult themes for the slightly more mature audience the publication was seeking to court. The project was meant to be a three-month engagement, and the editor also asked that Kato use the pseudonym Monkey Punch. Kato despised the name but was in no position to refuse.
Flash-forward to 2015. Manga Action is still in print and Lupin III is the face of a sprawling media empire still very much in the public eye–as we speak the fifth TV series in the franchise is broadcasting new episodes in Japan and Italy, where Lupin III is also an astronomical hit and a household name. In fact, it would appear that Italy is the driving force behind the newest installments, since Japan’s NTV is airing them a month after they premiere on Italia 1. Irritatingly, this new series is called Lupin the 3rd–it can be hard to tell these shows apart based on their names. A popular shorthand among fans is to refer to the series based on what color Lupin’s jacket is when he’s in his normal outfit. This makes the first series “green jacket,” the second “red jacket,” the third “pink jacket” and this newest one “blue jacket.” If Stockholm syndrome has kicked in, you might be saying “But wait! That’s not enough jackets!” Indeed not. The fourth series was a spinoff centered on the adventures of another central Lupin III character, Fujiko Mine. Wikipedia describes this series as “more sexually oriented” and I am fine to go on without overturning that particular rock this evening.
The manga with hundreds of chapters and the five TV shows are really just the tip of the iceberg, though. The franchise has enjoyed seven theatrically released animated films, including one continuing the spun-off adventures of Fujiko. Live-action adaptations of Lupin III are not uncommon, with two theatrical releases in Japan, as well as two stage adaptations and a short-lived Filipino television drama. Every year from 1989 to 2013 saw a new 90-minute TV special appear on NTV, with 2014’s installment presumably set aside for work on the new series. So the one brief episode of Lupin the Third Part 1 under review is just a drop in an enormous ocean of Lupin-ness and may not be representative of the franchise as a whole in any way, shape or form. From here on out when I refer to Lupin I am talking about Lupin the Third Part I, with the green jacket on Lupin.
It’s interesting that this review is back to back with Dead Like Me, because Lupin also got off to a very rough start when the creative director Masaaki Osumi left the show in a hurry because of conflicts with the network over content. This was the first adaptation of the manga and was a watershed moment for anime–it was one of if not the first anime series aimed squarely at adults, with a decidedly dark tone and liberal amounts of sex and violence. It created controversy at a time that counterculture was ascendant in Japan, much as it was in the US and Europe, and Osumi wasn’t willing to tone it down. On the one hand, this makes sense–he’s doing an adaptation of work meant for (semi-)mature audiences and it wouldn’t really be Lupin III if it didn’t honor these elements of the original, but on the other hand, I still believe it’s not a good sign if a director can’t find a workable compromise.
In the case of Lupin, a workable compromise is exactly what ended up happening–the show kept some racier elements, cut back on the violence a bit and continued to target an adult audience while adopting a light-hearted, silly tone that made the show less intense and more fun to watch. In other words, the new directors made Lupin marketable and still kept it edgy and original. The new directors were Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, and in 13 years they’d go on to found Studio Ghibli, the internationally acclaimed and hugely successful animation studio behind a murderer’s row of stone-cold classic films. Studio Ghibli is a really big deal, even to an anime noob like me. Think the Pixar of anime. If you want recommendations on where to start with Ghibli, try Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies or The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Miyazaki’s finest moments as a director include Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. I’m a bit stunned that this project managed to serve up what turns out to be Miyazaki’s first direction credit, though he had worked on other things in various capacities before this. It turns out Miyazaki’s first direction credit on a film was also a bit of a surprise: 1979’s The Castle of Cagliostro, which just so happens to be the second Lupin III animated film. Whatever else you may say about this light-hearted but puzzling show, it played a critical role in film history worldwide.
