Almost a year ago I started my very first ongoing series (a lecture series? Recaps? A bit of both, perhaps), concerning the classic anime Lupin III Part I (colloquially known as the “Green Jacket” series). I’ll say the same thing now that I did then (repeatedly, and for 23 straight weeks): Green Jacket is a charming piece of overlooked animation history, a testing ground for new ideas (as the first truly adult-oriented anime) and new talents (Hayao Miyazaki) often overshadowed by its Red Jacketed successor even in its native country. It’s well worth exposing yourself to.
This post is meant to give new readers a sort of helping hand. Putting aside (arguably) Goemon’s two introduction episodes, the series is completely episodic. They can be picked and chosen, in other words. And though I have a certain aversion to top ten lists claiming to list things that are Objectively Best (lacking, as they tend to, any consciousness of their authors’ inescapable subjectivity), lists along the lines of ‘Hey, This is Noteworthy or Good for X Reasons’ can do a lot as far as opening doors to unfamiliar audiences.
With that in mind, here are ten episodes of Green Jacket worth seeking out (if you’re in the US or Canada you can watch it here, and anyone not in need of subtitles can find the whole Lupin catalogue on Japan’s NicoNico).
(And yes, you’ll be seeing rather a few lists in the coming weeks – Auncle Vrai is feeling the crushing weight of writerly deadlines this month).
Or as I like to call it, “the episode that would be pilot.” This is the first episode of the series that’s truly watchable all the way through, rather than various degrees of excruciating with occasional touches of charm. It does a bang-up job of establishing its four central characters and their relationships to each other, and already shows a strong grasp of the magnetism at the heart of Zenigata and Lupin’s sometimes-playful-sometimes dangerous rivalry.
It is also, in the tradition of the early Green Jackets, caught somewhere between hilarious and horrifying in its macabre edge.
I see this episode listed rather frequently on fan top ten lists, which I frankly don’t get. It can’t pace for beans, it’s full of instances of Fujiko wearing papier-mâché clothing, and Lupin is practically a straight up villain. But you guys, it’s so weird. I’m serious, it must be seen to be believed. The complete lack of empathy between the characters, the flimsy plot that makes no goddamn sense as actual human behavior, and Lupin’s epic bastardry. It’s everything that’s bad about the series distilled into an almost hypnotically watchable form. And for getting a full sense of a series that is decidedly broken into a first and second half, it’s worth watching to get a sense of the full experience. Just…don’t watch it first.
One of the last episodes done by original director Maasaki Osumi, a debatable source of inspiration for Cowboy Bebop (Watanabe mentioned Green Jacket as an influence generally, and this episode has strong thematic similarities), and home to one of the best bits of animation in the series at large. It is the first in a long line of episodes that reduce Fujiko to the role of helpless damsel, but it does it better than most that would follow (and offers the pretty good excuse of ‘gunshot wound’).
Dull as tar hitman ex aside, this episode is most notable for writing a real sense of romance between Lupin and Fujiko, while prior episodes conveyed solely a possessive sexual attraction. The final scenes are poignant enough to level out the eyerolling elements.
Kyosuke Mamo (or Mamoh, or Mamou, or however the fansubs felt like being creative that week) is the single most frequently recurring villain in the Lupin franchise, showing up to menace the gang guised as a poor man’s Dracula, an extra from Twin Peaks, and a giant brain. He’s also the first genuine threat that Lupin faces in this series, making it a uniquely intriguing episode. Lupin spends half the episode being an unusually nasty version of his charming asshole self as despair tries to worm its way ever closer to the surface, and the effect it has on his relationship to the gang is genuinely involving. Even the somewhat jarring ALL CAPS SHENANIGANS ending can’t erase that.
Or, “the practice run for Castle of Cagliostro.” I’ll be honest, part of the fun of watching this one is noting the elements that would be reworked into Miyazaki’s first feature film. Beyond that, it features two of the most interesting one-off characters in the series – a former head of the underworld and perfect counterfeiter who’ve retired only to find their services….persistently requested. In their brief screentime those two convey real pathos and a sense of tender melancholy. This is also the episode where Lupin gets the crap kicked out of him, which is kind of awesome after some of the more callous stunts this incarnation pulls.
A refreshing break from what had already become a somewhat codified structure, this episode has Lupin and Fujiko working as a duo. And it is the best. Their banter is charming, their teamwork and ability to improv impressive, and the fact that neither Jigen nor Goemon are present gives Fujiko a lot more to do than play the femme fatale or the getaway driver.
This also a good episode for Zenigata, who’s at the center of many of the episode’s genuinely funny scenes while also being competent enough to keep a strong sense of tension to the heist.
“The one where Goemon joins the gang,” entirely worth it for the bizarre and hilarious spectacle of the last five minutes. Never have I seen a bond so quickly and befuddlingly turn from attempted murder to hugs. This and Goemon’s introduction are also the source of the Goemon/Fujiko interactions that would be extrapolated in Sayo Yamamoto’s sort-of prequel series, a clashing yet endearing mix of personalities that I wish was touched on more throughout the franchise. It also has a duel scene right out of Bugs Bunny, which showcases some of the series’ most inventive slapstick.
Another episode that’s expert at pitting Lupin against a massive foe – his own ego. By this point in the series we’ve had a chance to invest considerably in the bonds between the four main characters, and this episode plays on that well: it’s satisfying to see Lupin humbled but also worthwhile to root for him; legitimately concerning when Jigen and Goemon are in danger, and (in a roundabout sort of way) heartening to see that Zenigata is the only one really suited to trying to catch Lupin (or able to understand and keep up with him at all). It’s also a fascinating sort of time capsule, watching a wall sized computer print out predictions on mimeograph while gape-faced adults stare in wonder at this total oddity.
Like the final Red Jacket episodes that Miyazaki would return to direct and Cagliostro itself, this episode encompasses a warm camaraderie and a certain bittersweet poignancy that’s rather irresistible. The bones of the episode are a standard heist, but on top of that is a sense of ending, of last chances and almost-desperation beneath some really fine visual comedy. It’s also a rare case where an ‘and they went on adventuring!’ ending didn’t leave my eyes rolling so hard they rattled. Each member of the main five gets their chance to shine, and the series ends on a high note of accomplishment.
I have said before, and will say again, that this episode is the absolute top execution of the series’ heist formula. It balances the shifting allegiances and backstabbing fairly common in its leads (along with Lupin’s frequent tendency to be Kind of a Dick) with a sense of underlying loyalty and affection that shows itself when the chips are down. Not only that, the three leads are allowed to play off of one another in all permutations, giving a strong mix of tensions that propel the plot forward at a tight pace. It’s closer to Green Jacket’s lighter side than its darker one, but its still hands-down most effective at making us like characters who, let us not forget, are often not especially good people.