The curse of a longstanding, ongoing work is that the early bits are going to look hoarier as the creator (hopefully) continues to improve their craft. For example, if I go back to watch the first episode of Lupin III, a franchise whose continued existence brings me a childish sense of glee, I might wonder when the callous and bloodthirsty murderer replaced my favorite crafty gentleman thief. This is the curse of time, ladies and gents. And it’s a real shame because, like the Japanese public in the 70s, the uninformed would likely switch the confusing mess off and miss out on a barrel of laughs and at least one masterpiece. So why not honor it with a little recap series? I’ll go through the sometimes bizarre, sometimes bafflingly inept episodes before Hayao Miyazaki came on board, and when that time comes we can all just settle into having a great time together…while still pointing out some of charming oddities of this classic.
For those of you wanting to sing along, the show’s available for free on Hulu as Lupin the Third Part I. If you’re really ambitious you can plonk down $30 for the complete box set over on Amazon and keep the fine folks at Discotek in gas station sandwiches.
Alright, everybody scrunch up
The first expectation to tone back, for any of you even moderately familiar with the franchise, regards the music. While 2012’s The Woman Called Fujiko Mine had a soundtrack produced by Shinichiro “Cowboy Bebop” Watanabe and the 1978 Red Jacket series featured a bombastic jazz theme that would become the leitmotif for character and franchise, Green Jacket has…whatever this is. The opening theme seems to be the product of a mad experiment in which you kidnap a homeless beatnik and starve him for several days. Then you throw him into a room with a guitar and have the show’s title blaring on loop through speakers until he composes something that could liberally be interpreted as music. To its credit, the imagery on screen is timed pretty effectively to the beat of the music, giving a nice sense of movement despite more than half of the images being still shots faded into solid colors. On the other hand, it also pretty clearly lays out the mindset we’re heading into. Do you like explosions? Hope you do, because that’s what we’ve got. Explosions and dudes getting shot. Also, one leaves with the distinct impression that Lupin really hates his car.
Now we know why the SSK is so rare
So this is episode one, “Is Lupin Burnin…?.” Settle in, because this isn’t just a
rough start to a great franchise. It’s the worst first episode I’ve ever seen.
So the episode starts out with Lupin preparing for a Formula One race. Because
when you want to introduce the audience to a character who’s best known
in-universe as a master thief, you should definitely start with something
totally unrelated. I love that first episode of Batman where Bruce Wayne attends a social engagement they don’t explain and doesn’t dress up like a bat. There’s a few establishing shots of mechanics prepping the machines, and then we move in on Totally Not Shifty Dude.
The real secret is his magical 2D oil can. Picasso would have a fit.
We have our first appearance of Lupin here, who breaks down the super tough inside man with the following hardcore questioning:
NOBODY COULD’VE SEEN THIS COMING
Rather than, y’know, lying and then casually going on his way, Totally Not Shifty Dude sputters and flails off into the distance. This introduces the first aspect of Lupin’s character that will actually remain consistent, however contrivedly it’s shown here: he’s got a sharp, almost Sherlockian eye for detail, but he’d much rather play dumb – whether because it best suits the plan or just because he thinks it makes things more interesting. We see him talking via headset to his partner, Daisuke Jigen.
I think Bambi’s mom just got shot over the next hill
Now, there’s enough popularity polls out there in the world to make them pretty much meaningless, but for what it’s worth I’ve seen several official ones that rank Jigen as the most popular character. And I’m pretty sure this is why. We get to see Jigen for less than 30 seconds in the scene, but we already have a good idea of his character: he’s relaxed even in the middle of a (as we later learn) attempted assassination and a very tightly timed plan; he’s also sarcastic and not at all above calling Lupin on his crap. Finally, he presently has no shits to give regarding Fujiko’s safety, which sets the stage for their rivalry later on. The important thing to note about these traits is that they’re consistent, a magical word that often has no place in the Lupin III franchise. While Lupin becomes more or less chivalrous or goofy, Fujiko more traitorous or more in love with Lupin, Goemon more tempestuous or stoic, Jigen can always be counted on to act the same way from writer to writer. He’s dead loyal to Lupin (and when he’s not it’s played for the heaviest drama available), snarky but by far the most pragmatic of the group, and not a fan of women in general and Fujiko in particular. The only thing not on display is his short temper and the fact that being his love interest is a death sentence. But otherwise, he’s like a raft in the storm. There’s another reason too, but we’ll talk about that later.
