There’s a great deal to love about this episode, and not just because it marks the halfway(ish) point of our adventure through this early branch of the Lupin canon. It’s also not because the sound mix is better, because the dialogue still doesn’t quite match up with the animation, and at one point an axe being removed from a post is accompanied by a creaking-door sound effect. Or because the animators have become masters of continuity – the episode starts with Fujiko stealing one of two boxes from a table. The box is gone, then reappears as the box’s guards shoot at the thief (I swear to you, they take the animation of Fujiko’s arm reaching in and just play it in reverse), then gone again once the shots stop. That one extra still was going to cost someone a sick grandchild, I guess. And that’s not even getting into the obviously recycled animation that somewhat undercuts the excitement of the thrilling snowmobile getaway.
We’re both trying very hard not to admit how impressed we are
No, the wonderful thing about this episode is that it finally, in its own roundabout manner, did what Masaaki Osumi originally set out to do: it is cool. The character interactions are fun, the action is madcap, it’s a bit dark around the edges, and I’m pretty sure Jigen wasn’t actually invited on this heist because he spends most of the episode popping out of snowdrifts or stalking people from trees. It’s fantastic. Want to watch along? You can find episodes on Hulu (for US readers) and Dailymotion (yes, it did take me this long to realize my lovely international readers would need a different link. No one ever said I was smart).
The episode’s even titled “Who had the Last Laugh?,” which is meta enough to actively make my head spin. Is it Osumi, for finally delivering something I unequivocally want more of on the eve of his disappearance (only to come back years later to direct the decidedly ‘meh’ Orders to Assassinate Lupin)? Is it me, with the historical knowledge that for all Osumi’s cool-explosions posturing, Green Jacket would be declared “too dark” when the time came to make that first live-action Lupin movie? Is it –
Anyway, about the statues I was ragging on above. We’re in a snowy mountain village this week: they’re not too rich, and their communal heirloom is a pair of golden statues called the Sister Statues. It seems Lupin was on his way to trade for them, but a group of thugs (from that pesky and ever present Organization) beat him to the punch before Fujiko came along. Course, Fujiko was only able to steal one of the statues, putting both sides in a tricky pinch. Thus we have cat and mouse with the captured village leader in the middle, and the two groups of mercenary pragmatists on either side. From there, it’s just a matter of watching the ploys unfold.
I can already hear the raised eyebrows. “That’s it? That’s better than the Bebop-inspiring episode, or the psychedelic wackiness of an incendiary dolphin?” To which I would reply, it’s a matter of control. Those examples, and many of the episodes before, are a series of awesome moments bogged down by cheap execution or uncomfortable sliminess masquerading as cool. And while they do indeed offer some extremely lofty highs, the lows are enough to pull the outings as wholes down to the level of average-or-less. They’re hard sells, especially the crushingly mediocre ones that don’t even rise to the level of fascinatingly weird. But this episode knows itself, and its tone is an almost perfect balance between Osumi’s impulses and the directorial tug already being exerted by Miyazaki (and Isao Takahata, who I don’t credit often enough largely because I’m terrible and lazy, and somewhat because he didn’t retain the clear passion Miyazaki has for the franchise over the years and therefore I forget).
This manages to be charming in context. I’m still not sure how
Take, for example, that ridiculous(ly adorable) outfit Fujiko is wearing. Ms. Situational Pragmatism should be contracting record levels of frostbite. But you forgive it, because the episode allows her to be so unabashedly awesome in the opening without deliberately making her the damsel for two thirds of the running time(it’s only half, and most of that’s a result of Lupin being Kind of a Dick).
And how about one of the other problems that plagued the early run: the fact that Lupin is a terrible person, surviving as protagonist only by going up against objectively more horrible people? No problem! Here we have a whole spectrum of moral grey, from the mustache twirling villainy and elderly abuse of the Organization to Lupin’s chaotic neutral treasure hunting to the somewhat smug good intentions of the village elder…
…Which also feeds nicely into the fact that Lupin’s layer of skeezy traits is finally treated as a character quirk and not something endorsed by the tone and intent of the episode. On this point, a bit of clarification is required. It’s entirely possible to have a primary character who is racist, sexist, or otherwise possessing negative traits, without those characteristics being portrayed as something the audience is supposed to sympathize with. It can be a difficult balance to strike, though, and when a show fails it often does so miserably. Take the first episode of this very series, which includes the loathsome “I should’ve come later [after the villain had undressed you]” scenario. That’s about twenty different kinds of horrible, and the critical next step never happens: Lupin isn’t rebuked by Fujiko or any of the other characters, and indeed he suffers no backlash of any kind. It’s played very straightforwardly as a joke made not just by Lupin but the show, as something the audience is meant to laugh at (aren’t you so disappointed Lupin showed up before the fanservice happened, viewer?). It implicates the audience in Lupin’s attitude, bolstered by the slow pans over Fujiko’s ripped clothing then and earlier in the episode. It’s a special achievement to hit the series low point in the very first episode, but there you are.
