The Mike Toole Show The Lupin Tapes
by Michael Toole, Jun 6th 2010
DATELINE: August 10, 1967. A young artist named Kazuhiko Kato, under the moniker Monkey Punch, publishes the first chapter of a new manga series entitled Lupin III. The title character, a supposed descendant of a famous literary French burglar, is a heartless killer and lecherous rapist who only has eyes for his next piece of loot. He's offset by his cohort-in-crime, gunman Daisuke Jigen, who frequently betrays his partner; swordsman Ishikawa Goemon, who starts off determined to kill Lu>pin before becoming an ally; damsel Fujiko Mine, who changes from chapter to chapter and is presented as both a victim and adversary for L>upin; and dogged detective Inspector Zenigata. Punch's plotlines are convoluted, but the art is zany and eye-catching, and the comic as a whole is persistently readable. The manga is a hit, and it isn't long before the character makes the jump to animation.
Some of you are nodding sagely, remembering the pack of movies and TV specials Funimation released in the past decade, or the TV series that Cartoon Network aired several years ago, or maybe the older TV series, the grittier one that featured Lu>pin in the green jacket. Yeah, all of that stuff came after a theatrical pilot film, which is an interesting thing to behold. This 12-minute pilot was produced in 1969, just two years after the comics started. A joint production of TOHO and Tokyo Movie Shinsha, the project quickly ran out of money, and the two producers' bickering about how to handle the property (TOHO wanted to create a film, while TMS wanted to sell the story to TV) stalled the production for a few years before TMS successfully got their Lupin III TV series on YTV. But this pilot still got made, and it's a great piece of work. There's a booby-trapped phone box and a game of shogi between Lu>pin and Zenigata, there's the famous Mercedes Benz SSK, Lu>pin's ride of choice when he isn't barreling around in that ratty little yellow Fiat, and there's jaunty music and punchy, overly descriptive narration that makes it seem like one of those goofy old Walter Reade Films travelogues. Lu>pin has a chin of Bruce Campbell proportions, Jigen's eyes peek out from under his hat with astonishing regularity, and Fujiko is an assertive, gun-toting, go-go-dancing moll. It's raw, compelling stuff, and it's the very first piece of the Lupin the 3rd animation puzzle.
We all know that Lupin the 3rd would go on to become one of Japanese animation's great, enduring heroes; the iconic characters would star in more than 200 TV episodes and various other media, and are treated to a TV special every year to keep them fresh. The best-known part of the franchise is undoubtedly the film Castle of Cagliostro, an early theatrical effort from the great Hayao Miyazaki that's been hailed as having one of cinema's greatest car chases by Steven Spielberg. A very close second is actually the other late-70s components of the Lupin the 3rd world: the 155-episode TV series, and the original Secret of Mamo film. As great as Cagliostro is, this is the classic stuff, in my opinion-- red-jacketed Lu>pin and pals ramp the zany comedy up to the stratosphere and go on outrageous, pop culture-drenched globe-trotting adventures, all to the tune of Yuji Ohno's signature theme song, which has become a standard-bearing not just for the franchise, but for anime music in general. The characters square off, at various points, with the likes of Pele and Henry Kissinger. But I'm not going to get into these goodies, because they're fairly easy to obtain. Both Cagliostro and Mamo are available on DVD, and Geneon/Phuuz dubbed and released more than 70 episodes of the '78 TV series on DVD as well, despite the fact that the jerkbags at Cartoon Network never aired any past the initial 26. What I want to talk about next is what happened four years before the '78 TV series: the live-action film!
