Reviewby Jacob Chapman, Aug 20th 2013
Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine
BD+DVD - The Complete Series
Fujiko Mine, the lady thief with nimble fingers, lying lips, and a propensity for public nudity, has drawn attention from the police and criminal underworld alike since she first bust onto the scene. She claims to be addicted to the splendor of theft, just a victim in need of a rescue, moments before relieving her prospective white knights of all their priceless treasure, and sometimes their lives as well. Is it cruelty, compulsion, or some contradiction in her nature that drives her to rob, bed, and murder anyone who gets too close to her past? If anyone can solve the riddle of her being, it's Lupin the Third, a master thief immediately smitten with her savage beauty and determined to steal her away. But other eyes watch this woman from the shadows, slavering with curiosity, ruthless in their pursuit of answers. The question they all share: "Who is Fujiko Mine?"
"Who is Fujiko Mine?" turns out to be the question the audience is after as well in this stylistically daring chapter of the Lupin the Third franchise. The titular gentleman thief is now supplanted by the "mighty fine lady" crook, Fujiko, who was previously relegated to dual side-roles as Lupin's damsel in distress or his seductive rival in the mutual pursuit of treasure. The story takes place at a nebulous time before Lupin has become partners with Jigen and Goemon, but after he has made his reputation as a master thief.
At the same time, it's hard to place the events of Fujiko Mine into any kind of franchise timeline, because the characters are strange, dystopian versions of themselves: not just visually, but in personality as well. As is made clear in the alluring yet foreboding opening theme, Fujiko sees herself as compelled to be wicked beyond her control, but delights in her vices so much she chooses not to think about whether they make her free or forsaken. You'll see her topless or stark naked in every single episode, and murderin' or thievin' just as frequently. She never has an answer for why she does any of it, but is always overjoyed to continue that life, making her fun to watch, but also an intriguing mystery to be solved.
Her castmates are likewise darker shades of their archetypes. Lupin has gone from mischievous rascal to conniving and predatory, able to kill those in his way without a second thought if they bore him, sparing only those he deems "interesting." Inspector Zenigata, however, is the most outstanding example of reinterpretation. Previously only ruthless in a comical way, his interactions with Fujiko here are decidedly more carnal and corrupt. He'll do anything to catch - or more truthfully - destroy Lupin, and it's rarely played for laughs.
Which is not to imply that this is a humorless show. The gritty, visceral art style belies a lighter tone somewhat akin to Cowboy Bebop's approach to levity: more cool than silly, and carrying just enough substance to make the stylistic hijinks memorable, meshing together as variations on a theme, working with the narrative. Unlike many other Lupin works, Fujiko Mine has a complete story to tell, with seeds laid in the beginning carrying through to the end, and echoing through the center. It would be inaccurate to call this a "deconstruction" of the Lupin the Third franchise; it begins "before the beginning", and it comes across ultimately as a "big bang." High in energy and intensity, exploding with the vigor of creation and change, all from a surprisingly tidy, cohesive point. Its harsher and artier impressions rise from a few aesthetic and narrative choices, but it isn't some alienating postmodern take on the franchise, not so dark or heady as to alienate the casual viewer or Lupin fan.
Aesthetically, there's a lot going on here; with character designs by Takeshi Koike of Redline fame and a world designed to believably contain them, you can expect a lot of thick lines, rich earthy colors, and an exaggerated disregard for anatomy in favor of dynamic action. When it works, it really works: giving sharp angles to Lupin's rubbery body gives him a dangerous edge, and Fujiko's curves and swirls can really break up the raw-boned sharpness of the world to make the whole presentation sensual and sophisticated. But this is a TV production on a TV budget, and more often than not, the animation just cannot keep up with the ambitions of the artwork. This doesn't only affect motion-intensive action scenes (many of those look fantastic,) but even regular dialogue scenes portrayed from a strange angle can be off-putting and off-model when time or money was perhaps not available to recreate those elaborately sketch-like characters in motion. (The art design itself is not without flaw. Some shots and scenes, usually those meant to take place in completely even lighting, confuse the eye with random hatch-mark shading where none should exist, and it looks plain silly.) In any case, the show is so low contrast, some episodes almost purely in browns and grays, that it looks great on Blu-Ray, but would probably suffer in lower resolution.
Aurally, there's less to note: Shinichiro Watanabe's musical direction is less than Watanabe-esque in director Yamamoto's hands, in that it never takes center stage on its own. The jazzy music is easy on the ears but outside of the opening theme, never stands out or is given opportunity to distinguish itself uniquely. The focus was clearly on the powerful visuals here, and the admittedly pleasant score is snuck in and snuck back out again without much attention. The cast of the show are familiar Lupin the Third seiyuu, playing their parts familiarly, if not with a little extra gravel and snarl befitting the show's tone. Funimation's dub is comparatively more uneven. Richard Epcar (who has played half the roles in Lupin the Third at this point,) is a solid Zenigata, and Josh Grelle's turn as Oscar is the highlight of the dub...most importantly, Michelle Ruff's Fujiko works fine...but the problem lies with Lupin himself. Sonny Strait was an iffy choice for Lupin from the get-go, but when given the goofy dork iteration of the character in Funimation's dubs of some lesser Lupin movies, the choice made some sense. It makes no sense here, as Strait tries his hardest, but only sounds as if he is trying too hard, sounding both too old and too nice for the character at hand. Fujiko Mine's Lupin is not a nice man and needs a voice both bubbling with youthful energy but poisoned by ravenous self-worship and a little husky malice. Neither are present in the dub. It's an unfortunate miscast, making the Japanese track a little more fitting though both are serviceable.
