When I reviewed the premiere for LUPIN THE 3rd PART 5, I said I was disappointed to see that the franchise looked like it was sinking back into the slurry of mediocrity that characterized the late ‘90s and 2000s, interested only in updating the aesthetic sheen without tackling any of the franchise’s extremely outdated ideas (the movies, meanwhile, took all of the grimdark edge and none of the feminist themes from The Woman Called Fujiko Mine). Episode 2 seems to confirm those fears, making a joke out of marginalized fans rather than trying to sincerely include them.
Other recent updates of 1970s anime have made intriguing or downright revolutionary changes to their classic properties: MEGALOBOX’s protagonist is an undocumented citizen, as powerful a subtext in Japan as it is in the U.S.; DEVILMAN crybaby told a story about the oppressed and disenfranchised in modern Japanese society; and Lupin’s own The Woman Called Fujiko Mine reassessed the franchise’s sexism and finally had a female writer and director for the first time in 40 years.
What does Part 5 have? Well, the second episode is cause for much relief by clearly stating that the young Ami is a daughter-figure rather than a love interest (though not until after the premiere got a shot of her panties). And considering its social media gimmick, combined with the opening narration about how Lupin’s freedom and lack of consistent origin make him a “hero,” it seems the series wants to have a conversation about Lupin as a folk hero of sorts, a mutable figure that people everywhere can look up to.
It’s a theme the series has covered before to varying effect, and an understandably appealing one when depicting characters who’ve existed across so many time periods while remaining basically consistent archetypes. But Part 5 has very specific ideas about the audience to whom Lupin is a hero, and it doesn’t seem to include queer people.
About halfway through Episode 2, while the gang are discussing the “Lupin Game” that’s put their every move on social media, Lupin pulls up a post describing Jigen as Lupin’s lover. Jigen reacts with flustered anger at the suggestion, and Goemon scoots away silently as if afraid he might catch the gay cooties. This kind of mean-spirited meta-gag has been made before on the likes of Sherlock and Supernatural, though this is the first time I’ve seen it in anime, and it has a couple of layers to unpack.
Lupin the Third, as a franchise, has a complicated relationship with queerness. While its occasional portrayals of overtly queer characters tend to be mincing punchlines or threatening monsters (special shout-out to the woman-fearing, crossdressing fascist in The Pursuit of Harimao’s Treasure, which is so offensive it almost comes back around to being pathetically hilarious), it also has a truly staggering amount of gay subtext between its leads (and Lupin himself is a veritable Bugs Bunny as far as crossdressing and flirting with opponents goes). Over time, this subtext has built up a small queer fandom who enjoy reframing the text as wacky camp.
This is common in older fandoms or fandoms of older works—knowing you will never, ever see a portrayal of yourself in the thing you love, you reclaim the subject and promote new readings based on latent themes. It’s part of the very personal interaction between viewer and text, the kind of thing fanfiction was literally invented for. Marginalized audiences, lacking heroic figures in their media, re-purpose existing ones for themselves based on a history of coding.
This dynamic shifted with the advent of social media, which allowed for a more direct interaction between fandom and creator. That’s a whole hornet’s nest of issues too big for one essay, and there are a number of ethical ways to execute that relationship. One thing not to do, though, is alienate a marginalized part of your audience by calling them freaks and losers.
Every meta-joke has two levels: what it means in-universe (i.e. to the characters) and what it says about the narrative framework (i.e. tropes, the industry, or the audience). There are all kinds of potential in-universe explanations for the “lovers” gag. You could argue that it’s a sign these are old men in a modern world still carrying outdated prejudices; that Lupin’s teasing means he’s unruffled by the suggestion one way or the other; or that Jigen’s protestations are blatant tsundere behavior (which is pretty characteristic for him).
The meta level, though, asks a much uglier question: what is the reason the writers are making this joke? They created a situation where people in-universe (an audience, if you will) are observing Lupin and Jigen and assume them to be romantically involved, and the characters are written to react with disgust to the idea.
It’s not a cute nod to fandom tendencies, but an active mockery of a certain reading of the text: “You dumb idiots, how could you possibly have gotten this from these interactions?” Not content to just not have the characters smooch on screen (which I don’t think any fan of the subtext reasonably expected, though we’d all welcome it), the writers have come over to our sandcastle, stomped on it, and said “Get the hell out of our sandbox.”
It’s a lousy joke at the best of times, particularly because it means the subtext is no longer accidental. The writers are aware of it, and therefore its continued existence alongside this joke hurtles it straight into the realm of queerbaiting. The writers know why the shipping exists and are continuing to encourage it on an unspoken level, but are publicly decrying it—happy to take queer fans’ money, but quick to throw them under the bus for the sake of reassuring a heterosexual audience (I mentioned this kind of joke was popular on Sherlock and Supernatural, right?).
All of this is bad enough, but it goes even deeper than just making a thoughtless joke at the fandom’s expense. It’s having Goemon scoot away from Jigen afterward, as if a queer person is disgusting and a threat to any straight man in the room. It’s having Lupin tease Jigen with it later, only for Jigen to respond “Don’t be weird” (or, in the original Japanese, the even crueler “kimochi warui”).
It doesn’t matter if the writers actively intended to exclude queer audiences. If you punch someone and then say “just kidding!” that doesn’t un-break their nose. The punchline of those jokes reveals their mentality: queer people are gross, strange, and assumed not to be in the audience. They’re the weirdos over there, not actual human beings who might also want to believe in Lupin. In a series that wants to view its protagonist as a “people’s hero” and talk about what he means to his audience, it’s pretty depressing to be told you’re not wanted.
Lupin III has meant a lot to me over the years. It’s helped me through hard times, and The Woman Called Fujiko Mine remains one of my favorite anime of all time. This isn’t enough to poison my love of the franchise entirely—even elements of Part 5 so far are pretty fun—but it’s disappointing, especially when I’ve seen it do better.
Homophobic jokes are easy to grit your teeth and power through when they’re made in media created before you were ever born. When they aired two weeks ago, my patience is long past spent. Subsequent episodes have also made offhanded jokes about queerness (including the dead-obvious observation that Zenigata is in love with Lupin), and while it might turn out to be some kind of observant, inclusive subplot, I seriously doubt it.
The lowest bar of expectations should be “don’t actively treat marginalized people like unwanted garbage,” and the constant punchlines aren’t exactly rising to that level. I guess I thought one of my favorite properties could find a way to aim higher than that.