Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Lupin III THE FIRST
During World War II, a French archaeologist, Bresson, tries desperately to hide an ancient weapon of devastating power from the Nazis, costing him (and his adult children) their lives. Over ten years later, Bresson's granddaughter, unaware of her heritage, is unwittingly working with the remnants of Hitler's regime to retrieve Bresson's diary and the keys to open it when she bumps into Lupin and his crew, also bent on stealing the book, which Lupin's (in)famous grandfather Arsène Lupin failed to steal; it was his only failure. Lupin quickly figures out that there's more going on with young Miss Laeticia Bresson than even she's aware of, and the thief, his crew, and Zenigata all join forces with her to not only steal the book, but to protect its secrets from the people who should never touch them.
To understand where Monkey Punch's gentleman thief comes from, you need to go back in time. That's something that this film definitely understands with its Indiana Jones-like archaeological plot and a setting that's close to the original manga's debut in 1967. It's also a story that directly mentions and uses the actions of Lupin's famous grandfather, Maurice Leblanc's Arsène Lupin, who originated in early twentieth century caper/mystery novels and, perhaps more importantly, made a direct crossover with Japanese mystery fiction when Edogawa Ranpo borrowed him as the antagonist to his detective Kogoro Akechi in 1930's novel The Gold Mask. (No one on LeBlanc's side objected as far as I know – a far cry from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fit when LeBlanc tried to borrow Sherlock Holmes, resulting in one of the greatest literary middle fingers of all time, Arsène Lupin vs Herlock Sholmes.) In that novel, Lupin not only leads Akechi on a merry chase, but he also has a romance with a Japanese woman named Fujiko.
While the plot of The Gold Mask isn't particularly important to this film, its existence helps to make the mode of telling Lupin III THE FIRST possible, because it not only borrows LeBlanc's character, but also his lighter style of writing. That gets the ball rolling for this movie, which borrows elements of Indiana Jones (really the first and third films), Tin Tin, Mel Brooks films like The Producers and To Be or Not to Be, and the franchise's own Castle of Cagliostro in some of the emotional undercurrents which otherwise aren't really Lupin's thing. It makes for a film that stands on its own even without extensive franchise knowledge, and given that it's set so firmly in the past – and is even subtitled “The First” – it actually could serve as a good introduction to all things Lupin.
The film opens during World War Two, in occupied France. Dr. Bresson, an archaeologist, is desperately trying to lock up a diary containing dangerous information about an ancient Aztec weapon before the Nazis can get their hands on it, and he sends part of the key away with his daughter and son-in-law. That's not a moment too soon either, because the Nazis soon arrive and kill him when he won't tell them anything, while one of their associates runs down (literally) the other couple, killing them and leaving their baby daughter in the wreck just so that we know how truly evil he is. (Later he compounds that by adopting her from the orphanage.) Flash forward to the late 1960s and the diary is about to go on display at a museum, where Lupin is all but guaranteed to show up. But so is Laeticia, who doesn't know she's a Bresson, and she and Lupin tussle over the prize before Fujiko, in a stunning green dress, swoops in to snatch it. This is the signal for the caper to really begin, with Laeticia having doubts, Lupin gently helping her with that, and Fujiko, Jigen, Goemon, and Zenigata all jumping in to take part in keeping the weapon out of the hands of a Third Reich trying to make a comeback. There are the usual fun accompaniments to this: Jigen's mad shooting skills, Fujiko's general capability, Goemon's astounding sword, and of course Lupin's ability to slip out of clothes like he's been greased.
But there's also a definite heavier undercurrent here. In part that's simply because the villains are Nazis – like zombies, they're the sort of bad guys that's always okay to paint in the darkest of colors. And even when Laeticia's “grandfather” seems sympathetic at times, his limp – evidence of the car crash he caused that killed her parents – reminds us of what he's really like. That crash is realistic to the point of being frightening, and there's a fair amount of violence and danger to the characters as well. We can guess that falling out of an airplane will end reasonably well for Lupin and Laeticia, but it also feels like there are no guarantees since we saw what happened to her family. This does, however, allow for Lupin and Laeticia to connect in a more meaningful way. Director Yamazaki has said that he's a fan of the Miyazaki Lupin film, The Castle of Cagliostro, and it's easy to see how that influenced this outing for the thief. Lupin is kinder and more caring than he is in almost any other adventure, helping Laeticia to work through her complex emotions about her adoptive grandfather, her real grandfather, and what she may have inherited from each of them. That Lupin is even involved in this at all is due to his own granddad's attempt to steal Bresson's diary, and he's taken up the role of thief based on his grandfather's line of work, so he's in a position to understand some of what Laeticia is going through. He's kind without it seeming like anything but him helping a kid, too; in fact, it looks like Jigen may be the one with a crush on Laeticia.
This is the moment to mention how good everyone, including (or perhaps especially) Jigen, looks. The characters have successfully jumped from two to three dimensions without losing anything that makes them them, and in fact Lupin's facial expressions are a little more fluid and mobile than when traditionally animated. Jigen looks positively handsome under his hat – although he also looks like his hair is greasy; he's the only one, which suggests it's deliberate – and there's a bit of Bruce Lee about Goemon. Fujiko definitely resembles a mid-century pin-up, which works for the character, while Laeticia is sweet in appearance. Zenigata feels like the only one who looks a bit plasticky around the chin, but really only in close-ups. The dub is the cast from the older TV series (so Tony Oliver as Lupin), which is not only a good nostalgia trip for those of us for whom that is the cast, but also once again works well with the past setting, perhaps because of those nostalgic qualities. There is a one-off moment, when the script refers to Boston College and Boston University as if they were the same school when in fact they are not, but otherwise it's very good. The film also has a few good nods to its setting in the visuals, such as Laeticia opening one of those blue tins of butter cookies everyone's grandparents had (always with the cookies long gone; it stored buttons or something) and Fujiko running off with what appears to be a collection of art stolen by the Nazis.
Lupin III THE FIRST is a good Lupin movie and a plain old good film. Fluidly animated, well-written, and full of references and nods to earlier works, it has a bit of something for most viewers to enjoy. It's a bit of a shame that Laeticia isn't likely to come back in future stories because she's a lovely character who functions as the beating heart of the film, but we can always rewatch it, because this is the kind of movie that, even if you don't catch something new each time, gives you plenty to enjoy just the same.
Overall (dub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Good transition to 3D animation, nice blend of classic Lupin and references to other works. Just a lot of fun.
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