- Fresh storytelling. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where Lupin, already on its last legs and with increasingly pitiful ratings, gets a half-assed treatment from writer Soji Yoshikawa along the lines of what happened with So Little Time. Instead, this episode’s story is as modern and engaging as any similar project you’d care to name in 2015. Of course, part of the reason this is possible is because there aren’t really any similar projects. Lupin (Yasuo Yamada) is meant to be a descendent of Arsene Lupin, an archetypal lovable rogue and gentleman thief whose adventures in French crime fiction have loomed large ever since they originally appeared in the first few decades of the 20th century. Since our chaotic neutral hero is always on the lookout for his next big score, crime stories are a natural fit. But Lupin’s not solving a mystery here, nor is he plotting a crime per se. Here’s the (quite unique!) plot in a nutshell: A group of promoters have set up a beauty contest in Japan meant to rival or at least emulate Miss World/Universe competitions. Lupin instantly identifies the aged and disguised lead promoter, Smith (Kazuo Arai) as an internationally wanted art thief. He deduces quickly that Smith plans to use the pageant as a hidden-in-plain-sight venue for selling art on the black market to Europeans in the 1% who are ostensibly acting as the pageant’s judges. Lupin’s challenge becomes turning his insights and observations into some kind of personal profit. He needs to insert himself into the proceedings, take all the marbles and dance away from the cops and Smith’s thugs. This is a great example of how to use a lovable rogue. Often this character serves a role in an ensemble, but when they get center stage the writer is faced with the unique problem of telling a story about a crime or a scheme where our hero is neither a detective trying to create order or someone too villainous and powerful to be sympathetic. We want our lovable rogues to be underdogs that have the skills and talent to give the heavyweights a run for their money, and Lupin absolutely nails this.
- Light and fun without being stupid or empty. This is also hard to pull off, but this show’s seemingly incongruous mix of elements throws the strengths of each aspect into high relief. By maintaining a light-hearted tone and being unafraid to embrace the cartoonishness of its medium, Lupin creates a world where we’re able to believe in an over-the-top police inspector like Koichi Zenigata (Goro Naya, Space Battleship Yamato.) Zenigata’s mission is to pursue Lupin to the ends of the earth in a dogged and futile quest to bring him to justice, but he doesn’t recognize a very lightly disguised Lupin when he’s standing right in front of him. Zenigata’s not a typical blundering cop, though Lupin seems to bring out the worst in him. When Lupin leads him by the nose into the back room deal where the paintings are being exchanged for cash, Zenigata puts it together right away and makes arrests. Zenigata is generally good at what he does, but Lupin presents an eternal challenge and vexation, leading to comical rage and tunnel vision from Zenigata. Of course, the angrier and more single-minded he gets the worse his chance of outfoxing Lupin. This solid characterization allows for endless plot variations and a frequent source of amusement without being cheap. Zenigata’s no cliche, and the show more than earns the laughs it gets from his hijinks. More importantly, he’s a case study in how the show mostly manages to merge its dissonant components into something successful and interesting.
- One-man show. I’m betting this is only a problem with “Beauty Contest,” but Lupin is really the only character who gets to do anything substantial here. He figures out the players and the plan, he coordinates a response and he improvises next steps and a grand finale more or less by himself. Sure, his friends are there, standing around. Perennial sidekick Diasuke Jigen (Kiyoshi Kobayashi) is only there so that Lupin has someone to have a dialogue with instead of just monologuing his ideas for our benefit. Jigen contributes absolutely nothing of substance and doesn’t even give me a hint of characterization beyond a vague coarseness. Fujiko (Yukiko Nikaido) has even less to do–she only gets one line in the entire show and it’s “Okay, leave it to me.” If all her storylines are this substantial, no wonder she needed a spin-off! Rounding out the main cast is Goemon Ishikawa XIII (Chikao Ohtsuka, Nintama Rantaro.) Like Lupin and Zenigata, he’s meant to be a descendant of an archetypal cultural figure–in this case legendary samurai Ishikawa Goemon. Goemon has been a figure in folklore since the 16th century and is a bit like Robin Hood, if Robin Hood were executed by being boiled alive. Zenigata is meant to be the descendant of Zenigata Heiji, a major figure in mid-century Japanese detective fiction depicting an intrepid policeman in the Edo period. Ishikawa is a samurai like his forefather, and while it does seem strange that this more-or-less realistic crime adventure show would include an expert samurai in the cast it’s all part of the methodical madness of Lupin. However, from what I am given to understand Ishikawa is meant to be a mercurial figure who only sides with Lupin when it’s in his best interests, and here Lupin basically has him functioning as just another pawn in his grand scheme with no agency of his own. Based on what little I’m shown of Zenigata and what I can infer, it seems like this show has a tantalizing bench of characters to work with, but they’re completely squandered here, which is a shame.