They talk about the obviously bad things about to go down, and Lupin asks about the third member of their team in the most crowbarred expositional dialogue of all time. “How’s my lover, Fujiko Mine? Have you heard from her?” ‘You know, the woman with whom I have the sex? Did I mention that was her role in the story my life?’ Bonus points on this seeming retroactively forced, because later editions of Lupin are shown as the eternally pining lovable lech, always separated from sex by two seconds and a solid punch.
Jigen says that he’s sure Fujiko is fine, effectively damning her by the laws of dramatic irony.
We cut to an underground amphitheatre, wherein we’re informed that there’s this group called Scorpion, who are….anyway, they want to get revenge on Lupin because….look, just shut up and wait for the boobs, okay? We also get another golden line of dialogue from Scorpion’s leader: “It’s true Lupin yet lives, but he will soon die.” Whew, for a second I thought you called your Evil League of Evil to disband them. Fujiko is listening up on the ceiling, but is captured as soon as Jigen’s dialogue from the last scene carries over to set off the timing alarms. Then we cut to our credits, which are flashed in a nifty typewriter style/sound effect that will carry over to Red Jacket in ’78.
So we come back and Fujiko is tied to a slab that Scorpion is borrowing from Blofeld. She and Head Scorpion Dude have a banter-y conversation about how Lupin’s death is assured/no it isn’t/well YOUR mom, spiced up with some delightful veiled rape threats. Head Dude reveals that the racetrack and Grand Prix were all constructed to trap Lupin, and that all the drivers are Scorpion’s hired muscle. Because Monkey Punch clearly didn’t think about where this secret organization is making their funds for these elaborate plans, I choose to believe it comes from their deft hand in scenic and lighting design.
Head Dude explains how Lupin’s usually very cautious (never show when you can tell!) but was hooked by the racing invite, and how killing Lupin will crush the supposed Lupin Empire. As far as we will see throughout the course of this series, the Lupin Empire seems to consist of, at most, four extremely capable people. I guess the writers wanted to give things a sense of scale. Perhaps Lupin fools people by reenacting the dummy scene from Home Alone.
I’m just as lost as you, Fujicakes
Head Dude is not impressed by Fujiko not being impressed, and proceeds to feel her up with one of those tiny hand backscratchers. There’s a weird audio de-synching during this bit, and other parts of the show as well, where the dialogue won’t quite match the mouth or even body movement of the character speaking. It’s never a dealbreaker but it is noticeable after a time, not unlike watching a reporter work from a delayed earpiece feed.
Once the Evil Plan has been exposited we cut to the start of the race, and I realize that the actual purpose of this episode was to do shots in homage to Speed Racer. Lupin calls up Jigen, who’s finally getting concerned about Fujiko. Which is good, because Lupin’s reaction to hearing His Lover has been captured is a resounding ‘meh.’ Lupin plans to strike when Scorpion’s guard is down, surprising Jigen halfway through the mission with news that they’re involved in a trap. Because Lupin’s a dick. Lupin talks for a while about how the drivers are obviously fakes, and seems to know enough about race cars to realize these well-disguised ones are fakes by engine sound alone. He never mentions this interest again.
Another car gets on Lupin’s tail, and we’re treated to the first music in about five minutes. Of a 22 minute episode. Sound design is not this director’s strong suit. The car is driven by Inspector Zenigata, and Jigen freaks at this news so we know it’s ser – wait a minute. There writers know that driving a race car isn’t like driving a regular car, right? That maintaining control at that high of a speed with a much more powerful than average engine is a lot harder than driving a cop car? Why am I suddenly reminded of the episode of South Park where Cartman joins NASCAR?
Look, I’ll buy Lupin knowing how to drive these things – he’s the car whisperer in this episode, and he’ll later be characterized as an intensive researcher regarding jobs, but Zenigata? When did he have time to learn the art of racing? He doesn’t even get paid enough to eat half the time!
By the way, this is another case of telling that applies to everybody-but-Jigen. It’s like you can see the amateur actors looking at cue cards. “Oh, hello CHARACTER A. You sure are a PLOT FUNCTION. Man, that takes me back to things before this first episode ever.”
Our intrepid inspector perseveres,
despite being menaced by speed lines over a still frame
Zenigata exposits about how he and Lupin are destined to be in conflict because of their ancestory, and imagines throwing handcuffs at Lupin as they run through a field of flowers. There’s certainly no queer subtext to be found anywhere in this fine, manly body of work. I’ve been assured of it multiple times.
