They’re All Grown Ups, It’s Okay: Lupin III–The Mystery of Mamo

Mystery of Mamo is Lupin boiled down to its core. It’s big, stupid, confusing, crazy, cool, sexist, bold, and… kind of smart. It’s probably the closest the animated side of the franchise has come to original creator Monkey Punch’s fucked-up vision of Lupin III, with considerations for a wider, movie-watching audience kept in mind. But only a little bit. It happens to be his favorite Lupin movie.

Since Mamo’s been around for a while and you’ve probably seen it if you like Lupin, I’ll dispense with the synopsis, but if you’re not keen to the basic details, you can read up here. That said, if you’re going to start with a Lupin, this movie may not be the best place. While the franchise’s characters aren’t particularly complex, the movie doesn’t necessarily try its best to introduce you to these guys, and jumps straight into the action by killing the main character. That’s not going to mean anything if you don’t know who Lupin is, so it may be best to take in some episodes of one of the TV series before jumping in.

But boy, what a way to open. The movie doesn’t pull any punches from there–it’s non-stop action, complete with chases, gunfights, and explosions, interspersed with the characters’ usual cynical banter as they try to figure out what’s going on. Since this is Lupin’s first movie, there is a very deliberate attempt to make everything big–with the characters as a baseline, it raises the stakes as high as it can, upping the ante with every subsequent twist in the story, to the point where it hits a peak of ridiculousness that must have had Monkey Punch rolling around in glee. It’s a film for people happy to throw their suspension of disbelief to the wind. A movie for people who won’t get worried about things like “that’s not how nuclear missiles work” or “that’s not how lasers work” or “that’s not how clones work.” Yeah, we know.

Contributing to the movie’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic is a very crass, sexist, and somewhat nationalist viewpoint that permeates throughout the script. Sure, it’s “Lupin for adults”, but “adults” in the “1970s salaryman” sense. This is a movie for dudes, and dudes who have no problems with things not being particularly PC. Japanese cinema from the 1970s, okay? And it’s not as if Fujiko’s portrayed as some kind of damsel–she’s her usual independent, sexually aware self–but nearly all the male characters’ remarks about “women” (they’re nuthin’ but trouble, they just get in the way, they’re just out to trick ya) are probably enough to ruffle the feathers of anyone with good sense. On the other end of the non-PC spectrum, the American government has a big role in the film, and are portrayed as cold psychopaths who desire world domination as much as Mamo does–“If there is a God that will control this world, it will be us” says the the president’s assistant, who bears striking resemblance to Henry Kissinger. Not sure what they’re trying to say with that, but that’s just the kind of movie this is.

The film complements every one of its gradually crazier developments with a constant and shameless cartoon realism. That is to say, no realism. Car chases in this movie are complete bonkers, and only fly because it’s a cartoon. Characters are able to survive basically everything, as well–Zenigata makes it out of a carpet bombing and manages to swim from the Caribbean islands to Columbia in one piece. Oono Yuji’s dependable jazz soundtrack underscores the whole affair, running the gamut from goofy, romantic, to kind of spacey and weird. This all comes together to complete the film’s bold and irresponsible aesthetic, which is a pretty big part of what it is. While some of it can be chalked up to the time and place, the film has a rather bold and outspoken outlook and approach that makes it super interesting, as both a piece of entertainment and a reflection of what was going on in crazy Japanese film makers’ heads at the time.

The movie’s writing seems to get a lot of heat from English-speaking audiences–and to be honest, I wasn’t too hot on it either when I saw it for the first time, but I’ve come to appreciate it now. The way the movie moves from action, to international conspiracy, to science fiction is just another aspect of its bold, wacko, “try anything” style. Does it do these things well? Perhaps not the best, but it tries, and you commend it for having the courage to do so. While I used to think the gradual change in focus was scatterbrained, I’ve come to like how it dips its toes into many different genres. Much like its many twists, the movie doesn’t try to restrict itself to any certain genre. None of this genre jumping effects the main plot thread–the mystery surrounding Mamo is quite strong, unravels at a good pace without spelling everything out, and carries the film well. While it could be criticized for being confusing, I’d like to think that it just opts to not hold your hand. Is all of the stuff Mamo has going on real, or is it all just a giant bluff to freak Lupin out? Maybe it’s a bit of both? You come to your own conclusions.

Throughout the film’s non-stop irreverence, the characters remain themselves, and advance through the maddening beginning, middle and end the same way they handle anything else. Jigen is so cool that he doesn’t let his wine spill from its glass even during a crazy car-chase; Goemon remains true to his traditional code and comes through where it counts; and Zenigata is ever the picture of Japan’s bungling salaryman who does his job awfully, but is willing to do serious overtime to make up for it. On the subject of Zenigata, like many other Lupin features, he gets the short end of the stick in this film as well, and is absent for a good stretches of the run-time. Given how much this film tries to recapture the original manga, it would have been nice to portray Zenigata closer his slightly more clever manga counterpart.