The idea of Lupin the 3rd making the jump to live-action is an often-discussed one. As wacky as the stories get, they're still built around the idea of a gang of real-life crooks. Monkey Punch himself has commented that he'd love to get a modern Lupin the 3rd film made, with Jim Carrey in the title role (you gotta admit, the guy has the same lanky frame, sharp grin, and rubbery face as Lu>pin). But live-action Lupin is not undiscovered territory, as the 1974 film Lupin the 3rd: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy demonstrates. In this movie, actor Yuki Meguro (you'll remember him as "Omi" in James Clavell's Shogun. Haha, remember Shogun?! God, that was terrible!) takes on the role of the famed thief. But the twists are a little different; Jigen soon appears, but he's intent on telling a rather aimless Lu>pin that his grandfather's crime empire needs a new leader, and Lu>pin must decide if he wants to follow his destiny, all while pursuing Fujiko and eluding capture from good old Inspector Zenigata. Goemon didn't make the cut for this one, don't ask me why. Despite the dated costumes, the movie holds up reasonably well-- there's plenty of goofy sight gags that would look appropriate in an episode of the old Adam West Batman TV series, some clever camera tricks, a musical number featuring kung-fu fighting nuns, and Meguro is sly and funny despite not looking all that much like the comic character.
Four years after the film Lupin the 3rd would really make its mark on the pop culture landscape, with the aforementioned movies and TV series hitting in rapid succession. Far moreso than the interesting, more action-oriented 1972 TV series, these new chapters established Lupin the 3rd as a major hit around the world, and it wasn't too long before TMS and Monkey Punch started thinking about the next chapter of the story. Help would come in the form of a guy named Bernard Deyries, a French director and producer who's also known for little things like Inspector Gadget and Ulysses 31. Deyries brought DiC Animation and their considerable funds into the picture, and the production committee came up with a great idea: just as Lupin the 3rd is generations removed from the original hero, why not create a version of the story that is several generations removed from Lupin the 3rd? Thus was born Lupin VIII, a tale of the Arsene Lupin of the 22nd century, who plies his trade as a roguish private eye operating out of an airship above a futuristic Paris. For this 1982 production, Rintaro was drafted to direct the show for Deyries and character design and animation heavyweight Shingo Araki was brought in to design the look of the characters. Given the budget and the caliber of the staff, the project really could not miss.
Unfortunately, back when Monkey Punch created Lupin the 3rd, he didn't bother securing permission to use the original Arsene Lupin name from the estate of writer Maurice Leblanc. At the time there wasn't a copyright problem with using the name in Japan, but as Lupin the 3rd spread around the world, the Leblanc estate would occasionally complain and get things changed. Lu>pin would have to be called "Wolf" in some markets (including the American one), and amusingly, the series was retitled for French markets as Edgar de la Cambriole, a hilarious renaming that amounts to calling the character "Eddie Burglar." Anyway the Lupin VIII production committee didn't consult with the Leblanc estate before going into production, and when the writer's heirs asked for a hefty sum, the money wasn't available and production shut down. A full episode was produced with music and sound effects but no vocals; it's a great example of what might have been, a beautiful and colorful piece of animation. Shame it's all we got.
Lupin the 3rd's next big pop-culture move would come the following year. Prior to this event, the Lu>pin gang hadn't made many inroads to the English-speaking market. A surprisingly competent, albeit weird dub of the Mamo film was created for use on Japan Airlines flights (such that some collectors still refer to it as "the JAL dub"), but it didn't really make it to street level in North America. What did make it to street level, literally, was an arcade game from Stern Electronics called Cliff Hanger. Here's the advertising flyer.
Look at that beauty. That's not Monkey Punch's artwork, but there's no mistaking who it is, is there? The Cliff Hanger arcade game was one of those funky laserdisc games, kind of like Dragon's Lair and Space Ace and Cobra Command. The deal with those was, you had a standard joystick and button setup, and you would watch an animated sequence. Successfully advancing to the next sequence hinged on hitting the right combo of joystick moves and button presses at the right time. Mess it up, and you'd get a death animation and lose a life. Cliff Hanger mainly used footage from Castle of Cagliostro, though a few sequences from Mystery of Mamo were also used. Technically the game was dubbed into English, though it sounds an awful lot like one actor was used to voice Lu>pin, Jigen, and the Count. He sounds kind of like Cookie Monster when he's voicing Jigen. Heh heh. This game wasn't just the first exposure to Lupin the 3rd for many people, it was their first exposure to Japanese animation. I still meet fans at almost every convention I attend who started seeking out anime after playing Cliff Hanger.
