In my family of many brothers, the “Lupin III” animated TV series was the only program we could agree to watch. Once the electric guitar riffs of the Yuji Ohno-penned theme song began, a blissful peace descended on our living room. The fighting stopped and all eyes were glued to the family’s beat-up Toshiba TV screen as we watched Arsene Lupin III and his pal Daisuke Jigen blow up safes and steal helicopters. And I can remember the collective sigh that came rippling forth from my brothers as Fujiko Mine would make her appearance, usually sporting the kind of cleavage they’d only have glimpsed on the cover of an American Playboy.
Meisa Kuroki, herself no stranger to the collective sighs of young boys across the country, plays Fujiko in the latest live-action film version of “Lupin III.” Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura and staring Shun Oguri in the title role, the story sees Lupin’s uncle killed in a heist involving the Crimson Ruby of Cleopatra — and Fujiko wants to get her hands on that ruby.
Kuroki, like many Japanese girls, has been a fan of the Fujiko character since childhood.
“I thought she was so cool,” the actress gushes in an interview with The Japan Times at Tokyo Media Center Studios in the capital’s Setagaya Ward. “Not that I could watch the animated ‘Lupin’ series all the time like other kids in Japan (laughs). I grew up in Okinawa, so TV-wise we were at a serious disadvantage.”
Kuroki says that for her, one of the story’s main draws is that each of the characters has their own particular style.
“Fujiko was, of course, my favorite,” she says, before admitting, “but my ideal guy was Jigen. I loved the way he never said a word but always got the job done. I mean, how cool is that?”
Yes, I know exactly what she means. No doubt, so do many generations of Japanese kids who grew up watching the anime on TV — first in 1971 and then again in new series that were broadcast from 1977, 1984 and 2012 — and who read it in comic book form before that. Japan got its first introduction to Lupin and his gang in a manga series created by artist Monkey Punch that debuted Aug. 10, 1967.
Fujiko appeared in the third chapter of the original manga and instantly won the heart of the eponymous hero, though the pair alternate between working together and competing with one another. Lupin’s crush on her has continued for 47 years.
“I thought everything about Fujiko was special,” Kuroki says. “The way her hair was always flowing in the wind, her excellent taste in clothes, her makeup . . . nothing about her was typical.”
Truer words were never spoken. Fujiko first graced Japanese TV screens in 1971, when the series began airing on TV at a time when the country was struggling to become an economic contender — meaning, everyone had to pull their weight and work like crazy. Fujiko stood out in that aspect: a leggy, busty supermodel type with a hatred for work and a penchant for the high life. She was an anime prophet of the modern Japanese woman who didn’t get married, dressed in Prada and vacationed off the coast of France.
The “Lupin” series had big ideas and a low budget, but none of the artistic finesse of, say, “Akira” (1988), which later came to define Japanese animation. “Lupin III” was edgy, sexy and violent in a way that was distinctively un-Japanese, and during the late ’70s some junior high schools banned it, claiming it was a bad influence on young minds. In our household, my parents hated “Lupin III.” Their real complaint was that the series flew right in the face of Japanese values and work ethic — though, as mentioned earlier, it kept the kids quiet, so it got a pass.
“I loved the ‘Lupin’ series as a kid, but I also love it as an adult,” Kuroki says. “When you look at it with grown-up eyes, you realize the elegance of the artwork and the fun in the underlying message. You also figure out the intricacies of the plot. I get the feeling that the older you get, the more you love it.”
It might take an older viewer to actually understand most of the film. A lot of the dialogue is in English, and kids may be a bit jarred by that. Ditto for adults who are simply expecting a live-action version of the cartoon.
The film is set in Singapore and Bangkok, and director Kitamura is based in Los Angeles. Fans will be walking into a relatively Hollywood-style film that might just catch the attention of audiences overseas.
So how does Kuroki feel about possibly introducing Fujiko to the rest of the world?
“Frankly, I consider it a great honor to be able to play her,” Kuroki says. “There’s something about her that really makes women want to be her.”
The actress’ portrayal of the character is a bit more ambiguous than the Fujiko we’re used to. Still oozing the feminine charm and glamor we love her for, this Fujiko is more of a team player. She shells out a chunk of her own cash to procure the software that allows Lupin to hack into the security system of his foes, which is atypical of her character.
“Fujiko’s name written in kanji means ‘none other,’ ” Kuroki says. “We’re probably not meant to figure out what she’s really like. It’s OK that she’s full of contradictions, as long as she’s unique.”
While she gleefully chows down on Jigen’s cooking with a glass of champagne and shows up to meetings in expensive dresses, Fujiko can also kick ass. Kuroki herself is an actress who can move. She once commented in an interview that one of her hobbies is scrapping it out in all-night mock-combat sessions, and that she loves boxercising.
Kuroki’s Fujiko is far from demure; in fact, she’s always saying no: No to love. No to sharing and caring. Most of all, a huge NO to sex. Every time Lupin thinks he’s got her cornered, Fujiko blows the whistle and Interpol comes rushing in to arrest him. Not that Lupin gets mad about it. He shrugs, and bides his time until she’s ready.
“Personally, I feel that if the world had more men like Lupin, it would be a much better place for women,” Kuroki says. “Men should be big enough to tolerate a woman’s whims, right?”
Coming from Kuroki, you’d better believe it.
Who is Lupin III?
For starters, Lupin III (pronounced “sansei” in Japanese) is the best-dressed anime dude Japan has ever seen. He has a signature style: dark shirts, red or green suit jackets, and narrow ties that are never patterned.
He’s the grandson of the fictional 19th-century French thief Arsene Lupin, and that gave him additional cachet. So what if he can’t speak French (or any language beside Japanese)? He still embodies all that is foreign and exotic.
Lupin is a hero unburdened by a work ethic or sports aesthetic. He’s a thief, loafer and womanizer — and proud of being all three. Even his adversary was out of the ordinary: Interpol’s sole Japanese inspector, Koichi Zenigata (played in the movie by Tadanobu Asano), was perpetually on Lupin’s trail, but never manages to catch him.
“Lupin III” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit www.lupin-the-movie.jp.