But would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?
We cut back to the Professional Lighting Team, where they’re beginning the plan they have in store for Lupin. Head Dude uses his backscratcher to rip Fujiko’s shirt, so either it’s made of razors or Fujiko’s been allocated the tissue-based wardrobe given to all femme fatales.
The Plan, it seems, is to stage a series of “accidents” rather than kill Lupin outright. Um…why? Lupin’s supposedly part of a criminal empire. It’s not like there’s scrupulous contacts who’re gonna come knocking, and the less than honorable ones aren’t so into the innocent til proven guilt thing. Plausible deniability won’t mean much when your forehead can be used as a telescope. These “deadly accidents” are also pretty ineffectual, because Zenigata runs straight through them and is no worse for wear. Maybe stick to the stage, guys.
As a counter to The Plan, Lupin announces it’s time to start their own master plan, and Jigen springs into action.
Were you wearing that the whole time?
Basically, Jigen gets into a duplicate of Lupin’s car and swaps places with him during a bend in the road, allowing Lupin to jet off to the Amphitheatre of Evil with no one the wiser. So we can add Jigen to the list of unnaturally competent drivers.
Lupin breaks into Scorpion’s main compound disguised as a plumber, in an actually good moment of characterization that sets up one of his main gimmicks. He breaks all of the toilets in the women’s bathroom, causing a flood. How – you know what, it’s almost over.
This is the face of a serial killer
Lupin floods some more stuff and fiddles with the building’s generator, blah blah inevitable explosion. Downstairs, Fujiko’s torture slab was apparently converted from a laser bed to a deadly tickle machine. Terrifying. This device exists solely to make Fujiko squirm around and show her nipples off to the viewer. It was the 70s, and they thought they were clever.
By now there’re somehow enough pipes in the building to create a tiny lake in the basement, and Lupin electrocutes Scorpion with some live wires. The theatre world will never be the same. And then we come to the point where I had to check out due to a meltdown in my mental processors: Lupin comes over to rescue His Lover Did We Mention That, and Fujiko remarks that he should’ve come sooner while the camera pans over her ruined outfit. And then this happens.
No, see, it’s hilarious. If only he’d let her be just a teeny bit more sexually assaulted, he might have gotten to see her naked. Which, since she is His Lover, obviously never happens. Yup, I sure am enticed to keep watching this show.
Let’s get through this. Lupin and Jigen switch their cars back around, Lupin rigs all of the other cars to explode and crosses the finish line to the tune of another song that knows less than half a dozen words. The cars, the race track, and probably a few heads explode. Oh, and it turns out that Fujiko was working for Zenigata the whole time to get out of her own arrest warrant. She also hogtied Jigen and handed him over, but she has boobs so Lupin forgives her immediately. Presumably Jigen gets out of that somehow, but we don’t see him for the rest of the episode so you’ll have to imagine your own daring shootout. Instead, Lupin pops up in Fujiko’s escape car to tell us this.
We keep it in our purses. Next to the mace
And off they go, end of episode. Good God. No wonder the ratings for the first few episodes of this show were abominable. I want to get as far away from it as possible, and I’ve spent hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours on this franchise.
My many nitpicks aside, the little details aren’t what make this episode so terrible. It’s just clumsily executed on all levels. There’s no sense of context for these people, in either their personalities or motivations, beyond clumsy exposition. Without context there’s no sense of stakes, so it’s difficult to invest in the conflict presented. And most importantly, all of the characters save for Jigen are emotionless ciphers, showing not an ounce of human compassion beyond jaded self interest. If they don’t care about each other then why should we, the audience, care about what happens to them? It results in a world that has pretensions of being detached and cool (this has to rank as one of Lupin’s highest body counts, and right out the gate), but also comes off as alien and cold. Even shows like Evangelion, which makes its meals on broken and depressed people, still gave them things to care about and emotional connections to one another. That’s what brings a viewer back in the long term, and “Is Lupin Burnin” just doesn’t get it.
There’s another few episodes before we move into watchable territory, and further still until the show hits what I would call genuine high quality (we do get there, I promise). The recaps after this one will probably be a bit shorter – I wanted to outline some basics here, since that’s what a first episode is theoretically supposed to do. And the further we get from this repugnant 22 minutes, the perkier I’ll be.
Hope to see you there!