This post has spoilers for Lupin III: The Woman Named Fujiko Mine
I last left Lupin III: Mine Fujiko to iu Onna right at its half-way mark the last time I wrote about it. At that point I was beginning to get good vibes from the show, as it seemed as if it had almost settled into the sort of nice off-beat groove that Lupin should have. And you know? Its last half is almost good, too bad it remembers that it has a plot…
But before I tear into why the show sucks, let’s focus on the good. There’s actually a lot of good in Fujiko, but it’s kind of hard to see it given how mediocre some key aspects of it are. Across the second half, episodes eight, nine, and ten are all completely on fire. They embrace that original manga Lupin strangeness in unique ways, as well as add their own unique touches that make for some of the better episodes of TV anime I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in a while. Even the seventh episode isn’t so bad; it’s just bogged down by poor direction, hurried animation, and Far Too Much Fujiko.
The eighth episode–the one about the fortune teller–embraces that mean Lupin pulpiness perfectly. Elements like Fujiko killing innocent guards in cold blood, the plot revolving around superstitious nonsense like fortune telling, and Lupin popping up at just the right moments brings about memories of the Lupin franchise in its earliest days, when strange folks and strange tales were the order of the day. Furthermore, the grungy urban New York-ish setting cements the episode’s feet further into the realm of hardboiled pulp fiction. The death by electrocution at the end is the icing on the cake.
Episode nine–the one about Fujiko shooting at things a lot–is probably my favorite of the show’s stand alone stories, mostly because of how simple it is. The raw visceral energy in Fujiko’s perusal of Lupin and Jigen is compelling in how single-minded and laser focused it is. I love seeing people when they revert back to animals, and desire nothing but sex, violence, or both. This episode has lots of great touches, such as Lupin and Jigen talking about work while doing something completely trivial, Lupin flipping up tables to defend bullets, and the weird freak show at the beginning effectively sets an appropriately off kilter tone for things to come.
This show’s tenth episode is a huge surprise: It’s a plot related episode, but it’s actually one of the best episodes in the show. Ben from AniPages sums it up the most eloquently: “[It’s] a labyrinth of the mind in which you never know what is real and what is imagined“. The manner in which the episode blurs lines of reality is perfect, and it constantly keeps you on your toes. It also oozes with atmosphere out of every crevice by way of brilliant dystopian settings brought to life by deep, dark, and oppressive colors. From Lupin’s weird grungy apartment, the desolate and abandoned Eulenspiegel, to Fujiko’s imaginary world, the episode is a tour de force of strange and imaginative settings that one hardly sees in anime these days. The episode’s opening in medias res with Lupin waking up in the lab brilliantly knocks you out of our seat right as the episode starts, and keeps you wondering about what’s going on until the very end. This opening is very much in the spirit of classic Lupin, but the rest of the episode’s weirdness is all that of the show’s, demonstrating that this staff can do something right if they try.
The one thing the show always gets right is the music. Rather than getting Oono Yuji to do his usual slick and polished jazzy score, Kikuchi Naruyoshi’s music is wilder and more in line with Yamashita Takao’s score from the original green jacket series. Action scenes are made even more chaotic with free jazz backing (complete with a guy screaming in the background) and slower scenes are complimented by a smokey sax.
Fujiko at times goes out of its way to make its music sound charmingly dated and kitsch. Any scene with Goemon is complimented by in-your-face stereotypical plucks at shamisen and puffs on a flute. It’s the kind kind of politically incorrect thing you’d expect to hear in an American movie from the 1960s whenever a token Asian character shows up, but since the people making this show are Japanese, it’s completely okay! It’s like that one episode of the Big O where Roger meets some Japanese businessmen, and they’re all four feet tall and have buck-teeth. Similarly, when Fujiko finds herself in pseudo-Cuba, the Latin dance music deliberately muffled in noise so as to sound like something playing on the radio in the 1960s excellently brings you back to the time that episode is trying to emulate. This technique also works to create creepier atmospheres, as demonstrated in Lupin’s adventures in the Eulenspiegel castle, where every now and again we hear this old ballroom music that sounds like it’s playing off of an old record. It comes in at exactly the right times, and makes already creepy scenes even creepier.
