Hayao Miyazaki is leaving us. He’s packing up his imaginative worlds, his well written female characters, his moral grays, his love of environmental and anti-war messages, and going to a farm upstate where he can romp with other retired directors.
Luckily for us, his idea of working less is to move from feature film into television. A few weeks ago, it was announced that Miyazaki would be directing a Lupin the Third TV series, set to air some time in 2014. If your head is not exploding from excitement right now, you’re probably American and can lay blame on the French.
Arséne Lupin III (that’s are-sen loo-PAHN) you see, is a cultural icon in Japan. He’s their Batman – there’ve been Lupins of all varieties on the tonal spectrum, and from its inception its always existed in one medium or another. Lupin III was originally a manga by Monkey Punch that ran from 1967 to 1969. It chronicled the adventures of the titular character, the grandson of famed gentleman thief Arséne Lupin. Lupin’s gang includes doggedly loyal sharpshooter Daisuke Jigen, anachronistic samurai Goemon Ishikawa XIII (a supposed descendant of the Japan’s more-or-less Robin Hood), and lady thief/spy Fujiko Mine (her name translates “Twin Peaks,” ‘cause the 60s was all about class). Their main antagonist is more-obsessive-than-Javert Best Cop Ever Koichi Zenigata, progeny of classic literary Best Cop Ever Heiji Zenigata. I guess what I’m saying is Monkey Punch was writing fanfiction before it was really a thing. Oh, and a note going forward – Japanese works read from right to left, generally speaking.
Cling. Cling on, you precious charm factories
When Lupin came to TV in 1971, it was sort of a grand experiment. Most anime was more of the Astro Boy/Speed Racer type, so Lupin III would be the first anime aimed at an adult audience. 8 episodes were put together under the direction of Masaaki Osumi. That guy was gone after the second episode aired, what with the ratings being through the floor and all. Enter Hayao Miyazaki, an intrepid young upstart looking to make his mark on the world. He took the reins of the series alongside Isao Takahata, his Studio Ghibli co-founder who you might know for destroying your heart with the tragic war film Grave of the Fireflies. Bringing Miyazaki on board didn’t exactly save the series – it was still cancelled after 23 episodes – but watching them, you can see his later filmmaking tricks coming into form, and it’s no coincidence that his first feature film was the Lupin-focused Castle of Cagliostro.
Miyazaki created a softer Lupin than the character in the manga and first part of the show. Trust me when I say that’s nothing but a good thing. While darker interpretations of Lupin have been done to great success, the Green Jacket Lupin (as the first series is known) is not that place. There’s a surrealist cynicism to Monkey Punch’s stories, which lends itself now and then to some really good jokes on the page.
CAN YOU BELIEVE – no, actually, that’s kinda funny
But in movement that Lupin seems unbearably cruel – an amoral crook with a petty sense of pride, a rapist on more than one occasion (only in the manga, thank God), and star of adventures that lack a sense of flow or focused theme.
If I stare at this long enough, will it eventually be funny?
Monkey Punch’s direct contributions to the franchise tend to be the lowest on my list, akin to Rob Liefeld’s involvement in the creation of Deadpool. In other words, you have someone who created a great character that other creators were infinitely more equipped to portray. Luckily, MP was the director of only one Lupin film out of an enormous franchise – 1995’s Dead or Alive (aka Some Schmucks You Don’t Care About, With Occasional Lupin& Co When We Remember).
But I digress. Remember those French folks? Yeah, eventually TMS (which animates Lupin III) decided to take its national treasure abroad. It made a big hit in Germany, and they REALLY like it in Italy. Italy might love Lupin more than Japan at this point, seeing as how the world’s only Lupin-themed store is in Milan. But when the series tried to travel further westward, including a potential east/west collaboration called Lupin VIII, they hit a snag. That snag was named Maurice LeBlanc, the very litigious author of the original Arséne Lupin stories. To this day, Lupin isn’t aired in France under its original title. And sue-happy America was so spooked by the legal case that no one would release Lupin III stateside (barring the occasional release of ‘Tales of the Wolf’ or ‘Rupan III’) until LeBlanc’s stories became public domain at the turn of the century.
Turn on the closed captions, and weep for what might’ve been
So in 2000 we got our first real taste of Lupin III (the ‘78/Red Jacket version) on Adult Swim. And maaaaaaan did it look dated next to snazzy fare like Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell. It gets worse. Geneon went under before they could finish releasing the legendary Red Jacket series. Publishing juggernaut Funimation licensed eight Lupin specials only to be rewarded with decidedly lackluster sales. Even Cagliostro wasn’t protected by its Miyazaki made status. Times were lean for American Lupin fans.
But this story has a happy ending! 2012’s masterful standalone series The Woman Called Fujiko Mine was the first Lupin series of the streaming generation, and it’s been doing good business to pretty strong reviews. Meanwhile, all three Lupin tv series are available on Hulu, along with an OVA (Green vs Red) and two feature films (Cagliostro and The Secret of Mamo). Discotek is bringing the show over one bit at a time, and with any luck Funimation will think about getting back in the game in time for December’s Lupin III vs. Detective Conan movie. We’re only getting a fraction of the 6 films, 3 OVAs, 25 specials, and 241 episodes, but it’s way better than it was even two years ago.
Any theme you’re sensing is pure coincidence
Castle of Cagliostro was the first Lupin story to really gain an audience in the States, and it feels strangely like coming full circle to have Miyazaki return to the franchise just as it threatens to take off with a new generation. Or at least, that’s my hope. In the meantime, I feel like rewatching some Green Jacket.
First rule of Lupin III: context is for suckers
EDIT 06/2014: I must regrettably inform y’all (for your humble host wants nothing less than to spread misinformation!) that the sources I was using at the time this article was written have since proven to be baseless. Sad though it is to think of Miyazaki not returning to the franchise (not least for the perfect symmetry it would provide to his career), there’s plenty of revival in the Lupin franchise to look forward to.