I've talked about Red Jacket Lup>in and mentioned Green Jacket Lu>pin in passing. Of course, I'm referring to the color jacket that the character wears. Red Jacket Lu>pin is the most ubiquitous; lecherous and witty and occasionally ruthless, he's the Lup>in that appears the most. Green Jacket Lu>pin is tougher and more action hero-y, but has a soft edge that Hayao Miyazaki provides in the film Castle of Cagliostro. Some fans even argue that Cagliostro isn't a proper Lupin the 3rd film, because Lu>pin isn't mean enough. I don't buy that, all the rest of the ingredients are there and Lu>pin doesn't have to constantly be chasing girls and plugging hoodlums to convince me he's the real deal. But the funny thing is, nobody ever talks about Pink Jacket Lu>pin. Pink Jacket Lu>pin the 3rd is actually kind of awesome, but also weird and ridiculous. That's because 100% of Pink Jacket Lu>pin animation is directed by a guy named Seijun Suzuki.
Man, I could write an entire column about Seijun Suzuki. He is (yep, he's still alive!) a filmmaking auteur, an iconoclast famous for helping bust up Japan's corrupt, crappy studio system in the 50s and 60s. His big moment came when Nikkatsu, fed up with his unconventional approach to making Yakuza films, dumped a lousy script with no budget on him, commanding him to make a good Yakuza film that the public could understand easily. What he made was Tokyo Drifter, an intense, oddly-structured, visually inventive crime story. The subsequent firing and lawsuit would make Suzuki famous, but it also got him blacklisted from the film industry for a decade. He'd eventually come back, and a few years after his return he climbed aboard the Lupin the 3rd express, directing (with the assistance of veteran animator Shigetsugu Yoshida) both the 50-episode 1984 TV series and the 1985 film Legend of the Gold of Babylon.
Gold of Babylon is, interestingly, the only iteration of pink-jacket Lu>pin to be released in English in any form. AnimEigo presented it subtitled under the Rupan III moniker in the 90s, and Discotek have pledged to re-release it on DVD. I hated it when I first saw it, because my entire concept of Lupin the 3rd was based on what I'd seen in the Cagliostro and Fuma Conspiracy films, which both depicted Lu>pin as a smooth, gallant antihero… in a green jacket, of course. Babylon hews much closer to Monkey Punch's vision of Lu>pin as a rough, drunken, lecherous crook. Not only that, but director Suzuki's touch is really evident; he favors visuals over plot, and the movie's opening set piece, a bizarre Lu>pin-Zenigata motorcycle chase up and down a gigantic motorized billboard of a grinning black man's face, is quite unconventional and goes on for a pretty damn long time. For years after my first viewing, I'd ask people about this film, and a huge percentage of them would cite the motorcycle chase as the scene that turned them off because it was either too long or it just didn't feel like Lupin the 3rd. It would be over a decade before I tried out Gold of Babylon again, and taken in context as both a Monkey Punch story and a film by Seijun Suzuki (I'd seen both Tokyo Drifter and the director's Branded to Kill by this point), it goes down a lot smoother. I'm looking forward to Discotek's release.
Speaking of Discotek, they're actually the current champions of the Lupin the 3rd name in North America. A wide variety of publishers have tackled various Lupin properties over the years; Streamline Pictures broke the duck with Cagliostro, Mamo, and a couple of Miyazaki-directed TV episodes, followed by AnimEigo's Rupan releases. While Manga UK tried their own English-language approach (including a dub of the 1989 TV special Bye Bye Liberty Crisis, which didn't get released in the US at all!), the next move would be by Funimation, who pumped out no less than ten movies and TV specials over the past decade. The best ones are Dead or Alive and Farewell to Nostradamus. Geneon would then team up with Phuuz Entertainment to get Lupin the 3rd on Cartoon Network, but the project fizzled out after endless reruns of the first 26 episodes. Finally, with all of these efforts cooled off or burnt out, Discotek came up with DVD releases of the live-action film, a welcome re-issue of The Fuma Conspiracy, and Lupin the 3rd: Episode Zero.
Actually, Episode Zero just came out a few months ago! I think it bears a little study, because it attempts to tell the story of how the Lupin gang got together, and how the entire formula of Zenigata chasing Lu>pin, who chases Fujiko while Jigen and Goemon glumly tag along, was established. This TV special isn't actually all that recent-- it came out in Japan in 2002. In fact, there have been a whole fistful of Lupin the 3rd TV specials and OVAs since Funimation released the next most recent TV special, 2000's Missed by a Dollar, and most of them are pretty darn good. Hopefully this release paves the way for at least a few more, but I digress.
