Takeshi Koike’s Lupin the Third

Ever since 1967, Lupin the Third has been a staple of Japan’s animation culture and one of the most storied and recognizable icons in the international market’s perception of anime. Despite having persisted in so many different iterations by so many different teams, it was only in preparation for this very review that I watched a Lupin anime all the way through for the first.

Why? I’m not sure. It’s a certified classic, and it isn’t as though I couldn’t have gotten into Part IV or V, both of which aired within the last few years. Not to mention Sayo Yamamoto’s critically acclaimed series, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. Yet it was a story set in the same continuity as that last series that truly caught my eye.

Takeshi Koike is insane. I say that lovingly as a man who loves his 2009 film Redline, which was famously in production for seven years. Koike is a frenetic and wildly imaginative director and when he has the freedom to direct and do character designs, his style treads this line of adult maturity and wild cartoonish exaggeration so well it becomes a dimension all its own. So when I asked myself “where the hell has he been lately?” I was pleased to find the answer in the form of Lupin.

From Telecom Animation Film and TMS Entertainment, this is Takeshi Koike’s Lupin the Third, a bold vision of a beloved classic that just so happens to be my first true entry into this series.

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The appeal of Lupin is clear as day. Fun and cool stories about spying and stealing with clever twists and thieves with mutual understandings of one another. It has a sexy appeal akin to the spy genre that anyone can get behind. You don’t even have to watch a Lupin anime to understand the characters and why someone who’s already a fan would be into them.

Lupin is the mastermind with a weakness for ladies and a silly side that gets him into trouble. Jigen is the straight man with a fast trigger finger and a sharp aim. Goemon is a stoic and incredibly focused swordsman with superpowered precision and skill. Fujiko is the iconic femme fatale who is as skilled at fighting as she is at flirting. On a surface level, they are incredibly easy to understand.

With a good script and lively performances – both English and Japanese – these simple characters can be – and have been – made into icons. Even better, the three movies released so far are each centered around one of the main four. Nothing is saying that there won’t be another one and there are some connected plot threads as I will discuss, so I’m treating this as a story in progress.

Speaking of performances, I watched all three of the following films in English dub, produced by Bang Zoom! Entertainment. I highly recommend the dubs of Lupin. Keith Silverstein voices Lupin in this more adult take on the series as opposed to Tony Oliver who typically voices him. Jigen is typically voiced by Richard Epcar but is instead voiced by Dan Woren. Epcar instead plays a much more series take on Inspector Zenigata. Lastly, Lex Lang reprises his role as Goemon while Cristina Vee voices Fujiko Mine. They all do a wonderful job.

2014 | Jigen’s Gravestone

The first film begins boldly enough with Jigen’s literal gravestone, and his presumed killer standing above it. But… this is Lupin, so it’s not as though anyone remotely familiar with the series actually believes they’re dead. This film follows Lupin and Jigen in the country of East Doroa. After a singer’s untimely death, tensions between East and West Doroa are at a boiling point.

Taking advantage of the confusion, the pair decides to steal a treasure. However, even with the treasure secured, they find themselves in the sights of an assassin. Yael Okuzaki, an assassin who makes a grave for his targets before they are killed, and who rolls a die to determine how many bullets will be needed to kill them, as if guided by fate.

That right there is the kind of stylized bullshit that I’m a sucker for. Within 10 minutes I was locked in with a beautiful setting and a stylish villain. The character designs’ proportions are long, lanky, and exaggerated, but hyper-detailed, giving them a sleek and striking look, no matter the character type. The slow-motion, something Koike does very well, looks incredible.

Consider action to be something this series seldom gets wrong. This film in particular, however, was notable for the incredible car chase in the first half. I don’t think any other action scene in the series had me going “whoa” quite as much as this first film when it came to the action.

Admittedly, this film is the one I knew the least about. I had seen AMVs of the other two on YouTube, so the initial shock wasn’t there, but rest assured, if you haven’t seen much of these films, cherish that feeling. These movies have some pretty incredible visuals to flaunt.