The most interesting characters in the movie are Mamo, Fujiko, and Lupin. While Mamo claims he’s trying to rebuild a new world where only the beautiful and brilliant survive, it becomes obvious that he’s simply jealous of what Lupin and Fujiko have, and wants Fujiko for himself. While he seems to take joy in claiming he’s superior, one starts to realize that he’s afraid of Lupin, and could just be going to extreme lengths to get rid of him. And while Lupin and Fujiko continue with their typical game of double-crossings, it’s clear that in this film Lupin actually likes Fujiko (beyond her body, maybe), and Fujiko actually likes Lupin, even if she is easily detracted by shiny things (like promises of eternal youth). Despite being pure pulp, the film manages to paint a surprisingly accurate picture of flawed human-beings in these three characters. Lupin and Fujiko clearly like each other, but they can’t let one best the other when it comes to their trade as thieves–they take their work very seriously. (Perhaps a message about the working Japanese and their fucked up love lives? Maybe they weren’t that sharp in the ’70s…) Mamo convinces himself everything he’s doing is for a grand cause, but all he really wants is a girlfriend. Similarly, the film itself also claims to be about some giant scheme, but at its heart it’s about the stupid things men will do for women–such as destroying the world in a nuclear holocaust–a message that resonates with men the world over, I should think.

While it’s unwise to try to fit Lupin into one canon at this point, and it’s not explicitly said in the film, but by my guess the film is probably meant to be set before the second TV series (despite being produced in the middle of its airing). Zenigata still works for the Tokyo police department, and there are a few references to events from the first series, such as Lupin’s remarks about Mamo pretending to levitate by walking on reinforced glass (a reference to Pycal) and Goemon makes reference to his promise to kill Lupin. But who knows.

Production-wise, the film goes up and down. It apparently was quite expensive for the time, but the animation falls flat at some key points; mostly the car chases. I suspect this is because the staff may not have had much experience with animating mechanics. Lots of times things don’t move fast or dynamically enough, and robs scenes of some excitement–car chase-wise, Cagliostro cleaned the floor with this movie a year later with its opening scene. Still shots of cars and the like look great, though. Character animation is generally pretty good. I wouldn’t say “movie quality”, but movements are expressive, specifically the typically goofy Lupin fashion in which the characters run that’s just fun to watch. The chase scenes between characters in this movie are great. One big highlight is when one of Mamo’s dimwitted guards and Lupin have a Tom and Jerry-style chase through Mamo’s first stronghold in the film’s second act.

The film particularly excels in its environments, layouts, and color palette. Like any good Lupin, there’s lots of globetrotting, and the movie makes sure to portray each of its locales as colorful and interesting places. The movie also has a lot of effective layouts that make full use of the wide theatrical screen, particularly in the more outlandish settings, like Mamo’s various fortresses. Utilizing the wide theatrical aspect ratio to throw in exceedingly large structures and maximize wide open spaces, the film effectively expresses how expansive Mamo’s strongholds are. The crew also utilizes experimental animation techniques to drive home just how crazy this wacko’s homebases are–Lupin runs through Escher-inspired structures and Salvador Dali paintings in Mamo’s fort in the Caribbean, and when Mamo uses his mind machine to peek inside of Lupin’s head, the screen becomes filled with a psychedelic collage of cut-outs from nudie mags (he’s a pervert, okay?). The film has a pretty standard bright and cartoonish color palette, but it makes use of bold single colors at points to create very convincing atmospheres that draw you in. Fujiko has a great scene at the beginning where she rides her motorcycle through a forest during sunset bathed completely in red–another reference to series one, incidentally.

A note should be made about the character designs–they are distinctly different from those of the second TV series, and resemble those of the original comic (the pilot film gets closer, though), contributing further to the film’s grand vision of being the original in motion, with all the violence, sex, and nonsensical developments that come with it. While the designs don’t hold up all of the time, they allow for a good range of cartoon expression, and make up a main pillar of the ridiculous aesthetic that makes the film so compelling.

Mystery of Mamo is the closest there will ever be to a feature length imagining of Monkey Punch’s original. While it is toned down a little, the changes are for the better–especially as far as plotting goes–and it delivers a very strong dose of what Lupin was originally meant to be.