For better or worse, this show is artistically ambitious, and succeeds far more often than it fails; this applies to the uneven, mildly controversial narrative as well. I cannot in good conscience warn people away from this series because of the heaps of sexual content. Unless you're simply too young to be watching it, all the sensationalist and yes, sometimes disturbing sexual content is 100% in line with the show's aesthetic and never seems excessive or ill-fitting. This is a show for mature audiences, and surprisingly, Fujiko's constant objectification culminates in one of the most feminist-positive anime to come around in years.
The entire cast gets more exploration than they usually do in this series, but as Lupin himself states at one point, "It's Fujiko's tale. We're just the supporting cast," and this turns out to be especially true when the show becomes more about themes relating to women on the whole. Both written and directed by women, (Mari Okada and Sayo Yamamoto respectively,) one can't help but suspect there is more than titillation behind the decision to sculpt such a crass, disturbed, and licentious version of Fujiko here. The question, "Who is Fujiko Mine?" quickly becomes, to Lupin, Zenigata, Jigen, and Goemon, a question of "Who made her this way?" which is a question they never ask of each other or themselves. Lupin tells Jigen at one point not to weigh his past sins because the futility of the effort compromises his future. Zenigata tells Lupin he can never relinquish his hatred for the Lupin family line, even if he's wrong, because it would compromise his pride.
Past vs. future and pride vs. shame are the cruxes that drive Fujiko Mine and others' perceptions of her, and those perceptions seem completely based on her gender, as reflected by the pathetic character of Oscar, Inspector Zenigata's stooge who wants everything Fujiko has (mostly the sexual attention Zenigata gives her.) He sees her as shameful for pursuing it, a double-edged sword that requires him to see himself as shameful when he starts copying her methods. Zenigata wants to save Fujiko, but Oscar, spiraling into madness at his side, is given no such salvation because he is a man, and therefore responsible for his own pride and bright future as a policeman. (Zenigata's words, not reviewer conjecture here.) That future, needless to say, darkens very quickly.
So, is Fujiko Mine the mistress of her own destiny? Or did forces of her past, outside her control, make her the object of their ambitions, causing her to use that objectification as a weapon to achieve an illusion of freedom and happiness? The show's ultimate answer to that is thematically brilliant, a little shocking, and ripe for interpretation through a feminist lens. What showrunner Mari Okada has ultimately done is bring powerful sentiment and fresh perspective to what could have been a simple series of hit-or-miss Lupin adventures. While Okada herself has admitted that her writing can be "overly emotional", her style becomes a wonderful saving grace in the ruthless, dog-eat-dog world of Fujiko Mine, and breathes unforeseen depth into its star femme fatale.
So it's unfortunate to also note that the narrative is thematically powerful but plot-wise... a little ridiculous. Certainly way too complicated. Motifs of owls and butterflies that initially strike the viewer as captivating become overexplained and overbearing much too quickly: we are very nearly buried in owls by series' end. There are too many extraneous details and bizarre red herrings for what should be simple (but powerful) ideas, and near the end, the convolution begins to suck the fun out of the material, the balance tipping the show so far into discomfort that the conclusion almost fails to land. Almost. Ultimately, the ending satisfies, but it scrambles a little too wildly in the lead-up, which is a shame.
Other hiccups in the otherwise admirable endeavor are Goemon's episodes. While Mari Okada's oversight keeps most of the series' content uniform, the vignettes written by Dai Sato, aka the few Goemon stories, simply do not work. Sato can be a talented and insightful writer, but he is wholly out of his element with this story, and it's glaring how far off base his episodes are. They seem at best completely disinterested in Fujiko, and at worst, make her a benign feminine element in other people's stories and write her out of character around some forgettable tale of culture clash or political intrigue. Neither do they add to the character of Goemon in the way other characters are developed, and ultimately his role in the conclusion is pretty dumb.
It's a tiny blemish on what is otherwise a seminal piece of Lupin canon, and a uniquely feminine one. It seems an odd thing to say that one of the darkest, grittiest, most libidinous interpretations of Lupin's world is the most feminine, but like Fujiko, the contradiction begets the intrigue. You don't even have to be a fan of Lupin the Third to enjoy this gem. Fujiko carries her own story, and it's ultimately a tale all her own.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : A
Music : B+
+ Super-stylized and super-cool, largely well-written, fascinating and sometimes daring take on classic characters
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