Around the halfway point, while I was enjoying the film, I was treated to end credits, and then I was confused, and then I realized “oh crap it’s one of these.” These films are not very short. They’re 50 minutes which is fine. I can sit through 50 minutes of non-stop Lupin fun. The trouble is that they split it into two parts unnecessarily. It was released this way in Japan as well. It got a limited screening at a theater in Shinjuku then was released at home.

So I can’t really treat this as a true movie. Since this is a spin-off continuation of the 2012 TV series, it’s more accurate to call this a two-episode OVA. If something is split up so intentionally, and if all three of these films are 50 minutes, then the story is likely being condensed to meet that requirement.

This leads to an issue I find common with all three of these movies. The time constraint limits the scope of these films. Jigen’s Gravestone is so quick that it feels like it rushes through so much in the first half just to have the payoff of the conclusion. The second half is fairly well-paced and the ending, in particular, is satisfying, but everything involving Fujiko and how she plays into the story, to the tale of the singer who gets killed feels rushed.

Speaking of Fujiko, she finds herself in a pretty weird situation in this film. In the middle of Lupin and Jigen’s story, it cuts to her performing her own heist. The connection to the main plot isn’t made clear until pretty close to the end and most of Fujiko’s involvement for a lot of the film is her getting chased naked in a see-through glass box by some weird gimp with a drill penis

I’m just giving it a second for you to process the sentence I wrote there. The whole setup was weird and jarring and further contributed to the first half of the story feeling rushed. The best action happens in the first half, but also some of the weakest storytelling. Thankfully, the conclusion did win me back with some clever reveals.

It’s not a masterpiece of the mystery genre. However, it hits you at the very end just how many little visual clues were given, and makes you think about all the times you were being shown them. If you’re interested in watching it, pay attention to Lupin and what he thinks is suspicious in each scene. It might be fun to try and see if you can tell where the story is going and what’s going on inside Lupin’s head.

Jigen’s Gravestone felt rushed. It starts pleasant enough but quickly introduces way too much to have a grand standoff that ties together a story you may not be truly invested in. Still, as a smaller piece in a grander collection, it has its merit as a fast-paced action flick.

2017 | Goemon’s Blood Spray

This was the film that first convinced me I should give Lupin a try. I saw a few particularly bloody and gritty AMVs that more or less showed the entire film’s story and I was thoroughly entertained. Given the opportunity the see the entire film, I must say, the shorter runtime really makes those spoilers from the AMVs spoil a lot more.

I legitimately think that this film is awesome so please go watch it. Then again, I’m gonna guess that a lot of people who decide to look it up are interested because of those AMVs so maybe spoilers aren’t a big issue. Still, I don’t like to spoil things too much. But rest assured, this film justifies the existence of every Koike Lupin film. Still, if you don’t care, here’s the AMV.

Ishikawa Goemon becomes the bodyguard for a yakuza boss. While aboard a luxury boat casino, an assassin strikes the same night Lupin, Jigen, and Fujiko rob it. The assassin sabotages the boat and the boss Goemon was sworn to protect is killed in the ensuing chaos.

However, the assassin wasn’t after the yakuza boss, but instead Lupin and his friends. Goemon ends up crossing paths with Hawk, the burly hatchet-wielding assassin himself, saving his friends, but being dealt a crushing defeat.

The film focuses on Goemon’s efforts to defeat Hawk, regaining his honor in the process. The action throughout is brutal and isn’t afraid to injure even the main characters in gruesome ways. The final battle alone has some carnage that will have you wincing, even if in the back of your mind you’ll be thinking “how are they not dead already?”

The film sets up a great rivalry between two very different but incredibly powerful warriors. Unfortunately, with the good comes some bad. Whereas the first film felt like it was rushed in parts, this film feels like it takes its time well enough but should have been longer. Fujiko leaves the story completely around the halfway point (which arguably puts her in bigger danger). And then Lupin and Jigen observe Goemon’s slow efforts to get his groove back after a defeat.