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Confessions of a Junior High School English Teacher Part I: Fearsome Job Hunt

In the summer of 2010 I was an anxious college grad, and like most anxious college grads, the reason for my anxiety lied in my uncertain future. I knew I wanted to live in Japan, but my JET application was already met with nary a phone call, and all the job openings on Gaijin Pot wanted you in the country with a work visa. Four years later, I’m typing this post from my apartment in the Adachi ward of Tokyo, and have been living in Japan for two and a half years, with no real plans to go back the States–information which I am sure would have calmed the fears of a younger me in 2010.

How did I get here, and what have I been doing? The answers to these questions and more will be revealed in this new series of posts:

CONFESSIONS OF A JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL ENGLISH TEACHER

Yes, that’s how I made a living in this country for the past two years and change. I’ve always been coy around the nature of my stay over here when asked, but now that I’ve completed what is for most gaijin the first rite of passage towards establishing a life here, I intend spill my whole story up until now, with as many bloody details as I can recall for anyone else looking to work in Japan, or for anyone who’s simply interested.

Back to 2010: I was looking around for a gig at a Japanese public school, but outside of JET, I didn’t know of many other outfits. I tried to find openings through companies that friends had been employed at, but I was met with silence on all fronts. Finally someone dropped a name on me that I could use: Interac. I looked at the website, and it was the most legit thing I had seen so far, so I applied and hoped for the best. On my first time I was actually turned down–I had applied for a September position so I could work right out of college, but it seemed as if there was too much demand and not much supply. However, I was told to apply again for the April hiring season, and it was then that I struck gold.

In August of 2010 when I was lying around my parents’ house taking some time off before an internship I had in September, I was selected for a phone screening with Interac. After a twenty-minute exchange with the interviewer out of my father’s car in a Whole Foods parking lot, I was invited to a face-to-face interview on the spot–most likely because I spoke with noticeably more enthusiasm and confidence than interviewer herself. Fast-forward about two months: I’m in a city in New Jersey called Secaucus (which I had never heard of, mind) and I’m sitting awkwardly in a suit that I have barely worn in some weird hotel with a bunch of other people who are also all chasing their dreams of living in Japan.

Interac’s face-to-face interview takes the shape of a group info session followed by individual interviews. Once invited to one of these interviews, you’re given a choice of which region closest to you to take the interview. Seeing as I was interning in New York, this weird-ass place called Secaucus was the closest place for me. For this interview one has to prepare a short demo lesson that is to be filmed, and as someone who has never done anything like this before and is prone to nervousness, I was shitting my pants. But not for too long–everyone was nice, and the person giving the info session and interviewing us was very supportive and friendly, so it wasn’t an awful experience in the least.

I am unable to recall the order, but after the info session we were given a simple English test to determine if we’re actually somewhat qualified to teach our native language, asked to do our demo lessons, then placed one-on-one with Mr. Interviewer. This was my first real interview experience, so I was pretty on-edge and worried about the outcome. It being years later, I honestly cannot remember what I was asked, but I’m pretty sure it was your typical interview questions. Given a putz like me got this job, I say it’s fine to just go in there with confidence and enthusiasm, because I’m sure that’s basically all they’re looking for.

After all was said and done, I shared a coffee with all the other candidates (save the weird one–there was a weird one, as there always is). We wished each other good luck, and looked forward to seeing each other at training.

A couple of months passed, and near the end of December I got would could be described as a fucking great early Christmas present: A job offer. With training on the horizon in April of the next year, I was happily looking forward to my new life in Japan, and wondering if there would be any familiar faces at the training session. However, turns out I wouldn’t be seeing anyone in April. Hell, I wouldn’t even be in Japan.

What happened? Well, I’m sure a quick recall of major events in Japan in 2011 will lead you to an answer, but at any rate, look forward to the exciting second part of this long saga!

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Kill la Kill Won’t Kill You Yet, But it Might by The End (In Four Weeks, This Post is Late)

Kill la Kill is something I like. At face value, it’s kinetic, brash, and big. But beyond that, it also has moments of levity interwove perfectly with moments of gravity. The show has versatility, and it’s this versatility that makes Kill la Kill the compelling thing that it is, and why I still find myself looking at it twenty weeks later.

(But for now let’s mostly focus on the first twelve–I had meant to write this post earlier, but you know how it is.)

Kill la Kill has a very impressive first half–it really is quite astounding how much stuff went down in the first twelve weeks. The show made great headway with its plot, while also developing its ensemble cast well, and dropping cool bits of background information on them. At week twelve us loyal viewers had a pretty good picture of Ryuuko, Satsuki, the Elite Four, and Mako’s lovably idiotic family, as well as a lot of the inner-workings of their world.

