“Of course he bleeds green and flies off in a giant robot! What else were you expecting?”
I spent ages trying to think of how to sum up Green vs. Red, the 2008 OVA meant to celebrate 20 years of Lupin III TV specials. I tried out quite a few false starts: it is a Lupin movie that does not strictly feature the thief as the audience knows him, and features a truly bafflingly placed diatribe against nuclear power; it wants to be a meta-narrative about Lupin’s enduring popularity, a loving homage to over 30 years of content, and a cool heist movie, but does all of those things very badly; and it is as pretty and brimming with poor decisions as a college freshman during Rush week.
All of those are true, but they failed to really sum up the experience. The quote up there came in around the time I enlisted Film Friend’s help, and succeeded only in making a fairly casual Lupin fan really angry. It seemed to have beaten me. And then, suddenly, like a human mind attempting to absorb the Necronomicon, it began to make sense to me. Green vs Red isn’t a heist movie at all. It’s a horror movie. In that light, it’s a strangely warped and fascinating journey through the looking glass of a collective cultural love for that being known as Lupin III.
The movie’s protagonist is named Yasuo, in a rather sweet nod to the original Lupin. I spent most of my time thinking of him as ‘this fucking guy.’ As in ‘ugh, are you really ditching the cast we’re here to see just to follow this fucking guy some more?’ Yasuo is the typical horror movie lead, in that he’s meant to be a relatable everydude but is instead a loathsome schlub you can’t wait to be rid of. We spend some time getting to know him – he grew up in an orphanage and was perhaps a bit of a punk, has a girlfriend he hasn’t quite worked up the nerve to propose to, and works at a lousy dead end restaurant. Then, like all good horror movies, we get the first hints of something being not-quite-right.
There are many Lupins contending to be the real article, every one of them a knowing fake with aspirations toward being The Lupin. In stories like this, though, it’s never the people dabbling in things beyond their understanding who end up getting close. And there is a sense of an enormous something going on. Even the police are aware of it. They speak about our Inspector Zenigata like he’s some prophet of doom, the Sam Loomis to Lupin’s Michael Myers, the Nancy to his Freddy (there’s even a bizarre implication that Castle of Cagliostro exists as a film in this universe, similarly to the meta-commentary Wes Craven used in New Nightmare), the Brody to his Jaws.
…I’ve been reading the Summers of Blood a lot lately.
And while these portents are going on, Yasuo has been seeing his share of strange occurrences, even before the story proper has started – he has daydreams of a woman very much like Fujiko (and very much not his fiancée), and finds a seemingly abandoned green jacket that he feels compared to pick up and later wear. And when he does?
It’s as if he loses himself entirely (notice the way we lose track of his eyes, that window to the soul, before he smiles), waking the next day seeming to have no memory of what transpired while he was wearing the jacket. This isn’t a matter of Yasuo assuming a role. He’s been chosen, and he hasn’t the awareness to fight back against it.
So the movie goes on, and we watch Yasuo spend more and more time in the role of ‘Lupin’ and far less as his true self. And then, just to provide a wrinkle in things, the titular Red Lupin shows up – the one who’s been taken as the real deal until now, and isn’t pleased to see Jigen and Goemon hanging around with the Green Jacketed Yasuo. And speaking of the other members of the gang, let’s examine what’s going on with them.
Uniquely of the five Lupin characters that appear in the special, Jigen refers repeatedly to the passage of time. He grumbles and complains about his age, and has apparently been in action for 40 years, but he looks exactly the same as he did when Green Jacket debuted back in 1971. It would seem he’s felt the passage of time without reflecting it, serving as a herald bound to show up wherever Lupin appears (as he begins following Yasuo around soon after he acquires the jacket). In the scene above he appears as nothing so much as an avenging demon, drawn with unusually sharp and wild features (haphazard hair that usually appears with a rounded shape, glinting eyes that are normally hidden, and a toothy grin).
Always the furthest removed member of the gang, here that trait has gifted Goemon with the group’s most persistent sense of humanity. He alone shows visible signs of distress and sentimentality throughout the film, and explicitly excludes himself from the final battle that will determine the new Lupin. While his distance was initially a result of stoicism, it has become the last means of preserving something important to the Lupin mythos that both Jigen and Fujiko (always far closer to Lupin in the beginning) seem to have lost.
If Jigen’s duty is to seek out and look after potential Lupins, and Goemon’s to keep them tied to humanity (and the desires that created the Lupin figure) then it falls to Fujiko to approve them. In this context Lupin’s usual romantic gifts become akin to offerings for a goddess, begging her to turn a favorable eye on the man who might be Lupin (for by this point there seems to be very little of Yasuo left). Visions of Fujiko, as I mentioned, are one of our first signs that Yasuo might be a suitable candidate, and once she rescues him (after his apparent death, giving us a kind of symbolic rebirth into his increasingly inevitable role) he falls full tilt into proving that he’s the ‘real’ Lupin.
With that declaration, it becomes clear that this man is far from the one we started with – whatever effect the jacket has on him has well and truly taken hold. And it’s not only his mind that seems to have changed – I was in no way kidding about that green blood.
But what is it that Yasuo is becoming? What, in this horror story, is the thing we’re calling ‘Lupin?’ He seems, more than anything, to be a cultural ideal – a personification of concentrated, uninhibited freedom that the people can aspire to without having to be (for as the film shows us, it can easily lead to madness and wanton violence if not channeled to the correct host). It’s a necessary thing, and yet it fills Yasuo’s girlfriend Yukiko with dread, as if she can sense that gaining a new Lupin will mean losing her lover.
Like any good horror film, there’s a looming sense of approaching disaster in the secondary plotline, where the revelations of the plot come to light too late or too removed to be of help to the protagonist in trouble. Yukiko finds that she must answer the recurring question, ‘could you love Lupin’ with a firm ‘no,’ for that person would no longer have anything of the man she loved in him.
While there’s a token final battle between Green and Red it’s over within minutes, more a final proving ground than any true life or death struggle. For Red it must be a relief, the final stage before he can pass on the mantle and escape from his duties as the world’s premiere gentleman thief. Or last glimpse of Yasuo, messy haired and wearing the scarf that might’ve been a fond gift, we see a vision of him speaking with the dying grandparent he avoided earlier in the film (when he then received the first Fujiko vision). While she’s telling him to do his best, the scene carries more of a sense of finality and farewell. Just as Yasuo says goodbye to the woman in the bed, we (and Yukiko by extension) say farewell to him. And in the film’s final shot the only remnants of the original personality is the engagement ring, originally meant for Yukiko, hanging from the Fiat’s rearview mirror.