Anime Gems: Lupin The Third

Master thief Lupin The Third and his allies, the marksman Daisuke Jigen and the swordsman Goemon. Fujiko Mine, femme fatale. The inspector who is trying to arrest them, Zenigata. Buckle up for some oldschool anime goodness!

Lupin III is one of the most popular and iconic anime franchises in Japan, it’s older than dirt (the first manga was released in 1967) and is still going strong, with a new series and movie released in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

What’s special about Lupin is that it targets an adult audience and is basically Japan’s idea of 1960s coolness. It’s a mixture of early James Bond style spy flicks, crime mystery and vintage cartoon humour.

Interestingly, it’s also closely tied to Hayao Miyazaki and the beginnings of Studio Ghibli. Two episodes into the first TV series, the original director was fired because the series was found to be too dark and violent, and was replaced by Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Seven years later, Miyazaki directed the second Lupin movie “The Castle of Cagliostro“, which was followed by the incredibly successful “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” in 1984, directed by both Miyazaki and Takahata again and eventually resulting in the founding of Studio Ghibli one year later.

Over the course of its lifespan, the Lupin franchise has spawned about 250 television episodes and seven movies, produced by many different studios with big differences in production quality and aspirations. Some of it is questionable, some of it is garbage. But here is what’s definitely worth watching:

The original first series
It’s fascinating because it’s extraordinary: The different directors, the narrative switching between serious and comical, the “wrong” colour of Lupin’s jacket, and the style and aesthetics being contemporary and authentic, interpreting the zeitgeist instead of just imitating the former series.

“Farewell My Beloved Witch” and “One Chance to Breakout”, two noteworthy examples of the heavy-minded early episodes, tell the story of the tragic death of Lupin’s love and Lupin as a prison inmate on death row. The swordsman Goemon is introduced late and not featured in the first episodes, which changes the dynamics of the team. Miyazaki and Takahata have left their mark on this series, and the production quality is awesome.

The second series
It aired from 1977 to 1980, and over the long time of 155 episodes the Lupin III formula was refined into perfection. The artwork quality went down, everything looks less detailed, and animations are more cartoonish and slapstick, matching the change to a more family oriented target audience. It still has its fair share of naughty humour, though. By this time Lupin’s signature style would have been somewhat old-fashioned and out of place, so the switch to a more ironical and goofy character actually makes sense and is eventually responsible for turning an obscure 60s franchise into a timeless classic.

The Castle of Cagliostro
It predates Ghibli, but it’s clearly a Ghibli movie. It’s well done, production quality is sublime and I for one prefer it to the critically acclaimed Nausicaä because it’s lighthearted and silly and it absolutely nails down what Lupin III is all about. People who are into Studio Ghibli and watch this movie tend to rate it negatively if they’re not familiar with the franchise, because you’re expected to already know who the characters are and how they interact in order to understand the plot.

The Bottom line
Lupin III is a nice change for any standard anime diet. It’s original and iconic and wacky, and it offers a fascinating insight into how anime has changed over the decades. Also make sure to give the original series a try – it’s quite different from the later Lupin, but the vintage goodness makes up for it (also, 60s Fujiko Mine is the best).