One for the Family — Lupin III: The First

Since Golgo 13: The Professional, anime has had a rocky relationship with CG graphics. However, this has started to change in recent years with the emergence of certain recent anime works. One of the directors at the head of this CG revolution is Yamazaki Takashi. Helming works such as Stand By Me Doraemon and Dragon Quest: Your Story, he has helped pave the way for high-quality, CG animation in the world of anime cinema.

Yamazaki originally comes from live-action cinema, and while not an auteur, he does know how to make films for the masses, overseeing cliche box-office hits like Always: 3 Chome no Yuuhi and Eien no 0. He also has experience with popular anime and manga properties, heading up the suburb Parasyte films and that 2010 Yamato movie… which I didn’t hear the greatest things about. Either way, regardless of quality, between his experience with successful mainstream films, live-action anime and manga adaptations, and recently CG-animated features, Yamazaki seemed like the right man for the job to head up Lupin III: The First — the new CG Lupin film.

Aside from that weird Conan crossover and the Koike Takeshi OVAs that got theatrical screenings, Lupin III: The First is the first Lupin theatrical feature since Dead or Alive in 1996. Needless to say, this was something of an event. At the same time, at least for me, this work came out of nowhere. It at first emerged on my Twitter feed as a short teaser, which knocked my socks off–I never knew I wanted a 3D CG Lupin this bad. The character designs were perfect, while the style and distinct Lupin brand of spectacle were spot-on. Subsequent previews continued to knock my socks off, and when I walked out of the theater on the Saturday after its opening day, I think my socks were somewhere over the Pacific. This Lupin III movie is good.

I will admit that it did take me a moment to get used to seeing the whole thing come to life on the big screen. It’s one thing watching the trailer on your tiny iPhone SE screen versus seeing CG Lupin jump around right in front of you. Like, I’m used to seeing CG Pixar characters do their thing on the silver screen, because they were meant to be brought to life digitally–the last time I saw Lupin on the big screen was when a gritty and leggy Fujiko beat up that crazy guy in Onitsuka Tiger sneakers. That said, it only took a few minutes, and once the spectacular opening scene finished, I was fully immersed in this new and crazy CG Lupin III world.

First and foremost, the film looks really good. The characters are designed perfectly to both resemble their lanky, 2D anime designs, but at the same time have a level of realism that helps them fit into the deep, well-realized organic world, striking a solid balance. Jigen’s beard and whiskers curl and flow to the point that you can smell his cheap cologne, while Zenigata has a very convincing salarymanic 5-o’clock shadow. The great texturing work does well to bring the characters to life, and also lets us know for the first time that Lupin’s coat and pants are both… leather?

As any Lupin film is want to do, the story globe-trots–this time from Paris to the vast deserts of South America. Big chunks of the film also either take place on airplanes or ships. Wherever the characters are, their settings are lush, deep, and lived in. The Parisian cityscape looks beautiful, bathed in evening light shimmering across the shingles of disjointed rooftops, and you can feel the heat coming off the sand in the South American desert, complete with realistically dispersed rocks and dying, arid vegetation.

But what really makes the film click visually is how the crew approached the animation. Rather than motion capturing actors, the movement of the Lupin gang in this CG outing was first penciled on paper, with the CG models animated to match those initial movements. According to the production notes included in the movie pamphlet–and my drunk friend who helped out on the PR for the film–this worked to bestow more “Lupin-like” movements to the characters, and keeps it from looking like another merc piece of CG work, or that Tintin movie.

The action is also as over the top as you want for a stupid Lupin outing. All you need to do is watch this scene. Like, that’s what you want out of Lupin–Jigen using his sharp-shooting skills to unhinge some screws, and Goemon–as always–cutting through a flipping, speeding vehicle. It’s really easy for CG to fall into the frightening uncanny valley, but this movie really brought Lupin into the realm of CG with grace and style.

But what is this movie about anyway? It starts during the Second World War, and the Nazis are after one Professor Bresson, who is said to know a secret location to an item that houses unimaginable power. Refusing to cough up what he knows, the Nazis shoot up ol’ Bresson. But it turns out these secrets were inscribed in an elaborately secured tome called the Bresson Diary–which also happens to be a legendary prize that Lupin’s grandpa, Arsène Lupin, couldn’t even steal. Fast-forward “some decades later”–let’s say the 1960s–and Lupin is after this same treasure in Paris. In the process of trying to steal it, he runs across a young female thief named Laetitia. Turns out she was asked to steal the diary by her twisted grandpa, Lambert, who is the employ of Gerald–an Illinois Nazi if ever there was one.

Eventually the whole gang gets involved to try and solve the mystery of the diary, get one step ahead of “Zee Germans”, and find the location of this ultimate source of power. Even Zenigata gets involved, because in the face of Neo Nazis, the Lupin Gang are good, down-home folks. The film eventually turns into a mix of Raiders of the Lost Arc and The Last Crusade, with less melting faces and exploding skeletons. And while not super-relevant to the plot, there is a bit-character called Hans–a bumbling Nazi goon–who I loved and want to mention because he is a giant dumbass.

One of the film’s climaxes is a complete cop of Last Crusade, but with a bit more anime magic. The final test our heroes face to reach the ultimate McGuffin is a very dynamic puzzle, and when Lupin solves it, the sequence that proceeds makes for one of the more exciting moments of the film. This is also where our poor Hans befalls the fate of any hapless Nazi in any Indiana Jones film.

What takes the movie down a notch is that, yes, this is Lupin For The Whole Family. There aren’t any of the Lupin headshots that made those ’90s TV specials so great, and tobacco and alcohol abuse are at an absolute minimum. While competent and well put together, the story hits the familiar beats of family-friendly Lupin which have become commonplace, and primarily involve copping a lot from The Castle of Cagliostro (as anyone knows, Mystery of Mamo is the best Lupin film) . It is to be expected of a film with this much money behind it, but I did want to see some Nazis bleed out like in Black Lagoon.

If I had to find another fault with the film, it would be that the rest of the Lupin Gang doesn’t play as big of a role as they could. While Lupin is on screen the whole time, the whole first act is more or less devoid of his cohorts. This could be because the producers got really expensive actors to play the guests characters of Laetitia, Lambert, and Gerald–Hirose Suzu (Natsuzora), Yoshida Kotaro (Ossan’s Love) and Fujiwara Tatsuya (those live-action Kaiji films) respectively. They do put on great performances, so their screen time is welcome, but when it comes to Lupin, you kind of want to see the whole crew on screen the whole time, wrecking shit.

But hey, the film hits more than it misses. I was very pleasantly surprised by how well it turned out, and I think it’s a great introduction to the series for anyone who’s new and interested. At the same time though, just one is enough. The next time I see Lupin, I wanna see him shooting up thugs with healthy amounts of nudity and violence.

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