The show moves at pace which most anime find too scary. And they should–what Kill la Kill does is a very difficult thing to pull off well, but in the hands of an expert writer like Nakashima and a Professional Crazy Person like Imaishi, the show holds together very well. Nakashima’s script is expertly polished to lack anything that could potentially drag the show down, with only the most pertinent and/or exciting parts making it onto the TV screen. While Kill la Kill may seem fast and loose with the way the story moves and the way characters scream and announce things, there is a distinct method to the madness–everything is fits together well. This keen attention to story construction likely comes from Nakashima’s experience as a playwright, and the show’s bold theatrical style (the yelling and stuff) can be attributed to this as well. This is complemented by Imaishi’s big, showy direction, which is all about making things larger-than-life–forced perspective, speed lines, rough character outlines–all that good stuff. His sharp sense of style also gives the show an extra edge.

The main thing that makes this kind of pacing possible is the show’s grounding in convention. The murdered father, the hierarchy of powerful enemies, and the main character who gets stronger as time goes by–it’s nothing new, but the show makes use of the audiences’ familiarly with these tropes and doesn’t waste time dwelling on them, instead throwing its own weird and original stuff in the mix. The show has a lot of silly hyperbole, and it works because its so earnest and upfront with itself. Any weaker show wouldn’t take silly things like “their clothes are alive” or “these school clubs can murder people” all the way, but Kill la Kill does.

At first I thought a lot of Kill la Kill’s elements were just plain stupid, but I couldn’t help but love the show because it was so confident in the way it presented itself and continues to do so. Now I love how it takes everyday elements from Japanese school life and makes them extreme. School uniforms that make students into super-powered maniacs? Sounds good. Clubs that have ridiculously unique attacks based on their specialty? Give it to me. A student counsel that will literally go so far as to murder students for breaking their iron clad law? I’m lovin’ it. The show doesn’t ease you into this kind of mindset either–it forces you into it from the very moment Gamagoori busts through the classroom door in episode one. It’s going to do things the way it wants, and if you don’t like it, don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

Sushio’s wild sense of design brings a lot of the show’s crazy elements to life vividly. While cartoonish exaggeration is used to depict the school clubs by taking their designs to logical conclusions–the biology club literally being surgically modified freaks with exposed brains and skulls–the Elite Four’s designs draw more on mecha anime influence, with nearly all of them transforming into some kind of weird robot. The show’s visual aesthetic in general is rough and larger-than-life–complimenting everything else in the show very well–and has a compelling visual diversity that keeps everything interesting. Animation-wise, while quite limited–most likely due to Trigger being a new studio–the show never looks bad, and always captures the eye. There may not be much actual movement, but  the show has very good framing and cutting. The show also boasts many cuts that make the sakuga people go wild at least once per episode, so it effectively makes use of its resources to make the show shine where it counts. The most workmanlike part of the production is the background music, which is simple and does the job, but typically doesn’t do more than just underscore the action.

The show boasts a diverse range of characters, but my favorites are pretty standard–Ryuuko and Senketsu. Maybe this speaks to my lack of exposure, but I think Ryuuko is quite unique as a leading woman. While Strong Female Characters are nothing new, I think the realistic grit in Ryuuko’s speech and her uniquely Japanese-flavored juvenile delinquent attitude is rare in anime these days. She’s the perfect opposite to Satsuki, who’s speech is more in the tradition of affected anime dialogue. Ryuuko’s transformation from simple punk kid to super-powered punk kid is the main attraction of the show. Her rough, not-scared-of-nuthin’ attitude towards any struggle is the main thing that keeps me watching. Ryuuko and Senketsu’s bond is also quite compelling–witnessing the two them grow and learn about each other is one of the story’s many satisfying aspects. After Ryuuko comes Mako and her family in my personal ranking–they are aggressively poor in both behavior and design (Barazou’s lack of pants is a nice touch) and Mako’s hyperactive character is a welcome comedic foil to Ryuuko’s focused and serious personality. The Elite Four are a fun and varied bunch, with Gamagoori’s rock-hard adherence to rules and constantly changing size (pretty sure that’s a Hokuto no Ken joke) making him the most amusing of the four. The weird thing him and Mako have going on is also funny and unexpected.

While Kill la Kill is characterized primarily by its dangerous spirit, when looked at closely, there are a lot of diverse elements that make up the show, and it’s due to the show’s great versatility that all these elements fit together without seeming strange. While Sushio’s aesthetic is easily recognizable, every character’s design is very unique–the same could be said for their varied personalities. The show has a strong basis in convention, but throws in a lot of original elements that elevate it above its conventions. Wrap this all up with Imaishi’s distinct directorial vision, and you have something very exciting.

In the weeks since the show’s climatic twelfth episode, it’s broken away from its shounen path, and opened up the world for us, giving us more surprising twists and turns. There are four weeks left, and I’m pretty confident Nakashima and Imaishi will be able to wrap things up in the coolest way possible.

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