Director – Takashi Yamazaki – 2019 – Japan – Cert. 12a – 93m
Master thief Lupin III sets out to steal a diary protected by a lock with a fiendishly complex mechanism and becomes embroiled in an occult, Nazi plot to take over the world – out on BD, DVD and BD/DVD combi on Monday, September 20th
A character with a long history in Japan in anime, manga artist Monkey Punch’s celebrated gentleman thief Arsène Lupin III is a descendant of Frenchman Maurice LeBlanc‘s Arsène Lupin character. LeBlanc’s bona fide character recently featured in the French live action Netflix series Lupin (creator: George Kay, 2021).
For this Japanese reboot, Lupin III and his fellow franchise characters are back on the big screen, now lovingly animated in state of the art 3D animation which has never looked quite like this. The nimble movements of Lupin as he typically evades the grasp of Interpol’s Inspector Zenigata by firing a climbing line at a ceiling, outwits an ingénue girl thief on Paris rooftops and finally has his stolen object taken off his hands by the shapely Fujiko Mine as she dangles from a helicopter rope ladder would look good in drawn animation – for similar antics look no further than earlier Lupin III outing The Castle Of Cagliostro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1980) – but they look considerably better rendered in full 3D CG here.
The solid if, to Western eyes, occasionally risible script has to do with one Professor Bresson, an expert in archaeology who, in order to stop his writings about ancient doomsday weapon The Eclipse falling into the hands of the Nazis, encases it in a mechanical lock requiring not only a key but a password. His fleeing son and daughter-in-law are killed in a car crash, leaving only their baby daughter alive.
Cue an amazing title sequence with Lupin and associates pursued by Zenigata through an abstract, fully working maze of mechanisms. Cue also an amazing, globe-trotting plot that never lets up, even upping the ante in the final reel to include among other things the ability to create black holes that suck anything and everything near them inside.
Newcomers to the franchise will pick up the identities of the characters without difficulty, while those of us more familiar with them will feel we’ve returned to spend some welcome time in the company of old friends. Daisuke Jigen‘s cigarette dangling from his mouth has never looked more iconic, while the sword of latter-day samurai Goemon Ishikawa XIII is put to such inventive uses as slicing a prison truck in half and lopping a wing off a hefty military transport aircraft. (Some of the obligatory car chases also feature aircraft.)
A male/female buddy sub-plot could easily slide into slushy romance, but never does thanks to the reprobate, never standing still for a second Lupin III. The trusting Laetitia, presumably intended as a one-off character much like a Bond girl, is too pure and innocent to be a good thief, but turns out to be something of a whizz-kid in the field of archaeology. As an infant, she provides the preface character for the plot and as a grown woman a grounded moral centre for the manic, energetic and flighty Lupin.
Steals from other sources include Raiders Of The Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981) with its globe-trotting archaeologist, occult artefact-obsessed Nazis and strong woman sidekick. There’s also a touch of Mission Impossible II / M:I-2 (John Woo, 2000) with various characters ripping off their faces to reveal their actual faces beneath.
I had been looking forward to seeing this since a sizeable clip appeared at Annecy 2020 Online. While I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, I’m also bound to say it’s hugely entertaining and didn’t disappoint.
It’s therefore a travesty that this cinema release got no publicity and only one screening at several Showcase cinemas around the UK when you consider not only the amount of lacklustre live action product that plays for a full week or more but also the success of Netflix’ Lupin series, which suggests there’s a UK audience that would lap a movie like this up. The Japanese voice cast do a good job. It will upset some as soon as I make the suggestion, but given the European nature of much of the story and characters, a dubbed version – if it were done well and properly promoted… admittedly, that’s a pretty big ‘if’ – might have reaped considerable UK box office rewards.
It gets worse: looking at the trailer for the US dub by GKids it appears there’s already a pretty decent dubbed version out there. While I’m normally the person who’d rather see animation in its original language version, just occasionally there’s an English dub so good it knocks spots off the original language one. This may well be one of those rare cases (sorry, anime purists). A seriously wasted opportunity for a film which deserves to be cherished, not thrown away like this.
Lupin III The First is out on BD, DVD and BD/DVD combi on Monday, September 20th.
(Subbed – shown in UK cinemas)
(dubbed – not shown in UK cinemas)
Annecy (extract only due to online rights holder considerations)
Showcase cinemas: Wednesday, June 2nd at 7.30pm (not press screened beforehand)
BD, DVD, BD/DVD combi: Monday, September 20th