What’s it about? International thief Lupin III is now in France, looting the physical and digital world of treasures. His efforts are complicated by Ami, a tech genius with poor self-preservation suddenly in his care, and the new “Lupin Game,” a social media campaign that makes it easy for the cops to track his every move.
Here’s the problem with being a longtime fan of something: you start to notice when things are getting phoned in. Lupin the 3rd is an almost 50-year-old franchise, one characterized by sharp peaks of brilliance (or engaging weirdness) that gradually slump back into long, protracted stretches of functional mediocrity. If the last 20 minutes are any indication, we’re heading into the latter again.
Positive things first: the new series still looks good. The color palette is ported over from Part IV and results in lots of lovely lighting effects and scenic vistas in the French countryside. The stop-motion-esque opening theme is the big standout, its almost paper-cutout renditions of the classic characters looking cute as a button to the latest rearrangement of Yuji Ohno’s classic theme. It’s really charming, and I wish I could’ve watched it for the full 20-odd minutes.
The meat of the episode is, almost beat for beat, typical Lupin: there’s a heist, the reintroduction of the gang, a new girl of the week, and a climactic get away. But something doesn’t quite click about the execution. The actual theft of the money is handled by the girl of the week with little fanfare. Goemon and Zenigata show up as a matter of course, as if they’ve always been there, rather than because of any attempt to introduce them prior to their crucial role in the plot. Fujiko doesn’t factor into the plan at all and instead appears in a brief cut away in the final minutes of the episode.
The social media angle of the new series is its one great innovation, working from the idea that Lupin would have to change radically in the age of social media. It’s a pretty cool conceit, but the thing is… Lupin really hasn’t changed. He’s still the same PG-13 version of the character that was ironed out during the 1970s Red Jacket run: a basically decent human being with a tired Lothario streak (which wouldn’t be a problem if SOME part of the franchise were doing something innovative with the character; it’s not).
The series has always struggled to escape its origins as a Cold War-era story, and the best incarnations of the series either embraced that setting or took place in fantastical lands that seemed outside of time. Part 5’s solution is to give everyone technowizardry and do no thinking whatsoever about the character himself. There’s an opening scene about how Lupin has no origins and is therefore a “hero” (during which I became pettily annoyed because The Castle of Cagliostro is treated as an intermittent adventure, even though it was meant to be a “last job” for the Lupin character, thus explaining why that story is so much more melancholy and sentimental), but that angle’s been tried and failed before as well.
There’s an entrenched refusal to think about Lupin’s appeal as an outsider in a significant way, and how the demographic for those who consider themselves outcasts of society has changed. Instead, the show jokes about how the Fiat is an “anachronism,” implicitly like Lupin himself, and then shrugs and moves forward. Yes, it ditches the Fiat at episode’s end with an air of finality, but I see no indication it’s anything less than content with the same old audience it’s always had, rather than living up to the potential of a group of charming thieves flouting social convention.
And then there’s the girl.
Ami, the computer hacker the Lupin gang finds themselves saddled with, is two tons of red flags in an 80-pound bag. She’s a savant of the very particular type that almost always seems to affect only female characters: incredibly gifted but incapable of taking care of herself. The camera focuses in on her thin frame, bare feet, and exposed skin, and takes care to show us her underwear when she goes for a gun (she’s not wearing any pants, because of course she’s not).
Pointing out fanservice might seem redundant in a series with one of the most iconic cheesecake figures in anime history (and in case you forgot that, the ED is here to give you lots and lots of fanservice shots of Fujiko; which leaves a real bad taste given that she didn’t even get to do anything this week), but that’s just it—the Lupin franchise has historically had a lot of fanservice of adult women. Whatever they ultimately reveal Ami’s age to be, she looks about twelve.
The fact that she’s The Other Woman (you only get two!) of the series is also worrisome, as that role tends to serve in some capacity as a love interest. She might wind up as a daughter-figure instead, but the panty shots make me extremely leery.
When Sayo Yamamoto’s The Woman Called Fujiko Mine came out in 2012, it was a shot of new life to a franchise exhausted by the grind of annual TV specials, complete with a gorgeous aesthetic and a new lens on the content. It also marked the first (and thus far only) time the series was written or directed by a woman.
From there, character designer Takeshi Koike took the aesthetic and the vague notion of “grimmer and darker” but none of the feminist reframing and made Jigen’s Gravestone and The Bloodspray of Goemon Ishikawa—two films that look quite nice and reach some astonishing depths of misogyny. Meanwhile, Part IV returned to the comedic median of the series with one (1) more recurring female character. Now, the 50th anniversary seems set to just pat itself on the back with a “greatest hits” collection instead of seriously rethinking the franchise.
For its 50th anniversary, Devilman put out a new series that attempted to completely realign how the story operated by speaking to youthful unrest and the plight of the marginalized in modern-day Japan.
But, y’know, a fancy monocle is cool, too.