The climax is awesome. There’s no doubt about that. Whether you’re a longtime Lupin fan or even just like some bloody action straight out of a Tarantino flick, it’ll stick in your mind for a long time. However, the more I think about the conclusion, the more it makes me a little confused. Goemon gets into a fight with the Yakuza and while dramatic irony would suggest that the audience knows why they probably deserve it, I’m not sure why Goemon decides to fight them.

I don’t typically concede on these criticisms, but I very well could be overthinking it. After all, it isn’t as though yakuza are the most virtuous people on the planet. “What’s the harm in Goemon slicing and dicing them to get his honor back?” you might say. It just feels like there wasn’t a very clear reason as to why certain things happened.

Whatever. The point is: the ending is incredible.

Big franchises that go on for many years tend to wax and wane in terms of their presence in the cultural consciousness. Now and again, though, something comes along to bring a crap ton of people to the party. For anime as a medium, it’s huge tent-pole series like Sword Art Online, Attack on Titan, or Demon Slayer. For Lupin, this film and the sheer unspoken intensity of this conclusion cemented it as a thing that was going to make countless Lupin fans for years to come, or at least get more people checking it out.

2019 | Fujiko’s Lie

Once again, I wasn’t even aware this existed until I saw a wonderful AMV that – once again – spoiled everything. But I didn’t really care. Fujiko’s Lie once again puts Fujiko Mine at the center of a story involving conspiracies and superpowered assassins. Fujiko is covering as a maid for a man who embezzled $500 million from a mining company. When the father dies, she protects his son, Jean.

Her motivations? Mostly selfish, with the slightest hint of altruism. She wants the bank access code to get the money but has to contend with Binkam, a super-powered assassin with weaponized mind-control abilities and some nasty claws. To make matters worse, Jean only wants to give the $500 million to the one who can kill Binkam for murdering his father.

Enter Lupin and Jigen, who are interested in the mining company and the assassin because they’ve been targeted by assassins for the last two movies and wanna know what’s up. The bounty is just icing on the cake. As you can tell, this film is where the interconnected story becomes more apparent.

Be mindful of spoilers.

The film is perhaps the most complete in terms of not feeling too rushed and not leaving me wanting for too much more. That said, Jean is sorta annoying. I know that “the kid was annoying” is a criticism so common in stories that you may as well ask “is it really a flaw or are kids just naturally annoying?” but I can’t help that I was irritated.

And since the kid and the protection of him is such a big part of the narrative, that’s potentially a big stain on the story. Thankfully, everything with Lupin and Jigen balances it out nicely, especially when you know what they’ve been through in the prior two films. Plus, Binkam is a cool antagonist with weird abilities.

This film once more ends with a climactic battle and a particularly unique one. It narratively weaponizes the fanservice by putting Fujiko up against an opponent who is very clear about their desire to bone her, and whose lust is used to both humanize him and lead to his downfall. Giving Fujiko a child who is too young to be easily manipulated and a seemingly inhuman antagonist are great ways of challenging her as a character.

Ultimately, I enjoyed it just a bit more than Jigen’s Gravestone and less than Geomon’s Blood Spray. If these films were longer I think these stories had the potential to be truly a cut above. As it is, they’re simply entertaining with great visuals and designs from a wonderful director. But is that enough? Was I expecting too much?

Lupin the Third is a series that friends have been telling me to check out for ages and that I have personally wanted to watch for quite some time. At this point, with how much there is, there isn’t really a wrong place to start. There are hits and misses, but even if I never watch every Lupin, there will always be a Lupin for someone. It’s just that big a franchise.

Takeshi Koike’s work is hardly finished. They’re building up to some sort of finale. When it arrives, I just hope it’s a legitimate film and not some compilation of two parts of a short film. If and whenever that next chapter comes, I’ll be there no question, but I don’t think I’m truly a Lupin “fan” just yet.

But I’m close…

To be continued?

Jigen’s Gravestone, Goemon’s Blood Spray, and Fujiko’s Lie are all available on Blu-ray through Dicotek Media.

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What do you think about Takeshi Koike’s Lupin the Third? Leave a comment below and tell me what you’d recommend for people wanting to get into Lupin. Thank you for reading and as always, I’ll see you next time!

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