Last month, Japan lost a cultural giant. April 11 saw the passing of Kazuhiko Kato — better known by the pen name Monkey Punch — the creator of “Lupin the Third.” The manga, about a playboy thief descended from fictional French gentleman thief Arsene Lupin, debuted in 1967 and has been a pop-culture staple since.
Over the years, anime and other spinoffs have transformed Kato’s edgy, adult-oriented “Lupin” into a family-friendly franchise. But every so often, a project course corrects, bringing back the original manga’s sense of danger and sexiness. That’s the case with the original video series “Lupin the IIIrd,” helmed by Takeshi Koike, maybe anime’s coolest director. Each episode of the series, released to theaters then video every couple of years, centers around a different character in Lupin’s orbit. This time, it’s his long-time love interest and ultimate femme fatale, Fujiko Mine (Miyuki Sawashiro).
True to its title — and as no one familiar with the franchise will be surprised to hear — the film opens with Fujiko doing some big-time fibbing. She’s posing as the live-in maid for a man named Randy, who’s stolen a fat chunk of cash from his employer and locked it up with a code known only to him and his son Jean. Enter this episode’s Big Bad, the creepy assassin Binkam (Mamoru Miyano). Aside from super strength, Binkam has the power to hypnotize by chomping down on poisonous nuts and blowing their powder on his targets’ faces.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||56 mins.|
Binkam quickly dispatches Randy, leaving son Jean as the only one who can access the cash — and with Fujiko as his guardian. Lupin (Kanichi Kurita) and his partner-in-crime Jigen (Kiyoshi Kobayashi) soon enter the picture, and the group tasks itself with protecting Jean. The motivation for these cold-hearted thieves is less about the kid than all that cold hard cash — or is Fujiko’s cool, uncaring demeanor her real lie?
Koike has been involved with this more adult-oriented tendril of the “Lupin” franchise since 2012’s “The Woman Called Fujiko Mine,” and it’s hard to imagine a better director for the job than the man who’s helmed gritty, too-cool-for-school films like “Redline” (2010). One key decision by Koike and crew was to set the “IIIrd” series in some unspecified time in the past, unlike last year’s “Lupin” TV series, which was weighed down by smartphones, hackers and other distinctly un-“Lupin” aspects of modern life. And since the “IIIrd” series isn’t made for broadcast, it’s free to lay on the Monkey Punch-style violence and sexuality. If anything, considering this latest entry revolves around anime’s most iconic femme fatale, it isn’t quite sultry enough.
There are quite a few choice cuts of animation on display, especially during Fujiko’s final battle with Binkam — though if you are a fan of Koike, you must constantly remind yourself that nothing will ever look as good as “Redline,” unless he can find another studio willing to lose money on a film that takes seven years to animate. One can dream.
For now, though, I’m happy Koike has been designated the keeper of the “Lupin” flame. Kato has passed, but his creation is in the hands of a director who gets what makes Lupin and his frenemies so cool in the first place.
So far, the “Lupin the IIIrd” stories have centered around sidekicks Jigen, Goemon and Fujiko — will the next installment star Kato’s famous thief himself?