2020 | DIR: TAKASHI YAMAZAKI | STARRING: TONY OLIVER (KANICHI KURITA), LAURIE HYMES (SUZU HIROSE), DAVID BRIMMER (KŌTARŌ YOSHIDA), PAUL GUYET (TATSUYA FUJIWARA)| REVIEW BY CHRIS THOMPSON
Leblanc documented his hero’s exploits in seventeen novels and thirty-nine novellas (including two or three where Lupin meets an ageing Holmes – although Conan Doyle forced Leblanc to change the English detective’s name). Fast forward to 1967 and relocate yourself to Japan for the first appearance of Lupin’s grandson (hence Lupin the Third) courtesy of manga master Kazuhiko Katō (better known as Monkey Punch). For the next fifty years or more, Lupin the Third became a media juggernaut spawning, beyond his many manga adventures, half a dozen aminated television series, twenty-seven animated television specials, eleven animated feature films, two live action features, two musicals and much more (including CDs and video games). Phew! See what I mean about having been under a rock?
So now it’s 2021 and, even though it’s almost fifteen years since we saw the last Lupin the Third animated feature (Lupin the Third: Dead or Alive, 1996) the ‘Lupin on screen’ phenomenon seems to be getting a revival in both animated and live action worlds. For the live action side of things, the French have gone back to the source (via Netflix) and have enlisted the wonderful Omar Sy to play a contemporary version of the Gentleman Thief that spends it’s highly entertaining five-episode debut season (season two has already been announced) teasing us about whether he’s the grandson of Lupin or not (of course he is!!! Isn’t he???). But for the return of the animated incarnation, we find ourselves firmly in the world of anime and, although 2019 saw the sad passing of Kazuhiko Katō, highly respected award-winning Japanese screenwriter, director and visual effects whiz, Takashi Yamazaki has fashioned a new story that is not only dedicated to Monkey Punch, but is set in the sixties, the time when his Lupin the Third was first committed to the pages of manga.
So that’s the context. But what about the movie? Well, I’m a bit in two minds about it.
The story begins during the second world war in Nazi occupied France where Professor Bresson (Marc Thompson) entrusts his secret diary to the care of his infant daughter before dispatching her to a safer place. Unfortunately, before safety can be reached, the evil Professor Lambert (David Brimmer) in the employ of the Nazis, intercepts her and steals the diary. What he doesn’t realise is that there’s a key to open the diary’s complicated mechanical self-destructive case. Flash forward to the 1960s and the diary is somehow up for auction at an exhibition celebrating the late Professor Bresson. This, of course, is where we meet Lupin the Third (Tony Oliver) in one of his trademark disguises. We also meet Laetitia (Laurie Hymes) who is there posing as a security guard. She manages to abscond with the diary before Lupin the Third can secure it but, in turn, loses it to a third player; Fuiko Mine (Michelle Ruff) who, it seems, is a regular character from the manga series. There are other regular characters that form part of Lupin’s team and, of course, a hapless gendarme, Inspector Koichi Zenigata (Doug Erholtz). And let’s not forget the evil Lambert who, it seems, is still working with the Nazi’s fifteen years after they’ve lost the war. The rest of the film is a relentless tussle between all these interested parties as they try to possess and open the diary and, ultimately, benefit form the riches that it promises through something called the Eclipse. There are secrets, as well, and a connection back to Lupin’s grandfather (Lupin the First) who seems to have also had some connection to the mysterious diary.
The chase takes the players to various exotic locations and even raises the possibility that Adolf Hitler might still be alive in Brazil.
Visually, the film’s a knockout - highly stylised, vivid colours, characters rendered all sharp edged and angular feeling very much like they’ve been lifted straight off the pages of a Monkey Punch manga and let loose on the screen. In many ways, it took me back to the kinds of dubbed Japanese cartoons I used to watch after school in the sixties – Prince Planet, Astro Boy, Marine Boy, Gigantor, The Amazing Three and my favourite, Phantoma. (although, the quality of the animation here is infinitely superior, especially in its 3DCG format) For me, though, this echo of sixties cartoons is both the strength and the weakness of this film. On the plus side, there’s an energy, a hyped-up pace, a kind of corralled chaos that this kind of animation is imbued with which is a big part of its appeal. Music, of course, is another key element and here Yuji Ohno’s frenetic, brassy screeching soundtrack excels. What detracts (for me at least) is the American/English dubbing. It’s one of the things that I never thought about with those old cartoons, but it’s a strong part of what I remember about them. Here, though, the abrasive, urgent, heightened tone of those dubbed American accented lines kept undercutting the flow of the film by pulling me out of the visually rich world on screen. I felt as though I need to be immersed in Lupin’s world but the voices keep preventing me from getting there. I couldn’t help but feel that this would be better if I were somehow able to experience it in the original Japanese voices – but, sadly, I don’t speak Japanese.
The other element where, for me, the style lets the film down is in the screenplay. Now, I readily accept that true aficionados and rusted on fans of the manga versions of these stories may violently disagree with me (and they may well be right), but from an outside perspective, I find that the breakneck pace, highly expositional form and jump-cut storytelling that works so well in graphic novels, isn’t quite as effective on screen, especially in a complex story like this. The energy works but what its communicating doesn’t. Characters are often not very clearly introduced (perhaps relying on prior knowledge from the manga) and the convoluted plot is often more reliant on convenience and coincidence than on strongly constructed narrative. Perhaps that’s fine in the world of Monkey Punch but despite how much I went for the visual style and the impact of the music, for a newbie like me who was looking forward to the prospect of a heightened, colourful, stylistic, fast-paced, funny adventure, it ended up leaving me behind. But, at least, I now know about Lupin, and aside from looking forward to season two of the Netflix series, I might even hunt down some of the other films and a few of Leblanc’s books.