4 out of 5
Directed by: Masaaki Ōsumi (part 1), Seijun Suzuki (part 2), various (part 3)
Goemon, the master samurai with a sword that can cut through anything; Jigen, the best sharp-shooter in the world (except when he’s not, or except that one time he lost his hat); Fujiko Miine, part-time devious, double-crossing thief, part-time ‘tasukete!’ screamer, part-time femme fatale, never a girlfriend or wife; and of course, Lupin III, gentleman thief, grandson of Arsène Lupin.
Lupin has worn some different colored jackets over the years, and from the early and late 70s on up through the 80s, he and his above-mentioned cronies stole every goddamn jewel, robbed every bank, swindled every would-be power-monger out of their particular cache of whatever, and would execute daring, last-minute escapes from the forever pursuing ICPO-can’t-believe-you’re-never-fired agent, “Pops” Zenigata.
While the first series of Lupin – part 1, airing 20ish episodes in the early 70s – is often cited as being more “serious” than the parts that followed, the ridiculousness of the show is apparent from the start. Yes, those episodes are important for bringing the gang together, but the basic formula for what’s to come over the years is already pretty apparent: Lupin picks a target or is challenged to steal something; he comes up with some byzantine method for doing so; Fujiko either double-crosses him, or is kidnapped, and then double-crosses him; Lupin ends up scheming his way back on top of the whole business; Zenigata shakes his fist and chases after the gang into the end credits. Rinse and repeat.
And yet, the durability of the series is also easy to understand: all of the characters are a heckuva a lot of fun, either alone or pinging off of one another, and as things stretched on – particular into the latter half of the long-running part 2 – the concepts the writers worked with got more insane, more inventive, and more intelligent, as well. (While always being kind of dumb, mind you, but that’s part of the show’s charm.) You can rest assured that Lupin will emerge triumphant, but still, the way he gets there is sometimes so irrepressibly wacky that you can’t help but admire it. Occasionally this crosses the line into inscrutable – like it’s not even clear what’s being planned or why – but we can forgive that once a show hits its 100 episode mark, and it’s still chugging out entertainment.
Part 2 becomes especially thrilling to watch when its animation drastically improves around episode 100 or so; part 3 is initially jarring, then, when that takes a dip and the character models become increasingly angled and elastic, but part 3 also brings with it an accompanying dose of ridiculousness and an uptick in “anything goes” Looney Tunes-y heists. That’s not necessarily always for the better, but it has its own energy that keeps the formula variations fun, and the 80s era also seems to have encouraged some funky beats to accompany the by-then recognizable Lupin theme.
These initial series (prior to the show’s return in the 00s) inevitably have their “of the time” acknowledgements: women are only to be flirted with, or to be conquests; Fujiko can only be her own person by having big boobs to distract men with or by enticing Lupin with sex. Racists caricatures pop-up. I have no defense for these elements, except that the focus is generally on the heist and related antics, and Fujiko’s part in things is sharpened up a bit to be more of a competing thief – and not just strictly a femme fatale – in part III.
Familiarity is the key here. If, after a few episodes, you’ve not grinned at Lupin’s monkey smirk and endless energy in surmounting nonsensical odds; at Goemen’s grumpy man routine; at Zenigata’s repeated proclamations that he’ll quit his job and kill himself if he doesn’t capture Lupin this time, then there’s nothing awaiting you down the road. But supopsing you have grinned, then you’ve also likely shaken your head at the stupid-ass, ridiculously entertaining shenanigans these thieves have gotten up to, and enjoyed the way the show takes Lupin right up to the line of villainy, before inserting some recompense that puts the “gentleman” before his thief description. It’s not brilliant, and there are only a handful or formats every episode follows, but it’s such a good system that it encourages coming back week after week (or episode after episode, since we’re streaming this nowadays) to see what variation on a theme Lupin and the gang will be getting up to.