The Lupin III Pilot Film: A Lupin That Never Was

When I was back in America a couple of months ago, I decided to order the DVD boxset of the first Lupin III TV series, because hey, that’s something I’ve wanted forever. I finished watching it a few weeks ago, and I’ll try to get a review up before I forget about it completely, but first I’d like to talk about one of the extras featured on the boxset: The Lupin III pilot film.

I actually wrote up this thing up years ago on my old blog, but since that review is completely embarrassing, I won’t link it. Go find it yourself!!

So yeah, before the Lupin franchise was the media juggernaut that it is today, all it had going on anime-wise was this short pilot extolling the non-virtues of these rag-tag bunch of crooks that we’ve come to know and love.

What one notices immediately is how the film goes out of its way to be “adult” with its atmosphere, as well as having a distinctly 1960s brand of coolness reminiscent of early chapters of the manga. The piece opens with a stylishly shot scene of a man entering a room and just shooting it up for no reason other than to cement in the viewer’s mind that this is a show for adults, dammit. The film is filled scenes of senseless violence like this, simply included to tell the TV and movie producers they were selling this thing to that this ain’t your ordinary cartoon. The fist fighting pretty rough and raw, things blow up for no reason, and for some reason Fujiko shoots at someone through the issue of Playgirl she’s reading. It’s all quite heavy handed, but the heavy handed approach is what gives the film its charm. Cartoons with guns, violence and sex weren’t the norm back them.

A lot of the voices in this film are different. Aside from Jigen–portrayed by Kobayashi Kiyoshi (who still voices him till this day!)–and Fujiko–portrayed by Masuyama Eiko (voiced her from the second series onwards until giving the roll up recently)–everyone is different, and that alone makes for a big change in tone. Nozawa Nachi’s portrayal of Lupin is far smoother than anything Yamada Yasuo ever did. Even in the earlier episodes of the first Lupin TV series before it gets all goofy, there’s a wild streak to Yamada’s Lupin, whereas Nozawa’s is more collected. Yamada’s laugh is goofy, while Nozawa’s is more maniacal and and mean. Ohtsuka Chikao’s raspier Zenigata sounds closer to a cartoon villain than the earnest-but-goofy cop portrayed by Naya Gorou, but it has a nice bite to it, and is a good contrast to Lupin’s cooler attitude.

Visually, the film is gorgeous. Backgrounds go out of their way to convey a very specific time and place, be it the streets of 1960s Tokyo brought to life with stylish shops and fine brick work, or Lupin’s mansion adorned with fine Western furniture and paintings. The character designs are probably the closest the franchise has ever gotten to portraying Monkey Punch’s original designs accurately, outside of that one scene in Green VS Red. Everyone (save Fujiko) has a big head, Jigen’s eyes are almost always visible, and Fujiko basically wears the same Barbie Doll expression on her face at all times. The animation itself is quite kinetic and detailed, with characters fumbling around in a manner that compliments their designs, and fights being rather dynamic. One particular scene of note is when Zenigata slams the door to his office onto a fellow officer, and how the officer proceeds to fumble around in the corner, while still trying to run. To polish it all off, the film has a nice subdued color scheme, further impressing onto to the audience that this isn’t bright and cheery children’s fare.

Of course, even at this early stage, Ohtsuka Yasuo’s touch is as bright as day here, with the film boasting all manner of realistic weaponry and vehicles, letting viewers know that this show takes places in the same world that they live in. Imagine that!

As this is a movie simply meant to sell the idea and atmosphere of Lupin III, there ain’t much in the way of story. The film is a simple yarn simply meant to introduce the characters, as well as what are to be main themes and ideas of the series. The film has this amazing retro cheese to its narration whenever the film cuts away from the main story to talk about how awesome the characters are. Some of the film’s more corny scenes are when it scrolls through all of Lupin’s rich bastard get ups, and all of Fujiko’s rich bitch outfits as if you’re looking through a catalog. But the best part of Fujiko’s introduction is how they just decide to throw in a random almost-rape scene just to get a shot of her bare tits. One funny thing about the pilot is the introduction of Zenigata’s superior, Akechi Kogoro (apparently a reference to a character by Japanese mystery author Ranpo Edogawa) who never made it to the main series proper.

The main story–if you can even call it that–is just meant to showcase Lupin’s wit, and how adept he is at making his way out of a sticky situation by way of disguising himself and being a good actor. (Incidentally, the big escape plan in the pilot is later used for one of the episodes in the first TV series.) That said, as this is just a film made to sell the coolness of Lupin III to people with money, the story is just an excuse for cool set pieces and a groovy atmosphere. And I’m fine with that.

One of the more striking aspects of this already striking piece of work is its music. Upon some investigating, turns out the film’s soundtrack is by Japanese jazz vet Maeda Norio. While the first season’s soundtrack–helmed by Yamashita Takao and Charlie Kousei–has a quirky charm to it, and the more iconic music by Ohno Yuuji sounds quite good and funky, there’s a nice old school swing to Meada’s socre that bestows the film with a certain level of class. These characters are big and bad, but the music behind their bad deeds is just so cool, making it cool to be bad. And that’s the image this pilot is selling–that old school swing music sinner image. While the first season certainly portrays the characters as hardened criminals in its earlier half, they’re more rough around the edges, whereas the gang in this pilot are 100% smooth.

The soundtrack does cycle through a few character themes, adding some extra flavor to the character introductions. Fujiko’s scenes are constantly backed by a quiet romantic 1960s jazz flute, that could fit very well into a Pink Panther film. Goemon’s music is hilariously somber eastern tinged fare–the kind of thing one would expect a ’60s-era American film to play once the token Asian comes on screen.

The Lupin III pilot very accurately paints a picture of what Monkey Punch’s comic would look and feel like if adapted into a feature film or television series. A look at what the franchise could have been. Personally, I would love for a film or two just like this pilot to have actually been produced. While I think the direction the franchise eventually went in was more profitable–and depending on the work, more entertaining–this take on Lupin that doesn’t portray them just as criminals–but as smooth criminals–is a refreshing spin on the franchise. I always liked Lupin a bit more whenever he erred more on the side of cool, and that’s exactly what this pilot is–very cool.


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