- Widely varying degrees of realism. While Zenigata’s character is an example of the creators taking the time to make what could be a very silly and lazy character three dimensional and an interesting part of the puzzle, it’s also an example of how something goofy can easily fit alongside a relatively straight-faced crime plot. The first act is mostly dry setup and features things like Lupin explaining to Jigen the high-risk, low-profit nature of the black market art world. The final twist to Lupin’s trap also plays on a straightforward read and an adult situation. But along the way we’re treated to some really egregious assaults on any sense of realism. One of the paintings Smith has stolen is none other than the fucking Mona Lisa. When the Mona Lisa got stolen in 1911, it was an international incident and fingers were quickly pointed at major figures like Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire. I mean, they could have gone with any other painting–in fact, they were able to cough up three slightly less prominent examples. Even worse is a scene that comes at the end of the show when Lupin wants to taunt Smith and Zenigata with his victory by demonstrating that he got away with the paintings. This is pretty unnecessary, as Smith is clearly painfully aware of what happened. Anyway, Lupin unveils his last stroke of genius–a giant sail on his getaway ship made of the paintings. Um. Please don’t do that to paintings. Also, the Mona Lisa looks enormous on his sail despite being 2.5 feet by 1.75. If this were just meant to be a thoroughly goofy and campy caper, I could buy this kind of thing, but if you want to talk to me about the black market on stolen art and human trafficking, we don’t need to dial the lulzy meter all the way up to 11.
- Women as MacGuffins. This is never great, but it’s really on full display here. The pageant contestants are endearingly referred to as “the beauties” by the show, but that’s about the only endearing thing going on here. At first Lupin threatens Smith and Zenigata with the prospect of Lupin “stealing” them, which is somewhat baffling until you realize that these women are nothing more than a plot device comparable with a cache of stolen paintings. If you “steal” a person, that’s called kidnapping. But they aren’t people. Of course, part of the gag here is that what Lupin really intends to steal are those other “beauties:” the paintings. But all the victims of his scam take his threat to kidnap all these women to be entirely credible. This pales in comparison to Lupin’s coup de grace, however. When Zenigata busts in on Smith and company, he immediately gets the boxes opened–and finds the tied-up beauties, who Lupin and his cohort were evidently able to trick, overpower or otherwise subdue into storage containers that formerly held priceless works of art. Zenigata arrests Smith on charges of human trafficking. This is really clever and takes advantage of the show’s ability to edge into adult content, but it all falls apart when you realize that the second someone asks the beauties what actually happened, the truth will come out and Smith won’t have been foiled. But why assume anyone will ask the beauties? After all, they don’t get a single line anywhere in the episode.
Final Episode Judgment: 6/10. I had fun watching this show and the positive things I saw made me curious to come back for more. I do hope, however, that this isn’t an example of the show at its best, despite its place in the original Miyazaki-helmed iteration of this series. The fact that this show is so popular and influential suggests to me that at its best this franchise is capable of building on some of these inherent strengths and achieving great things. The misadventures of the beauties may not be the most salient example.
NEXT TIME: The Wrong Mans! And, what the hell, it’s just 8 episodes. I’ll watch them all. Because I love you.