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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