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Andrew Osmond dodges the cops to pass on the skinny…

Lupin the Third is as an elder statesman of manga and anime, though he’d be outraged at that description. He’s a master criminal, a thief, a daredevil, a showman, a genius, a scoundrel, a rascal, an anarchist, a maverick, a killer, a ladykiller, and an embodiment of fashion and cool. Oh, and add escapologist, master of disguise, and lanky-limbed Don Juan in a pair of striped boxer shorts.

Lupin is approaching his half-century. He first debuted in manga form in 1967, the creation of Kazuhiko Kato, now known to the world through his pseudonym Monkey Punch. For all that time, Lupin has been trotting round the world, pulling off impossible thefts, crimes and stunts, and being chased by more police cars than an army of Blues Brothers. He’s nearly always accompanied by a supporting cast of four. There’s Jigen, a quickdraw mobster/sharpshooter; there’s Goemon, an honest-to-goodness samurai warrior who can slice a helicopter or an armoured car with a single swordswing; and there’s Fujiko.

Ah, Fujiko. She’s the world’s most beautiful career criminal, Lupin’s number one rival and perhaps the first sexbomb in the manga world – now enjoying top-billing in the new series Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. Running doggedly after the lot of them is Inspector Zenigata. He’s a man whose being revolves around Lupin, a law-enforcer who’s nothing when he hasn’t got the thief in his sights. He’s closer to Lupin than a lover or a brother; quite simply, he’s Lupin’s best enemy.

That much is constant in the Lupin universe; other details can be dialled up or down. Lupin started as a pretty hardboiled character, revelling in sex and violence – not a sadist or a thrill-killer, but nor a man with much moral code. In one of his first strips (adapted in an episode of the 1971 anime series), he’s actually caught by the cops and imprisoned for a year, making no attempt to escape while his  captors – who know his reputation – wonder what on earth he’s playing at. It turns out to be a giant mindgame. In the end, Lupin escapes with minutes to spare, trussing up a nameless prison guard in his place, and strolling out casually while his victim fries in the electric chair.

As for sex… well, the artist makes no secret of his proclivities. “Come on love,” leers a heavy to a bound and spread-eagled Fujiko in another of the early strips, “this is a Monkey Punch manga, he likes this sort of thing.” “Yeah, but he likes this sort of thing too,” retorts Lupin, knifing the goon in the back. Another saucy sequence is captioned: “In these panels, the most primitive aspect of the female form has been obscured so as to be sensitive to delicate readers. For those readers who aren’t as sensitive… Please allow your imagination to run wild.”

Interestingly, though, Monkey Punch denies he created Lupin just to indulge in torrid sex-and-violence fantasies. In an interview published by Anime News Network, the artist said, “I project my desires, my interests through Lupin; he’s a thief and a criminal, but I’m using that as more of a setting. What I really like about Lupin is his freedom, his boundless freedom to do whatever he wants whenever he wants and never be tied down to anything. I think I want that for myself in my own work, so for that reason, Lupin is by far the character I most relate to.”

Lupin obviously shares some DNA with James Bond – the suave, supercool, jet-setting hero who gets the travel, the girls, the endless adventures, with no responsibility but to swim forward like a shark. You can also see Lupin as the wisecracking cousin of Takao Saito’s ice-blooded hitman Golgo 13, who was created in manga a couple of years later, and his hardboiled descendants like the Black Lagoon gang.

There’s also a strong American comics influence, specifically from the Mad magazine artist Mort Drucker. On a Ghibli-made documentary, Yasuo Otsuka’s Joy of Motion, the title artist analyses how Drucker’s style inspired Lupin. Characters (well, the men) have skinny limbs sticking out of wide, loose clothing. There are jutting cleft chins and hairy, oversized hands.

Lupin’s name, though, is a tribute to the first Lupin – full name Arsène Lupin, a French master-thief created by the writer Maurice Leblanc in 1901. The character is famous in many territories, including Japan, hence Punch’s borrowing the name. He features in numerous films and TV series of his own, including anime: he was in 1981’s Lupin vs. Holmes, fought a magic girl in Gigi and the Fountain of Youth, and cameos in Soul Eater. The French thief’s fans are at pains to emphasise he’s a very different, much more gentlemanly character than Punch’s Lupin. You might compare their relationship to that between Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and today’s Doctor House. If you’re interested in the original, a compendium of Leblanc’s stories is in print, and others can be read on the Project Gutenberg site.

The fact that Punch used the “Lupin” name without checking with LeBlanc’s estate led to numerous copyright tangles, and Lupin the Third was renamed “Rupan” or “Wolf” on early American dubs. In Punch’s defence, at least he had the decency to wait until the original author was long dead. LeBlanc himself had had no such scruples – he pilfered Sherlock Holmes to fight Lupin while Arthur Conan Doyle was still very much alive. When the British knight protested, Leblanc spoonerised the sleuth as Herlock Sholmes instead!

It’s also worth noting that Arsène Lupin was not the only fictional French thief to fire up Japanese culture. In 1911, a silent French film, Zigomar, was a hit in Japan. According to historian Jonathan Clements, it “glorified the activities of a master-thief and his perpetual ability to elude the detectives on his trail.” It may have been a Lupin imitation, but Zigomar took on a life of its own, inspiring French and Japanese sequels (the latter unauthorised). It also caused a moral panic that foreshadowed A Clockwork Orange sixty years later. There were reports of tearaway Japanese kids imitating the crooks, and “Zigomar gang” became a press tag for delinquents.