I gave Fujiko some flack for not really pulling its art style off well enough last time I talked about it. That said, when the show gets it right, everything looks really cool. At best, shots are all well framed, and the rough style does well to underscore the gritty nature of the show. At worst, backgrounds lack detail, characters come off as flat, and the poor application of the cross-hatching effect just looks jarring.
Between the retro music and art direction, the show does a good job at plunging you into the past. But its a past made retro-cool through the eyes of the present day, kind of like a Pizzicato Five track or something by Dimitri From Paris.
With all that said, this goodness just can’t last. Along with the scheduling issues that have plagued this show from very early on, Fujiko also suffers from a severe case of Anime Writing, making a lot of the boring episodes of Fujiko especially boring. As I mentioned last time, particularly egregious episodes in the first half involved stupid kids and pointless love stories. In this half, the most Anime Writing parts are Oscar’s terrible episode, and the finale.
While not looking too bad animation-wise, Oscar’s episode is awful sentimental garbage that adds nothing at all to the show. I wanted to give Oscar the benefit of the doubt when he first showed up, but his motivation and his obsession are just cliche to the point that one wonders why the show wastes time with such tripe, when it could spend time on crazier stories like the ones mentioned earlier. The scene in which he’s in a sort of dream world and sees Zenigata for the first time is the kind of wishy-washy sentimental stuff anime needs to just stop doing.
Where the series really begins to stink is right at the very end. While the penultimate episode has some good shooting and cool settings, the content is completely boring, and the one potentially cool action scene–the one on the roller coaster–is held down by clunky animation, with only one portion that looks any good.
The final episode is worse–the animation is merely average, and the resolution to everything is just kind of stupid. To be fair, things like human experimentation and big strange conspiracies are no big thing for Lupin. Lupin’s not afraid to be wacky, and by normal Lupin standards, this show’s storyline is actually quite tame. Where things start to fall apart is in the application of these otherwise workable elements.
There’s absolutely no reason to have Fujiko be a main player in the story at all, even if the show does redeem itself in a way by pulling a bait-and-switch at the end. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have Fujiko’s past be a mystery than have it be some stupid been-done Key-grade tragedy with a weird application of pulp grime and pretentious weirdness slapped on top. But at the same time, for the show to lead viewers on for thirteen episodes, only for the main players at the end to be individuals that up until that point were not at all known to anyone leaves me cold. The show’s denouement is just another typical anime sob story, and it does nothing to endear me to these random characters that should be the big bad guys.
Simply put, Fujiko suffers from that awful Anime Writing habit of dumping all the story on you at the end because it doesn’t have nearly enough material to fill thirteen episodes. Had this story been concentrated into one of the ninety minute TV specials–and instead of Fujiko, the main girl would be a movie-only character–I think Fujiko’s story could make for a decent TV movie. And with the kind of budget those TV specials have, they could breathe life into some of the potentially cool sequences in the final episodes that just come off as flat due to incredibly poor animation and shoddy directing. In addition to the roller coaster scene, the ascent up the tower and the room of women dressed as Fujiko are both good ideas, but the animation and execution of these scenes are so poor that they lose any impact they could potentially have.
And while I’m cool with a lot of the stylistic stuff in this show, the one thing I do not like at all are the owls. Lupin is by far not a realistic franchise, but more or less everything that appears in Lupin is based in reality, as demonstrated but the franchise’s use of real cars, guns and liquor. The show does eventually just come out and say that the owls are just stuffed toys with tape recorders in them, and that the weird owl-men walking around are just people in masks; but given how everything in animation looks fake, I think Koike should have made the masks look more obviously like masks, making the bad guys come off more like Big Fire henchmen or something similar. That said, the owls were just one of the many superficial pretentious artificial “artistic” touches that kept the show from being genuine.
Despite all the crap I’ve thrown at this show, I did enjoy at least half of it, which is more than I can say for a lot of anime these days. If the show had instead been a series of stand alone stories about a rivalry between Fujiko and Lupin, and how Lupin gradually falls for her, I would have been way more into it. Instead The Woman Named Fujiko Mine is a pretentious and hastily animated mess only saved by the moments when they forget about the story they’re trying to tell.