It's way back in the day, and Arsene Lu>pin III (red jacket version, if you're keeping score) is still building his rep as a master burglar. He's got designs on a mysterious treasure held by a mob boss named Galvez; Lu>pin's buddy and crime colleague Brad also wants the treasure, but he runs afoul of Daisuke Jigen, Galvez's top hired gun. Just when this goes down, Brad's girlfriend, a con artist named Fujiko Mine, drifts into town, shadowed by Tokyo police detective Koichi Zenigata, who hopes to collar her. And back in Japan, Ishikawa Goemon is searching relentlessly for a prized item that he needs to re-forge his family's sword, Zantetsuken. That's all the setup you need; right from those couple of sentences, Lu>pin and Jigen's weary, sometimes acrimonious friendship blossoms, Lu>pin's largely fruitless pursuit of Fujiko begins, Goemon is drawn into the gang by seemingly unrelated matters, and Zenigata lays his eyes on a crook whose outrageous contempt for law and order is so infuriating that it causes him to resign from the Tokyo bureau and put in an application for INTERPOL.
The setup isn't the only hook that Episode Zero has. We also see other Lupin the 3rd tricks, like the hero's penchant for odd gadgets and outrageous booby-traps; this time he saves the day repeatedly with what can only be described as a spring-loaded apartment. This special establishes Zenigata's unending bad luck streak, as he lands in New York and is assigned the first of an endless string of bumbling, seemingly useless temporary partners. Things are rounded out by a great gunfight between Lu>pin and Jigen, a sunglasses-wearing jerkbag henchman, and a completely, utterly uninteresting heavy in Galvez. They could've just called the guy Boss Hogg and I doubt anyone would've noticed.
Unfortunately, there's one bit of criticism I really need to level at Episode Zero. The franchise's biggest ongoing problem starts to rear its head here, and that's the aging of its voice cast. It is, I must admit, kind of neat that, with little variation, the same actors have been voicing the Lupin gang for its entire four-decade history. It's pretty hard for me to imagine a Lupin the 3rd that doesn't feature Kiyoshi Kobayashi as Jigen and Makio Inoue as Goemon. It's a little less difficult for me to imagine Fujiko and Zenigata with different voices, because they both simply sound old. Eiko Masuyama does her level best as the femme fatale, but there's no getting around the fact that she's in her seventies and sometimes sounds like it. Similarly, while his character can get away with sounding gruff and worn out, Goro Naya has aged to the point where the most recent specials have taken to incapacitating Zenigata somehow, so the actor only has to do limited work. In fact, the most recent special, The Last Job, involves a story-driven means for the actor to step down, which is probably for the best. Finally, it's actually pretty damn easy for me to imagine someone besides Kanichi Kurata as Lupin, because Yasuo Yamada owned the role until his death in 1995. It's hard to say it, but the franchise might be due for a vocal 'changing of the guard,' so to speak; The Fuma Conspiracy actually featured a different cast from the regulars, but this changeover wasn't received that well despite the fact that the new cast did a great job. Maybe it's time to revisit that idea.
At the end of the day, Episode Zero necessarily sets itself up as is the prototypical Lupin the 3rd story. A day-zero origin story for such a broad franchise is a pretty good idea, considering that the characters' backgrounds are murky even in the first original comic stories. Episode Zero is pretty successful in creating this tale, but it's still a bit of a mixed bag, owing to Minoru Ohara's fairly ordinary direction; there's very little visual panache to the proceedings, and even the sight gags are pretty low-key. But any way you look at it, if you like the Lupin the 3rd franchise, you'll probably be perfectly happy with Episode Zero.
That's the thing about Lupin the 3rd. It's been with us for so long that there's something comfortable, almost routine, about it. It's kind of like a crazy Japanese cartoon version of Law & Order, only with the same loveable bad guys every single episode, and a rumpled, grumbling old detective instead of Jerry Orbach-- hey, wait a minute...
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