The screen adventures of Lupin the Third didn’t cause such scandal, but they took a while to click. Otsuka, mentioned above, was one of a small group of animators who created a “pilot” anime trailer around 1970 and tried to interest studios in a movie. In the trailer, Lupin is introduced driving flash wheels: “The classic Mercedes SSK, Hitler’s favourite car!” says the narrator. The pilot is towards the hardboiled end of the scale, combined with cartoon fantasy. Lupin leaps from a plane to another car, chucks dynamite through the window, and jumps down a cliff as the vehicle explodes. It was never made as a movie, but the pilot led to the first Lupin the Third anime series in 1971. It ran 26 episodes.

Lupin then popped up in live-action – L3: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy (1974), a reportedly very campy version with Yuki Meguro (still acting today). After the Lupin TV anime was repeated to higher ratings, a much longer series was greenlit, and ran 155 episodes from 1977 to 1980. It’s this version, and its cinema spinoffs (see below) which are beloved by many fans. A strong factor is the brilliant theme by jazz musician Yuji Ohno. It was in the clip at the beginning, but here’s a reorchestrated version from later in the show’s run. Which one do you prefer?

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The second series played up its nature as an animated cartoon. The sex and violence (already toned down from the manga in the first series) often seemed less important than the action’s insanity; Bugs Bunny is a common comparison made by viewers. Alternatively, perhaps this was Lupin’s Roger Moore phase, though the first anime movie spinoff – The Secret of Mamo, available on DVD – took the madness to a sublime level. A horny, kooky Lupin motorbikes up the Great Pyramid, is chased by a helicopter through a sewer, and runs through backgrounds based on classic paintings (the kind of gag equally beloved by Chuck Jones and Osamu Tezuka). And we haven’t mentioned the dinosaur-sized Mega-Truck (homaging Duel), or a copiously naked Fujiko, or an end-of-film monster which must have escaped from a Mars Attacks! playing card. Take that, Moonraker!

Secret of Mamo was followed, in extreme contrast, by Lupin’s most famous adventure, Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro. Some fans insist the “Miyazaki” Lupin is an imposter, not the real Lupin at all; and indeed, Miyazaki’s Lupin spends a lot of time selflessly saving an imprisoned princess, while the old-school Lupin would have deflowered her and moved on to the money! But by 1979, there were already plenty of variant Lupins (the loony-tunes Mamo isn’t much like Punch’s original strips either). Moreover, Cagliostro is full of ludicrous, irresponsible action, including an iconic drive-up-a-cliff road battle (take a bow, animator Kazuhide Tomonoga, who contributed extensively to other Lupin anime as well). Overall, Miyazaki’s Lupin is less of a franchise aberration than James Bond getting married in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

For the record, Monkey Punch said he enjoyed Cagliostro himself, though “from a distance.” On the animated Lupins generally, he was laissez-faire. “I’m pretty much, well, ‘Make it good,’ and I leave it up to them. The directors will go ahead and make their own Lupin and add a twist to their own Lupin character and I enjoy watching those.”

The next Lupin TV series would have taken the thief into the future, if only it had been finished! The French-Japanese Lupin the VIII featured a pretty much identical-to-the-originals next generation of the characters, now adventuring amid androids and space cities. The French producer was Bernard Deyries (Ulysses 31, The Mysterious Cities of God); the Lupin characters were redesigned by Shingo Araki; and the director would have been no less than Rintaro (Metropolis). Lupin the VIII was never finished or broadcast, due to more rights problems with Leblanc’s estate. The footage that’s leaked isn’t dazzling, but suggests the idea had potential.

Another road untaken in the ‘80s was a proposed Lupin anime movie by Mamoru Oshii, long before he became famous with Ghost in the Shell. According to anime expert Benjamin Ettinger, Oshii’s outline was “so outlandish and bizarre” that the producers fired him! The story was rumoured to have a Lupin infected with existential ennui, having finally run out of things to steal. Well, it certainly sounds like Oshii…

Of the actual Lupin projects of the ‘80s, the third TV series (running 50 episodes and featuring Lupin in a pink jacket) has its admirers, as do later films; especially 1987’s The Fuma Conspiracy, which goes for sheer adventure-film excitement with another epic car chase for the ages. Most of Lupin’s later outings were feature-length specials for TV generally broadcast each summer, becoming a seasonal institution like the Doraemon movies in cinemas.

Of these twenty-plus titles, the general consensus is their quality is, well, mixed. Even surf Nazis couldn’t save 1995’s outing, The Pursuit of Harimao’s Treasure. The sense that Lupin was ageing was heightened by the death that year of the thief’s beloved actor, Yasuo Yamada. The Japanese voice of Clint Eastwood and Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, Yamada had played Lupin in nearly all his anime since 1971, with a rubbery, manic, insolent voice Mel Blanc would have envied.

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Now, though, Lupin – voiced by Yamada’s replacement Kanichi Kurita – is enjoying a revival. His new series, Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, isn’t just a comeback; it’s a radical reboot of the characters and franchise, both in story and style. Lupin is also returning to cinemas for a second team-up with anime sleuth Detective Conan (they first met in a TV feature in 2009). And this June, it was reported that a new Japanese live-action Lupin film will be made, starring Shun Oguri (sometime voice-actor, and recently seen as Mutta in the live-action Space Brothers) as the world’s greatest criminal. Who’s calling Lupin an elder statesman now, then? Pah!

Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, is out soon on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

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