Now, let’s take today’s episode for contrast: Lupin makes quite a few moves on Fujiko, including smacking her ass after tying her up (to keep her from stealing the treasure). In contrast to the last time, we here have Fujiko voicing her displeasure – not with Lupin’s company, per say (see that weirdly adorable look of fondness up there?), but the fact that he’s pushing things in directions she’s made clear she doesn’t want. The whole scene is dripping with a strange, poisonous charm, giving off the impression of two kids playing-fighting with real knives. They’re both sure nothing can hurt them, and that no one else can play on their level – have I mentioned how much better this variant is than the hearts and flowers remix? Instead of the comedy beats playing on the Lupin-audience desire to see naked flesh (regardless of context) it comes from Fujiko playfully insulting Lupin or cracking him across the face with a lit torch for getting too forward. The subject matter is the same, y’see, but the focus of it has shifted. It’s small, but absolutely critical (think, if you want to dip into something more sensitive, why Louie CK’s “rapists are assholes” bit didn’t stir up the controversy of Daniel Tosh’s “women get upset about rape” joke). If it can be argued that no subject should be taboo in comedy, then it must just as stringently be pressed that how the subject is approached MUST be dealt with sensitively. Also, because karma is a reliable thing in a crafted fictional universe, Lupin winds up stripped naked for the camera himself later on.
How else to prepare for a blizzard if not with thermal granny panties?
We’ve also returned, for the last time, to ‘psychic link’ Lupin and Jigen. I’ll miss it so much. The pitch-perfect tension of Jigen arriving at the cave to find Lupin (apparently) unconscious, fight-bantering with Fujiko, and then getting the upper hand after a bit of wordless Lupin winking, is the kind of thing that Osumi did peerlessly – and I don’t mean that as faint praise. These moments of lively, honest interactions kept me coming back in earnest no matter how bad the adventures around them were. I consider it the great talent of the first run.
And speaking of comedy (as I did so many paragraphs ago), it really crackles here. I mean, besides the general weirdness early on where Jigen has a couple of snow pratfalls despite his character-comedy being based more in the ‘exasperated observer/over-competent sidekick’ vein than in slapstick. That’s generally more the prevue of Lupin or Zenigata, so it comes off a bit out of place.
Lupin was too busy to take up his usual comedic duties, I guess
That aside, though, the violence is handled with a care that allows it to actually be funny: like the great British comedies we have a bunch of fairly terrible people all giving each other what-for, and we’re allowed to laugh at it because we’ve seen enough evidence in the past ten minutes to know a) they deserve it and b) it’s never serious or heavy enough to feel like more than a momentary pain (see Lupin’s third degree facial burns, which have healed by the next shot). Even the cruelest bits sell rather effectively as black comedy. Which is good, because Lupin kills a LOT of people in this episode.
And, as is necessary, they make sure the evils of the villain outweigh the sins of the anti-hero – Lupin is all set to pay the elder whatever exorbitant price he charges for the statues, while The Organization’s leader is continually threatening the old man and plotting to steal both the statues and Lupin’s money. They’re little things, but audience sympathy is a tricky thing in situations like this. Direct parallels of situation with opposite modes of behavior is an easy (if frequently overstated) way to draw broad strokes for the viewer.
As we know, firebombing is a very neat and precise affair
Not that all this stops the Lupin Death Counter from making a meteoric rise (you boys had better hope those houses were all abandoned, or that’s a whole population on your hands), but with the tone the rest of the episode sets…I’m actually inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. I believe that The Organization either killed everyone who lived there already, or they’d long since vacated to a village with less shitty construction. Maybe I’m just distracted by the bizarrely chosen premiere of what will become our new opening theme, playing with merry bombast over the rain of explosions. The landmines are totally on him, though.
If I seem rather vague on the details, it’s because I’d actually give a rousing endorsement of it. Watching things play out is downright fun, something that’s very rarely been said without qualification up to now. And I think I owe that to Mr. Osumi, what with all the critique I’ve given him up to now (not a word of which I take back, but I’m not quick to forget the entertainment he’s given me, either). Goodbye, good sir. Your last contribution was your finest, casting a warm glow of remembrance over even the most truly awful patches of past storytelling (most of them. Seriously, the fuck was with the formula one episode). Well done.
NEXT TIME: Let’s take a detour into a concept fit for the Twilight Zone, and find the most unexpected precursor to Lupin’s very first movie! Is that a real, legitimate opponent backing our thief into a corner…with time travel? Hope to see you there!