By Jonathan Clements.
Master-criminal Lupin III is in for a surprise at a Paris heist, when his attempt to steal a priceless diary is thwarted by another thief. But Laetitia Lambert is no career burglar like Lupin and his crew – she’s a would-be archaeologist, tasked with stealing the book by her grandfather.
Inevitably, Lupin teams up with the innocent Laetitia, particularly when he discovers that she is the only person who can help him translate the diary’s multilingual secrets to figure out the location of a legendary treasure. But both Lupin and Laetitia find themselves investigating their own family histories – the fabled Bresson Diary, it turns out, was an artefact that Lupin’s own grandfather, the original master-thief Arsene Lupin, wanted for himself.
All of which goes to explain why this 2019 CG feature labours under the unwieldy title of Lupin III the First – bear with me, I’ll call it Lupin the First hereafter, not the least because it’s plainly intended as a reset-to-zero to bring in new viewers for the Lupin franchise.
Much of the Lupin III cast is fixed and unchanging from instalment to instalment. There will be the master-thief himself, his rival and occasional helper Fujiko Mine, his sharp-shooting assistant Jigen and his samurai henchman Goemon. Inevitably, Inspector Zenigata will charge across the screen trying to apprehend him, and inevitably Zenigata will fail. But every Lupin III film also has a guest star, usually a beautiful girl who will not quite tame Lupin’s wandering nature, and this time it is Laetitia Lambert, the pretty archaeologist who herself is a call-back to Lupin’s backstory. That’s provided here by the actress who plays her, Suzu Hirose, then a 21-year-old actress and model whose big claim to fame in 2019 was a leading role in the NHK drama Natsuzora. Natsuzora, meanwhile, was a fictionalised account of the early anime business, featuring many of the figures who were instrumental in the early careers of some of the people who would go on to make the original Lupin III TV series. Scotland Loves Anime regulars may recognise her voice from an earlier starring role, as Nazuna in Akiyuki Shinbo’s Fireworks.
Another CG extravaganza from Marza Animation Planet, a studio also known for Captain Harlock, Resident Evil: Vendetta and the Sonic the Hedgehog movie, Lupin the First is helmed by Takashi Yamazaki, a man with a very specific skillset ideally suited to revamping manga classics. Yamazaki is best known in Japan for his live-action works, particularly Always: Sunset on Third Street, the first of a trilogy of movies about Japan in the 1950s and after. But his work is often intimately connected to the anime and manga worlds – Always was itself based on a comic, and the next franchise that Yamazaki tackled was the award-winning Parasyte. He also directed Stand by Me: Doraemon, a retelling and reboot in CG form of the long-running Doraemon franchise. So, Yamazaki is clearly a man with form, not only in manga classics, but in evoking the spirits and nostalgia of days gone by.
The timeline for Lupin the First is purposefully vague, initially glossed as being “a few decades” after the Second World War. It takes a while to notice, for example, that there is no modern technology in play – no cellphones or flat-screen TVs. We’re halfway through the film before revelations about characters’ pasts and parentages make it clear we need to be within a generation of WW2, in order for all the plotlines to match up. Supposedly it’s the late 1960s, although there are anachronisms in the props and costumes that point to a date in the early 1970s.
The second-most obvious tell-tale sign comes in the characters’ choice of snack, when they sit around iconic Cup Noodles that were only released in 1971. Second-most? Yes, because to any Lupin fan, you can carbon-date him simply by the colour of his jacket, and the “red jacket” Lupin can be placed in the second season of the anime, in 1976.
The 2019 production was overshadowed by the death of its creator, Kazuhiko “Monkey Punch” Kato, although plainly the project was intended not merely as a celebration of the Lupin III comic, but of its most famous iteration in cinema screens, Hayao Miyazaki’s aforementioned Castle of Cagliostro. Once again, this is clearly signalled to anime fans early in the film, in a knockabout chase featuring Lupin’s car of choice, the little yellow Fiat 500 so beloved of Miyazaki and his lead animator Yasuo Otsuka. The car can be seen in the TV show as well as Lupin III: The Fuma Conspiracy, but its most memorable appearance onscreen was in a madcap chase sequence in Cagliostro, to which Lupin the First lovingly tips its top hat.
With its unlikely caper, in which a feisty archaeologist outwits comedy Nazis, Lupin the First owes a strong debt to the Indiana Jones films, particularly The Last Crusade, which similarly finishes with a mismatched team of raiders trying to break into a trap-ridden site with the aid of a cryptic diary, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which also features a booby-trapped American McGuffin. But unlike Professor Layton, which confers puzzles on its audience that might presumably be solve-able with a bit of brainpower, Lupin the First relies on its code-crackers to have a working knowledge of ancient Akkadian and Sumerian…. so probably not the sort of thing you are liable to run into in an escape room any time soon. It’s here, unexpectedly, that the story visibly lags, with the large cast confined to a single chamber with little to do except offer occasional suggestions. Inspector Zenigata, in particular, is dragged into the team in a somewhat arbitrary move, and has little to do except lurk at the back thereafter.
But Lupin the First remains an incredibly accomplished work of computer animation, prancing along a tense tightrope between live-action and cartoon, and largely succeeding in propelling Lupin III into the 21st century, even as it clings so firmly to the look and feel of the 20th.