by Carlo Santos,

Lupin III: Dead or Alive

DVD: Dead or Alive

Lupin III: Dead or Alive DVD
Freewheeling thief Lupin III takes an interest in the troubled country of Zufu after hearing about the treasure hidden on its "Drifting Island." With his friends Goemon the samurai and Jigen the mobster, Lupin sets out after the treasure—but the island's deadly security system is too much for him, and worse yet, he gets caught up in political turmoil. When General Headhunter took over the country two years ago, he executed the king and prince of Zufu, but it seems that the prince has come back from the dead to lead an underground resistance. The beautiful police officer who once loved the prince is torn between loyalty to her country and loyalty to him, and in the middle of all this is Lupin, who will do whatever it takes to find the key to Drifting Island.
Of all the Lupin III movies, Hayao Miyazaki's Castle of Cagliostro is the most renowned. Any animator would have to be very brave or very stupid to try replicating Miyazaki's leaps of imagination in another Lupin movie. But what if that animator were the original manga-ka himself? Monkey Punch takes control in Dead or Alive, presenting his personal vision of the legendary thief on the big screen. Chases, gunfights, and improbable feats of skill are all vital elements, but it's the wicked sense of humor that really says "Monkey Punch was here." Although the story stumbles at times, our main hero never does, and Lupin reminds us again and again that he is anime's original definition of cool.

Movies based on long-running franchises have a nasty habit of turning into extended episodes, and Dead or Alive is no exception. Rather than expanding on the characters and their universe, it's just another typical Lupin III caper with the usual cast of misfits. The story tries to inflate itself by adding political intrigue and extra characters to the treasure hunt, but the result is an unbalanced plot that feels like two stories at once rather than a unified effort. The film tries to match the grandeur of Castle of Cagliostro—an ambitious goal for anyone—but in falling just short of that goal, it still comes out better than most.

What Dead or Alive lacks in cohesion, however, it makes up for with humor and action. From his high position in the director's chair, Monkey Punch brings out the true spirit of Lupin, from the madcap jailbreak in the opening to the final logic-defying battle with General Headhunter. Witty dialogue and rapid-fire slapstick are all part of the package, feeling more natural than any attempts at drama or romance. The exciting action sequences, despite straining the limits of reality, should be entertaining for all but the most pragmatic viewers. If you can believe that a man can shoot a bullet into the barrel of another pistol, that a thrown knife can set off an explosive cap, and that peel-off disguises seriously work, then this is the perfect dose of gunslinging escapism.

Having been made in 1996, the movie is a strong improvement on the animation techniques of the original TV series. Lines are sharper and colors are brighter, although some visual elements—like Lupin's red jacket and Jigen's slouched hat—never go out of style. The characters all have distinctive features, showcasing Monkey Punch's American-influenced drawing style, although some of the secondary characters appear to be casualties of late 80's/early 90's fashion. The staff's strongest efforts go into the action scenes; the snaking blades in the walls of Drifting Island and Lupin's acrobatics demonstrate hand-drawn animation at its best—which in some cases is still better than what digital can do. The backgrounds are equally detailed, establishing an exotic sense of location by crossing Eastern Europe with the Middle East to create the imaginary land of Zufu.

The music score comes in with a blast and rarely lets up; no roguish caper is complete without modern jazz to lead the way. On this soundtrack you can hear influences that later led to Cowboy Bebop, from high screaming brass all the way down to moody bass lines. Ignore the syrupy orchestral swells that accompany the romantic scenes—it's the bold, swinging tunes that truly capture Lupin's personality.

Like the story itself, Funimation's dub is split between two worlds: very confident voice acting and a very inaccurate translation. What the characters say in the dub script rarely matches the subtitles, and the meanings of the lines are often changed entirely. Even worse, some lines from the original dialogue go unsaid or extra ones are added where none exist. Yet this does not change one fundamental fact: the dub is more entertaining to listen to. Credit that to ADR Director (and voice of Lupin) Sonny Strait, who lets everyone run free with the rhythm and colloquialisms of American English. Even better, the residents of Zufu put on fake Eastern European accents that sound close enough to real. Sure, it would be more respectful to the Japanese creators to watch the subtitled version—but Monkey Punch wants to you enjoy this movie, and the best way to do that (at least for English speakers) is to watch it dubbed.

And how would one find out about Monkey Punch's sentiments towards the audience? Check out the extras section, which includes an interview with the man himself. The manga-ka-turned-director reveals plenty of facts about his artistic background and how he created Lupin III, which should give fans and newcomers alike a fresh appreciation for the series.

Lupin III: Dead or Alive updates the series for the 90's with some cute contrivances like computers and nanotechnology, but it still shines best when showcasing its classic style of action and adventure. No matter what decade or locale, certain things are guaranteed: Lupin's out to steal the goods, his marksmanship and disguises go unmatched, a beautiful woman gets involved, and in the end, Lupin always outwits Zenigata. Why have it any other way? This movie may not be as flashy as the latest animation to come out of Japan, but for an hour and a half, it's definitely one exciting ride.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : A-
Art : B
Music : A-

+ Madcap thieving action from the creator of Lupin III himself.
Story bogs itself down, trying to be too complex.

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Production Info:
Chief Director: Hiroyuki Yano
Director: Monkey Punch
Screenplay: Hiroshi Kashiwabara
Yuji Himaki
Jun Kawagoe
Toshiya Shinohara
Hiroyuki Yano
Takayuki Negishi
Yuji Ohno
Original Concept: Maurice Leblanc
Original creator: Monkey Punch
Character Design: Marisuke Eguchi
Art Director:
Kazuhiro Arai
Toshihisa Tojo
Chief Animation Director: Marisuke Eguchi
Animation Director:
Marisuke Eguchi
Isamu Imagake
Masahiko Murata
Mamoru Sasaki
Yasuhiro Seo
Takahiko Shobu
Mechanical design: Isamu Imakake
Yuji Himaki
Jun Kawagoe
Toshiya Shinohara
Director of Photography: Hajime Hasegawa
Masato Matsumoto
Chuji Nakajima
Hidehiko Takei

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